Magazine article The Spectator

Strictly for the Birds

Magazine article The Spectator

Strictly for the Birds

Article excerpt

'I think it's a whimbrel, ' she said uncertainly, raising her head from the little end of the telescope. All I could see through my bog-standard binoculars was an assortment of brown birds on legs like knitting-needles picking incessantly at the mud. Lesley's husband, Graham, a haulage contractor from Lincolnshire, was not convinced and said so. Man and wife bent down again over their 'scopes.

'Not a whimbrel, ' Graham said after a period of silence. 'Curlew. Plainer head.' I sneaked a look at my Field Guide to the Birds of Britain and Europe. I learnt that a whimbrel was distinguishable from a curlew by virtue of being smaller, of neater appearance, and with a shorter bill which is kinked rather than curved. Pretty obvious, really. Lesley sighed in disappointment.

I asked Graham if he'd seen the rednecked phalarope, which was supposed to be the star turn that day at Titchwell, the RSPB's reserve on the flat, windswept Norfolk coast between Hunstanton and Brancaster. He hadn't, although he knew it was around. I nodded. Nor had I, I said, not letting on that until that morning I had never heard of it.

Everyone at Titchwell was after the phalarope. First thing, they'd also been asking about the yellow-browed warbler, which looks a lot like countless other warblers except that it is very small indeed and has a prominent creamy supercilium, whatever that is. But there were sad tidings from Peter, the leader of the bird-watchers' tour to which I had attached myself. The warbler had warbled and departed.

Consolation was at hand. There was a robin near the car park, and a great spotted woodpecker, which I missed but everyone else saw, and a wren, one of ten million in the UK, Peter said. I was hoping for something a bit more out of the ordinary. From the first hide, Peter -- who was amazingly sharp -- clocked two dark objects over the sea. 'A pair of great skuas, ' he announced.

There was a swivelling of 'scopes and bins.

'How unusual to see them from here, ' he cried, face aglow.

We tramped towards the beach, past reed beds, lagoons and expanses of mud. Kites appeared towards Brancaster, but they were of the plastic variety with strings. We stopped for tripods to be fixed and lenses focused. A multitude of brownish birds pecked away -- dunlin, I was told. Then there was a flutter.

Among the dunlin was something very like a dunlin. Peter confirmed it as a curlew sandpiper ('best distinguished by white rump . . .

and a more slender, longer, evenly downcurving bill'), and there was a collective sigh of appreciation.

Someone thought they'd scoped a little stint, another dunlin-like non-dunlin. 'But I can't see the braces, ' he lamented. Peter came over. 'Adults don't have the braces, just the juveniles.' He peered into the 'scope, but the alleged stint had merged into the dunlin.

Titchwell is -- as Peter was quick to assure me -- one of the RSPB's 'flagship' reserves.

It gets 130,000 visitors a year, eager recruits to an army that has become a force in the land. A long time ago John Betjeman joked, 'Who runs the country? The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. Their members are behind every hedge.' With more than a million members and an income of £80 million a year, the Society -- as the biggest conservation charity in Europe and one of the biggest landowners in Britain -- has come to exercise an influence on government policy and on our collective awareness of the natural world that other campaign groups can only envy.

The RSPB has it easy. Unlike the National Trust -- its main rival for hearts, minds and pockets -- it is a single-issue body. It only has to worry about birds, whereas the Trust has to balance the interests of buildings and gardens and their owners, the landscape, farming and farmers, to name but a few. The RSPB's focus frees it from the need to consider tricky matters like sustainable development and the interests of the other twolegged species. …

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