Unexpected critters

One of the delights of watching wildlife is its unexpected nature. Another is the people one meets along the way. Sitting in Steve Akers’ kitchen looking onto his family’s back garden, chatting with three other complete strangers while drinking fresh coffee and eating hot toast while waiting for one of the rarest birds ever seen in the UK, combined both in an extraordinarily memorable way.

It all started in mid-February, when an unusual-looking pigeon landed in the Akers’ garden. Steve originally thought it was a racing pigeon gone astray or an escape, until he and his young son Rory looked at their bird book together… and realised that it might be an extreme rarity. They contacted a local expert who raced round to look for himself, who confirmed that it was indeed an Orienal turtle dove, only twice before seen in the UK.

Oriental turtle dove. Image: Ewan Urquhart

When it was publicised, it soon became a national twitch – at one point, two hundred people queued along the street to see it. It made the national press, with a notable article in The Guardian. Steve recognised the opportunity for some fund-raising and charged a £5 entrance fee, all money going to BirdLife Malta, which is fighting against the annual illegal killing spree of migrating song-birds. (Image source here)

Up in Durham I was mildly disappointed to be at the wrong end of the country to see it myself, but was surprised this month to find that it was still around. I decided therefore to drop by on my way back to Cheltenham. While travelling, Steve returned a call I’d made and said that I was too late for that day, but would I still be around Sunday morning? Hence it was that at 8am I was sitting in his kitchen looking into his garden, watching an abundance of birds – including a dozen or more bramblings – enjoying the food that had been put out.

We waited an hour before it put in a brief appearance. It was there for long enough for us to recognise it as the right bird – and then, contrary to its usual behaviour, it flew off. An hour later it returned – enabling us all to get really good views – until a local cat sent it up a tree. We watched for another few minutes before it disappeared.

Steve Akers with his son Rory, with fellow birders Bev, Stu and Val.

I asked Steve how he felt about all these strangers trampling through his house – and he clearly enjoyed it, and regretted not being able to retire from work and open a cafe near a wildlife reserve! He’d also been able to raise £3000 for BirdLife Malta in the process. It was a most enjoyable morning, and I –  like several hundred other birders – have appreciated the warm hospitality of Steve and his family.

Adder by Bollihope Burn – ready for action…

This was quite different from my wildlife experience on Friday. I’d gone up Bollihope to look for ring ouzels. It was a lovely day with plenty of curlews, lapwings and wheatears around – but not a ring ouzel insight. As I was returning I spotted something long and thin slither into the undergrowth. Determined to take a photograph I flushed it out – and saw that it was an adder! My provocation meant that, whereas it would have been happier slinking away undisturbed, it was ready for combat…

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