The big bird in Britain over the weekend has been a Sandhill Crane found at the Loch of Strathbeg RSPB on Thursday afternoon, only the fourth over here, all of which have been in Scotland. Being so skint at the moment I couldn’t justify going to see it, though thankfully I did see the 2009 bird back in the days when it wasn’t necessary to sell a kidney in order to fill up the petrol tank. You know something, I’m starting to sympathise with the hunters in Malta who hilariously reckon that they’re developing psychiatric disorders as a result of no longer being able to illegally butcher vast numbers of migrant birds. I know how they feel, because with rising fuel costs pricing me out of being able to twitch, being deprived of my favourite hobby has forced me to start eating my own pubic hair. So here’s a blast from the not-so-past, back when I used to go and see lots of birds and not just sit at home moaning that petrol has gone up in price again. Enjoy. Though you probably won’t even bother to read it all. I know I wouldn’t.
Once upon a time…
“Do you ever turn your phone on? I’m going for it now. I reckon it’ll take me about six hours to get there. If you want to meet somewhere on the way give me a call as soon as you get this message.”
It was my friend Pete Hines, and it was one of a few answer machine messages that I listened to when I got back to the car at Heathrow after being in Peru for a month in 2009. Where was he going? After hearing the other messages I was pretty stunned to discover that he was on his way to see a Tufted Puffin in Kent. When I was in Peru I’d deliberately avoided knowing about anything going on back home, just in case some enormous bird should turn up, say like, er, something like a Tufted Puffin in Kent. Was it still there? I was in London so it was only a short drive into Kent. Was this all too good to be true? I phoned Pete.
“Are you going?” he asked me.
“Definitely. Is it still there?”
“Jesus, I can’t believe it. I’m only at Heathrow as well. Where is it?”
“Where? It’s on Orkney.”
“Orkney? I thought you said Kent?”
“Yes, Kent. I just got your answer machine message. I’ve been away.”
“Kent? Tufted Puffin? No, you twat, that was a couple of weeks ago.”
“Was it? Oh. Well what’s on Orkney?”
“Sandhill Crane? Aarrgghh!”
During our last two days in Peru I’d caught some filthy obnoxious virus, the kind where you get through a whole toilet roll every hour as stuff endlessly pours out of your red-raw snout. I was in no mood to drive to Orkney.
“I can’t face it,” I said, pathetically adding with a lame whimper, “I’m too ill.”
The next morning I caught the train into Manchester, met Pete at East Didsbury train station and we drove north towards Orkney. I took along lots of toilet rolls. Lots. Twitch on! I was suddenly riding on a pig’s back through a velvet field (ha!), cuz this was just like being on tour with Motley Crue in 1987 when Nikki Sixx died twice from smack overdoses. But whereas Motley Crue were mashed up on narcotics and a youthful lust for carnage, I was high on a mixture of jet lag, paracetamol and Lemsip. So no, not really like being on tour with Motley Crue. In fact, the only thing I have in common with Nikki Sixx is that I’m also a talentless idiot. At some point we drove into Aviemore and stopped for a massive burger. Then we carried on to John O’Groats where we joined a few other birders in the John O’Groats Hotel and drank whisky, then crashed in the car after midnight. I felt really good for about three hours, and then I woke up and felt very sick. I’ll spare you the details about the fluids, just in case you’re having your tea.
In the harbour at Scrabster we met up with car loads full of southern twitchers, all of them looking like they’d been scraped off a pavement having driven through the night. But there was absolutely no doubt that I looked the worst by far, like I’d died three weeks ago and been dug up and dragged behind the back of the car for 500 miles, which, funnily enough, was exactly how I felt. The wind was blowing a gale, the sea wobbling up and down a lot, and now I had to catch a ferry over the Pentland Firth to Orkney.
Onboard the Pentland Ferry there was an electric buzz of excited twitchers hoping to see the Crane, with everyone standing on the top deck hoping for a good seabird like a Leach’s Petrel or a Pom Skua. In contrast, I found an uncomfortable plastic chair by a radiator and tried to sleep. I heard the sound of a metal shutter being pulled up and was then cloaked in a nauseating cloying smog of cooked sausage and burning toast. I tried to drink coffee to make myself feel better, only then Pete and a few others joined me with what was allegedly food, and they all began to piss me off by being so happy and excited. Someone stood up to look out of the window, raised their bins, and then casually said, “Get onto this bird out here.” Then a pause. “No, I’m being serious, what’s this?” People shifted off the table and began to look out of the window. “Shit shit! Shit it! It’s an albatross! Black-browed Albatross!”
I lunged sideways off my chair and smashed my knee on a table leg, stumbled onto my feet and saw the arse end of a big black and white bird sat on the water vanish behind the side of the boat. We ran up to the top deck and saw a big group of birders jumping around and some even hugging each other.
“Did you get the albatross?”
On the top deck the bird had vanished into the blurred haze from the engine. Untickable views? Yeah right, it was going straight onto my list. And then everything went a bit wrong when a group of birders came over to us and told us that it was a Gannet. Excellent. And just to give us another kick in the nuts, they even showed us a photo of it. It was indeed a Gannet. Great work, and we all began to wonder how long it would take for us to be crucified on the net’s largest birdspotting forum. I think it took about seven minutes. Bad news travels fast. Still, stuff like that always cheers me up no end. If you can’t laugh at yourself, then you may as well go out and kick a dog to death.
Attempting to leave the ferry was almost as funny, as our convoy of slightly unhinged and sleep deprived twitchers left the port and drove erratically down a narrow road, only to then work out that we were all going the wrong way and there was no where sensible to turn around. Arriving on site, we met up with those who had caught the earlier ferry, and the first thing someone there said to me was, “what’s all this rubbish about all you lot seeing an albatross? We’ve heard it was just a Gannet.” I’ve had to heavily censor that sentence. The language was disgraceful, and certainly not that of a gentleman. I reprimanded him and told him politely that such occasions were no place for language of the gutter, the foul mouthed cu…
And there it was, a Sandhill Crane stood in the middle of a field surrounded by pissed off Great Black-backed Gulls. No doubt about it, an impressive vagrant, but it looked totally baffled, and just for a laugh it decided to take off and join a group of Greylags. We watched it on off for a few hours, tried to take God-awful distant photos, then went off to look for American Golden Plovers. We saw two. Then I bought a lasagne pie and a bag of salt and vinegar Hula Hoops. I suddenly felt a lot better. We sucked up some more of the Crane for another two hours and then caught the return ferry, but as soon as I sat down the mega alert kicked into life with a Yellow-billed Cuckoo in a quarry just a few hundred yards from where we’d been watching the American Golden Plovers.
“Oh you have to be joking!”
Having seen a few of them in Britain over the years, Pete found it all very funny. If I hadn’t been so consumed with such an uncontrollable urge to eat Hula hoops, maybe we’d have taken a walk around and stumbled upon it in the quarry ourselves. Maybe. Though probably not.
Pete commented that I was looking a lot better after my Hula Hoop fix, so he said I could stop being such a miserable whinging bastard and help him out with the driving. Petrol station. Red Bull. Pro-Plus. Nine hour drive home listening to Burning Spear live in Paris. Tis indeed a good life, and these be mighty fine birds for us all to see.
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