Just a perfect day

The last day of a week’s holiday, and another day out with the birds.

We started the week at the London Wetland Centre – very cold and gloomy, and notwithstanding recent sightings of Bitterns, we didn’t see any (we always arrive at a hide to be told, “You should have been here five minutes ago; you’ll never guess what we have just seen . . .”) – but plenty of Snipe, Tufted Duck, and Coot.

Wednesday was another cold but bright day at Slapton Ley and on the beach at Thurlestone. Shovellers, Tufted Duck and a solitary Little Grebe in the reeds by the Slapton Hide, and plenty of Canada Geese and more Tufted Duck on the water. Robins everywhere, and a Sparrowhawk through the bushes at the edge of the Ley, upsetting the troupe of Longtailed Tits that was bowling along the edge.

It was late afternoon by the time we reached Thurlestone – we had to stop in Kingsbridge, where I was living when Caroline and I first met, and stop at the deli at the top of Fore Street and visit Pig Finka.  The marshes behind the NT car park were frozen and there was very little duck around. Instead, there were Oystercatchers and Turnstones on the rocks edging the beach, and a wonderful sunset.

Today we have been at Roadford Lake. We didn’t know quite what to expect – we last visited in January 2009, and had then seen little (and been rained on). This time was different: in the woodland and along the edge, Nuthatches, Great, Blue, Coal, Marsh and Longtailed Tits, Greenfinch, 6 Bullfinches and half an hour later another 9, a Greater Spotted Woodpecker chased off by a solitary Raven gliding through the canopy, Crows, Rooks, Kestrel, Sparrowhawk and Buzzard, Dunnock, Blackbirds, a Song Thrush, Redwings, Goldcrests, Robins and Wrens – and on the water, Coot, Moorhen, Tufted Duck, Mallard, Teal, Widgeon, Gadwall, Pochard, Herons, Great Crested Grebes and a Little Grebe, Shag, 3 Goosanders, and in the last light of late afternoon, a pair of Goldeneye below the bridge.

A perfect day.

Thurlestone Rock and a calm sea
From the bridge at Roadford Lake

Red Letter Days

2007 has been the year we have started birdwatching in earnest: see A Birdie Year. We are very lucky living where we do: Yarner Wood, the best place in the South West to see Pied Flycatchers, is 15 minutes down the road. 15 minutes in another direction will take you to the High Moor (Golden Plover at this time of year; Skylarks and Meadow Pipits for much of the Spring and Summer; and always the magical Ravens), or to Soussons Woods or the Fernworthy Plantations. Only a little longer and we can be on Dawlish Warren, watching waders along the Exe, or Slavonian Grebes and Common Scoters off shore.

We never know quite what we are going to see, and rarely set out with the intention of finding a particular bird. We don’t have life lists, and such records as we keep are more to help us remember what we have had the good fortune to watch, than to boast of our sightings. I see each day we are out as a red letter day, but some this past twelve months have been the reddest of such days: the afternoon of 14 April, with leafbreak just happening in Yarner and the first Pied Flycatchers arriving; the Ravens on Snowdon as we came off the Bwlch Main in very early May; the trip to the lighthouse at the tip of the Coskata-Coatue Wildlife Refuge on Nantucket Island in October. These are days that will live in the memory.

Nature’s Fireworks

To reach the hide at Dawlish Warren, you have to come off the sandy spine that runs from the car park towards the tip of the Warren, skirt the golf course and then walk back along the beach. There is a sign, some 25 yards or so along the edge, asking birdwatchers to take care not to walk when golfers are about to tee off; and not to stop on the shore to watch birds, as this may interfere with people taking their shot. As we walked down the path towards the shore, it was clear that few were paying attention to the warning. It was not hard to see why. It was at the top of the tide, and a great flock of Grey Plover, with Dunlin mixed in among them, were settled on the spit of sand in front of the hide, jostling for space with an equal number of Oystercatchers, with the odd Turnstone and Sanderling.

The Plovers were unsettled, lifting off and turning and wheeling in the sky in front of us, before landing again. This was happening regularly and as the bright sunlight caught their white undersides and wings, the whole flock glittered against the grey sky behind. It was if silver foil was caught in the wind, but the swirling cloud of shorebirds moved as one: now light, now dark, now silver. The Oystercatchers just tucked their beaks in, and faced the wind.

We spent over an hour in the hide, watching the the birds as the tide fell, and wishing that we had had the gumption to bring our thermos of coffee. Our neighbours in the hide, a son and his elderly parents, had arrived not only with the usual birding paraphernalia, but with lunch. I am not sure what hide etiquette about lunch is, but we had to wait for coffeee until we got back to the Land Rover, just as the rain expected all morning arrived.

