Saturday 15 February 2014

Anatomy of a twitch

It's been a long day and it's a long post. So make yourself a cup of tea, take a deep breath and put your feet up before starting.

Thursday 21:00hrs: I get to bed early in preparation for the long drive to Co Durham in the hope of seeing a Myrtle Warbler, a rare North American visitor to British shores. There was an offer of a lift with Bradders and James on Saturday, but family plans forming for the weekend mean that I have to go Friday or not at all. Other potential lift-sharers are either busy or not interested, so looks like I'm going alone. I need to get there early and head back before the next southern storm does too much damage. The alarm is set for 02:00.
Myrtle Warbler - showing the yellow rump which explains it's more prosaic name: Yellow-rumped Warbler
Thursday 22:00 Sleep proves elusive. Is this a bad idea? Are my creaking bones and fragile brain ready for a long distance twitch? Will the bird be there? Even if it is, will I live to tell the tale? The forecast is OK in Durham but it looks pretty bad for the way home...

Friday 01:30 I wake, as I often do on these occasions, before the alarm, convinced I have overslept. I haven't, but there'll be no more sleep tonight. Might as well get on the road.

01:45 I write a Valentine card and leave chocolates on the kitchen worktop before leaving, an offering to the domestic goddess who has expressed her doubts about the wisdom of me driving to Durham while still not 100% mended since that business with the scooter.

02:00 I load my gear into the car. There is an eerie calm over Wareham. Difficult to believe that another big storm is coming later. I'm really not sure about heading off with this forecast. I resolve to try not to think about it. Yes, denial, that's always good...

03:00 With a long drive ahead, I am grateful for the BBC World Service, always something weirdly interesting on there, like the man who was late for a meeting at the World Trade Centre on 9/11 just before the planes hit, lost his fiancĂ©e in the Bali bombings and then got caught up in the Boxing Day tsunami. Hope he's not twitching the Myrtle Warbler today, his luck sounds worse than mine. The main headline is about Syria, which at least knocks the weather off the top. I'm still trying not to think about it.

05:58 The trilling of the Waxwing is the subject of Radio 4's 'Tweet of the day'. There have been some near the Myrtle Warbler, and I wonder if I'll see them later. I mourn the loss of the Radio 4 theme which used to pep me up at about this time of the morning when heading off on a twitch: few pleasures can match that of belting out 'Danny Boy' to my audience of empty passenger seats on the way to see a rare bird.

06:00 The 'Today' programme begins. Top story is about the storm brewing down in the south west, about how it will paralyse the nation's transport networks by lunchtime, and how only an idiot would think about going out in weather like this. I change channels.

06:30 Still channel hopping, and on Radio 1 Fearne Cotton is doing her best to sound commoner than she really is. Nick Grimshaw doesn't even need to try. I check out some local stations. BBC Radios Sheffield and Leeds are covering stories of flooding in southern England with what can only be described as barely concealed glee.

Coconut shy: this was about the clearest view I managed. The bird seemed fairly nervous and was often chased off by the local Robins and Dunnocks.

07:30 Hazy red sunshine breaks through to the east. I thought I might be there for first light. Have I left it too late? I notice frost on the road verges: will the Warbler have perished overnight? I've been pretty calm up to now, but the tension is building.

07:46 The pager bleeps: 'MYRTLE WARBLER still present...showing well'. My initial reaction - thank God for that - is soon replaced by galloping anxiety about what might happen in the 15 minutes before I am due to arrive on site. I remember last year's trips to the North East: Rock Thrush, Bridled Tern, Great Snipe, all dipped. Not again, surely? Only the local Sparrowhawks now stand between me and a tick.

08:00 I arrive on site, and, as suggested by the pager people, park sensibly, and respect the privacy of residents. Easily done, the latter, as I'm not remotely interested in what's going on behind the net curtains of High Shincliffe. But I am very interested in whether the Myrtle Warbler is still present. I enquire of the small group of assembled twitchers. A local says 'a cat just took it'. He almost had me, but then his friend apologises and points it out on one of the feeders erected in a hedgerow to persuade the Warbler out of the private gardens in which it was first discovered. My feelings at this point are, well, complex. There's some exhilaration in there, for sure. And relief - definitely relief. Not much elation, if I'm honest. And some vindication probably.  'Coldly satisfied' perhaps best sums it up.

