The wind gusted in from behind us, blowing over the grassy path we were walking down and into the furrowed beet-field. As we walked along this completely exposed cliff-edge, my friend suddenly gestured out to sea and shouted ‘Short-eared Owl’ at me. It was quite a way off, loping into a tall cloud away to the north. This languid owl looked out of place over the water, usually seen hunting low over a grazing marsh, with a backdrop of winter sky behind them. It was what you call an ‘in-off’ bird, as in one that literally comes in off the sea. We spent some time watching it turn and soar into the cloud, lazily, yet with great power and purpose. As it faded into the grey, we turned and started to walk on, but he jumped again ‘what was that?’ His senses were heightened. He’d seen a small bird dart over the cliff edge and strafe low into the adjacent field. A female Wheatear. Yet another bird, ending their migration on our clifftop outpost. A journey concluding over weathered sea-defences and crumbling sand and clay.
We were out looking for migrant birds, at a favoured east Norfolk coastal site of mine, Happisburgh. Just for the morning, as time is precious when you have a young baby and birdwatching opportunities have to be savoured. There were two of us, me and a friend, and we’d both not been out to indulge in our hobby for a while. It was great to be out except, as the morning and then the rest of the day unfolded – a tide of negativity started to wash over me. It was those classic ‘easterly issues’ again, except usually, the issues came because I couldn’t get out. This time I was out but still, I just couldn’t stop myself from looking at what other people were finding around the coast. The fabled easterly winds had hit the county again and it seemed like everyone, except us, was finding scarce birds.
Now this is jars with my back to basics and mindfulness approaches to birdwatching that I extol and write about. I’ve covered this at length in the book and sometimes, stripping these layers away to expose the raw beauty of the hobby is a tough ask. Ultimately I think that part of me wishes I’d never tasted the marvels of bird-migration and finding scarce birds, in my early days of taking an interest. It adds an expectation, unnecessarily so, to these autumn forays, the likes of which I never experience back on the patch. Maybe that’s it? At the patch, anything remotely unusual is a mega-reward for all the dedication and time, spent nurturing that relationship and intrinsic understanding of the land, that grows with having a local patch. Up on the coast, with favourable weather conditions, there becomes an expectation that there will be something ‘good’ (whatever that is) and so when those expectations fall – so can your mood.
I spoke to my friend and then another one, pondering why I felt so disappointed. The one I spent the morning with rightfully said ‘we saw some great birds, I had a good morning!’ and the other said that’s just the nature of our hobby, at this time of the year. I then go through a cycle, where I get really negative and despondent about it and soon come to realise that birdwatching is microcosmic. Those that are able to be out all the time, often have different motivations or reasons for being able to. It’s not representative of what most peoples lives are actually like. That’s comforting and reassuring, and I can bat those easterly issues way out west again.
Here are the two old blogs I wrote about this topic: