7 February 2015


Whatever your enthusiasm, life as a 'weekend warrior' can be tough - and never more so than in the depth of winter.

With work hours long but the days still short, many of us endure five days every week without the time or the light to properly 'do our thing'.

Cyclists reach for the turbo trainers, birders snatch a few moments fresh air at lunchtime, cricketers train indoors, anglers tie rigs, and photographers set up elaborate indoor macro shoots. 

But all of us yearn for a return of the long, light summer evenings.

For a birder, the nightmare scenario is the week-day rarity - in the worst case, a bird which arrives somewhere on Monday, is reported all week and then vanishes some time on Friday night.

You can always tell when there's been one around, because Saturday morning will see the site full of anguished weekend warriors all asking each other the same question: 'anyone seen the [insert species here]'.

Today at Draycote it was [insert black-necked grebe here] as we all searched in vain for this uncommon winter visitor. To be fair it had actually turned up last Sunday, not Monday, but since my last free day had been the Saturday before the effect was much the same.

Sadly, perhaps inevitably, while the grebe may still have lurked somewhere on this vast reservoir, there had been no sighting of it by the time I left just after midday today.

While disappointing, this didn't spoil the day as much as perhaps you might think.

In fact the grebe was just one of a number of target birds for the morning, each of which would be a year tick for me.

I knew exactly where one species would be, so I set off clockwise to find it. Pausing only to find the female pintails by the overflow, I was soon happily watching a flock of c.20 tree sparrows in hedges near the feeder at Draycote Bank. Hard to find anywhere else locally, but not here, so tick #1 for the day.

Second was the long-staying drake smew. This little beauty proved much more elusive, meaning I'd walked four of the five miles around the reservoir before I finally tracked it down just off Biggin Bay.
I don't see these rare winter ducks too often, and every time I do I am struck by just how exquisite they are - surely our most beautiful bird?

Tick #3 was a more prosaic one, simply a matter of locating one of Draycote's great black-backed gulls, which I did sitting on a bouy not far off the valve tower.

There was plenty more on show besides, of course: a dozen goosander near valve tower, plenty of goldeneye, teal, pochard and wigeon, and, as I finished my five mile circuit, the 2 white-fronted and 1 pink-footed goose swimming just off shore with a small group of greylags.

A grand finale to a typical weekend warrior trip.

Bird of the day: Smew (Mergus albellus), this small sawbill duck only occurs in tiny numbers over a British winter; the drake is an absolute smasher, so always worth the trip.

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