Saturday 18 February 2012

'So why is it called a Yellowthroat then?'

Twitching a bird at first light is an acquired taste, and although I've done it plenty of times, I rarely enjoy it. Sometimes you need a chainsaw to cut the atmosphere, and if the bird isn't found quickly, tiredness kicks in and the tension builds, until even the sound of birders having a friendly chat when they should be looking and listening for the bird is enough to spark an exchange of words.

So today I decided to play it cool before the 250 mile journey from Norfolk to Gwent for the Common Yellowthroat, resolving to enjoy a hearty breakfast and head off if positive news came through from Wales. This was a fairly safe bet as the bird had been present for some time, presumably over-wintering, and seemed unlikely to go anywhere. However, the typhoon forecast for Saturday, the prospect of an even bigger, tetchier crowd tomorrow, and the continuing possibility of the bird departing at some point were enough for me to not want to leave it to the weekend. As I left the North Sea coast behind, I also rationalised, with impeccable twitchers' logic, that as my final destination was Dorset, the Welsh side of the Bristol Channel was positively en route!

Breakfast dispatched and bills paid, I left my B&B just as the pager reported that the Yellowthroat had been refound. As I hit the A149 it was reported as 'elusive', by the A14 'mobile' and, by the M5, 'mobile and elusive'. On the M50 a pager message asked birders to view from a sensible distance, conjuring up images of the bird being pursued into hiding by desperate twitchers. On arrival, at about 1300, there was a lot of aimless walking about going on, followed by a couple of false alarms, and eventually a reasonably convincing claim. Just as one of the shocking number of grumpy curmudgeons present was attempting to scotch the latest rumoured sighting, which was quite close to where I stood, a ridiculously gaudy yellow streak flew past my face into a thick holly bush.

I was sure it was the Yellowthroat but it was hardly a tickable view. It took another hour to get a clear look at the bright yellow undertail coverts vanishing into the bracken, and two more to see the whole bird in full view - perching just long enough for a distant photo in poor light. Having ranged over a wide area, the bird eventually settled in a hedgerow, but hopped from one side to the other, twitchers in hot pursuit. If filmed from a distance and played in fast forward, they would surely have been an instant Youtube hit.

By 1700 the crowd had shrunk to about 30, the collective mood had improved and most of those left at the end of the day sounded like locals. Three chatty Welshmen behind me, with scant regard for stereotype, were deep in conversation about wellies, clearly covetous of the fancy wool-lined ones apparently owned by an absent friend, about whom they spoke loudly, conspiratorially and bitterly. Three hours earlier this might have got on my nerves, as it would have drowned out the Yellowthroat's Robin-like call, which it seemed to give just before showing (Cetti's please note). As it was, with my third and best tick of 2012 in the bag, it was all quite entertaining.
'Why is it called a Yellowthroat?' (George, aged 8)

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