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The Racing Post Birding Assessment (1 Viewer)

I used to occasionally put a bet on horse racing. I come from a family of gamblers- not high- stakes gambling, but a family where the menfolk would go to a betting shop to stick a few quid on that day's horse racing, or occasionally go to the dog racing at Glasgow's Shawfield stadium. Working class gambling. I remember one morning standing in a bookmaker's, reading the Racing Post's assessment or predictions for that day's horse racing. One statement caught my eye. In a withering tone the preview pointed out that the quality of horses (and therefore racing) in one of the races would be incredibly poor. Scathing....
The race still took place, people would presumably still have placed bets on it, the jockeys still turned up- the horses weren't given any choice, of course.

But for the purists, just taking place wasn't enough.

I haven't bet on the horses for maybe 20 years, but this sprung to mind out of nowhere when I was thinking of the past few weeks of birding. It has taken place- my year list has actually ticked along- but the quality of the birding has been a bit, meh, a bit sub- par. To the extent that even me, who sees the positives in just being out there in fresh air, seeking birds, seeing birds, any birds, began to feel a little let down.

Birding opportunities, as I mentioned in my last post, had become limited, and it was literally making do whenever I could, punctuated by moments of joy. (the Black- winged stilt-Garganey- Redpoll day out) Looking back on previous years, thats always been my way. I don't know what made it feel different this year. Maybe 2 Covid years are catching up? The environmental apocalypse thats threatening my as- yet unborn grandkids future? The dawning realisation that I'm 48. and no matter how much 1980s music I listen to, I'm not becoming a teenager again. Having to get used to feeling my age isn't much fun.

Anyway, must make do. I also have a shiny scope which gave me the restored gift of sight. (© My Mate Bill) Why waste it on being moody?

My next day out after Inversnaid (Inversnide...) was to Baron's Haugh. I still needed water rail and kingfisher to ease my annual "Its <insert month> and I haven't had <insert species> yet" anxiety. Worth a visit, not least since its not exactly difficult to get to. Anyway, no year ticks, no kingfisher, no water rail or other juicy things. What I did get was the Causeway Hide to myself to sit and stare at birds I'd previously taken for granted. The scope allowed me to see ridiculous levels of detail. Little Grebes became a thing of beauty, young great- crested Grebes almost comical, baby coots became the most beautiful ugly things ever. I'm not great at sitting still (my Grandmother used to tell me off for never sitting at peace) but it was me, in a hide, alone with (it seemed) all the time in the world. High quality birding, with fairly standard species. The Racing Post would not have approved.

A few days later, and thanks to some Royal anniversary, I found myself enjoying an extra day off with Mrs Green Sand. We headed back to the forests beyond Dryman- again, no binocoulars. By now, though, being out walking has taken an almost spiritual character for Mrs GS, and our gentle stroll through the forest allowed me to soak in the bird life- the noise, the occasional good sightings, the more regular glimpses out the corner of my eye. Almost by osmosis, just by being there. My type of day out, regular readers will recognise.

A trip to Musselburgh the next day had more birds, but less spiritual or emotional connection. I did get black- tailed Godwit as a year tick among a plethora of other, expected birds. A tick for the year list, and the blackwit did look stunning, but the entire day was underwhelming. I mentioned last time that the East Coast was beginning to be a little worn out for me, so I was perhaps over- familiar with it. Its not my local patch, so I don't have an emotional connection to it that would take me there every day. Its also a wee bit of an effort to get to, so subconsciously I expect great things to justify the effort. Much depends on how you define 'great things.'

The next day we had another Green Sand family walk, this time reasonably locally to Chatelherault Country Park in Hamilton. Mrs GS is a pale- skinned redhead who gets heat stroke looking at holiday brochures. We found ourselves on an exposed path during one of the hottest days of the year thus far. It ended predictably with Mrs GS staying in the shade at Chaterherault House whilst I jogged back to Hamilton town centre for the car, barely noticing a swift on the way. A year tick again, and more than that, a sense of relief at finally getting one, but the ticking of it was less than perfunctory.