Collective nouns

Collective nouns, whether traditional, a pride of lions, or comic, a dose of doctors, have always fascinated me; and not just because they offer all sorts of problems when writing letters, particularly whether to use a singular verb or plural verb (Burchfield, in The New Fowler’s, allows the use of either). There are, apparently, some 200 collective nouns in common use in English and put “collective nouns” into Google and you will get 1,070,000 results.

The world of birds has a wonderful range of collective nouns, although many are rarely used, or indeed known. Is there anything more descriptive than a charm of goldfinches, an exaltation of larks or a murder of crows? When thinking about this piece, I found Terry Ross’ website, Group Names for Birds: A Partial List. He does not think much of a murder of crows (as the noun is not in the Oxford English Dictionary as a group name), but this has not stopped Heinemann publishing a book under this title in its Animal Group series.
What started me thinking about collective nouns was the Starling roost at Whiddon Down. For a week or so in late February, the stand of conifers between the village and the A30 saw one of the largest Starling roosts I have ever seen. As the light went, flocks of starlings (not the right collective noun, but more of this later) flew in towards the roost, meeting and merging, swirling shapes and syncopated patterns filling the sky; and then, in an extraordinary five seconds or so, dropping into the trees, as if sucked down. We stood in the dusk one Saturday tea time and watched the performance for 20 or so minutes, captivated by one of the most extraordinary wildlife spectacles it is possible to see in Britain. How many of these somewhat nondescript birds there were was difficult to guess: certainly tens if not hundreds of thousands. The sky was filled with them, and in the silence we could hear the rush of their wings. At one moment part of the flock detached itself and settled in the hedges behind us. It was then we understood why the collective noun for Starlings is a murmuration (in the OED, murmering, a low, continuous sound).

The children do not share our fascination with birds, and I suppose we are, to use yet another collective noun, an embarrassment of parents.

A wild ending

Wild weather has kept us off the High Moor this holiday, but the upside has been the opportunity to watch birds. This we have taken and have spent the last four days doing just that.

On Boxing Day we were at Lydford Gorge: a short walk as the main route is closed over winter, but after the descent to the waterfall, we climbed back up and along the old railway line to the hide at the end. Just before high tide on Thursday, we watched squadrons of Oystercatcher and Dunlin arrive on the Dawlish Warren mud flats, the sun catching the flash of wings like glitter. We watched Marsh, Coal, Blue and Great Tits at Yarner Wood very late on Friday afternoon, with fleeting glimpses of a Nuthatch and a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker in the half-light. Yesterday we saw more Godwit along the margin of the flooded area at Bowling Green Marsh than we have seen before, and mixed in among them Redshank, Lapwing, Pintail, Shoveler, Wigeon and Teal, as well as Canada Geese; and in the tree next to the hide, Longtailed Tits. Add to that watching Dippers on the Teign just up from Clifford Bridge on Christmas Eve, and seeing a trout (or perhaps even a very late salmon) jump in one of the pools.

This morning we were closer to home, back up to our favourite walk on Mardon Down, the weather rushing in from the south. In the space of 45 minutes we lost sight of the Moor completely but we missed the rain, which came just as we reached the Landrover (very clean and if not new, then definitely more pre-owned than second hand! One result of the problem with the central locking which I posted about in Technology is not all it is cracked up to be, was being persuaded by the silver-tongued salesman at Matford to trade in and up: another 110 Defender but three years and 70,000 miles younger).

2006 is not going out gently. The rain is hammering on the windows and it could already be tea-time, not just after lunch. It is all too easy to concentrate on our own small corner of Devon. But perhaps I do so because to understand the world beyond sometimes seems so difficult. These past few days have seen the unfolding drama of Saddam Hussein’s end, and yet more turmoil in Iraq. We caught the last half of Brian Walden’s Sunday reflection, A Point of View, on Radio 4 as we lay in bed this morning.

In five minutes, he put into words far better than I could ever hope to, a view many share. He spoke of lessons that need to be learned about the occupation of Iraq, calling it one disaster that we must never repeat. While entertaining no doubt about the physical courage of our troops, he asked our political leaders “to find the moral courage to face some unpalatable facts about Britain’s status in the world”, and in particular “the embarrassing impression that other countries look to us for ethical leadership”. As he put it somewhat bluntly, they don’t. And as for the rest of the world standing in awe of our righteousness, this illusion, he averred, is the source of many of our follies.

If I were to have one wish for 2007, it would be a government that understands this.