In 2019 I was in the remote cloud forests of Ecuador, some 2,000 m above sea level. Deep in the jungle it was muddy and cold, with volcano peaks wherever you looked. There were Dragon's Blood trees too (stab one with a knife and sap the colour of port spurts out) and I'd even clocked a Spectacled Bear. Nothing could top that. Or so I thought …
The following evening, when I was attempting to erect a wonky death-trap of a tent, I saw this exquisite colour. A glitter of a hummingbird denectaring flowers, iridescent wings whirring; the most beautiful sight.
Leaving South America after exploring the continent for three months was painfully difficult. Jobless and bored, I was back in dismal, dank West Sussex. However, things changed when I saw a blue lightning flash just inches above the River Adur: the tzeee tzeee of a Common Kingfisher perching on a willow branch. Could Britain could give me the same high as South America?
Alex became transfixed by his local Common Kingfishers (Kenneth O'Keefe).
Once I'd acquired a posh pair of binoculars, spending half my inheritance, I started getting obsessed. I spent hours staking out that kingfisher, waiting by the river bank as the tide rose and fell, all for the turquoise bullet. Forget the performing seal bobbing upstream from Shoreham, the Red Kites circling, the fox crunching through the swan carcass – I knew what I was after.
And then I became competitive. Every time I met another twitcher I'd ask the best bird they’d ever seen, just so I could top it with my South American menagerie. And my Dartford Warbler, a badge of honour for the hours spent in freezing fields, hunched behind hedges, waiting for 'the bird that never shows'.
The first time I saw a Short-eared Owl was on the South Downs above Arundel, with 20 or so hardcore birders, 'scopes at the ready, waiting for the quartering hunters. I'd already eaten three questionable Scotch eggs, the sun was beginning to drop, and I was off. Then, nearly at the car, shouts from behind had me hoofing back down the track. Five owls above an empty arable field. What a sight.
They say 80% of birding is done with your ears. To the untrained ear bird song and call are a foreign language. A whitewash of noise, completely unintelligible until you learn the intricacies. Once unlocked, conversations and arguments fill the air. Having spent hours studying bird calls and song I can now differentiate their calls with ease.
By discovering birds, I have realised just how much there is to learn, a world beyond. From how a Bar-tailed Godwit can fly 13,500 km in 11 days without stopping, to how a displaced bird on migration has the ability to correct its internal navigation system.
Birding becomes part of you, it excites even on a quiet day. Once infected there is no escape.