Sunday, 2 March 2014

Pond Heron Dilemmas

Before you start reading, if you're a birder looking for an in-depth and informative discussion on the ID of this bird, you've ended up in the wrong place! If you want an entertaining, witty, thrilling tale of my quest to see it... you're probably still in the wrong place!!!

I nearly went on Thursday, but when several good birders spent 11 hours searching with no success on Wednesday...
You can imagine how they felt when they saw the message that the bird had actually been sat in a garden for at least half an hour in the morning. I didn't want to experience that feeling.

So here's a tale of 4 pond herons - Chinese, Indian, Javan and Squacco.

In winter they look something like this... (photos courtesy of whoever took them...hope you don't mind if you're viewing. They're lovely photos.)

Chinese, Indian, Javan and Squacco. I know, they all look the same!

In summer, they look something like this...

Squacco heron is a reasonably regular visitor to this country, though birds over here during the winter months are most unusual and raise questions about their identity. Javan is about as likely to get here under its own steam as a Javan Rhino. Indian does sometimes turn up in the far south-west... of the Western Palearctic. That means, keep going across Europe towards India and when you get nearly to India you have a very small chance of bumping into one. Chinese migrates much further and so, in theory, has more potential to go wildly off course. But it would have to be very, very, very off course.

Having said that, there have been a few records in Europe now during this century. And since the ban on wild bird imports (though I'm sure this trade still continues illicitly), it is hard to track down any which are held in captivity. Which begs the question, where are they all coming from?

And so, for the past few weeks, I've been deciding whether on not to go and see what is probably a Chinese Pond Heron which could maybe, in theory, have got very lost on migration and found itself in the garden of England, where a network of suburban ponds had been laid on, stocked with nice, juicy goldfish and the odd frog.

To travel to see this bird would be an effort to get what is known as an insurance tick.
If the relevant authorities ever deemed that the balance of probabilities (wherever you judge that to be) came down on the right side of it being a genuine wild vagrant, I would have what is known as an armchair tick.
If, on the other hand, I didn't travel to see the bird, I would be kicking myself very hard for sitting put while every other Tom, Dick and Garry had been to see an extremely rare bird.

Normally this decision would not be a difficult one for me. I am a persistent and determined little blighter. But what complicated this decision for me was that the area where the bird had decided to spend its time was a network of gardens where it could disappear for endless amounts of time. There were tales of people making up to seven unsuccessful trips and spending upwards of thirty hours in the field trying to see it. And most of those didn't live 160 miles away.

I decided that I would try for it at a weekend. This could be a right pain in the backside if the crowd was too big - loud talking on phones, pagers beeping, car doors banging, even pet dogs. But it would also mean a higher number of people searching.

And so it was that, after two hours sleep on Friday night, I headed off at 2:45AM to pick up another birder and then down to Kent, my old stomping ground. We pulled up at 5.45AM, to the minute as planned. We were the first car there (I wouldn't expect any less, as I told you I am a persistent and determined little blighter!). After not too long a couple of other cars pulled up. We all surreptitiously parked up in the gloom. Etiquette on this bird was to stay in cars so as not to spook it.

At 6:08AM my passenger picked up a small heron silhouette against the sky. It headed across the front of the car and disappeared into the gloom. It wasn't enough for a tick, but it was 99% definitely the bird. Small herons have a very distinctive shape in flight as well as a distinctive flight manner.
The view from the car. The bird was due at 6:56am.
We felt pretty confident that it would appear from the small brook behind the playground at 6:56. Why 6:56? Well, because the previous day it had been seen for 3 minutes at 6:58... and not again all day! The earlier 2 minutes was to allow for an earlier sunrise.

By 6:30 there was a line of cars... and a line of people who had decided to get out of their cars and stand in the chilly outside air. Car doors were (mostly) opened and closed with care and they did, at least, stay fairly quiet. By 6:56 there were 20+ cars and about 20 people lined up against the hedge outside...and a couple of dogs.

6:56 came and went.
7:30 came and went.
7:56 came and went.
8:30 came and went.
8:56 came and went.
Our optimism came and went. This was going to be a very long day!

