Monday, 29 October 2018

A Swift End to a Game of Cat and Mouse

The Swift
A lovely Sunday afternoon digging potatoes came to an abrupt halt with news of a rare Swift in Yorkshire.
Initially identified as a Pacific Swift, this would have been rare indeed, but not one to set the panic alarm going as I was lucky enough to catch up with one in Suffolk a few years back.
But the identification soon came round to White-rumped Swift, the first ever record for Britain! It was surely brought up from North Africa on the same unusual southerly airflow that had Holbeach setting record temperatures in the same week - 79 degrees F in mid October.
A quick calculation told me that I could never get there before dark - news an hour earlier and I wold have been busting a gut to get there.

A couple of hours sleep and I was up again, heading through the night toward Hornsea Mere on the Yorkshire coast. I wasn't the only one. In the dim light of dawn a steady stream of birders were heading across the fields to the last known place where the bird was seen as it drifted off in the gloom last night. Our best hope was that it had headed to roost or hooked up with a group of house martins and would return to feed over the mere in the morning.

But birding does not always go to plan. Six hours stood in that field and I finally succumbed to the idea that this rarest of rare birds might just have slipped the net. Reluctantly I returned to the car and began the journey south. I was hoping to be home in time to accompany Sue to the vets with Boris - nothing too worrying but I did want to be there.

I tentatively drove back across the Humber Bridge (I am not great with heights and don't like crossing this bridge), but no sooner was I across than I started receiving messages that the swift had been seen at Spurn, a long promontory off South Yorkshire which funnels migrating birds along a narrow spit of land. Details were sparse, but I had no option but to turn around and head at breakneck speed back over the Humber Bridge, through Hull and along the torturous country roads which lead down to Spurn.
By the time I arrived the sparse details of the sighting had become even murkier. Today was starting to feel like a waste of a day, one to forget. The first sniff of a really good bird all autumn, for it has been a poor one birding-wise, and it had ended up with a disappointing end.

The Cat
As we stood dejected on a windy and desolate stretch of Yorkshire coast, the birding gods looked down and decided to shuffle the pack a little.
Phones and pagers whirred into action as news of a Grey Catbird came through - at Land's End in Cornwall, a mere 8 or so hours away.
Grey Catbird has a certain reputation among twitchers. The only previous record was on Anglesey. It was found on an October Thursday 17 years ago. The bird was highly elusive, but stayed around until the Friday. At that point I was confined to waiting for weekends to see rare birds and so I joined a small army of weekend birders in the hunt for the bird. There were various shouts and alarms, but to cut a long story short most people left disappointed. A compound full of tall gorse had been pretty much flattened over the course of the day but there had been neither sight nor sound (yes, it does miaow!) of the bird all day... except that some people were adamant they actually had seen it - these people became known as the Saturday Catbirders.

And that was it, Grey Catbird into the annals of birding history but not onto most people's lists.

I decided to head straight for Cornwall. The earlier I could get there, the more sleep I could get in the back of the estate car. And so at 1 in the morning I rolled up in a field in deepest south-west Cornwall. There was one other car there but we knew there would be many others arriving through the night. I put the seats down, laid out a selection of coats that live in the car, and tried to get some shut eye.

The Mouse
Well, that was the plan... until I heard scuttling in the roof of the car. It couldn't be, could it? Then chewing and more scuttling. The mouse (though it sounded like there might now be a family) which had been setting my car alarm off for a couple of weeks now, was clearly still living in the innards of the car!
A sleepless night ensued, only enlivened by an unsuccessful game of splat the mouse as it scuttled around in the roof space above my head.

This probably explains my bleary-eyed lack of sharpness in the morning. As the sun rose there were a couple of hundred birders ready for the Catbird show, a couple of hundred birders bearing the scars of that Anglesey bird of 17 years ago. We stared into the bushes where the bird had last been seen. For two hours we stared.
This was turning into a bad couple of days.

Then suddenly the mood changed. People were seeing the bird. A woman next to me was excitedly exclaiming that she was watching it. But the only words that came out were "I've got it. I've got it". My bleary eyes were not seeing whatever she was seeing and pleas for directions were met with "I've got it. I've got it".
Other people had it too. In fact just about everybody... except me. There's always one person who doesn't see what everyone else is seeing. And on this occasion it was me. Not a nice feeling.
By the time the bird flew I was surrounded with people quietly celebrating and congratulating each other. This was not going well for me!

Then another call, further up the line. By the time I got there the bird had disappeared again. This sighting was less convincing and I just didn't know whether to stay put or go back to where I was when the bird was first seen. 
Then another call, from where I had been standing! By the time I got there, the bird had dropped into thick cover, but I was more certain that I was just a few seconds away from seeing the bird.
Time to control the breathing and have faith that fate would indeed be cruel if the bird were never to show itself again. A really helpful birder next to me did everything he could to help me get onto the bird and then up it popped into the middle of a small sallow.
Grey Catbird!
All the effort had been worthwhile. I went from being ready to quit birding forever to enjoying the bird and celebrating with everyone else.
I never heard it miaow, but the Catbird eventually gave itself up and showed very well.

Hopes of more American birds turning up in Cornwall were high so gradually people left the site and fanned out into the valleys of Cornwall to find that elusive mega. I found myself down by Minack Theatre following the coast path. Really I just needed some wind-down time before making the journey back to Lincolnshire.
I was supposed to be chairing an open meeting of the Smallholders Committee in the evening, but it was unlikely I could make it back in time and I would be in no fit state.
And so I slowly headed back across country. My car was almost broken as one of the exhaust brackets was detached and the brake disks were badly warped. The long journey had exacerbated the problems which were combining to make for some very uncomfortable car handling. By the time I rolled back onto the farm I was feeling pretty bumped and bruised myself.

Arthur keeps me company in bed
The next five days are a blur. I don't know whether it was pushing myself so hard (but I've always done that) or just unlucky, but I almost immediately came down with a fever which had me laid up in bed for five days.

Anyway, I am just about fixed now, though still a bit tender. The car is fixed too.
We are raring at the bit, ready for more rare birds!

The Mouse (Part Two)
On the second day of my sickness I heard a dripping inside the wall of the downstairs toilet. We have been looking for a leak as a couple of long-term damp patches and a drop in boiler pressure indicated there was a problem somewhere. The drip was getting worse through the day so we eventually took the decision to call an emergency plumber - not a step to take lightly. Astronomical does not describe it, but eventually we managed to get somebody to come out without having to sell all our limbs.
It didn't take long to find water. As the plumber investigated downstairs, I started unscrewing floorboards upstairs, where the cause of the problem quickly became apparent.

Mr Mouse had been at it again!
As for the car, two trays of bait have been consumed and one field mouse has been caught in a trap.

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