Thursday 6 September 2012

The Long and Short of It 5th September 2012

Monday the 3rd of September arrives sunny and I am in a good mood. Badger calls me mid morning to alert me to a potential mega. I am in an even better mood! A Long billed Dowitcher (a good bird to see but not a mega) had its photo taken on Sunday at Lodmoor RSPB Reserve near Weymouth in Dorset. The rather fuzzy image was put on the Internet and the identification was queried by other birders, with some suggesting it might be a Short billed Dowitcher. This would be a truly spectacular find as it would be only the second to be recorded in the British Isles. Badger and myself went to Code Amber and stood by for updated news but there was nothing forthcoming. 

Tuesday the 4th of September passed without incident or any word about the dowitcher. Apparently the bird in question although seen briefly in the morning could not be found for the rest of the day thus preventing closer scrutiny as to its identity. Tuesday evening came with still no word. I was curiously sanguine about the situation and not in the least my usual excitable self. Maybe it was something to do with the acupuncture given to me by a Shaman in Colliers Wood on Tuesday. But that story is for another time. 

Just in case, the next morning, Wednesday the 5th of September, I put the scope, bins and camera in the car. Having done this and just in the process of checking Bird Forum for any news on the dowitcher, Badger calls to advise that various experts, who seemed to be mainly Irish, have confirmed the bird as a Short billed Dowitcher and we should now go to Code Green! Unfortunately I had a couple of urgent matters to deal with at work and so did Badger but at 1030 he was ready and called me to get over to his house in Abingdon as soon as possible. I arrived soon after and we were away in brilliant sunshine down the A34. 

Our mood was somewhat downbeat as the dowitcher had hardly been seen at all yesterday and apart from a brief sighting in the early morning it had not been relocated today although it was considered to be skulking somewhere on the reserve. Lodmoor is a nightmare to cover as much of it is unviewable due to the topography and the best hope was that one of the undoubtedly numerous birders present might chance upon it in a viewable location and alert the rest of us. The pager remained ominously silent concerning the dowitcher as we cruised west. It warned us of a mobile speed trap at Puddletown but of the bird, nothing. 

Gnome called. Assuming Gnome was in Oxford I answered apologetically 

"Hi Gnome - sorry we are on our way to Lodmoor to see the dowitcher". 

'I'm already there. Have been for some hours' ventures Gnome cheerily. 

"Huh? You have a self imposed rule or your wife does  that you do not twitch anywhere more than two hours from Oxford

'This is different. I have to pick up a piece of furniture for my wife that I bought on eBay and as it is in Bath Lodmoor is on the way'  

"It is?" 

'Well sort of'". 

"Oh well, whatever you say, we will meet you in the car park in an hour and a half."

We called Gnome on arrival in the reserve Car Park. He said he will be with us in five minutes. Seconds later a birder who has also just arrived and parked next to us gets a phone call from a friend telling him that the Short billed Dowitcher has just flown in to a lagoon and was being viewed at this very minute. 


'On the south bank apparently'. 

We head at speed in the presumed direction. Confusion. There is no one on the supposed south bank. The birder tries to call his friend for more details but there is no phone signal. 

"It must be up this way then". A Keystone cops moment. We go at pace in the opposite direction, uphill on a tarmac road dodging oncoming cars. Badger's pager announces exactly where it is as we walk  up. We are, thankfully, headed the right way. We get to the top of the road and veer right into an area of rough, uneven and grassy ground that used to be a rubbish tip, overlooking a lagoon with juncus in the middle and reeds on the far side.There is a crowd of birders on this elevated slope looking at the lagoon and another crowd down at lagoon level on a very narrow path skirting the lagoon.

We join the birders on the slope.The area from which to view the critical area of juncus is very cramped and much jockeying for position ensues in order to get an unrestricted view of the juncus patch where the bird is meant to be. I meet Matt and Adam, birder friends from Sussex. 

