Caught by the River

The Bird Effect Diaries

Ceri Levy | 4th November 2009

The diary of the making of a film. and an on going fascination with birds and their accompanying cast of human characters. By Ceri Levy. Previous entries can be read by clicking here.

September 16th

Just arrived at Martin’s place when I decide to call back my mobile phone messages. It’s Jim Lawrence. “The biggest twitch of the year is happening right now in northern Kent. Everybody will be there. If you decide to go for it let me know and I will give you all the details.” I have known Martin for now possibly ninety-three seconds and I am suggesting a hare brained two-hour drive for what is apparently a Tufted Puffin. Without further ado we discuss the pros and cons of it. We were going to hopefully see a pair of Marsh Harriers at Pulborough but this is different. We chat and we peruse a road atlas not really thinking we will go for the bird. Out of curiosity, I phone Jim back and he fills us in that the bird was seen a couple of hours ago at Oare Marshes on the Swale in North Kent and then went upstream, but prediction from top birders has intimated that when the tide comes back out in the next few hours, then quite possibly the bird will come out with it.

Looks like it’s a couple of pages drive, which is always the best way for me to discern distance. Martin then states that the A26 should do us for a lot of the route. Without ever specifically agreeing that we are off to Kent, we find ourselves heading back up the road I have just come down, and with Martin navigating we traverse the South of England on an adventure together.

After a couple of hours of getting to know each other and discovering much common ground to chat about, we find ourselves in the land of the oast house. We phone for directions and with Jim guiding us in, as we still have a distance left to run, we finally arrive in awe at Oare Marshes just after 3. There are a lot of cars banked up on the verges of this normally quiet nature reserve, and a field has been opened specifically for extra parking. It is windy, cold and exhilarating.

We march towards the crowd of people and the bank of optics pointed out to sea and we find Jim hunkered down out of the wind with all eyes trained on the Swale in front of us. It transpires that the bird had been seen for only fifteen minutes this morning and apparently only seen by seven people. But the glitterati of the UK bird world are at hand for the occasion. What makes this unusual is that the Tufted Puffin is a Pacific bird that is way off course. One had been sighted in 1994 in Sweden but this is a first for Britain. That is why the top birders are here. It is an atmosphere of communion, a gathering of a tribe all of whom are partaking in the witnessing of a new moment of bird history even though the Puffin has not reappeared. It is a mark of respect to the stranger’s appearance on the UK’s shores. It feels like an “I was there moment” without the pay off of seeing the bird. But for Martin and myself it is an experience.

We decide to have a wander round the site as there are many other not so rare birds for us to see, and just as we are about to take off Jim points out an Arctic Skua in the distance. Jim does this by the way, by watching dots and knowing the jizz of these fast moving dots. I struggle to pick them up with my bins but then latch on to the bird, which is a fine sight. We move on, knowing that if Tufty the Puffin appears Jim will no doubt phone me and call us back immediately. We wander in the voracious wind, watching birds, including greenshank, godwits and whimbrel, and eating blackberries. It is one of those simple moments in time where everything else is meaningless. The phone never rings to announce the puffin’s return and at about 5.30 we wander back to Jim and the crew. The mood has changed from the hushed reverence we left earlier to a more social climate with old friends making the most of their free time to catch up with each other, swap notes and discover what has appeared in their respective bird worlds. At least we have seen the water that a few hours before carried a small, displaced tourist who had booked the wrong trip for his holiday. The crowd, realising that the imminent re-appearance is now no longer imminent, starts to disperse and make its way home. But this has been a special day when we were invited into a very special club and make no mistake this is a club, and thanks to Jim we have met a lot of the very best men in the business. We wish them well.

I discover new warmth for this group, and a wave of anger courses through me against those people who constantly take the piss out of twitchers. Who has actually got it right? Is it the people who throw stones from their materialistic worlds, laughing at these birders who go out in all weathers, watching and enjoying the feathered, infrequent visitors that turn up on our shores? Or is it the very people, who are so often sneered at, who sit happily in the middle of nature seeking out and taking delight in its’ surprises. And let’s not forget, most people who twitch probably only do it a few times a year. The rest of the time they can usually be found at their local patches like an everyday birder, recording and logging their sightings. I have spent more time communing with nature since I started this project than I probably have in the last ten years, and you know what it’s bloody marvellous. Ok, some of these twitchers go to extraordinary lengths to see a rare bird and travel great distances just for a glimpse of a rarity, but so what? Each to their own, and nature’s much better for you than a crack pipe! Just the idea of hanging out in nature is something a lot more people should try. It just may make a difference to their outlook on life.

(Further reading: Independent article)