Wednesday 11 January 2012

There's no time like mañana...

...was my initial thought on hearing that a 'probable' Spanish Sparrow had been hiding among its Hampshire cousins for over a month in Calshot. With rumours of hybrids initially complicating the picture, the promise of queueing with tetchy twitchers to get crap views through a condensation-soaked conservatory window, even for a bird of this rarity, really didn't appeal. I was sure Calshot was very nice, but the odds of Steve Akers style hospitality, with ground coffee, croissants and comfy chairs, Chipping Norton style, seemed slim. Given all this and the likelihood of a long-staying bird, I thought I would give it a few days before attempting a twitch. Then I remembered that the next few weekends might be compromised by visits from family and friends. It also emerged that the bird could in fact be seen from the wide open spaces of a public road, so a soup-kitchen style twitch might not be necessary after all.

Spanish Sparrow: don't be shy.
By Tuesday I was contemplating a Wednesday afternoon attempt, but the offer of a lift from fellow Dorset birder and near neighbour Jol Mitchell persuaded me to take this morning off work instead. It was an excellent decision, as we arrived on site shortly before 0800, saw the bird at 0805 and watched it on and off for the next hour or so with a good-natured gathering. This was in turn watched from a safe distance by two of the key ingredients of an urban twitch in the early 21st century: bemused pensioners, themselves twitching behind net curtains and shaking their heads as if to say 'is this really why we went to war?'; and cocky schoolchildren, snapping away at the crowd with their smartphones so they can post photos labelled 'peedo' (sic) on Facebook. Such is the state of education in Britain today.

Spanish Sparrow: that's better.
The initial views were difficult as the bird remained in a hedge, but a tick was gradually assembled as black chevrons on the breast and flanks revealed themselves, followed by the chestnut crown, white cheeks and narrow white line either side of the eye. It eventually made its way to the top of the hedge before flying off to a garden feeder somewhere. It wasn't gone long though, and returned to perch briefly in the open to catch the first rays of the sun. The light was still too low for me to get sharp photos, with a 1/100th of a second shutter speed the best I could manage with a hand-held lens, but I was happy enough to get anything on film.

Dark-eyed Junco: a rare sparrow's fart from the hispaniolensis
Having bid adios to one rarity (or perhaps hasta la vista, as I suspect 'I'll be back' if it lingers), there was time to revisit the nearby Dark-eyed Junco, which showed almost immediately. Calling Crossbills and a singing Woodlark added even more value, the latter making a warm morning feel almost like spring. The journey home was a breeze through the gloriously clear and crisp New Forest air, and with twitching this easy we had plenty of time to exchange tactics on how to build up domestic brownie points for when the next rarity arrives. I proudly showed my son my photos of the Spanish Sparrow this evening. His reaction - 'looks like a sparrow' - suggested he didn't quite share my joy at getting the first tick of 2012 before the middle of January.

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