A Man on Wire is an appropriate way to describe some men who are passionate birders. Birding is one of those pastimes that can become all-consuming. Depending on the personality of an individual, there is the potential for a passionate birder to become obsessive, to the point where reasonable behaviour will fly out of the window.
Birding can be a glorious, uplifting way to spend a day, but it can be incredibly taxing too. To my mind it is always hard work. Hard work rewards those that put the effort in, but that is never a guarantee.
It doesn't matter how experienced, knowledgeable or dedicated you are, the potential is always there to screw up. There is a dark side to birding. A side that can break people. And that is a place I don't want to visit.
Inevitably, some will visit that place, and they will struggle to come back from it.
I was at Staines Reservoir on September 24th and bumped into Ken Purdey (who is, thankfully, one of the most level-headed birders I know) on what was a very quiet afternoon. Nothing much was happening at all, so I asked him if there was one bird from his wish-list he would like to see fly over Staines Reservoir on any given day, what would it be? What bird would really make his birding year?
Without hesitation he said: "A Long-tailed Skua."
I have these sort of conversations with people all the time and invariably something coincidental will follow shortly afterwards. Earlier in the spring I was talking with David Campbell at Canons Farm about pretty much the same topic, and we both agreed a Dotterel would be amazing to see. A few days later, 15 dropped in on the Canons Farm patch. I was at work so I missed them – they were gone before the next morning – but plenty of people did see them, including David and many of the south-east's best known birders. One, Johnny Allan – one of the infamous Beddington crew and host of the excellent Dip or Glory blog – videoed the scene for prosterity.
As events have unfolded in recent weeks I can only surmise that a Long-tailed Skua was also on Johnny Allan's wish-list too, because unbelievably, the very next day after my chat with Ken a Long-tailed Skua was seen flying over Beddington Sewage Works. Peter 'Pinpoint' Alfrey saw it (predictably) and took photos from his 'Obs' (bedroom window). As the hundreds of gulls on the lake and the landfill took flight, he put the word out to Johnny, who was down in the hide by the main lake.
In all the commotion he couldn't see the Long-tailed Skua. It would have only been by seconds, but he missed it. Johnny is one of the best-known birders in Britain, totally dedicated to his patch and to Surrey birding – he would have been waiting a long time to see a skua like this.
He, like many passionate birders, lives on a birding tight-rope – and on this day in late September he lost his balance and fell.
Most of the information I have of what happened next is sketchy at best. But it appears that for Johnny this was a dip too far. He just upped and left and has cut himself off from the outside world and disappeared (probably to Norfolk, from what I've heard). He closed down his blog the same day, removed himself from Facebook and the Surrey Bird Club, didn't return calls and there is the prospect that he may never return. In time, hopefully, he will make contact his Beddington birding mates.
For me this was a warning sign. If you get too serious about this hobby, particularly if you are a twitcher or an ardent patch watcher, it will screw with your head. It isn't worth the anguish. Birds are unpredictable sentient beings with a mind of their own that you cannot control and once you accept that, you may find peace. It's a long-shot, though.
Talking of twitching, since my twitching day at the beginning of the month I've had two more dips. Both were at Rainham Marshes. The first was a Sabine's Gull a couple of weeks ago during mid-week stormy weather. I was there when it was seen fleetingly, but I was in the wrong place and the weather was such that focusing on birds flying up and down the River Thames was nigh-on impossible. A pretty miserable experience.
The second dip happened on Monday. This time a Glossy Ibis had dropped in during the morning, but had flown off by the time I'd got there. My twitching strike-rate has dropped further to around 35 per cent. Not good.
|A Barn Owl flies from a half-dead Ash tree at Holmethorpe|
|A Little Owl perches on the same tree|
I went along last Tuesday and as it was getting dark I saw the Barn Owl quartering the wheat field. I went back on Friday and this time managed to see it come out of the tree trunk and fly off hunting again. A couple of Little Owls were also out and about.
|A Ring Ouzel at Canons Farm – a welcome sight as the autumn migration draws to a close|
Another two also made a pit stop at Staines Moor, where I saw a very handsome male earlier in the year. While work took priority, I just had to go to Canons Farm to see another one of my favourite birds before the migration season ends. Predictably, I bumped into David when I arrived late on Thursday afternoon, and he pointed out the area where I was likely to see the remaining male.
It didn't take long to find it, the Ring Ouzel was mobile and audible, and flying around the trees close to the playing fields next to the Legal & General offices, before flying over to the derelict barn to the north, where it apparently likes to roost. Ring Ouzels are such brilliant birds. They never let you down.