1. The big dipper rides again
Today the sky was bright and clear and the day was cold. I leaped out of bed and knew that today I would make progress on my list. Just eight birds to go to reach 1,000 species in 2012.
Not long after dawn I trawled, a little suspiciously perhaps, around the queen's woods at Wolferton. We have history the golden pheasants of Wolferton and I, much history. I failed to see them today.
Next I made the long cold walk to the far end of RSPB Snettisham. Snettisham and I have history too. There were no scaup today, no black-necked or red-necked grebes, nothing in fact that was missing from my list. As I reached the car park a photographer showed me an image he'd shot just moments before: a full frame waxwing. I lurked under the rose tangle the waxwings had been visiting. They didn't come back.
I called at Hunstanton cliffs where many shags have recently been coming to roost. On the sea around the cliffs were no shags. No scaup or velvet scoter either.
At RSPB Titchwell Marsh I met my grandmother's neighbours. They're birders and had caught one of the much-reported waxwings over the car park. I told them I hadn't seen one this year, to which they replied that last winter they'd seen one on my grandmother's television aerial. A little further on the membership recruiter in the car park had just seen the waxwing flock fly off.
I pressed on: in the visitor centre there were reports of Slavonian grebes on the sea and a water pipit on the scrapes, and all week there's been a red-necked grebe here too. On the track to the beach I met Marcus Nash returning from the reserve. He's as sharp a birder as anyone I know and he'd seen no Slavonian or red-necked grebes. He'd also searched high and low for the water pipit, but to no avail. I reeled off the increasingly improbable list of birds I still hadn't seen this year. Long-tailed duck: yes, there was a female on the sea!
I scarpered to the sea. I looked from every conceivable angle. I panned left to right, right to left. I walked up and down. No grebes. No long-tailed duck. It was a shame there was no long-tailed duck as the old North American name for this lovely bird is oldsquaw and, having waved at Pocahontas' memorial as I passed through Heacham (for old times' sake), I thought how satisfying it would be to name my blog post Two old squaws. The moment was lost and all I had managed to see on my West Norfolk adventure was the memorial to a long-dead Native American noblewoman.
I gave up hope, I confess, of moving beyond 992. At Choseley, despite concerted searching, I saw no corn bunting. Naturally.
You think you own whatever land you land on,
The earth is just a dead thing you can claim.
But I know every rock and tree and creature,
Has a life, has a spirit, has a name.
The rainstorm and the river are my brothers,
The heron and the otter are my friends,
And we are all connected to each other,
In a circle in a hoop that never ends.
Have you ever heard the wolf cry to the blue corn moon?
Or asked the grinning bobcat why he grinned?
Can you sing with all the voices of the mountain?
Can you paint with all the colors of the wind?
2. Wild winter
It was a wondrous day, though.
At Snettisham the bold drake goldeneye clung to their dusky ducks and they dived into the frigid waters of the pits. A cruel wind slammed across the mudflats, which were bright with many silvered shelduck, loud with the TEW tew of redshank and the mournful deeeoooEEE of grey plover, and quick with the hundred thousand wings of waders.
At Titchwell, the many wigeon wove over the marsh, plucking winter grasses and shrilly whistling. Little grebes (how recently I watched their Madagascan cousins in a T-shirt) slipped beneath the ice-clear water of the tidal scrape and bobbed again to the surface with science-defying buoyancy. On the beach were the shells of millions of lost razor clams, cracking sharply underfoot, and the sea's edge was an orgy of herring gulls - hundreds - black-headed gulls - hundreds too - and oystercatchers.
At Choseley a ring-tail hen harrier swayed in the wind across a straggly field of sugar beet, song thrushes tip-ped in the hedge and a brambling bounced over, unusually silent. A male yellowhammer popped to the top of a hawthorn hedge, impossibly bright, as though all the colours of this brilliant day were distilled into one bird.
I did see new birds today. As I returned to the car park at Titchwell, through the wind and my woolly hat (alpaca wool, bought on a street in La Paz), I heard the high thin trill of waxwings and there in a rosebush (only the rose hips are left for them this year), in the gold light of a winter afternoon, was the flock, just momentarily. But momentarily is enough: Bohemian waxwing. 993.
And in the ebbing light of the day I visited the cold dun saltmarsh between Stiffkey and Warham. Another ring-tail hen harrier was here and many curlews probed the mud. Little egrets were in every creek (how quickly they've become normal to us) and, only once I'd given up and turned for home, I saw my prize. A female merlin lunged across the wind-torn marsh, so low to the ground she almost stroked it. She perched on a short post, then again was gone, with the dying day.
Is this the real life?
Is this just fantasy?
Caught in a landslide,
No escape from reality.
Open your eyes.
Look up to the skies and see:
I'm just a poor boy,
I need no sympathy,
Because I'm easy come, easy go,
Little high, little low.
Any way the wind blows,
Doesn't really matter to me.
New on a cold bright afternoon