But, at some time past 10 o'clock our mood changed. Some bloke I'd never seen before (which is good, because I'm about to cast some aspersions!) pulled up and informed us that he'd been watching the bird for fifteen minutes in a new location, over by the canal in a wet field. Unfortunately it seems he'd not had any of our phone numbers or those of the bird information services. We headed round to the site and it looked promising. You could certainly imagine a pond heron spending a little time here.
It was then that a still unsolved mystery started to unfurl. For I met an old friend who, coincidentally was on his six attempt for this bird, and the conversation went something like this..

"We were talking to that bloke earlier. He's on his fourth attempt from Doncaster. He actually said that he was getting so desperate that he would string the bird if he hadn't seen it by lunchtime, so to ignore any claims of him seeing the bird." !!!!?????!!!!!*****!!!!!

For non birders, stringing is when you claim to have seen something which you haven't. I know, it's a strange idea to get your head around, but there are some strange and desperate people in the world of birding (not me, you understand). Sometimes stringing is just down to desperation and wishful thinking, convincing yourself that something similar is actually the real thing. But just occasionally it is out and out blatant fabrication.
The classic way to do this at a well-attended twitch is to leave the crowd to explore new areas and then, sometime later, return to announce that you have seen the bird elsewhere...but that it flew off just as you were about to let everyone know...but you knew which direction it headed in.

Apparently our pond heron had flown to a tree by the canal... then flown over the other side of the canal and been lost to view!

Now' I'm not saying anything for definite, but you can see that this was playing games with my mind. Not just a stringer, but one with the audacity to double bluff, to announce his impending crime. Or was it just a comment made in humour which had bizarrely backfired?

The bloke seemed honest enough and was convincing. We had no other particular plan of action, so we decided to go with it and spend the next few hours with our bums perched on tussocks of grass in a sheep field overlooking half of the town of Hythe.

We've got it pinned down. It's somewhere down there...maybe.
Somewhere in there was, allegedly, our quarry. But if the story were true and the bird decided to head back towards its favoured haunts, we had it pinned down! It almost certainly would have to fly past us.

Well, by two o'clock hope was starting to fade. Phrases such as 'needle in a haystack' were being used. I have to admit I began nodding off and sent messages to my mates to keep myself entertained. I set my pager to make one small beep if any message appeared which contained the keyword "CHINESE". Hopefully this would be enough to wake me up.

At 2:18 I came off the phone to my mate having declared that even I was beginning to feel pessimistic about this one. As I put my phone in my pocket I heard a single BEEP. In a split second my mind put two and two together and came up with... four. I checked the pager message while simultaneously picking up my stuff, grabbed my new friends scope and tripod and began to run back up the hillside towards the car, negotiating the boggy patches, the muddy patches and the giant tussocks as I went. For the bird was sat in a tree back at Turnpike Hill, where we had started!
I started up the car but then a fit of conscience came over me. The person I'd bought with me had quite a bad limp and I should really wait for him! Well, of course, there was only one thing to do.

No.... of course I waited for him!
But the car was moving before he was fully in and we got to Turnpike Hill as he was still trying to put his seatbelt on!
I pulled the car up virtually in the middle of the road, ran to an old friends scope and got that crucial first view of the bird. Insurance policy purchased!

I returned to my car and moved it to a slightly more respectable parking place, then grabbed everything and ran down to join the assembled crowd. I left a trail of Sat Nav wires, crisp packets and clothes along the way. The bird was sitting up in a tree giving brilliant views and it stayed on view for the next half hour or so before heading off towards Redbrooks Way, one of its other chosen haunts. We headed over there for one last view. A local resident informed me that she had been watching it from her window at 8 o'clock that morning. It had been in the field by the big tree!!! Ah well. That didn't matter now. I had connected with the bird and what's more, I had been successful on my first visit. On top of that, we had very good views and I had met up with some old friends from Kent and London who I'd not seen for a while.
All in all a very successful day. And maybe, just maybe a tick. What do you think?

Usual apologies for picture quality.
I just put the phone up to the scope and clicked.
I don't pretend to be a bird photographer.
Too much equipment to carry around. 
ed. It seems the bird was definitely in the field by the canal in the morning. Photos have since emerged and the bird has been seen there again. Just a shame the bloke had no access to any phone numbers to alert others in time.


  1. All things come to he who waits. You must have been well pleased to catch a sighting on your first visit.

  2. More of a relief than anything, Jo. I didn't relish the though of several 300+ mile round trips. Twitcher mentality.


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