Sunday, 5 February 2012

Sophie's choice

In the Oscar-winning film, Sophie, played by Meryl Streep, had to make an agonising choice about which of her two children to save. I don't wish to trivialise her tragic imaginary dilemma, but today, in real life mind you, I had to choose between twitching a Parrot Crossbill and a Paddyfield Warbler.

Grey Plover at Pagham Harbour
A frozen pitch meant my eldest son's football was cancelled this morning, presenting a windfall opportunity to head for West Sussex. I needed to back in Wareham for 1400 for my favourite pastime, being punched repeatedly in the face  attending a children's party. Assuming a smooth journey, I calculated this would give me 90 minutes to look for one of the above, but not enough time for both. Two factors swung it for the Paddyfield. First, the opportunity to lay to rest the ghost of the Kent bird, where I lived at the time, which was photographed so expertly by my good friend Matt Jones. It picked flies off his lens cap one Friday night back in September 2007, posed coquettishly and conspired to help him win the coveted title of Surfbirds Rarity Photo of the Month (shove that in your Oscar cabinet, Streep). I was at the pub that evening, and by the time we went back down on the Saturday morning, Matt was able to show me the 10ft diameter crop circle made by birders who had the Paddyfield surrounded, but not the bird itself, which had gone overnight.

Grey Plover at Pagham Harbour
Second, I struck Parrot Crossbill off my list only last year following a self-imposed and entirely neurotic list review, during which I concluded that, although I had almost certainly seen Parrot in Scotland, I couldn't be absolutely sure, and, even if I saw this bird, I'd probably be no surer, such are the complexities and controversies of Crossbill taxonomy. By contrast, the Paddyfield Warbler was not only clearly identifiable, but likely to be the only warbler bar Cetti's in Pagham Harbour in the middle of winter!

Wigeon in flight
And so to Sussex, more in hope than expectation, as the bird was reportedly showing early mornings before becoming more elusive. Hope turned to disappointment as my deadline to leave approached but with 20 minutes to go, some sharp-eyed soul picked it up. Despite the excessively loud moaning by one birder about the imperfect directions being given, which drowned out the sound of the poor bloke trying to give directions in not the easiest of circumstances (it was, after all, a small brown bird crawling distantly through a large patch of samey looking grass), I was eventually able to get on it.

Part of the 1000+ Brent Goose flock at Pagham Harbour today
Although too distant for the camera, it gave reasonable scope views for the next quarter of an hour. As Dave Bradnum said after we confounded our own expectations in seeing the bird, "this had 'dip' written all over it". An unusually close Grey Plover, some flyover Wigeon and a monster flock of Brent Geese added to the occasion, after which, watching the boys stuff junk food and tear around the party was positively endearing. In fact, I think I'll keep them both.

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