Friday, February 4, 2011

Stoned Love

Writing species accounts for the 2007 London Bird Report recently flashed back a coronary-inducing morning in August of that year, and a birding experience I'm unlikely to enjoy again.

During 2007 and 2008 I spent a lot of time covering Walthamstow Marshes, a small greenspace at the southern, highly urbanised end of the Lea Valley in East London. Used primarily as a recreation area, heavily disturbed and barely qualifying as a marsh at all, it nevertheless has isolated habitats that are rare at best locally.

Over the course of 15 or so months of regular coverage, highlights included a low-hunting Marsh Harrier, Turtle Dove, Ring Ouzel, several Jack Snipes, wintering Stonechats and bucketfuls of breeding and passage warblers, but none compared with the morning of the 21st and a saunter with a friend and her dogs.

Flushing a Wheatear from the central area inspired me to follow its flightpath towards the riding centre field, a small, heavily grazed area sandwiched between the canal and the busy raised walkway which bisects the marsh. Refinding the bird (and a couple of Yellow Wagtails), I briefly scanned the rest of the field on auto-pilot, and paused at the only solitary clump of weeds; out poked a head with a large, staring yellow eye.

It was one of those comedic eye-rubbing moments that if I was holding a bottle of whiskey would've justified a melodramatic, confused look at the label, but instead, I looked a second, and then a third time before realising my sanity wasn't disintegrating. With families cycling past, dogs barking and horses trotting, the chances of the bird remaining more than a few seconds seemed slim; however, after a minute or so, it briefly broke cover, allowing more incredulous and conclusive views.

Applying my then-legendary pre-DSLR digibinning photographic 'technique', I managed a few record shots, which did indeed show a Stone Curlew, looking as confused and shocked as its admirer. A great bird in any circumstances; a truly great bird in these most inauspicious of circumstances.