The unsound approach

Spring - the epilogue

Spring 2008. How was it for you? Over here, it was pretty disappointing to be honest. And emotional. And tiring. But mostly disappointing. Having experienced such disappointing, tiring and emotional events, our psychiatrists recommend that it's a good idea to get some 'closure'. Get things into perspective; pick up the tattered pieces and squidge them back into something resembling an understanding. It was a pretty crazy season all in all - loads of weird and unexpected stuff happened, most of it going way over our heads. Very little went according to plan, but despite it all we just about managed to scrape a few moments of joy from the big barrel of misery. We hereby present you with our sage-like insights (poncy self-obsessed ramblings) on what went down over the last few fun-packed months...


The start

Early spring – such an important time. So important to get a good start. Everyone knows that success or failure at the outset can have a huge impact on later performance. Get out of the traps early and the race is yours. Like Ian Wallace once said – “Strike before the end of March, and you’ll keep pulling rares out of the bag all spring long”. Well, he clearly thought that, even if he never said it. If you find a good bird early on, you know that your neurones will be wired up just right for the rest of the season. You'll be happily birding all day long, day after day, week after week. You'll be full of energy, not just dragging your lazy ass around the dunes, ready to sack it off any moment so you can get home in time for Deal or No Deal. No, once the early rare is under the belt, you’ll be roaming the coast like a rarity magnet.

If you miss out on March, you can still get on the wagon in April. But if April passes without a find, without any frenzied swearing down the phone at Piner, you’re in big trouble. May comes around, and within seconds it’s gone again. Then June, and all June ever brings is lousy pipe-dreams and blank notebooks. In spring, you need to get started early. We didn’t. March didn’t happen at all, and April had barely registered in the psyche when the Big High started to smear itself over the map of Eurasia. The usual conversations followed: "Bloody good weather chart, isn’t it?”, “Yeah, shame it’s not May”... We dusted the bins off, opened the door and felt the icy punch of a wind straight from the plains of Kazakhstan. No-one needs that. Bins returned to their winter home under car seat, feet went directly to pub/cinema/homebase/bedroom.  What’s that? A Black Lark you say? In East Norfolk? How marvellous! And there was us thinking it was still winter...

The premature highlight of the spring (JG).

It was a push in the back, but it came too late. From that moment, we were rushing to catch up. The spring had dipped into its dainty purse and pulled out a Rottweiler. We hit the field, trying to recover our edge, but it never quite happened. In birding, like all games, you don’t win if you’re plagued by negative thoughts. It’s all too easy for the doubts to creep in – has the moment passed? Did we miss the big chance? Why the hell didn’t we go birding last week? The doubt takes a tiny foothold and quietly kills the spirit. It’s that same psychological trap that curses many a good autumn fall – the “missing the boat” panic. You know the scene - a couple of hours in, it’s all happening – pied flies and redstarts everywhere and you’re flailing around like a headless chicken. Why haven’t I found anything yet? Am I in the wrong place?! Am I not checking carefully enough? Should I hit the trees or the sueda? What am I doing wrong? I’M RUNNING OUT OF TIME!! Before you know it you’re home, it’s dark and you’ve seen nothing but common. Doubt creeps in and messes you up. Ok, we’re not blaming a Black Lark for our subsequent failure to find big rares (by and large). But it’s true that mental outlook plays a big part in bird finding. This spring kicked off while we were still putting our boots on - and some of us never really recovered.

The middle

Into May, the High expanded like the incredible hulk, stretching from Omsk to Iberia. We started to get proper excited. All winds seemed to be converging on Norfolk. Ok, so it was a bit sunny – so what? Overshoots love the sunshine – it helps them spot the best places. With a blue sky they can see the Tearoom Lupins before they’ve even left Breskens! The wind hit east, it was all looking great, and we all made great efforts to look. We found nothing. A reasonable showing of common migrants, perhaps, but not even a wryneck in return for our early May efforts. The rest of the country seemed to be under the same spell – great conditions, but where were the birds? We had the warm southerlies – Iberian overshoots surely a safe bet? Alp swifts, Rumpers, Purple herons? But they never appeared for us. Then we had the easterlies – the phone buzzed: Shit the bed! Caspian plover on FI! All about to kick off! But then nothing. Each passing hour spent on the coast was like a kick in the balls. Not even a stinking wryneck. Was it because it didn’t rain? Or maybe it was too cold on the continent, or too overcast? Whatever, something was amiss.  

The chart for May 7th 2008. By anyone's reckoning, it should be good for a stack of overshoots. We didn't find any.

We kept going. Once May 14th passes, you know it’s time to get serious. Forget the weather, you’ve just got to be out there.  And we were out there. Perhaps not as much as we would’ve liked – too many working/sporting/grouting/girlfriending responsibilities taking their toll. But between us a decent swathe of ground was covered. It was obviously the wrong ground.

