Caught by the River

The Bird Effect Diaries

Ceri Levy | 19th 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.

Thursday September 17th

Reading the diary back just reminds me of a time about thirteen years ago when I was first diagnosed with cancer. It was the most beautiful summer’s day and I was waiting in Charing Cross hospital for the results of blood tests. I had seen my doctor with a pea-sized lump in my neck, which he suspected was a branchial cyst, an easily removable growth under the skin. Expecting this news to be confirmed, I was approached by a member of staff who brazenly informed me that I had cancer and that I could discuss this at my next appointment in two weeks time. I think I asked him if I could speak to someone right now and he said no. There was a procedure. I said, “That’s all well and good, but you can’t tell me I have cancer and then leave me to it.” As he walked away he said, “I only deliver the news.” Later that day Jackie and I managed to track down the head of the department who was mortified at my treatment and from that moment took me under his wing. He assured me he would cure me come what may and I believed him. But what strikes me most is the memory of looking out from a window and seeing blue skies with birdsong in the air, just another typical languid sunny afternoon and it was then that I had that moment of realisation not only of my own mortality, but also how life constantly changes and evolves and that our own place in nature is far more precarious than we can ever imagine. From then, I vowed that if I survived I would do things on my terms, work with whom I wanted to work with and where I wanted to do it and live my life to the full as always. After all, today is the only day that counts…

Terminologies of the Month

Stringer. One who passes on bad information (duff gen), about a bird sighting. Often mistaking a common bird for one that is more rare. Can be done mistakenly due to a lack of knowledge, but perhaps also to try and impress more experienced birders. The information can be completely made up. The truth is stringing leads to a bad reputation from which it is virtually impossible to redeem oneself. Don’t be one, be sure of your facts.

LBJ. Little brown job i.e. non-descript small brown birds. Could be anything from a sparrow to a willow warbler to an OBP(Olive-Backed Pipit).

Friday September 18th

I am so excited today because I am going to see my old mucker Jim Lawrence to collect an object, which will confirm just how far I have gone down the birder route. A telescope, or scope for short. Jim has just acquired the latest super duper top of the range Swarovski as he further explores the world of digiscoping (taking photos of birds through a scope), and when he kindly suggested that I could buy his old Leica I jumped at the chance. It should last me forever and takes my birdwatching into a whole new league. I really am on the turn. “Look at me now Ma, I’m on top of the bird world!”

I get down to Jim’s in Cambridgeshire and he has the scope waiting for me. He suggests that it might be quite a good idea to get out in the field to use it and check that I am happy with it. There have been some rarities turning up recently not too far away from Jim’s home and we decide to go for some Glossy Ibis that have appeared up at Ouse Washes, an RSPB site, which is only a short drive away. When we get there we discover a pub called The Three Pickerels, which as all of you fine fisher folk will know is a member of the pike family. Jim suggests lunch first and when I answer that surely we should see the birds first, Jim gives me one of his famous replies. “ The pub is shutting very soon, we’re hungry, and with birds, you either have an appointment with them or not, and after lunch we’ll see it if it was meant to be.”

After lunch we march down a track for a mile or so towards Willow Wash Pool, and pass a couple of birders on their way back, who tell us that there is one bird on the pool but it has not appeared for quite some time and dare they say it, may have gone. They give us directions as to where exactly it was located and on arrival we take up position. It always feels like a military exercise searching for birds. For about half an hour or so, we see nothing, and then we are joined by a couple of other birders. There is an air of resignation as we stare glassy-eyed out towards the small pool in front of us, searching for any movement at all within the large island thicket in the centre of the lake. And then there is a rustling on the left hand side of the island. First, a hooked shape bill appears, followed by a gleaming petroleum-sheened body. A Glossy Ibis. This bird was sacred to the Ancient Egyptians, and it has the air of the ancient about it. It is a rare visitor to these shores although there has been a spate of them in recent years. Surely this is another sign of climate change. The Glossy Ibis, along with the Spoonbill and the Cattle Egret may be following the colonisation pattern of the Little Egret, which was reported only once in the BTO’s bird atlas for 1981-1984 and is now found in over 600 hundred locations, including many breeding pairs as well. The bird times they are a-changing.

We have been watching the bird with another couple of people who disappear once they have had a good look at the Ibis and we are left on our own. I am quite happy playing with my new scope and waiting until I am told it’s time to go home. Then something wonderful happens. From nowhere, another five Ibis appear and suddenly we’re having an Ibis party. It never ceases to amaze me (in my short time as a birder), how one can watch an area intently, convinced every angle is being covered and then birds appear as if from thin air, materialising before one’s very confused but delighted eyes. Of course, the opposite can happen as well and I have seen people turn dunghills into the most extraordinary flights of fancy and I admit that on a very early twitch of mine, I turned a black plastic rubbish bag into a black-winged pratincole, convincing myself it was so still because it was fast asleep. I only realised my mistake, when the real pratincole casually walked past the dormant bin bag. Now I make sure there is some semblance of life in whatever I am looking at before opening my mouth.

Happily entranced by these Mediterranean birds performing in front of us, we are surprised by a loud whirring, humming sound from beyond the ridge behind us. It grows louder and seemingly closer and then suddenly it all turns into Medal of Honor as what seems to be a military helicopter gunship roars low over our heads. I look at this menacing, metallic flying machine through my scope, and see what I presume are rockets on either side, and on one of them, I am certain I can see the words, “Light the Blue Touch Paper and Stand Well Back.” (That may just be a moment of artistic delirium.) The six birds, spooked to hell, decide not to hang about and rise up as one and wheel left while the chopper continues forward and then wheels right. We are left stationary. The birds do not reappear and we pack up our kit and move off.

Once again, I have a lot to thank Jim for and I head off down the A1 feeling content about the afternoon’s events; a new scope, good company, a zen lunch, rare birds and scary military hardware to ogle at. I can’t even complain when the North Circular tries to scramble my head by reducing everything down to one lane as I head home. I don’t care as I relive my day’s new experiences.


Photo: Courtesy of Jim Lawrence.