I woke up last Sunday morning intending to right a wrong. Sadly I don’t mean combating a great global injustice. I simply wanted to add a bird to my UK life list.
A Stone-Curlew had been present at RSPB Bowers Marsh at the top of Canvey Island in Essex, about 22 miles due East of my house. But there was no news on the bird sites or social media, so I stayed locally and saw the sub-adult Yellow-legged Gull amongst other things. It was only much later in the day that late news dripped through that the Stone-Curlew was still present. And so I headed out for the 45 minute drive in the evening, somewhat racing against the fading light.
The reserve is accessible 24/7 although the car park was closed. I had the words of a well-known birder ringing in my ears:
When I arrived, the small lane was littered with literally hundreds of the tiny nitrous oxide (laughing gas) canisters and a couple of cars were parked up as people conducted a car sale (I didn’t stop to ask them why they needed to be doing that down a deserted lane). I started the walk not knowing how far it would be until the Stone-Curlew would be visible. In fact, I had no idea where the bird might be as I had never visited the reserve before. The closest thing I had to directions were a tweet from someone saying the bird was visible from the ‘two benches’ area.
The empty car park was not quite empty as a father taught his young son how to ride a mini-motorbike. I walked on.
I stopped briefly at the slightly sorry-looking reserve noticeboard and map which confirmed that the reserve was big. super! I walked on.
The skies opened up and were huge with a few Swift still circling (all of our local ones seem to have long-gone) and a few Swallow trickled through. I walked on.
Sign-posts pointed to different bits of the reserve in different directions with mile+ distances attached. I was running out of time and needed some ‘gen’ or some luck quickly. I walked on.
Most of the wetland parts of the reserve were obscured/protected by high hedges. I walked on.
I saw some people in the distance: a chance for local knowledge/help. I walked on.
They turned out to be a couple out for an evening hack on horses. I asked them if they had seen any birders, to which they replied that they had, but some time ago and some distance away. Oh! Thanks. I walked on.
The light seemed to bleed out of the sky faster than ever. I walked on.
RSPB Bowers Marsh at Dusk
The wind-pumps add to the sense of desolation and slightly foreign feel of the bleak landscape – it felt more like the US Midwest than Essex. I walked on.
Bowers Marsh, Essex (not Kansas)
And then I stopped.
There were two benches, diagonally opposed and overlooking the water stretching out back towards the car park from whence I had come. I set my ‘scope up tall and stood on one of the benches to get the best possible view. I scanned the parts of the wetland and grassland that looked most promising for the Stone Curlew, and just as the light was getting so gloomy that it was beginning to get silly, a distant bird scuttled into the view of my scope. My first Stone-Curlew in the UK. Another rather embarrassing gap filled on a list.
It was an odd sight. Not the bird, although Stone-Curlew is a strange large-eyed bird, of course, but me in the landscape. A man stood on a bench looking through a telescope at a distant bird on a vast reserve all alone apart from the midges and the weather. I strained the technical capabilities of my iPhone to photograph the Stone-Curlew through my scope.
Eurasian Stone-Curlew (Burhinus oedicnemus)
The output was rubbish, of course, but it just about counts as a record shot of a bird I last saw when I spooked a running gaggle (I don’t know what the collective noun is for Stone Curlew) from the hiding place in a parched field in a remote part of Ibiza. The remoteness was even more intense in Essex, but the landscapes could hardly be more different.
As I watched the Stone-Curlew a tiny Yellow Wagtail pottered past in front of it. I was also pleased to see a Black-necked Grebe (possibly two as one disappeared around a corner and another materialised somewhere else suspiciously far away) in mid-moult. I am not sure these birds had been recorded at the site on that weekend by others so a reasonably nice find, perhaps. I photographed the bird in the murky light and remembered the last time had been watching these birds, in full black and gold breeding uniform, like science fiction fascists, in Japan.
Black-necked Grebe (Podiceps nigricollis)
And here is a photo I took of them in full breeding plumage in Japan earlier this year