Or was it? Bits and bobs were turning up in Norfolk – not much, but a scattering of useful overshoots, seemingly arriving exclusively on the days we weren’t on the coast. Maybe we were just chumping it? Trying too hard? There’s the rub. The more time you put in without success, the more frustration grinds away at those bird-finding receptors. With each hour of rewardless toil, frustration starts to take over, blocking out those subtle differences in the avian background. Your mind gets distracted, preoccupied with irritation, buckling under boredom and eventually drifting off the game altogether, turning to trivia like work, love, life and other bollocks. You’re barely in a frame of mind to notice the faint quip of a passing bunting. Before you know it, you’re on a ‘bad run’. And then you're screwed.

What to do if you’re plagued by negative frustration? Get the hell over it, you idiot! You’re over-thinking it. For christ’s sake, it’s not that important. Why not just enjoy all the stuff you are seeing? The steady unfolding of a season, the miraculous arrival of summer breeders from their winter odyssey, the stunning scenery of Norfolk’s prize coastline. Are you really so narrow-minded that you can’t enjoy yourself unless you’re watching a rarity? Some tragic waif, passing its last few earthly hours scrounging gnats in a minging patch of sueda?!  Are you really that shallow?

Oh crap, who are we trying to kid. Of course we’re that shallow. That everyday common stuff just isn’t enough. We’re birders, not ramblers. Yes, it’s all fantastic – you can’t beat the magic of migration, that first nightingale belting it out under the throes of a heath-top sunset, etc etc.. But that’s not why we slog our guts out on the shingle and dunes day after day, week after week. We’re there for the real magic. The magic, that is, of desperate foreign birds getting their shit all wrong, overcooking their zugenruhe and ending up hopelessly lost in Norfolk. We live for it, and no amount of spotted fly can quite fill the gap.

Pied Fly on East Hills in early May. Nice, yes, but not quite nice enough (JG).

The end

So then it finally happened. It took its time coming, but the nation eventually got the action the weather had been promising. And yes, a tiny slice of that action came our way. Rob did best, opening his eyes wide enough to take in the simultaneous appearance of female Redfoot and Tawny Pipit at the hallowed Waxham pipe dump. But the rush of overshoots was just a precursor to the main event. After all those weeks of easterlies and disappointment, the rains finally came, and brought down a crazy bunch of birds. Forget your lousy alpine-zone finch candy, spring 2008 will go down in history for one thing only – the Ickies.

What’s that word Lee? Unprecedented! Something like 16 Icterines in a day at Spurn, and 13+ on Fair Isle. But they were everywhere – they must have been singing from every bush on the east coast. Well, every county at least. There were bloody loads of them anyway. Everyone got their chance to enjoy some hi-tempo europop beats blasting from the sycamores. And here was us thinking that the day of the Icky had passed.  Fall back Blyth’s Reed! We're not giving up on these traditional scarce yet. Maybe there’s even a chance of a proper east coast Bluethroat fall one of these days...

So what was so special about the weather at the end of May? Certainly it was a monster chart – big easterlies, continental high, rain in just the right place etc. But then again, some elements didn’t look quite that perfect – there was still a lot of rain on the continent for starters, and the winds weren’t blowing from that far east – we always thought the best arrivals seem came mainly when isobars stretch from at least Poland... Perhaps it was helped by the all those easterlies early in the month, stacking up the hordes before the right conditions hit the North Sea.

May 27th - The chart that brought the best spring fall since the last time skinny jeans were in fashion...

Regardless, it all went off. And if you could go anywhere in the UK for a record-breaking spring fall, where would you pick? Well, that’s where we went... Re-reading it, maybe our Foula trip report made it seem like we didn’t enjoy ourselves so much up there. Looking back, it was really good – it’s impossible not to enjoy all that scarce, all those minute-by-minute changes in the migrant haul. And we had most of it all to ourselves. But then again, after all the efforts of the preceding three months, it was still disappointing to limp home without a real rarity under our belts. There was no escaping the sense that our spring was over when we boarded the big ferry, and the moment we’d been building up to had narrowly evaded our grasping mitts. Still, it was all good fun.

Minty shrikey, Foula (JG)

And now it’s autumn again. Time to get back out there, carry the torch onwards? Well, at least some of us will be keeping the dream alive, although the unavoidable onset of real life is looming large on the horizon, threatening to impinge heavilly on activities. The good old days of beers, falls and coastal vagrants are being reluctantly traded in for jobs, babies, mortgages and dental plans. Before long it'll be West Midlands local patches. With Golden Brown already gone west, Mahood already gone east and others tiptoeing towards the brink of exodus, it’s looking like the Norfolk dream days may be over. But still, it was fun while it lasted. Anyway, no matter what real-life shit befalls to get in the way of ‘regular’ birding, there'll always be a week in October kept free in the diary. We’re already too excited...



What might have been... Sadly this was not a scene photographed in Norfolk this year (JG).