Thursday, January 9, 2014

The Fugitive Birder

I am reluctant to start my first ever blog entry with a sour taste in my mouth (and I'm not talking about congealed christmas leftovers), but an incident that has burdened me whilst birding, the resulting feelings of which left me somewhat self-aware of my ethnicity as a passionate birder.

On the 30th September 2013, I set off on a four day trip to Spurn Point in East Yorkshire in the anticipation of connecting with rare autumn migrants hopelessly off-course as they battle their way towards promised wintering lands.  Maybe the early part of September is a much more sensible time to visit demonstrated by large falls of Wryneck during the first couple of weeks and the confiding Great Snipe that delighted many during its short Yorkshire life.

View of the Humber Estuary from the Crown and Anchor pub at low tide

The trip started slowly.  Common Redstarts were noted early doors covorting with a Lesser Whitethroat in bushes opposite the Crown and Anchor pub.  Seawatching too provided interest but nothing more to increase the pulse with a few Bonxies, Red-Throated Divers, and Gannets gliding past at first light on the 1st October.  My day, however was to become far more interesting.

Birds can turn up anywhere along this stretch of east Yorkshire coastline with observers bashing around Spurn Point itself, across to Sammy's Point, and up towards Easington and beyond.  The workload is high, but the rewards can outweigh the spent energy.  I had heard reports of Yellow-Browed Warbler and Red-Breasted Flycatcher in the vicinity of Easington Gas Terminal, an area of mixed-deciduous woodland and scrub perfect for small passerines seeking refuge after a long errant journey across the North Sea.  I decided in haste to head over to try my luck.

On arrival, I parked up and set off walking along a road adjacent to a small copse where a few assembled birders were in attendance, a local group perhaps that looked as if they had been dragged out under duress.  Let's not be lulled into a false sense of birding success, this game is hard work at times - a short vigil with my peers and an attempt at conversation greeted underwhelmingly with a few vaguely audible grunts that I put down to flatulence.  Alas, no sign on any of the hoped-for migrants.  I hesitated a move to a different location when a security vehicle drove along and pulled up to the small gathering.  This is obviously a sensitive area next to the Easington gas pipeline, so was well aware of regular monitoring.  The three occupants in the vehicle officially attired cheerily asked us what we were specifically looking for.  I was standing a little to the side so anticipated one of the small group to speak.  Silence!  The look on this security guys face said it all and I immediately jumped in to say that there were a few rare birds in the area, time of year for such events, etc. Standard.

I walked away from this group.  I decided to change my viewing angle in the hope that one of these regular autumn migrants would show.

By now I was standing alone within the small copse, scope slung over my right shoulder, binoculars round my neck.  Looking the part.  A police car drove round the back of the copse and upon seeing me, stopped immediately.  Two officers alighted the vehicle, one of which yelled across to me to 'STAY THERE!'  A serious sense of foreboding struck me.  I became acutely aware of where I was and what I looked like.  A guy of asian origin, with a pair of binoculars, standing alone in a small copse, next to one of the largest inbound Gas Terminals in the UK.  I'm writing the sitcom now!

The two officers approached me.  Good cop bad cop.  One glaring, questions one to ten, your time starts now!  I was appalled by the opening line.  'We have had reports from a group of birdwatchers that you have been acting suspiciously and did not know what you were talking about'.  WHAT???  Ok - at the best of times I admit I have no idea what I am talking about but this was just preposterous.  At what point did I ask about the location of the Yellow Crowned Babbler, or whether the Red-Crested Piecatcher preferred shortcrust or puff pastry?

I handled it badly I must confess.  I felt singled out.  Race?  Colour?  All these thoughts running through my mind, blood pumping through my veins, head subtly pounding in self-induced vexation while all the time the determination to keep composed, a distant voice imploring calm from somewhere across the Humber.  They took my details, further questioning, chastened, humiliated, but diluted with a palpable sense of utter naivety.

Perhaps I was being a little sensitive about this but it stayed with me for the remainder of my trip and I felt angry.  Angry at ignorance perhaps or maybe due to the self-awareness that I had been overwhelmed with.

Keen to arrest this negativity, I got back to the birding, enjoying big skies, and hardened landscapes.