"Where is it then?" I enquire 

"It was in that gap between the juncus but has just walked left out of view"

We watch this gap for half an hour and only see two Common Snipe. Someone claims to be able to see a third bird hidden in the juncus but it's just a lump of vegetation. A short, stout lady who seems to be at every twitch knocks my tripod askew. I resignedly put it back in its correct position. Lee Evans who is standing off to my right, resplendent in a white tee shirt, suddenly and excitedly announces he can see the dowitcher. The angle from where he is looking gives him a better view into the juncus. Everyone hurtles over to him at the same time as he shouts directions, all of us warily skirting around a large patch of brambles and nettles. Pandemonium. 

The area we are now in is even more restricted and by the time everyone has sorted themselves out with enough space to view and stopped complaining to each other about being in the way, the bird has disappeared back into the juncus. The short lady again barges into my scope. 

"Oops! sorry". 

A northern person stands bang in front of my view. 

"I am not in the way am I?" Knowing full well he is. 

I glare at him. 

"You cannot see the bird anyway as it is out of view." 

"That is not the point. It would be nice to be able to view the spot anyway just so I can see it when it comes out. It's called birding etiquetteI mutter to myself.

"Don't worry I'll move if it comes out". 

"I would be grateful if you would move now". 

He ignores me. More minutes pass with various false alarms. A shout comes from the back, 

"I can see it"

"It's a snipe mate." 

"Well its got a long beak". 

Another disembodied voice

"There it is in the juncus or is it a Moorhen?"

Some wag replies "Does the Moorhen have a long beak?" Sniggers. 

So it goes on and then the bird finally shows itself. Probing energetically in the water for food it moves out of the juncus into a gap and we all get to see it. I am consumed, as is everyone else, by a heady elixir of relief, elation and triumph. It's almost like a legal high this instant of first sighting and surely has more than a little to do with the attraction of twitching. Everyone lets off steam in the customary way with the timeless comments 

"There it is". "Look at that". "Awesome". "Fantastic". "Look at its beak."  "Look at those tertials." 

Everyone that is apart from one person. Yes - the short lady. 

"I can't see it. You are all in the way. You are all too tall". 

"Look through this scope luv"

"I can't it's too high". 

No one wants to help as we are all now in selfish mode. It's all for one and well, all for one. 

"I still can't see it". 

"Use your bins". 

"Can someone lower their scope so I can look through it?" 

There is no point because lowering the scope would just line it up with the backsides of the birders in front. 

"Where is it - pleeeease?

"It's just behind the fourth gull on the left" and someone helpfully and undiplomatically adds "It's showing really well".

 "I still cannot see it".

 "We know, you keep telling us! Just relax it will come out again.You will be fine." 

She fails to see it. Badger and I, having had really good views decide that we will walk down to 'the very narrow path' by the lagoon where the other birders are lined up as we reason that we will get closer and far less obstructed views from there. We bid farewell to Gnome who is now eating an apple and still trying to sound convincing about cabinets on eBay and the geographical location of Bath in relation to Oxford and Weymouth. Your secret's safe with us Gnome.You will soon be as bad as the rest of us and need to come out of the twitching closet! 

We get to 'the very narrow path' and it is chocker block with birders but we find a space to ourselves and have uninterrupted views of the juncus. There is no sign of the bird for a minute or two but then Badger espies it. We alert the others. Lee Evans shouts down from the elevated bank 

"Can you really see it?" 


We give him directions and he ensures everyone on the elevated bank gets onto it. Well, err - almost everyone - a few minutes pass and then a plaintive female voice drifts down from the bank 

"I still can't see it". Guess who? 

The dowitcher wanders in and out of the juncus never really leaving cover for long but giving acceptable if rather distant views. This goes on for about forty five minutes with the bird viewable but occasionally hidden. Another short person comes along the path and stands beside me. Lee Evans who has now joined us on the lower level, for no apparent reason randomly asks him how tall he is. Five foot four, our hero replies. He has undoubtedly the worst pair of bins I have ever seen. They are so small they must have come out of a Christmas Cracker or In Focus for Pygmys. Bless him he was quite undeterred by the strange glances he got from us. 

"Is it showing". 

"Yes it's just over there by the second gull in front of the juncus". 

He looks through his bins. 

"I can't see it."  

