Sunday 19 May 2013

Dawn to Dusky 18th May 2013

Friday evening and Badger called me asking if I would care to go and see some Smooth Snakes amongst other reptiles, courtesy of Wayne who knew a site in Dorset. I needed no second prompting as I have never seen a Smooth Snake and would welcome the opportunity. Our trip required an early start the next morning; 6.30 at Badger's sett sorry, house in Abingdon. 

So it was that at 5.30 I left Kingham. Although the sun had not risen it was an uplifting morning. Completely still, not a breath of wind, almost as if the world was waiting. As I drove along the ridge towards Burford the Cotswolds were spread out for miles on either side of me, the occasional lurid yellow field of oilseed rape almost an affront to the subtle colours of the natural vegetation. The sky was a suffused blue grey and the hedgerows were now blousy and opaque with vibrant green leaves, the skeletal images so familiar from the long winter now transformed into soft rounded contours, their outlines melting into the distance, muffled in a blue haze. 

I arrived at Badger's and decamped into Wayne's car and we set off for the A34 and the West.  I settled down on the back seat to catch up on some sleep after a restless night. Just a few minutes into the journey, on the outskirts of Abingdon, Badger's phone rings. It was Justin. A short conversation ensued. Something is up as Badger's tone of voice is barely concealing excitement and incredulity. The conversation ends. 'Well?'  I enquire. 'That was Justin. There is a Dusky Thrush in Margate Cemetery. It has been there for three days but its identity has only just been confirmed. It was originally identified as a Redwing. Justin is on his way there now. He should be going to Wales with the family but they are going to go later today'. 

Barely awake I assimilated this information. Dusky Thrush is in twitching terms a mega. The last one remotely possible to see in the UK was back in 1959 and this current one would only be the tenth to be seen in the UK. Dilemna. I was fully awake and attentive now. Smooth Snakes or Dusky Thrush?  For Badger and myself, pre-eminently birders, there was no question. It had to be the thrush but Wayne being an all round naturalist was all set for the snakes. We had badgered (ho ho)  him for weeks to take us and now we were reneging as fast as decently possible. We indulged in mock humility and said 'What do you want to do Wayne?' although it was obvious we wanted him to concur with us and bless his heart he understood the nuance and agreed to come and see the thrush. It was in retrospect the sensible decision as frankly the snakes were not going to go away but the thrush certainly would. Nevertheless I still had a slight pang of guilt about our sudden change of mind. 

We returned to the Black Audi parked near Badger's home and loaded everything into it, hit the tarmac and headed for Margate as quickly as possible. I had not planned to drive today but needs must and it assauged some of the regret I felt about us messing Wayne around. Although it was Motorway driving for most of the journey it seemed to go on for ever. Boring, tiring and endless. Paul sent a text telling me he and Vicky were on their way to see the thrush and were sorry not to have liased with me. Badger texted back to tell him not to worry as we were currently in the fast lane of the M40  rapidly heading East! We would see them there. Two and a half hours later we came to rest outside Margate Cemetery at around 9am and the road was already full of cars. Birder's cars with the occupants spilling out carrying scopes, cameras and huge lenses. Everyone with a quiet sense of purpose pretending to be oh so casual and not, as was the truth, consumed by the overwhelming anxiety and expectation of a major twitch. 

Margate Cemetery is large with a good amount of tree cover and we followed the general flow of birders, soon coming across the massed ranks looking at a small group of trees amongst the ancient gravestones in a quiet corner of the graveyard.

Thankfully the area we were in was a very old part of the graveyard so it was unlikely that anyone would be visiting these graves and potentially be upset by all the birders. All three of us saw the thrush almost immediately, quietly sitting on the edge of an Ash tree which was part of a small group of three or four trees in amongst the graves

I got the scope on it and assimilated it's subtle beauty. It was a female and basically was an overall dull brown above and greyish white below but it's extreme rarity gave it an inner beauty. It sat there for quite some time. Paul and Vicky arrived. 'Have you got it Ewan?' 'Sure, have a look in the scope'. Paul looked, punched the air and exclaimed 'Yes'. 'Vicky, want a look?'  'Thanks'. A more demure affirmation of contact with the thrush. Now we could all relax in mutual camaraderie and just enjoy watching it. It remained where it was for a little longer and then with a flick was gone, moving into an adjacent Sycamore. The massed ranks dispersed, most to the far side of the graveyard but I and another birder tiptoed carefully around and through all the old graves to position ourselves opposite the others but on the 'wrong side' of the tree. We could see they were all looking at it on the other side and although tempting to go for the instant result we just did not want to join the scrum.

