Friday, 2 January 2015

You Little Bustard 1st January 2015

Little Bustard c Tony Dixon
It was Wednesday, New Year's Eve, and in the late afternoon I was reclining on the dead grass at the top of a steep and very windy slope overlooking a narrow valley in the Downs near Wantage. I was waiting for some Short eared Owls to appear but they were late rising and I was getting very cold in the strengthening southwest wind, although loving the inherent wildness and isolation of the place. With every bit of clothing battened down to keep me insulated from the wind it took me some time to find my I-phone, secreted in an inside pocket, when it alerted me to an incoming text.

The text was from Badger saying 'He could manage Friday to go and see the Little Bustard' which took me by surprise as I knew nothing about any Little Bustards currently frequenting Britain. A couple of them had already made it to our shores this winter, with one in Dorset some six weeks ago and another a day or so ago at Rye in Sussex but each had just been seen once and then disappeared never to be seen again which is quite typical of this species

Now fully alerted by Badger's text I checked RBA on my phone and indeed learnt that a Little Bustard had been found at a village called Fraisthorpe near Bridlington in East Yorkshire this very day and was entertaining those birders who were lucky enough to be within driving distance of it before nightfall came. An ensuing sequence of phone calls elicited the unwelcome news that Badger could not make it on New Year's Day, Andy was still in Suffolk nursing the beginnings of a cold and Clackers was laid low by a similar affliction. Little Bustards tend not to hang around so I resolved to try to go that very night after seeing in the New Year and realised if I did that I was very much on my own with this particular twitch.

It was New Year's Eve and this is a night for all Scots to celebrate which entails eating and more importantly drinking unusual amounts of alcohol and having a thoroughly good time. It was all set up at home with the prospect of a fine dinner and even finer bottles of red wine courtesy of my wife. This was going to be difficult to say the least.

Needless to say it did not go down that well when I first broached the subject on getting home but eventually my wife came round to seeing my point of view and at my persuasive best I said that although I could not drink alcohol the rest of the evening would be as per usual. A roaring log fire in the inglenook fireplace, we could have the meal and would share some extra nice chocolates given to us at Christmas. Even more fortuitously we discovered one of those little gems the BBC come up with every so often, an entertaining period drama on the TV based in, co-incidentally, Rye where a Little Bustard had been seen a day or so ago. Serendipity!

Later we watched Hootenanny with Jules Holland, now something of a tradition with us, midnight came and went, we wished each other a Happy New Year and at 1.30 am my wife went to bed and after I settled the house for the night I loaded the Black Audi with my birding gear and we set off into 2015. The journey to Bridlington would take around four hours and I would arrive approximately two hours before dawn, so hopefully I could get some sleep there before another throw of the dice and playing with the fickle hand of twitching fate.

The rural roads around my home at this time of night were now eerily quiet. You could say in fact they were deserted with just the odd 'tired and emotional' reveller wandering home. I entered the all too familiar and comforting  zone of controlled excitement that grips me when embarking on a long haul twitch. The anxiety levels would undoubtedly rise when I got nearer my destination but for now I had three hours of steady driving before they did and so entered that zen like state that always envelops me on lone twitches with the beloved Audi. I dimmed the instrument panel lights and tuned Radio Three to play quietly in the background, snug both  physically and spiritually in the cocoon of warmth and soft lighting inside the Audi, as the harshness and cold reality of the outside world was for now concealed by the darkness of the night. The very few cars that I did see on the  northbound Motorways always appeared from behind, headlights shining in my rear view mirror, as if they were rushing from the old year and into the new. They rapidly overhauled me, seemingly in a much greater hurry than myself as I cruised along at a steady sixty, whizzing past in a blur of light and speed. You never see the occupants or maybe sometimes just a dark amorphous shape but mainly it is just the image of the vehicle and it is the vehicle that you find comforting and familiar on the lonely road. I wonder as the drivers pass by from whence they have come and where are they going? Who are they and what is their story? My mind wanders as automatically I control the car's movements, my head in a diverting reverie but then sensing the inherent danger I open the window to allow the cold night air to disperse the warm and soporific atmosphere of the interior of the Audi and concentration  re-asserts itself.

