Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Memorial field trip

Gathering of the clan, from left to right: Neil, Leo, me, Dave, Pete, Roy and Andrew.
Yesterday had been a long time coming. A day out with mates - the kind of thing we used to do much more often without ever really having to plan it, but less so now we’ve all moved in different directions. These days, half of us are still in London, most of the other half have migrated to Norfolk, and one has overshot to Australia – a true vagrant. “We” are a group of birders who got to know each other in London, mainly through the local RSPB members’ group, back in the 1970s. And as of last month, we are tragically one less in number. Dave Slater, a founder-member of the original gang and when present the life and soul of our social gatherings, died suddenly of natural causes. Fit, seemingly healthy and young for his years, Dave should not have been the first to go. His death stunned us all, and at his funeral last month we resolved to make a better job of enjoying each other’s company.


WTF? Andrew is bizarrely accosted by a juvenile Jackdaw at Lakenheath.
So I suggested a day out in the Brecks, more or less no man’s land for the respective London and Norfolk contingents, the idea being a day’s birding followed by a drink and a meal. You would have thought the Norfolk boys would have been first on the scene at Lakenheath RSPB but, owing to a combination of their age and lack of organisational ability, we steamed up the M11 and beat them to it by about 25 minutes.

Marsh Harriers were everywhere at Lakenheath RSPB.

By the time they arrived we were already on about 45 species for the day, and the list rose steadily once we set out around the reserve. Fairly quickly our progress was interrupted by a juvenile Jackdaw, which accosted us on the main track and proceeded to beg for food. It took a particular liking to Andrew and even perched on his shoulder, parrot-style. A century or two ago an incident like this might have been taken as an omen, perhaps involving the spirit of the departed or some other kind of deep religious meaning, but our more prosaic response was to offer it some cereal bar crumbs before moving on. 
One of the showy adult Spotted Flycatchers at Weeting Heath NWT.
Lakenheath produced most of its hoped-for ornithological goodies. We heard the mellow, fluty vocalisations of at least two Golden Orioles and the far-carrying contact calls of Common Cranes, while Marsh Harriers and Hobbies drifted and hawked overhead and Grasshopper Warblers reeled away from mainly hidden perches. Cetti’s Warblers, Bearded Tits, Water Rails and a Eurasian Bittern between them made the vast reedbeds instantly more interesting, a lame Whooper Swan looked set to continue its already long stay, and a few butterflies and dragonflies added some extra value to our efforts.

Eventually, it was time to repair to the next site, one of apparently only two in the country to hold Military Orchid. My first orchid twitch, I confess I found it less challenging than any bird twitch, and I can report that all the Military Orchids were still on site when we left, in exactly the same places. Presumably they still are.

The Doc botanising (NB this is not a Military Orchid).
Two further locations in the afternoon included Weeting Heath NWT reserve, where two Eurasian Stone-curlews were for me outshone by a pair of Spotted Flycatchers repeatedly feeding three chicks in the nest, and another site where a number of Brecks specialities can be found. Some of them duly gave themselves up, but the birding ended unsatisfactorily with an impossibly distant raptor way off to the north – probably at least a mile away, maybe as far as 50 miles. It drifted in wide circles on ragged wings, most of the hand of the left wing being missing. Similarly, the central tail feathers were also absent, and these shape-altering, flight-affecting factors, combined with the great viewing range, conspired to create an unfathomable ID. The bird appeared un-buzzard-like in silhouette, having rather long wings with straight trailing edges that were held slightly bowed downwards. It was dark in plumage, bar for a pale area on the chest. Size-wise it wasn’t huge, but ultimately it was lost to view after plunge-diving into the forest from some height. Who knows … 

Motley crew, from left: Neil, Roy and Pete (aka Shiny).
After that inconclusive finale in the field we closed proceedings with an excellent Indian meal nearby in Thetford – if you’re ever in the area, check out the Thetford Raj, and don’t be put off but its unpromising surroundings. I can personally vouch for the vegetable dansak and special fried rice, while others opted for a range of ex-creatures (mainly fish and sheep, if I recall correctly). The latter would not have suited fellow vegetarian Dave, who I last saw some months back at a similar meal, and whose presence was missed at this one, even if we felt he had somehow been present all day. RIP Dave - you are missed by many.

To absent friends, and one in particular ...
Dave Slater, 1950-2012. RIP.


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