Looking at us looking at them looking at the bird
We had seen the bird well before it moved so there was no immediate urgency. It also seemed logical to us that if we were patient, the bird, obviously aware of the birders would eventually get tired of all the attention and inevitable disturbance from the other side and move to our side of the tree when we would get good views. Forgive me the self congratulation but this is precisely what happened after about twenty minutes and for five minutes myself and my companion, in splendid isolation watched the bird sitting on a branch, clearly visible opposite us.

Inevitably the massed ranks on the other side of the trees, now unable to see the bird, became restless and observing we were watching it soon joined us and it became a bit fraught as more and more people tried to cram into a restricted space to see it whilst avoiding walking over graves, obstructing other people's views or knocking into tripods. The bird was easy to see if you knew where it was but was nearly always in some sort of cover, making it difficult to photograph and due to it's relatively non descript plumage it was difficult to direct people on to it. The usual daft comments came and went. 'I have got the dead leaves, where is it from that?' or 'I still can't see it. I know it's there but you will have to be more precise as to where the ivy ends'. Most bizzarely one loud voiced gent, on finally seeing it, proclaimed 'I have got all twelve turds now!' Presumably he was referring to the fact this species was one of the genus Turdidae. I do so hate some of the birder slang that is now so prevalent and sometimes the just plain ignorance shamelessly displayed at events such as this. 

There must have been over 300 birders present by now, milling around and generally well behaved amongst the gravestones. Some fathers, possibly diverting from a Saturday morning shopping trip turned up with small children. One even arrived with a small  daughter dressed incongruously as a cat and the child ran unheeding, much to his embarrassment and our amusement, in front of all the birders and under the very tree the bird was sitting in. If one of the graves had opened I am sure he would have jumped into it but the bird was untroubled by the display of youthful innocence and the child returned, bewildered, to her frantically beckoning father. 

The time wore on and the crowd grew ever larger. At twitches like this one meets many old acquaintances and I was busy catching up with friends from both my former home county Sussex as well as Oxfordshire. Eventually it all settled down and everyone had managed to see the thrush. New arrivals were greeted by triumphant and relaxed birders all too willing to direct them to the bird's location. At the last it sat for an age in a Sycamore partially visible amongst the leaves. It even dozed off for a while amongst the greenery before moving yet again and the last view I had was of it sat, briefly, out in the open before it disappeared back into cover again. 

We met up and decided we had seen all we wanted. We had been here over two hours with the bird mostly on view and now more and more people were arriving. A major twitch on a Saturday in the south of England was never going to be dull or quiet. The road outside was  crammed with cars on both sides and a passing motorist stopped and asked who famous had died. He thought there was a huge funeral taking place due to all the cars. Much to his amusement we informed him of the reason for the traffic chaos. I heard later that someone had commented on Twitter that the scenes inside the graveyard were reminiscent of Michael Jackson's 'Thriller' video except all the zombies this time seemed to have scopes and cameras! Not a bad summation. 

It is usual on jaunts such as this to find out if there are any other good birds to see nearby and a female Montagu's Harrier and a male Red backed Shrike both at nearby Reculver seemed to fit the bill. 

Reculver Towers
So we arrived at Reculver Towers car park and a short walk up to the towers and over the turf found us looking down over a vast swathe of growing wheat and there in the distance, right on cue the female Montagu's Harrier was gliding over the fields. Slightly further and beyond it was a Short eared Owl quartering the ditches. Not too bad a start but regrettably the Red backed Shrike proved elusive. In fact the less said about that the better. We walked miles, four or five I believe, looking for the shrike and at one stage if we had carried on we were in danger of being back in Margate. 

We never saw the shrike. Tired and hungry we gave up and made the long and tedious walk back to the car, and exhausted went in search of sustenance in a roadside garage. A Cattle Egret at Northward Hill RSPB on the way home briefly tempted us but in the end a unanimous decision was made to return to Oxfordshire where Wayne would show us some rare orchids. This turned out to be almost as rewarding and pleasurable for me as seeing the thrush. I saw for the first time, Bird's Nest, Military and Fly Orchids as well as White Helleborine or at least the emerging buds. Apparently they are very late this year so I will go back in a couple of week's time to hopefully see  them in all their glory. To cap it all Wayne lifted up a metal sheet lying flat in the grass and we found two Slow Worms underneath, one of which belied it's name and made a very rapid exit into the undergrowth

Bird's Nest Orchid emerging
Military Orchid
Slow Worm
Badger and Wayne
Thus a full on and very long day of unexpected birding came to a close with a surprisingly fulfilling experience with some rare and beautiful plants in a quiet corner of Oxfordshire


  1. Turned out to be a great day out after all and nicely summed up! Cheers Wayne.

  2. Thanks Wayne especially for your patience and showing us the Orchids.
    Hope we can still get to see the Smooth Snakes with you
    Best wishes