On Motorways with so few cars at this time of night there is little to see apart from the constant flashing white of the lane markers coming at you out of the dark like tracer fire and dissolving into the distance behind. Occasionally sections of Motorway are lit from above with squares of orange sodium lights geometrically betraying the course of the road for miles ahead. I imagine I am entering a black hole in space and these lights are guiding me into infinity.Then they are gone and I am back in the enveloping dark of the road. My very own black hole. My very own infinity.

Finally leaving the Motorway near Hull at 4am I join a dark and twisting country road that passes through woods and silent, unlit villages and towns. Vaguely aware of their contours and shapes, I pass through them but it is all a mystery.The occasional light does shine from a dark inanimate shape that is a house but to all extents I am a passing stranger to the sleeping world. 

I see a ghost white owl crossing the road. A Barn Owl and my first bird of 2015.

I follow the dulcet female tones of the Satnav's instructions guiding me towards my final destination, a car park just beyond Fraisthorpe, at a place called Auburn Farm. I join the road to the farm which is very narrow and the instructions are to only park in the car park located at the very end of the long winding road as the farmer gets cross if he cannot get access for his machinery due to cars parked by the side of the road. It is now pitch black, clouds obscuring the moon and stars, with the sensed presence of flat, wide open fields on both sides of the road betrayed by the car's headlights as they sweep across the level terrain with every twisting turn in the road.

In a large field of kale, a few hundred metres back along the road from the farm,  there hopefully hides the Little Bustard which was seen to roost in the field at nightfall yesterday. To increase my chances of seeing the bustard I deliberately decided to arrive before dawn in case it decides to fly away at first light. I expect to see a lot of other birder's cars already parked with their sleeping occupants but there is only one other car which has arrived just before me. The car park we have been instructed to use greets us with a firmly locked metal gate.  Someone has screwed up. Not a good start, but to the side is a sandy, muddy access track to the beach with wide grass verges, so we decide to park there.

A quick chat with my fellow birder who has driven from Essex and then we put our heads down for some sleep. I get about thirty minutes of fitful sleep but then a steady procession of arriving cars coming along the winding road, blazing headlights heralding their arrival makes sleep impossible. The track we have parked beside can accommodate only around ten or so cars without blocking access. Latecomers try to squeeze in but get stuck and have to reverse out with great difficulty. Others, more determined, park at crazy and seemingly impossible angles on the sides of the verges. It looks as though their cars will topple over at any moment. Many other cars retreat and park in the passing places back down the narrow road contrary to the published instructions. Hopefully they will not anger or impede the farmer although he can hardly complain if he has neglected to open the gate to the car park.

At seven am it is still dark but there is now so much disturbance from shining headlights, cars manouevering and birders milling around that I give up any ideas of rest and get myself sorted out to head off back up the road on foot, in an effort to find a favourable position overlooking the field of kale. A fifteen minute walk along the wet and dark road finds me, along with many other birders, stationing myself by the side of the road and looking out over a vast acreage of kale slowly becoming visible out of the retreating darkness.

Birders are crammed elbow to elbow, tripod to tripod along the road and we all wait patiently for the light to improve and the dawn to properly come. A birder comes along and although there is no room between me and my neighbour asks if there is room for him. We tell him there isn't but he muscles in anyway. I am too tired to protest and in the end we become quite friendly. At around seven forty five it is light enough to scope the field of kale. Needles come in haystacks and bustards in kale fields. There is not much difference.

Twitcher's Guard of Honour
There is, initially, no sign of the bird, just a vast swathe of green kale leaves fluttering in the cold east wind which fortunately is at our backs, arriving in rapid and fierce volleys off the grey sea behind us. The murmur of conversational drivel is inevitable on a twitch such as this but it soon dies away to silence as everyone, well almost everyone, concentrates on trying to locate the bustard in the improving light.

