After stoutly promising my friend Ed Drewitt only last weekend that I would never surface before 8:00 in the morning to see a bird (an otter maybe, but a bird?!), Friday saw me trundling along down the A14 at 5:00 am in search of what has been dubbed the ‘Bird of the Year’ by many, the Hornemann’s Arctic Redpoll. Admittedly, I wasn’t actually driving, and admittedly, I may have drifted off for an hour or two, but by my standards, this was the earliest start I had submitted to in years. I wasn’t even that fussed about the bird – the poor thing is hopelessly lost and has quite possibly ended up down an evolutionary cul-de-sac. I was definitely going along for the ride with this one, and only the promise of an excellent weekend with topnotch food and company was keeping me going.
I woke from a ridiculously deep slumber as we rocked on into Aldeburgh, a beautiful little town which our bird had obviously taken a liking to. We passed sleepy houses and sleepy shops, arriving at the shingle beach at exactly 08:09. It was clear to see why a bird of the arctic had taken a fancy to this place; at the far end of the beach spray whipped at the Martello Tower, and an icy wind rattled through the yachts. ‘Baltic’, was one word that came to mind. ‘Bloody’ and ‘awful’ were two others, accompanied by many more completely unsuitable for the internet.
It was clear that we were not alone in our search; two or three other cars (one with a Dutch numberplate!) were creeping along the top of the beach, their owners reluctant to face the cold. The sky, the sea and the beach were varying shades of slate, charcoal, iron and stone. My companion, unwilling to sit still and allow the rediscovery to go to someone else jumped out of the car, binoculars poised, with a degree of enthusiasm that I wasn’t entirely happy with, and set off down the beach. I settled down further under my duvet, content with watching the scene unfold.
It took no more than twenty feet. Inches away from the tip of his trainer a small, white blur erupted from a tiny bush, fluttering weakly to land no more than a couple of yards away. As he signaled to the other cars, I hurriedly snatched my trainers and shoved the door open against the wind. Down the beach, the skid of wheels and a small shower of pebbles indicated that the others had spotted our prize. We all merged on the bird, careful to keep our distance, and examined it with our binoculars. Chunky, yet sweet, largely off-white with a grey and black flecked back and darker wings, a stout orange-yellow bill, dark around the face, and the telltale blood-red crown, with a slight pinkish wash to the breast. This was it.
We examined the bird for many minutes, the cold, the wind and the spray forgotten. My companion hurried back to the car to bring it closer, just as the bird took flight to land further down the beach. I too jumped into the vehicle and we set off in stealthy pursuit. We edged our way along until roughly the right spot. I opened my door, looked around, and looked down. There below me, no more than two feet away, the little bird was huddled against the wall, munching on poppy seeds. It looked at me (I thought rather quizzically, but no doubt I’ll get lynched for such blatant and sinful anthropomorphism), and carried on eating. Saying that this bird couldn’t give a s**t was an understatement.
As others gathered around, I stood motionless, unsure of what to do. I eased myself back to the side of the car, first of all crouching, and then completely lying down on my front. Peering over the low wall, the bird continued unperturbed as I snapped a couple of shots with my camera phone, and then laid the phone aside to get a good look: what a beauty! It’s unsurprising really that the bird didn’t mind, having probably never seen a human being in its life; it had far bigger things to worry about, such as finding food and not becoming food for the resident sparrowhawk.
When the cold had finally got the better of me, I retreated to the car. By this time more birders were showing up, so we moved aside to let them share the experience. Before we drove on to our final destination, we were lucky enough to chat to a lovely pair of Dutchmen, who had twitched the bird overnight. We exchanged cards, and only a day later, I opened my email to find the following photograph; spot the bird!…