I have become obsessed with birds. Often it is difficult for me to think about anything else, and I feel bitter when life forces me to do so. I expect everyone else to take an interest in birds too. I assume that all my friends will be interested in listening to me talking about them. No doubt they have better things to do.
My obsession has become clear on recent walks in Kent. Over the last year or so, I’ve paid more visits to the county than ever before. A group of friends and I are gradually walking the 163 mile Saxon Shore Way, which begins at Gravesend and works its way round the coast to Hastings. Near the beginning, this Mute Swan refused to let us on its jetty.
Last spring we had a wonderful day following the Way through the RSPB Northward Hills nature reserve. We were delighted to hear singing nightingales, along with the distinctive two-note call of the cuckoo. The cuckoo always sounds very innocent, even though it lays its eggs in other birds nests.
Here’s a view over Northward Hills reserve. You can see a few of the huge number of Rooks that breed here.
On a separate trip, Dad and I walked from the reserve to Egypt Bay on an isolated stretch of the Thames Estuary. This small bay was made infamous by Dickens in “Great Expectations”. It was one of many locations along the Thames used for ‘prison hulks’ in the 18th and 19th centuries. These were old Navy and merchant ships used to hold convicts, some before being transported to Australia. The conditions on board the overcrowded hulks must have been appalling. Outbreaks of typhus and dysentery were common.
When Dad and I visited Egypt Bay, it was difficult to imagine all the pain and suffering. Everywhere was quiet and calm. Avocets were striding gracefully along the water’s edge and a pair of Oystercatchers were busily flying around, calling. Here’s the Bay with the much more industrial Essex coast in the background:
Back on the Saxon Shore Way, we passed Rochester and walked alongside the Swale Channel. By this time the winter migrant birds were arriving. I found myself getting well behind the rest of the group as I looked out for wintering ducks and waders and these rather distant but beautiful Brent Geese:
If I lead a walking group, I don’t like people lagging far behind, so I was surprised that I let myself do so. This is a sign of my obsession. If there’s a chance of seeing a bird I like, then nothing else matters. It’s not that I’m looking out for rare birds. If I found one, I probably wouldn’t recognise it.
A few months ago we were walking along the Kent coast, and I caught a glimpse of some birds in a pond just inland. I tried to ignore them but a glimpse out of the corner of my eye suggested that they were something interesting. They turned out to be a group of roosting Redshanks. I didn’t want to disturb them so I crept quietly towards the pond. All this took time and on my way back I was stopped by a man who insisted on telling me all about his bird sightings. The group had to wait for me and I felt ashamed.
But I don’t regret the wonderful wildlife encounter I once had as a result of being behind the group. I was suddenly aware of an unusual shape in the sea and looked up to see a seal! It kept diving and coming back up. Each time it stared at me with its large eyes, and I stared back with my binoculars. I felt a connection with the mammal. We were both curious about the other. It was a strongly personal experience from which I still take strength.