My scope pointing to the Little Bustard
If it is still here it will be hard to find as it can hunker down amongst the expanse of kale and be hardly visible. Half an hour, probably more, passes and I am feeling low, depressed even, and then there is a murmur of excitement from further up the line of birders. A buzz of excitable low conversation ripples down the line and can only mean one thing. Someone has found it. Thank heavens for that but the anxiety is not yet over and maybe even increases. Now instructions must be passed on as to its precise location in the field and fortuitously I find I am standing right opposite where the bird is in the kale. At first I cannot see it but discover I am looking too far into the field. The bustard is in fact relatively close to the road, not more than about fifty metres away and I locate it first of all in my bins, a drab, greyish brown lump clearly visible amongst the grey green leaves of kale.

Little Bustard c Darren Chapman
I get the scope on it, zoom up the eyepiece and there it is in all its glory or should I say vermiculated non descriptness. No matter, it is very rare and much sought after and therein lies its intrinsic beauty. It presents a hunched profile, a bit like a pheasant and with a similar game bird like head and sturdy short bill. I can see its head and body clearly but the legs are concealed by the kale. Its grey brown upperparts are intricately vermiculated and blotched with darker lines and markings, its head is a slightly paler sandy grey brown with finer markings, again not too dissimilar to a female Common Pheasant.  A large dark eye contemplates its unlikely surroundings. I note its short tail just protruding beyond the enveloping wings as it moves position and then see some white feathers under the tail and some disarranged darker breast feathers. It stands for a long period with its  head sunk into its breast apparently content to do little apart from shelter behind the leaves from the strong wind. Then it rouses itself and picks and pulls at the kale leaves, feeding on the pieces of leaf it tears off. It regularly repeats this process of alternately resting and then feeding, giving good views of its upperparts although rarely moving more than a few metres from its original spot, and why should it as it is surrounded by thousands of kale leaves which appear to be its sole preference for sustenance.

Little Bustard c Tony Dixon
Everyone gets to see it and the quiet of concentration that was apparent when we were getting our first view of it is now replaced by an increasing volume of chatter as everyone relaxes, allows the adrenaline to take over, and share their experiences with friend and stranger alike. The bustard seems untroubled by the noise emanating from about four hundred birders lined up like some raggle taggle guard of honour, admiring it from the narrow road. I watch it for two hours, this mega rare bird which should be in the warmth and sun of possibly Spain, or maybe even further, from the east, but somehow has contrived to find its way to this bleak, windswept area of East Yorkshire. I try to take some photos but the appalling light and distance preclude anything remotely worthwhile.



The wind has steadily increased in strength and is now uncomfortably cold but my Rab jacket filled with goose down keeps me firmly insulated. The gusts of wind are so strong they blow someone's scope over which lands with an expensive sounding crash on the tarmac. My legs are stiff from the two hours of un-noticed cramped standing, watching the bustard, but I now extricate myself through the assorted legs of tripods either side of me and move off down the road back to the Audi, and my circulation resumes its normal process as I tap into previously unrealised resources of energy.

Many other birders are arriving in a constant anxious procession as I leave the throng. I feel very tired now as the exhilaration wears off and the reality of being up for over twenty four hours begins to tell. I retrieve the Audi from its perilous perch on the verge, sit quietly for a moment, in silence, out of the wind, and then slowly drive back down the road past the long line of birders.

As I get to Fraisthorpe village I find, contrary to my arrival five hours earlier, that there are now cars parked everywhere and birders wandering around. It is obvious which have seen the bustard as they are relaxed and smiling whilst those that have just arrived betray their anxiety with hurried movements and a grim expression of determination. They will have a long walk to the kale field but they will see the bustard. For me it is mission accomplished and now I turn the Audi south for the long drive home.

I am indebted to Tony Dixon (the finder of the bustard) and Darren Chapman for allowing me to use a selection of their excellent images of the Little Bustard


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