07/05/2004
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Three White Rabbits and a Tawny Pipit

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Tawny Pipit: . (Photo: Phil Briggs)

How many BirdGuides readers have heard of the old English superstition of uttering "White Rabbits, White Rabbits, White Rabbits" out loud for luck on the first day of each month?

For those who haven't, I kid you not! Just ask my grandmother (and to invoke the true incantation you're supposed to say "Brown Hares" three times before you go to bed on the last day of the month). I learnt this little gem when I was about nine years old, right at the start of my birdwatching 'career'. Though I couldn't say I carried out any authentic scientific research into the provenance, or otherwise, of the ritual, I do seem to recall that my pre-teen months, on the whole, turned out lucky for me, seven times out of ten - or eight times out of twelve should I say – based on my own subjective notion of what I considered 'lucky' to be back then.

These days, as a far, far more sophisticated 36-year-old adult, you wouldn't expect me to be indulging such pointless old wives' tales would you! Well, maybe not. But just for a bit of fun, I still do my best to keep up the tradition on the firsts of October and May.

I shouldn't have to explain myself to say why 'October' and 'May', I hope. But, just in case it's not obvious: as a self-proclaimed hunter of rare birds, these two months are, in my opinion, the two outstanding rarity months on the calendar, and my little bit of hocus-pocus nonsense serves primarily to galvanise myself for the task at hand. This sends out my intent to the world at large that I am out on the serious prowl in search of my 'prey'. As we rare bird buffs know, some of our most exciting moments have happened in April or September, or perhaps November, but I think if you put it to the vote May and October would come out tops? And for me, May is the best month, I'd say, for bird watching...the timeless magic of the dawn chorus at its height, the breeding season in full swing, with colourful birds everywhere, new migrants arriving every day, the rich green density of the foliage that surrounds them...

This May saw me re-commence my programme of spending my weekends camping on the beach at one of Ireland's premier birding locations – Ballycotton in Co. Cork. This is where, as some of you may have already read, I stumbled into Sharp-tailed Sandpiper, Citrine Wagtail and various other scarce vagrants in an exciting period of bird-finding from late summer to mid-autumn last year. What was this year going to bring?

I'm something of a birding pessimist in my own way, at times – but then, I guess we all are. Maybe for 'pessimism' we should insert 'realism', the necessary grounding to our high-reaching ideals that would have us finding rarities every time we go out; a realism that enables us to develop a perseverance and a consistency to carry us beyond the burn-out that would occur if we always got everything we wanted immediately. I say this because this 'first of May' camping exercise was really planned as what I would call an 'hours in the bank' routine. Because of work commitments, I would only have one hour's birding on the night of the 30th April and three early hours the following morning. This would probably be my only birding of the week. I couldn't possibly expect to score anything good in four hours in the field could I?

I did my first hour solidly and sedately. It was a pleasant evening and I wandered the pools at Ballycotton lifting my binoculars regularly to renew acquaintance with Sedge Warbler for the year; to marvel at the gorgeous black, white and red male Stonechats singing prominently every few hundred yards or so; and to watch six or seven of the famous 'May birds', Whimbrel, feeding gingerly along the vast Ballycotton shore. High on my list of priorities for the evening was a pint of Guinness, to round off what had been a fairly frenetic day in the city at work.

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After one pint and one pint only I made my way after dark back down a little winding lane towards where I'd pitched my tent on the beach. I drank in the fresh sea air and soft south-westerly breeze, tonic for a current life in the concrete of a city. I was completely alone. I looked up into the starlit sky and with as much seriousness as I could muster at the frivolity of it all, voiced my 'Brown Hares' three times out loud!

The morning's 'three White Rabbits' was performed with far less conviction, due to the fact I was still in dreamland on emerging from a tent that only just meets the minimal criteria for being a 'one-man' abode (and I'm small!) I'd slept intermittently in the night, waking every time I had to turn over. I remembered this from last year; it's something I'll have to get used to. But, to me it always seems easier to crawl out of an uncomfortable tent next morning and begin birding than it is to rise from a soft snuggly bed with all your creature comforts close at hand. Masochistic - but true.