The next couple of days returned Firecrest, Jack Snipe, Ring Ouzel, and a flyover Lapland Bunting near Canal Scrape, hundreds of Redwing and Song Thrush pulsating through on the unrelenting brisk easterly wind that had promised much.  Sadly though the weather was too good, clear skies and I'm sure many of the hoped for rare migrants were rushing straight through and ending up on the Pembrokeshire coast.  In truth, I was in search of new birds though that finally delivered in the form of an OLIVE-BACKED PIPIT that was briefly seen at dawn but then after a fruitful search, was rediscovered and eventually mist-netted to the delight of the assembled crowd.  I did however question the relentless pursuit of this classic eastern migrant so that the wardens could stick a metal ring round it's leg.  Does this provide any scientific value at all?  Maybe for another time.  I had to get pictures though.


Olive-Backed Pipit

Supporting cast included flocks of recently arrived Brambling with up to 30 seen up on the seawall near to the tip of Spurn Point and some cracking male birds hardly out of their summer plumage.  Both Pied and Spotted Flycatchers, Yellow Wagtail, and Arctic Skua were also noted.

Pied Flycatcher

TWO WEEKS LATER
It's a weekday, I'm gradually awaking from my slumber.  I look over at the clock and the time reads 6.20am. Give me another ten minutes and then I promise to get up and ready myself for another working day.  I live in a block of flats, the main door accessed only through a security system that connects to the handset placed against the wall of the hallway.  It starts beeping.  A bit early for a delivery?  I stumble to the handset and hoaresly utter a pathetic morning greeting.  Asking for Jonathan, they inform me that they are from the anti-terrorism unit and they want to ask me some questions.

Not again!!

Two officers enter the flat, officious, direct.  In their hand was the police report that had been written up by Yorkshire and Humberside Police on the day I had been questioned.  The same accusation - 'didn't know what I was talking about'.  This time I was much more level headed - I had nothing to hide, the victim of unabashed ignorance and an innocent error of judgement on my part and I am much happier to co-operate.  It was however disturbing to be at the receiving end of an anti-terrorism dawn raid, cornered in your own kitchen, and having to engage in a painstaking conversation with references to Al-Shabbab.  Come on!!! I wanted to see a Red-Breasted Flycatcher!  The officers presented a degree of sympathy and appeared slightly apologetic, when with a generous helping of satisfaction, I informed them I was currently employed as a bird surveyor.

So now, I have this at the back of my mind.  Should I have second thoughts of heading down to Dungeness, walking onto the beach at Sizewell, or heading over to Staines Reservoir with the world's largest international airport next door?  And what of people?  I'm a birder, and I have a really nice tan, but that makes me look a little suspicious doesn't it?

I'm not bitter although I may sound it, a little sensitive perhaps, but maybe my eyes have widened a little.  

25 comments:

  1. That is pretty shocking but knowing what an odd bunch birdwatchers are, perhaps not surprising. The only bit I can relate to (apart from not knowing what I'm talking about) is this "a short vigil with my peers and an attempt at conversation greeted underwhelmingly with a few vaguely audible grunts that I put down to flatulence." Made me chuckle.

    Phil

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  2. I always wondered what those Coppers did to make their, what must be very tedious, day job more interesting and now I know.. luckily they're not armed - oh wait minute!!

    As far behaving 'oddly' that could be applied to almost every birder - especially those from Yorkshire ;-)

    Great post

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  3. Quite shocking really but approaching a group of birders, as a stranger, being greeted by incoherent mumbling isn't that unusual. Some right miserable sods out in the field

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    1. Yes indeed but I've met the nice ones too - just a reflection of society I guess.

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  4. Very over the top by the police. I know one birder was arrested by them in past by many others had there details taken. In terms of the OBP it was birders chasing it around and not any ringers. I was the ringer that day.

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  5. I always dread being asked what I'm doing by plods, security goons, farmers etc when I'm out birding. The anti-authority part of me always wants to answer "apart from minding my own f***ing business, you mean?" I actually said that once to a farmer (while looking for a reported Quail from a public road), and then regretted it when he went a bit mental!

    But the obvious racial angle and follow-up dawn visit in this instance take it to another level of unpleasantness. I hope you don't have to experience anything like that again, and that future blog posts will relate some more enjoyable birding experiences!

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    1. Thanks for your comment. An element of catharsis here so hoping for something much more mundane over the coming weeks....

