Monday 27 August 2012

Sea-watching Jinx

Oh my God. Where. To. Start? Chronological would be traditional, but I just can't do it like that, as I must first gush over-enthusiastically about the patch. Wanstead Flats is AMAZING. AMAZING. Patch stats once again, are you ready? In the last two weeks the migrant tally is approximately: 6 Garden Warbler, 1 Reed Warbler, 2 Sedge Warbler, 8 Common Redstart, 8 Whinchat, 15 Wheatear, 16 Spotted Flycatcher, 4-5 Pied Flycatcher, and 1 Wryneck. Let's just say that last one again shall we? Wry. Neck. Gah!! Wryneck!!! The second Wryneck in three years, and this is London, somewhere between tube zones 2 and 3. Just look at the quality? How lucky am I to live here?

The Wryneck was found a stone's throw from my house, on Saturday. On Saturday I was not in my house, nor was I on the patch......

Scene 1: Pendeen, Cornwall. A group of miserable birders are sat looking at a flat sea.

Birder: Manx Shearwater!!
Other birders (chorus): Where, please God where?!!
Birder: Coming left over right-hand rock
Other birders: Yeeeee-ssssssssssssss!!

To say it was quiet was an understatement. Intense studying of the wind patterns had led me and many others to believe that with a force 6-7 WNW airflow combined with bands of rain, the only place in the entire country worth being at was Pendeen with one eye bolted to a telescope. Various phone calls had managed to more-or-less fill up a car with like-minded (i.e. stupid) people, and so the trip was on. At this point it is important to note that amongst those offered places on this trip-of-a-lifetime were Stu, Tim and Tony, all three noble and ardent Wanstead patch-workers. All three sorrowfully declined, all three with wife-related "no we are entertaining, had you forgotten?, Cornwall? you must be mad." issues. 

It's a tough trip, only for the properly foolhardy. Leaving London at 11pm, you drive through the night and arrive at Pendeen (or Porthgwarra if the winds are from the south-west). Stepping from the car in the dark, you note several other cars with steamed-up windows. Other seawatchers. Waiting. Despite being half-dead, the thought of what might be means you feel like a nine year old on Christmas Eve.

Prologue: Pendeen, Cornwall. 5am. Darkness

Me: Err, which way is west?
Others: Err, that way. No, that way. Hang on, this way.
(smart-phones and maps are consulted....)
Nick: That way is west. The wind is not coming from that way, it is coming from this way. South-west.
William: When I looked at wind-finder last night I'm sure it said south-west.
Mark: Shall we go to Porthgwarra?
Me: Yes, Porthgwarra has a toilet.
(more cars arrive)

To cut a long story short, the concenus of huddled birders is that the winds will definitely shift round to the west, and that Pendeen is the place to be after all.....

Scene 2: Pendeen, Cornwall. 10am. Wind vector - southerly.

Me: Boy am I glad I drove through the night. One Manx Shearwater. One bloody Manx Shearwater. I am never trusting Magicseaweed again.
Nick: Oh I dunno, could be worse.


Me: Hello?
Tony: Oh hi Jon, err, you're not going to like this.
Me: (heart sinking, palpitations beginning) Oh?
Tony: We've got a Wryneck in the SSSI. It's perched up in a hawthorn and me, Stu and Tim are looking at it now.
Me: (to Nick) It's worse. (to Tony) NooooooOO!!!! Er, I mean well done, fantastic news, brilliant, bloody brilliant.

Talk about a bad decision. I mean seriously, I'm 350 miles away from a Wryneck 100m from my house, on the worst sea-watch I can ever remember. I was tired, cold, hungry, and now gripped.

Nick is pleased for Tony

Apparently I lost the will to live.
Then a small breath of wind caught my cheek. Eh? And a splodge of rain... Hang on a minute..... Oh yes. Over the next two hours the wind shifted round to the west, visibility reduced, and the squalls started to come in with increasing regularity. By midday the rain was more or less constant, and then the first big Shearwaters started coming through. What a sea-watch! I knew I could read a forecast! Pendeen was the place to be, and I had never wavered from that belief. Revisionist? Moi?

Six bottom-numbing hours later all four Skua species had gone through, including a spanking juvenile Long-tail over the rocks at bottom of the slope, and a fully-spooned Pom. Cory's Shearwaters numbered 11, Greats 8, and I had missed a few more. Sooty Shearwaters, Balearic and Manxies, a handful of Storm Petrels and bucketfuls of joy. I love sea-watching. Nick and I were all chirpy. The Wryneck would love Wanstead Flats so much, just as the last one did, that it would stay for days and we would probably be sick of it by the middle of next week. Nothing to worry about at all. We would rock up tomorrow and see it, if we made it home without falling asleep at the wheel and crashing that is. I made it as far as Exeter before deciding that in the interests of survival that somebody else had better drive. William did a grand job, and what seemed like five minutes later we were at South Mimms. Engaged once more, when I started muttering about other drivers' shortcomings Nick knew I was OK and that we would make it. Make it we did, and by half one in the morning I was in my own bed. Never has a bed felt so good.

My firm plans to hit the patch early for the Wryneck never happened, and the first time I opened my eyes it was already eight and I still felt like death warmed up. But it had to be done, and striding purposefully towards the magic area, I was feeling pretty positive about my chances. I joined Tim, and this being my patch, I left the path and started having a good old poke around the favoured hawthorns.


I turned, and found myself facing a line of Wryneck twitchers! Slightly awkward, but these things happen. I wouldn't charge around somebody else's patch of course, but chez moi..... In short I didn't find it, but the story has a happy ending as about an hour later it popped up in the same hawthorns and I found myself with two Wrynecks on my Wanstead list, rather than the paltry one that had been there before. Proof that you can have your cake, and eat it. Never has the patch been so busy, what seemed like hundreds of people turned up. Rather gratifying was that more than a few of them had my map printed off. Area 17 is the one you want if you still haven't been over - Lake House Road Migrant Scrub, and boy is it migrant-y.

Yes, that is a Redstart in there too. Yes, Wanstead does rock.
Still, there is only so much chatting I can take, and I soon abandoned the hordes of newfound Wanstead-admirers and headed off to the relative calm of the broom fields and started chasing Wheatears around. Wrynecks are great, but you can't beat a good Wheatear now, can you?

It's all about timing


  1. Clever blog title...

    If you've got any more room for cake - I'll ask Mrs B to bake us all a Wryneck shaped cake! Sponge, lemon or fruit?

  2. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.