Sometimes, very rarely, in the world of birdwatching, lightning strikes twice, and miracles can happen more than once, writes Mike
Miracles can happen in birdwatching, as Mike found to his delight
WHEN YOU ARE out birdwatching in a familiar area, do you have a habit of looking at a particular patch of scrub or pool or grassy slope and remembering a bird you’ve seen there previously? I do, and I often have a strong longing to see that kind of bird again in the same spot. In the spring there are certain short-cropped fields with rough hedge linings, which I know have attracted Ring Ouzels (and I always hope they will again). And on certain gravel pits and lakes, I remember previous Little Terns which have dropped in and dream of more. But there are other places where the appearance of a scarce bird has been a one-off, yet I still look wistfully, in the hope of history repeating. It happened to me at the weekend. I was driving along the River Welland in south Lincolnshire, along a stretch where the road runs along the riverside for a few miles, giving a chance to see unusual waterbirds, especially ones which have come from the sea. The Deeping High Bank has produced some great birds, recently. In the last year, there have been Slavonian Grebe, a Shag and more recently Great White Egret and a small flock of Scaup have been lingering. A couple of years ago, a Long-tailed Duck appeared along the river there. So, naturally, on Saturday morning, as I was driving along, and approaching a larger than normal flock of Tufted Ducks, I was thinking wouldn’t it be good to find a Long-tailed Duck, here. But it wasn’t to be, and I went gulling instead, back in Peterborough. Of course, I had barely settled in to sifting through the heaving masses at the local tip, when I got a call, saying that there was a Long-tailed Duck on the Deeping High Bank. I must have driven past it an hour before! Luckily, it was still there, in among that flock of Tufties, though now a mile further downstream. Back at the end of February 1996, when my friend Kevin Durose lived in Lincolnshire, he was following a similar stretch of road alongside the other Lincolnshire river which flows out into The Wash by Frampton Marsh: the Witham. The Witham flows from the north-west, via Boston. Kevin was even further upstream, near Tattershall Bridge, when he saw a diver in the river. It was an adult winter White-billed Diver, and one of the most spectacular, legendary, famous and notorious birds of its era. White-billed Divers were much rarer in the UK in those days and even then, almost exclusively on the sea. A bird so far inland on this relatively narrow river was outrageous. It could have been one of the most celebrated twitches, but instead I can’t tell you how many birdwatchers have told me they went to tick it and instead saw it breathing its last breath (or already dead), after succumbing to a fisherman’s hook, two days after it was first found. On 20 January, this year, a minor miracle occurred. A few miles upstream of where Kevin found his diver, 21 years ago, a White-billed Diver was photographed on the River Witham. Naturally, the twitch was on. This bird, a juvenile, was luckier than the ‘original’, still being present along the same stretch of river between Woodhall Spa and Stixwould to at least the end of January (and luckily, favouring an area away from most angling activity). Surely, the odds against one of these ivory-billed beauties turning up on this same inland stretch of river were not far off finding one of its extinct woodpecker equivalents in a southern US swamp forest. I paid my respects on Sunday. It was constantly fishing and seemingly just about fearless, despite emerging from every dive to see a bank of lenses staring at it and clicking away. It was more bothered by a couple of spaniels one of the photographers had with him. In fact, it showed a great reluctance to dive at all while the dogs were on the bank, which at least kept it neatly in range of the cameras. I had only seen one previous White-billed Diver in the UK; back in March 2007 at Hayle, Cornwall. That bird was very obliging, and also fearless, fishing for flatfish and crabs even into the shallows in the town. But it was in the middle of a wing moult and couldn’t fly at the time, so, lacked a little in aesthetics. The Witham bird looked perfect, immaculate and healthy. Let’s hope it remains so. What a miraculous bird!
It was more bothered by a couple of spaniels... and showed a great reluctance to dive while the dogs were on the bank
Mike is an obsessive patch lister and keen wildlife photographer in his home city of Peterborough, where he lives with his wife, Jo, and children, Jasmine and Eddie. You can see his photos at weedworld.blogspot.com
LOON STAR White-billed Diver, Woodhall Spa, Lincolnshire, 29 January