Monday 16 March 2020

Silver coronavirus clouds and the rite of spring

As you know I cannot now go to the office to work. This is a shame, there are social elements to a job that go along with the grind and that make it tolerable - without the people there would be no point. Me and all my colleagues are now working from home for the forseeable future, and I can imagine that this will drive a number of them slightly crazy. In time it may well drive me mad as well, but for now it is spring time and I am fortunate to have a hobby which is very fulfilling. No more so than today.

Today was a big day. My first shot at the title, now in its third year. My first date in the Wanstead Wheatear Sweepstake 2020. On what day would the first one be found? A quick recap on the rules - the names of ten local birders were drawn out of a hat (well, a bowl actually) by Tony, and we then got to choose two dates in the order our names came out. Once a date is chosen nobody else can choose it. I came third and plumped for the 16th and 19th of March, nice median arrival dates, by no means my earliest but also a long way from the latest. 

I had been waiting for this moment and marshaled the troops. At first light Tony would start at the Alex and comb that area. Rob and Simon would start in the Old Sewage Works, and from there progress to the Plain in the Park. James would check School Scrub, with Richard carefully checking the Western Flats, then both moving to the Fairground. Meanwhile Bob, Tim and I would cover the central portion of the Flats (the most likely place frankly), with Nick starting at Angel and working his way up. Sean, who has a bike, would take the whole southern side of the Flats along Capel Road. We would then all meet at the Vizmig point at 11am for the prize-giving ceremony where I would be crowned victor ludorum, provided this was granted Government approval as there would be more than five of us. It's all about confidence.

So bright and early I found myself on out on the Flats in the central portion as discussed. It was a lovely morning, blue skies and a gentle breeze. Oddly no sign of Tim or Bob, they were probably just a little behind, so I set off solo on my search. First of all a circuit of the Brooms where I met Louis and Gosia, nobly helping my cause even though they were not in the sweepstake. Nothing doing in this area, so I went off to check first the Barrage Hitches and then the Ditch of Despair, both of which were also Wheatearless. I was now at the Alex where mysteriously I could not find Tony. He must have been there somewhere, really trying his hardest to winkle one out of some deep scrub or something. Or perhaps he had swum over to the islands to check those? I did a loop of the Pub Scrub where I met a lady with bins who I have never seen before - good of her to get involved. 

Meanwhile some fairly negative news from other areas of the patch. On the western side James, who lives about a third of a mile from the Flats, had briefly looked out of his top window and not been able to see any Wheatears, and was now patiently waiting (at home) for Richard to arrive so that they could coordinate their areas. On the southern sector Sean was just finishing a hasty breakfast and would only be about another 45 minutes, excellent to see him so committed. Simon was also on his way but did need to try and find some toilet paper first so had still not started looking. Also bad news from Rob who needed to reorganise his entire life before coming out birding. And finally Nick was still asleep in Forest Gate. 

In other words a real team effort. Back in the central brooms there was still no sign of Tim and Bob.... but I did briefly see Marco (not in the sweepstake) cycling off east. Perhaps Sean had drafted him in whilst he had another round of toast. Fine. I get it, I was on my own. I had no idea people took the competition so seriously! That being the case, and with only a few minutes left before I had to leave the patch, I pulled out all the stops and stormed round the central path one final time. A Stonechat in the Brooms ! A Skylark singing from a mound! Another Stonechat flitting around the base of some wispy stuff! And then, finally, tantalisingly, a flash of white over my head towards the Model Airfield. A bouncy flight, was it a Woodpecker? Heading directly away it was impossible to see. And then it landed. And turned sideways on. Yessssss!!! A male Wheatear! Fresh in and carrying a small trophy under one wing!

I sent out a message to the team signalling the end of the 2020 competition and thanking them for their unwavering dedication to the cause. Soon Bob turned up, and a short while later Tim and Nick, eager to get in on the action now that the competitive element was over. Tony is contacting COBRA to see if the presentation can go ahead, meanwhile I am of course over the moon that against all the odds I have managed to pull it off. It has not escaped my notice that in peacetime I would have been forced to leave the patch nearly an hour before I found the bird in order to get to work, and that Nick would have snaffled it up like he usually does. Every cloud....