Thursday, 6 December 2012

Masefield and the marsh tit


As DTH and I strode the cold kilometre to the sea at Titchwell today, we mused over a marsh tit version of Masefield’s celebrated lines:

I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is:
  1. a velvet scoter
  2. a long-tailed duck
  3. a red-necked grebe
  4. a Slavonian grebe (horned if you’d prefer, either would be fine)
  5. a purple sandpiper
  6. a shag
  7. a great northern diver
  8. and a black-throated diver. 

Aaah, black-throated diver; thereby hangs a tale. Earlier we’d been at Holme (sorry Rebecca, NWT Home Dunes). Picture the scene: two birders donning their every last scrap of clothing, risking life and limb to cross a beach where even the sand was frozen, much in the manner of Scott and Oates (not to be muddled with Scott’s Porridge Oats, mind), all in heroic pursuit of six last birds to complete an entirely fatuous yearlist.

There wasn’t much happening on the sea to be honest. A female red-breasted merganser went by and plenty of common gulls were in the shallows. A flock of common scoter whirred past, far out to sea, and over our heads bounded a single snow bunting. (I suppose if you live in Oxfordshire this sounds like quite a lot happening on the sea but for us Norfolk types this doesn’t qualify as a great deal happening.) After we’d turned back along the bleak, cold dunes (did I mention it was bleak and cold?) we spotted a diver on the sea. Focusing on it we saw two more. They looked decidedly black and white and penguiny. Definitely more black-throated diver than red-throated diver. I took a quick look at these distant shapes in my little scope – yes they looked like BTDs – and called DTH to have a look. Immediately another bird hoved into view and had an altercation with the first three. Our attention shifted to the newcomer. We followed it. We identified it (red-throated diver). We went back to the earlier birds. Which weren’t there. No amount of searching could draw them from the bleak, cold water. Did we see three black-throated divers? Probably. Are they on my list? No. At Compare the Marsh Tit we deal in truth. If you want falsified statistics, half truths and guesstimates, ask the coalition government.

Crestfallen from our so-near-but-yet-so-far encounter with the divers, we strode the cold kilometre to the beach at Titchwell. The tide was high and there were lots of birders. The signs were good. Among the assembled birders there was gossip of velvet scoters. We set to searching for them. Goldeneye, there were plenty of those. Cormorants here and there too. Lots of sanderling on the beach and plenty of black-headed gulls in the surf. A few posses of teal whizzed by. Then I picked up a duck, a black duck, a scoter, with big white flashes in the wing as it flew. Velvet scoter! Several more joined it. 995 and one of my favourite sea ducks to boot.

Not long afterwards a cormorant dropped into the cloud of gulls in the surf. A cormorant? Too slight, too black, too glossy. DTH and I quickly scoped it. A slender bill, a bulging forehead. Shag! We enjoyed some punning that would have made Masefield blush; but this is a family blog so I'll refrain.

We tried at Choseley for corn buntings. We tried at Thornham and Brancaster Staithe for twite. No such luck, but it was a beautiful day in the easy company of an old friend and on 996 birds in 2012 I am happy.


New today on a bleak, cold sea

Birds

995
velvet scoter
Melanitta fusca
996
shag
Phalacrocorax aristotelis

2012 Totals
Mammals: 129
Birds: 996
Reptiles: 76
Amphibians: 23
Fish: 12


I must go down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide
Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied;
And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying,
And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying.

John Masefield
Sea Fever

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