Sunday, November 13, 2005

There IS a God. There IS a God. 206 species in total

A true anecdote (you’ll have to take my word for it): about a month ago, when contemplating the likely autumn cycle rides, I casually mentioned to Julia that it was amazing Hayling Island never seemed to get really rare birds. I reckon it’d be good for a Desert Wheatear in late October or November, I said.

Fast forward to today, a freezing cold morning after a clear, starry night. Frost covered the cars and the watermeadows as I pedalled off to the south, departing just after 0700, my face chilled by the cold air. My target for today was Black Redstart, which had become a bogey bird after two long-distance dips last winter, both at Hayling Island. George Spraggs had reported to me that a first-winter male had been in residence for about a week, and was site-faithful, so I decided to go for it, especially as there were some other possible year-ticks (e.g. Great Northern Diver, Velvet Scoter, Red-necked Grebe, Little Gull, Long-tailed Duck) which might just be on offer.

The familiar ride to the furthest, most south-easterly corner of the county took me just over 2¼ hours – my feet felt like blocks of ice once more. But it was with optimism that I started combing the seafront houses, though with no luck in the first twenty minutes. Then I bumped into Andy Johnson, who gripped me off with a report of a good passerine passage at dawn, including a Snow Bunting.

After a minute or two, he remarked, “That looked like a Wheatear”, pointing his bins in the direction I’d just come from. I scanned, picking up first a Pied Wagtail, and then a brown, vaguely variegated passerine on the beach. I directed Andy to where I was looking, and to our mutual delight (we were both thinking the same thing, I am certain), he called it: “DESERT WHEATEAR!” Joy unrivalled, delight unparalleled. Awesome, awesome, awesome.

First photo courtesy George Spraggs - other two by Julia/me

This crippling male was only the second record for Hampshire, the first being way back in November 1961, and it was a British tick for me. And here I was, just off my bike, watching it, right now! My mobile rang that instant – Julia had just arrived by car. Better still! I ran down to the road to fetch her, but (fatefully) returned briefly to see the bird again while she got organised – while we watched it and phoned the news out, it ‘flicked’, as passerines sometimes do, and neither Andy nor I could see where to! Julia arrived – no Desert Wheatear.

Shortly, the Hayling cavalry arrived – despite 1½ hours of scouring the beach, no Desert Wheatear. Long faces all round.... For me, the morning was, however, completed, by a great view of the Black Redstart on one of the houses – the target bird, remember!

Photo courtesy George Spraggs

But still no Wheatear – Julia and I had what we call a “White’s Thrush moment” on our hands (after an agonising half hour on St Agnes in 1999 when she had seen it but I hadn’t). We decided to leave the crowds for a bit, searching first Black Point, then moving up to the oysterbeds at the north of the Island to look for the Long-tailed Duck. We didn’t see it – but Black-necked Grebes, Red-breasted Mergansers and lots of waders and gulls made up for that – a bit.

Pager alert! Desert Wheatear relocated at Beachlands car-park, a full mile and a half west of the initial spot – clearly the bird was working along the beach. So we scorched back to the shore (by car, yes), roared to a halt in the gravel car-park, and joined the crowd – no bird! It had moved west again. So we walked west for a few tens of yards, and then Julia connected. We then enjoyed stunning views in excellent light of this right crippling mega. It was a life tick for Julia, too!

Another look at the oysterbeds area produced no Long-tailed Duck again, so we packed it in after a late lunch, and I then rode home in a record slow time with a slightly tweaked hamstring. I also lost my rear light in Twyford – smashed, then immediately run over by a car! Did I care? Not a lot! What an unbelievable day.