On the way back home from an eight-hour Great Snipe dip over three sessions the other day, the topic of conversation turned to dipping. This is the art of not seeing a bird that you have travelled to see - twitched, if you like. There are many types of dipping, and though you can put a brave face on it, nobody likes any of them. Sometimes the bird has gone, nothing you can do about it, they have wings. But with diesel the price it is, many people prefer to wait on news, but this then allows for the possibility of the worst kind of dip, which is when the bird IS actually there, but you don't manage to see it. This was the case with the Great Snipe - it was there the whole time, and then as soon as we got home, felt able to parade around again in full view. Arse.
Anyhow, at the start of the conversation, I maintained that I hadn't dipped very many times, and that my picky twitching nature meant that more often than not I saw the bird. As the conversation progressed however, I started recalling more and more failures, and felt it might be cathartic to talk about them. I don't actually get too wound up about it now, it's just a bird, it comes with the territory, but back then it was terrible, and I am sure it must still eat some people up. Presumably, it is the long-distance ones that are the worst. Imagine driving from London to Scotland for a White-tailed Plover that wasn't there when you arrived - ouch! Imagine getting a flight to Shetland for a Yellow-billed Cuckoo that died in the night. Or a long boat journey for an absent Albatross. All of these have happened, but not to me. For a start, I am not about to start twitching Scotland. The first rule of twitching is to realise that eventually there will be one closer, and you can dip that instead.
So what dips stick in my memory particularly, and why?
Wryneck, Wanstead, 2010
After thrashing Wanstead the previous few days, I decided I would instead head to Rainham as I was pursuing a year-list there as well. Did the school run, and went straight there. As I approached the slip-road off the A13, Nick phoned from approximately 500 yards away from my house. "Wryneck!" Bum. I exited the A13, went round the roundabout, and headed back the way I had come. I was unbelievably lucky with the traffic, and met Nick on the Flats about twenty minutes later. No sign, and not a sniff for the next three hours. I was despondent. Patch dips hurt way more than any other kind. The story had a happy ending though, as on the school run the following day he refound the bird, and this time it stayed put.
Marsh Sandpiper, Maldon, Essex, 2008
This is memorable not just for the dip, but for the whole goddamed day. On offer in a small cluster in eastern Essex were not only the Marsh Sandpiper, but also a Red-necked Phalarope and a Wryneck. Marsh Sandpiper and Wryneck would have been lifers, and I'd only seen one Red-necked Phalarope before. I spent the day in the car and dipped the lot.
Black-winged Praticole, Reculver, Kent, 2009
A lovely day with some old school friends and their kids was ruined by news of this mega from Kent. This is why twitching is ridiculous, and one of the reasons why I've gradually calmed down to the point where I can easily let a bird go with a shrug. Can't see 'em all. I was agitated the whole day, to the point of rudeness, and scooted home as soon as I could. Straight back in the car, picked up Vince, and down to Reculver. No sign, though we were greeted by several smiling faces that we knew. Vince immediately gave up, and I mean immediately. I suggested having a look at Grove Ferry just down the road, but he wasn't interested. We went anyway, and I had a quick scan from the viewing mound whilst he had a kip in the car. Back to London to an angry wife, always good. The story doesn't end there. I went back to Grove Ferry NNR the next day, and spent that dipping as well. Almost unbelievably, and a clear sign of my growing stupidity at that time, I set off for Kent the following morning as well. This time I got it, but I still remember it for all the wrong reasons.
Zitting Cisticola, Swalecliff, Kent, 2008
This is my worst dip EVER. Famille Lethbridge had a nice day out planned. Somehow I had swung going to Rainham for lunch (when you didn't need to be a multi-millionaire), so I was pretty happy. On the way to Rainham, the pager bleeped. Fan-tailed Warbler, Swalecliff. To universal disapproval, I drove past Rainham, over the bridge, and onwards to Swalecliff. A fuming Mrs L insisted that I drop the family off for lunch somewhere first. The closest place to the bird was an absolute hole of a pub, really really horrible. The menu was pure grease, I could not have found anywhere worse. I installed them on a quiet corner table, and before I left, took a child to the toilet, it only took a minute. Jumped in the car and off I went. Loads of cars, loads of birders. As I approached the crowd, a man shouted "Who hasn't seen it yet?" - I scurried over. "It's flying!". He vainly tried to get me on what was presumably a dot, but it was gone, never to be seen again. Thirty seconds earlier and I would have seen it - I prefer to dip by several hours. I returned to the pub in a filthy mood, to find the family penned the corner, a Premiership football match blaring out from every screen in the place, including from an overhead projector onto a screen right next to their table. The journey home passed in silence. I've seen one since, but I still smart at quite how badly I behaved that day.