09:00 The Warbler has been back and forth several times from the feeders, giving excellent scope views, despite being partially obscured by vegetation. It perches on a higher branch only once, almost completely invisible from my angle but for a glimpse of the vent and tail. I almost don't bother with the camera - but rattle off a few record shots for posterity. I'm happy just to see the bird for once, and start thinking about a cut off point for heading home before the storm set in. They should christen it 'Hurricane Myrtle'.

09:30 It seems by now that neither the views nor the weather are going to get much better so I stick to my original plan: smash, grab, and get home before the storm does too much damage.

14:00 After a couple of hours trouble-free motoring on auto-pilot, I'm back with Radio 4. But not for long as The Archers theme tune strikes up. I really don't like The Archers, or radio drama generally. I heard a programme once about the sound effects and they have a woman who puts her hands in wellies and stamps them in a tray of gravel to make the sound of farmers walking up their drives.  And that was it for me, the magic was gone. I try Radio 2. Steve Wright In The Afternoon. It's been around for so long they should call this show Steve Wright Still In The Afternoon.

Note the wingbars, thick streaking on the back, plus a hint of yellow on the breast side.
14:10 Well over half-way home now and I pass the vast flooded meadows of Oxfordshire and feel a pang of guilt that my twitching emissions over the last 15 years have not exactly helped stabilise the climate which is playing such havoc with our weather. I console myself with the thought that my self-imposed flying ban of 10 years remains intact. That said, £50 for a return flight to Inverness, where a long-staying American Coot can be found, has been testing my resolve recently...

14:20 I suddenly feel slightly nauseous. As I'm well fed and hydrated, I conclude it must be the Valentine messages being read out by Steve Wright, Still Going On In The Afternoon.

14:30 Tiredness overtakes the nausea. Then a Red Kite rises from a field by the A34, defying conditions which are not exactly Kite-friendly in search of food. A real tonic, and after a pit stop I feel refreshed and ready for the final leg of the journey. This is no time to become a Road Traffic Accident statistic.
15:00 I consider parting company with Steve Wright In The Afternoon after he subjects me to a stompy 'ballad' from Enrique Iglesias and the Bee Gees' 'More than a Woman'. Which, if you think about it, insults half the human race in the process of paying a compliment to one member of it. But I persevere and he redeems himself with Van Morrison and 'Have I told you lately.' I think of the goddess, and how lucky I am to have married such a tolerant one. Will she forgive me for spending Valentine's Day with this Myrtle?

15:15 The probing fingers of Hurricane Myrtle's gale force winds poke the car around as I make my way through the exposed parts of the New Forest. Not far now, though the news says Dorset has had the worst of today's rain.

15:30 Local radio welcomes me home to Dorset with reports of multiple traffic jams. The A35 is shut in several places, and I plough through ominous puddles on the A31, the only other main route through the county. It's still raining heavily, and probably going to get worse later, so I feel vindicated in leaving Durham when I did. I deploy local knowledge to avoid the worst blackspots, but can't avoid the last one just outside Wareham. The last 2 miles to home take 15 minutes - the worst traffic I encounter all day. Otherwise the trip has been mercifully trouble free. Perhaps people are finally getting the message that they should avoid unnecessary journeys in these conditions, leaving Britain's crumbling transport infrastructure free for those of us who need to see Myrtle Warblers and attend other emergencies.

16:00 I park up and switch off the engine. That feeling of cold satisfaction I described earlier has warmed considerably. The rest of the family are at the cinema, so I crawl into bed, not as exhausted as I should be, but tired enough to sleep, and dream of Myrtle.

1 comment:

  1. Such commitment, if you put the same effort into persuading Edwards to get his finger out re boys weekend in Lyme Regis we would all be able to plan :-)