Why am I  not surprised. Diplomatically I do not comment on his bins. I endeavour for some inordinate time to direct him via various standing gulls, onto the bird, but without success. He finally finds it by some miracle of chance. 

"It's really dark". 

"No it's not"

"Well it is through these" as he holds up the miniscule bins. No comment. 

"Can I look through your scope?

I lower the scope to almost ground level. He looks through it for a long time. 

"I can't see it". 

Deep breath. 

"That's because it's now gone back into the juncus. Hang on it will be out again soon."  

"I found a Wryneck you know." 

"Really? Well done." I sigh

"It was on a fence." 

I try to be kind, I really do but honestly I do not want to have this conversation. I just want to look at the bird I have come all this way to see. Lee Evans goes into Old Mother Hubbard mode.

"I'm worried about all that grey on the head. It's not right and it's not orange enough underneath". 

OK Lee just chill, you'll be fine. Some random passer by, bemused by all the fuss and commotion asks if it is common. 

"Common! It's the sixth for Britain" states an affronted Lee. 

No Lee - actually it's the second but there is no point in saying so. 

The dowitcher suddenly takes flight  over the juncus patch and lands further up the lagoon in the water, closer to the path and now out in full view in front of the juncus. I hastily abandon  the scope and race with the camera down 'the very narrow path' to get opposite it and take some serious photos. I took over one thousand in the end! Lunacy. 

After a while I  retrieved my scope and return to get full and personal views of the dowitcher via the zoom eyepiece on my scope. I note all the features that confirms it's a Short billed Dowitcher. They are notoriously difficult to separate from Long billed Dowitchers but with patience and views such as I was getting it was relatively straightforward. The strongly patterned upperparts; the black tertials fringed with reddish buff and with smaller reddish buff submarginal markings; the scapulars with similar markings; the white bars on the tail being narrower than the black bars; the black spots on the white undertail coverts and posterior plumage behind the flanks; the large amount of white on the rear underparts; the warm buff breast; the dark crown and very prominent white supercilium all go to confirm this is a juvenile Short billed Dowitcher. The dowitcher was constantly feeding being joined variously by a Common Snipe which provided a good comparison in bill length, a few Common Teal and a juvenile Black tailed Godwit. 

The feeding action was a rapid drilling of the mud under the shallow water with the bird sinking its long bill deep into the water and right up to the eyes on occasions. Other birders joined us, the path became congested again, with innocent passers by and joggers becoming entangled in tripod legs and birders. We are surrounded by a group of local photographers. A short lady who looks awfully familiar knocks into my scope. Sadly, a bi-product of this situation, from which there is no escape due to the constricted viewing conditions, is the constant inane chatter. I much prefer to look at a bird in peace and quiet, to contemplate the bird in an almost spiritual state of mind but at a congested twitch like this it's impossible. So I had to listen involuntarily to such verbal gems as 

"I've just got a job as a proof reader for Oxford University Press you know." 

"How many pixels?" 

"What's your histogramme showing?" 

"Look at this image."

This last one is uttered about every thirty seconds with his mates required to make suitable approving noises and so it goes on, mindless and inane but one just has to be zen about it. It's pointless getting upset. This is what twitching in Britain has all too often become and it will not change. We watched the Short billed Dowitcher for almost four hours on and off, mostly on, and saw it really well. Finally, it flew again to the other end of the juncus patch giving for the only time its diagnostic three syllable, staccato call, similar to a Turnstone. It settled and preened in the open allowing a full examination of its various feather tracts. This time I saw the white trailing edge to the secondaries and the white extending all the way up its back. One curious thing I noted was the bare pink skin showing on the bone of the underwing when it raised its wings, as if it was so juvenile that the feathers had not yet grown fully on this part of its wing. Yet this bird had presumably recently flown the Atlantic non stop. One final look at the dowitcher and the now impressive gathering of Mediterranean Gulls assembled on the grassy level in front of it. Our pessimism about the day was in the end unfounded. The sun shone gloriously warm and everything was right with the world. Even the short, stout lady got to see it in the end but I did not hear her sing.

Mainly Mediterranean Gulls