Rubbing sleep from my eyes and stumbling clumsily about, I was shocked into alertness by the shape of a bird flying away from me that I hadn't seen in a long, long time. My first Irish Marsh Harrier. This, I counted back, was the fourth bird I'd seen in the morning in the first two or three minutes of gathering my senses outside the tent – a Stonechat, a Curlew, and a single Great Black-backed Gull being the three others. Already, it gave me cause to start texting on the phone. To give an idea to readers to who now see this sort of thing quite often in places in England where I understand it is doing very well as a breeding species, this was my first Marsh Harrier for 14 years. It gave me a lot of pleasure. I watched it for a good 15 minutes, lethargically cruising around and dropping every now and then to land in a field. Once, it sat on a hedgerow where I got a good couple of minutes looking at it, a female or young male, with that characteristic mix of chocolate brown body and rich, creamy head.

Despite the fact it was still only 7.20am and I had another three hours before the bus would come to take me back to the city, this Marsh Harrier would have quite satisfied me for the morning. It was the best, I imagined, a part-time birder could hope for in the space of a few hours, but events were to prove me wrong. I'd added very few birds to the morning's 'species list' when I turned a corner, onto Ballycotton beach. There - in exactly the same spot where last September's Citrine Wagtail had given itself up, and 200 yards from where the Sharp-tailed Sandpiper had spent its three days - walking towards me, was a Tawny Pipit.

The two birding friends I'd already texted about the Marsh Harrier groaned inwardly when I rang them this time, 45 minutes later! Phil Davis, who lives in Ballycotton, was just on his way to open up his shop, and Andre Robinson had driven past Ballycotton an hour and a half ago on a speculative mission eastwards to Tacumshin, Wexford, with three lads in the car who had never seen a Tawny Pipit in their lives!

As it turned out, Phil was able to come and join me an hour later, enjoying very good views of the bird feeding actively up and down the strand on the seaward side of the Ballycotton sand-dunes. Andre and company spent their morning in Wexford, came down to Ballycotton in the afternoon, and missed it. It had flown off when its leisurely pursuit of hatching sandflies had been disturbed early afternoon by a ton of roaring metal in the shape of a joy-riding dune buggy, propelled by one of those 'probably-very-nice-to-his-granny' human beings that we birders all love to despise!

Though it doesn't carry the kudos of say, a Black Lark or a Harlequin Duck, this Tawny Pipit for me was a pleasantly satisfying find. For younger or less experienced birders I may be repeating myself here, but please bear with me. This is one of the pleasures of birding to come in your later years - this was my first 'out-of-range' Tawny Pipit since Scilly1984. Twenty years! It's difficult not to offend my Irish friends by lumping the terms 'Britain and Ireland' together because they don't view our geographic juxtaposition on the western flank of the European continent the same way we British listers do – hence the term 'out-of-range'. But, there is a personal coincidence involved in my trilogy of self-found Citrine Wagtail, Sharp-tailed Sand and now Tawny Pipit on the same stretch of beach within the last nine months and it is that, as vagrants, each of them happened to be my 'seconds' of the particular species in question. And, unlike the Citrine Wags and Sharp-tailed Sands that I've seen a fair few of abroad (India and Australia respectively), despite spending over six months in Israel and making a few short-stay visits to Spain, Tawny Pipit is one of those birds I never seem to have fully got to grips with. I've seen a few alright, not more than a dozen, but largely because there's always been something else to look at I've never been able to sit back and study them.

So that's why, as I stood there at Ballycotton for an hour, with the sun and the wind at my back, watching this Tawny Pipit running around with a kind of speeded-up, Plover-like, stop start feeding display, stopping now and then to stretch its wings, standing upright, peering around, dwarfing the Meadow Pipits, I couldn't help wondering whether there wasn't some giant benevolent bunny in the sky gazing down on me and thanking me for remembering it in my prayers.

Written by: Graham Gordon

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