My next trip was a return to Baron's Haugh. Slightly frustrated by the lack of butterflies and other insects in the fields, my mood wasn't improved by the sight of the Marsh Hide full to overflowing. Assuming it was a bird club on a day trip, I moved on to the Causeway hide, and again fell in love with the extraordinary sights of ordinary birds. Eventually, I retraced my steps and seeing that the Marsh Hide was now empty, I popped in. Scanning the usual muddy areas did not produce anything unusual. Only when a couple of local birders and a couple of photographers arrived and discussed the great white egret that I realised I'd accidentally wandered into a twitch. Now, I'm not a twitcher....

Anyway, both GW Egrets obliged before long and showed ridiculously well. Only my second (and third) ever, and ironically at Baron's Haugh the last time. All too soon the hide filled with photographers, and I eased myself out. An accidental tick, an accidental twitch, and more soulful gazing at the ordinary. A more than decent day out, but my niggling feeling was that it lacked the 'Oomph' of a big day. But when did I start needing an 'oomph'?

The family holiday in Cornwall was almost bird- less, bar watching tourists getting excited about a jackdaw that they had mis- identified as a chough. By the time we came home in early July I was desperate to get back out. Being somewhat predictable, I headed back to the Haugh, by now having spent more time there this year than I had in the past 4 or 5. A quick check in the Marsh and Causeway Hides didn't produce anything of note- no sign of the promised Green Sandpiper, which by now was becoming a painful gap in my year list. A wander round to the Phoenix Hide and I positioned myself at the bend in the river. Water levels were low, and I was genuinely hopeful for a kingfisher. Conditions were perfect....

Within a couple of minutes I heard a piping noise, as a common sand flew in and landed on an exposed branch mid- river. It showed incredibly well through the scope, and despite some wishful thinking, it was definitely a common sand not a GS. A minute or so later a second specimen arrived, and both common sands began squabbling over the same perch. I stood watching this ongoing battle for a half hour or so. The first one abandoned the perch, and flew over to land on my bank, just downstream of where I was standing. Ridiculously close views, then it flew back to continue the squabble. Another few minutes watching, I was getting ready to head back, and I gave the river one last scan with the binos. Directly in front of me, at a distance of about 8 feet, on a branch I hadn't noticed, sat a kingfisher, bobbing up and down, staring intently at the water. After 5 minutes it dived, caught something, then flew off downstream. A very welcome tick, but slightly embarrassing that I hadn't seen it sooner. So from 2 trips to the Haugh, 2 accidental year ticks. From a guy who prattles on about fieldcraft.......

A trip to Cathkin Marsh was fairly bird- free, and literally was a 'I haven't been in a while' type of trip. A couple of hours contemplation in a special place can't be sneezed at, but at the time was rather unfulfilling. Similarly, when I borrowed my father-in-law's car and headed East to Yellowcraigs/ Fidra to scratch my Razorbill itch- the only one of the 'seabird city' species I hadn't had. Sadly, the beach was being used as a, well, beach by sunbathers. I'm not sure what I was expecting, but anyway, I planted myself at the top of a dune, and gambled that a) people would know that it was birdwatcher type place, b) the dune would be too difficult to climb up and batter me. I did get razorbill, but only one. Quite a few puffins, which were good. Loads of gulls, fast- moving terns that I couldn't get the scope on and which were too distant for binos to I.D. The depressing sight- and I mean depressing- was Bass Rock. It was grey and brown, the bare rock showing where it should be white with Gannets. That killed any buzz I had that day. 127 for the year, but that kind of pales into insignificance. We've had years defined by Covid. 2022 is going to be defined by bird flu.

***********

Its funny how perception often differs from reality. I've had a grumbling sense in the back of my mind that I've hardly been out, I've hardly been birding. The reality- now that I've committed it to writing- is that I have been out, I have been birding. Just not the type of birding I was hoping for. But you know, needs must. I bird for the love of it, for the love of being outdoors, the love of connecting with nature- while we still can. Assigning rules to what makes a good day out is a massive, massive mistake, and the dawning realisation that thats what had happened to me has been a slap in the face.

If you're out in the fresh air, with the sun on your face, or the rain running down your neck, or the wind playing with your hair, or a gale blowing you off your feet; if you're in shorts and a t- shirt, or 3 thermal layers; if you're seeing birds beyond your wildest dreams, or sitting quietly appreciating the colours of a magpie, then enjoy it. You're birding, you're living.

Stay healthy, stay safe folks.

John
 

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