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  6. Hi Jonathan - how VERY frustrating and sad for this happen! Although as 'northernloon' has said, some birders can be 'miserable sods out in the field'. I was stopped by police once, when birding – I was looking for kingfisher and grey wagtail in a stream adjacent to a block of flats and Therapy Centre in King's Lynn. They thought I was scanning over with my bins into the properties! I would carry on with your birding wherever and whenever you please!!

    Good Birding
    Penny Clarke

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    1. Cheers Penny - oh believe me, I'm a miserable sod myself - I'm aware that we have to have an element of self-awareness in how we conduct ourselves out in the field - we live in sensitive times. However, I just thought that the gravity of this situation was too strong to keep locked away.

      Good Birding always! J

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  7. Jonathan,

    hope your birding experiences improve, can't get any worse!. Don't worry there are plenty of good birders out there, and the odd good cop...

    look forward to following the blog,

    Peter

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  8. Hello mate long time no see. Where u living now? I can't believe all this stuff from the old bill. Just ignore it and carry on birding.

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    1. Hey Ian - great to hear from ya! Living in Hackney now after 35 years in Herts. Still keeping the faith and sporadically birding round the local area. How are things with you mate?

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  9. Morning Johnathan,
    Content aside, I enjoyed your blog and look forward to the next installments. Content included, it does annoy me how SOME birders act when out and about! We are a funny ol' lot but I can never understand those who will greet my 'Good morning' with a look to the floor, or worse so - those who you had the "pleasure" of meeting that morning.
    I hope it doesn't stop you getting on and enjoying your birding, good luck for the rest of it. I've added you to my reading list by the way, all the best,

    Keith.
    (http://akkwildlife.blogspot.co.uk/ @akkwildlife)

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    1. Hey Keith - thank you for your response to this - I have been humbled by the response I have received but have to really thank David Lindo for encouraging me to do so. Of course it won't stop me enjoying the natural world, an interest I have been blessed with since childhood. I appreciate these are isolated incidents but thought it worthwhile to highlight it.

      Thanks again!

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  10. Hi Jonathan,
    I just came across your narrative, and I find it very sad, but not at all surprising. I'm not sure if its my age, or what it is? But I am white, born and bred in the UK, where I have lived all my life.I am retired, and I chose birdwatching/bird photography as a hobby in my retirement. And I too have been given the cold shoulder by a few groups of birders in different parts of the country. I thought maybe I was wearing the wrong aftershave, LOL. But after a while I decided to put it down to the ignorance of people in groups. Birders are/can be a funny old lot. I hope you continue to enjoy your birding, and dont suffer any more encounters like this one...Regards, Mali Halls.

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    1. Sorry for the late reply but thank you for your response. No it hasn't dampened my passion for birding and wildlife as I appreciate that this was just an unfortunate experience. Felt I had to share it though. Many Thanks.

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  11. The really sad bit is the part the so cslled birders played in this. The police have to follow up so they are just doing their job. I know unrelated but my mate got a visit from the police after we were seen taking photos (of black redstarts) at Dunge!!!!

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    1. I agree with you Martin, I have no problem with the police doing their job. Think it was just an unfortunate experience that I wanted to share. Thanks for your response.

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  12. Hi Jonathan

    Just come across your blog. Am very sorry and shocked about what happened to you. Must have been quite scary. I feel quite offended - on your behalf - especially about the 'didn't know what I was talking about'! I can tell them that you very much do know what you are talking about and you have passed some of that knowledge onto me. Now if only I could find that elusive Firecrest you keep talking about....!
    Best wishes.
    Sue

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    1. Hi Sue, sorry for the late reply. Thank you for this, very kind. I hope you've managed to catch up with the Firecrest, if not, then we'll make damn sure that you get to see it. Hope to see you soon.

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  13. Yeah things all good my end. Currently living in Chipperfield but moving soon but probably nearby. U still married? Kids? Why Hackney? Not sure if you've read my blog but if you haven't here's the addy. Ianbennellsbirdingblog.blogspot.com

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  14. Late to the party, my wife sent me a link to this, as others have said, there can be some strange birders, but that group seem to take the biscuit. Glad you have recovered from the outrageous intrusion caused by them. I think we saw you near the Walthamstow Bird Hides on Saturday morning - (we know Sue, I think, from wandering the marshes) so we will definitely collar you in a nice way, next time we run into you.

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