Time to get lucky...



One of the nicest things about leading bird tours is the extra amount of time you spend in the field. Graeme and I usually nip out for an hour or so before breakfast on Saturdays, or perhaps – especially now that the evenings are lighter – for a quick walk after supper. But now we have the luxury of going birding for whole days at a time – and this, inevitably, means that we get lucky.

            By ‘get lucky’ I don’t mean that we stumble across hoopoes and bee-eaters around every corner – though that would be nice (in my dreams!) – but it does mean that we see birds we don’t usually see, and get better views of those we do.

            For instance, on our last tour in early May we visited the hide at Greylake RSPB Reserve. As we arrived, we passed a fellow birder, who typically told us that “there’s not a lot about today…”

            Opening the hide windows, we could see his point. The teal, wigeon and snipe that in winter give great views here were long gone, back to their breeding grounds to the north and east. Apart from a little grebe showing well on the lagoon in front of the hide, and the odd marsh harrier floating away into the distance, there wasn’t a lot on offer.

            Then our client Phil spotted a small duck, fast asleep, drifting slowly out of the rushes and across the water. Even with its head tucked beneath its scapular feathers, I could see the tell-tale creamy eyestripe, which marked it out as a male garganey. A minute or so later, after we had all had great scope views (and it still hadn’t woken up!) it disappeared into the vegetation on the opposite bank. Had we arrived a few minutes later we would never even have known it was there.

            Garganey are scarce but regular spring visitors here on the marshes; but another bird we saw at the end of April was a real rarity. Redpolls are lovely little birds, which we usually see here in winter flocks, as they feed on alder cones. So, we weren’t expecting to come across one by the viewing platform at Ham Wall at the height of spring migration. But this was no ordinary redpoll, but a ‘mealy’ – larger, sturdier and brighter than our ‘lesser’ redpolls.

            Currently, according to the authorities who decide these matters, mealy redpoll is a separate species from our birds. But whether a species or a well-marked race, it was simply stunning: with the red mark on the forehead that gives the birds their name, and a salmon-pink patch on its throat and breast.

            As we all enjoyed watching this stunning little bird, feeding just a few metres in front of us, I reflected that it was a just reward for that extra time we had spent in the field – and just a little bit of luck!


Graeme Mitchell