Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Thirty hours of Ethiopian endemics

At last. After two previous visits that had seen me largely trapped in meeting rooms between shuttle-bus runs from and to the airport, I finally got my chance for proper birding in Ethiopia - a 30 hour round trip from Addis across the Sululta Plain to Debre Libanos and back.

I’d tracked down my guide, Meseret Mekuria, through Birdingpal, and he picked me up at the dot of 0700 from my hotel. We drove up out of the city into the still-forested Entoto Hills, behind lorries belching the filthy smoke that is the hallmark of Addis’ air. Our first stop was a small bridge overlooking a wooded valley in the hills. Sounds nice, but picturesque it was not. The lorries crawled past with screaming engines and we were looking down onto the cauldron of smog that hangs over the city. 

But the birds didn’t seem to care too much. A creeping Cinnamon Bracken Warbler (Bradypterus cinnamomeus) was the first of many new birds for me on this trip and was followed by two shy-then-showy Abbysinian Catbirds (Parophasma galinieri) and a couple of Brown Woodland-warblers (Phylloscopus umbrovirens), with their deeply pleasing chocolate-and-forest-green plumage.

A short drive brought us to the Sululta Plain proper. It’s not what you expect. Not the vast vistas of the Serengeti. In fact it reminded me ineffably of north Norfolk or the plains of northern Serbia in the winter. 

The Sululta Plain in Ethiopia, doing a good impression of the plains of Vojvodina in the winter

Sululta is famous for Ethiopian endemics, and justifiably so. We’d barely reached the plain when our first stop brought us a single Blue-winged Goose (Cyanochen cyanoptera), a loose group of louche Wattled Ibis (Bostrychia carunculata), a flock of showy Black-headed Siskins (Serinus nigriceps) and a couple of surprisingly engaging Moorland Chats (Cercomela sordida - what a great taxonomic name!). There were birds of prey in plenty. At least four or five Tawny Eagles (Aquila rapax) and a single young Steppe Eagle (Aquila nipalensis),  and at least two migrant Black Kites (Milvus migrants migrans) among the resident Yellow-billed Kites (M.m. parasitus). Barn Swallows (Hirundo rustica) and Plain Martins (Riparia paludicola) cavorted in the air, and the grass was full of migrant Yellow Wagtails (Motacilla flava) and Red-throated Pipits (Anthus cervinus). The small patches of water held several Northern Shoveler (Spatula clypeata) as well as local Yellow-billed Ducks (Anas undulata), and on the wader side were Marsh Sandpiper (Tringa stagnatilis) and Temminck’s Stint (Calidris temminckii) as well as a couple of cryptic Snipe which were spooked by a drinking Tawny Eagle before being flushed by a dog. The lack of white in the tail made them Common Snipe (Gallinago gallinago), for me.

And so it began. The next few hours saw us driving slowly across the plain, which includes more topography than the name implies, and boasts occasional landscapes straight out of Tolkien, with fields of barley and the indigenous cereal, tef, as far as the eye can see. Ethiopia is going through an appalling drought at the moment, with millions facing acute food insecurity. The drought is a result of El Nino, but the worst effects are being felt further North in the country and the Sululta Plain seems, from what we could see, to be managing.

Deeper into the plain. Though this photo doesn't show it, many of the cereal fields were still green, indicating that they're for later harvest and doing OK, despite the drought elsewhere in the country. 

Short stops produced a Dark Chanting-Goshawk (Melierax metabates), two Black-winged Lapwings (Vanellus melanopterus), several Red-breasted Wheatears (Oenanthe bottae), Thekla Larks (Galerida theklae) and a single Erlanger’s Lark (Calandrella somalica erlangeri). And there were migrants too; several Ortolan Buntings (Emberiza hortulana), Siberian Stonechat (Saxicola torquatus maura), Pallid Harrier (Circus macrourus), Montagu’s Harrier (Circus pygargus) and three species of Wheatear: Pied (Oenanthe pleschanka), Isabelline (Oenanthe isabellina) and Northern (Oenanthe oenanthe). There were more Blue-winged Geese too, with up to 25 seen at one point, and three wonderfully, movingly incongruous Common Cranes (Grus grus).

Arriving at the scarp slope where the plateau drops into the Jemma Valley was an incredible experience. Our base – the Ethio-German Hotel – sits on the edge of this vast gash in the earth’s surface, one of many Ethiopian Grand Canyons. But I was pretty tired, and a lunch of beef wat and frozen beer had set the seal on this, setting me up for a 90 minute siesta, from which I was roused by Montane White-Eyes (Zosterops poliogastrus) calling outside my room. Bleary eyes took a while to identify around six Ruppell’s Griffon Vultures (Gyps rueppellii) in the sky. There are European Griffons (Gyps fulvus) here too, as I saw later.

Bad light and a bad camera phone, but you'd need Ansel Adams to do justice to this scenery.

There is nothing I can say about birding around this hotel other than that it is among the best and most rewarding I have ever experienced, and is set against the background of one of the world’s great views. A short walk to the allegedly-seventeenth century “Portuguese Bridge” (apparently actually built in the nineteenth century) brought numerous highlights: a gorgeous adult Lanner (Falco biarmicus); several jet-black Ruppell's Chats (Myrmecocichla melaena); a Little Rock-thrush (Monticola rufocinereus) sunning itself; a creeping Long-billed Pipit (Anthus similis); noisy flocks of Slender-billed Starling (Onychognathus tenuirostris) and White-billed Starling (Onychognathus albirostris) near a cascade of vast boulders; an impossibly beautiful Blue-breasted Bee-eater (Merops variegatus); a brassy Mocking Cliff-chat (Thamnolaea cinnamomeiventris) and, to top it all on our return to the hotel, a family of Erckel’s Francolin (Pternistis erckelii), spooked by a small troop of Olive Baboons (Papio anubis).

The Ethio-German hotel is unbeatably-situated, and has all the amenities you need. But, make no mistake, it gets cold up there at night. We ate our pasta and made our list for the day by candlelight after the electricity gave out, and then it was off to a mound of blankets and an early night with the wind howling outside.

Is there a better way to finish the day?

The morning came early. It was Sunday, so the service at the nearby monastery, which must have begun at 0400, was broadcast by loudspeaker to the whole surrounding area. I slept through that easily enough, but when I did awake it was to disappointment; low cloud and a dull, persistent rain. Much as I knew that must be a blessing to the local community, I also knew it was not great news from a birding perspective. 

I have been to many monasteries, principally in the Balkans, and am used to finding them both peaceful and beautifully-situated. This was the latter, but not the former. Apart from the loudspeakers tinnily hammering out the word of God, there was the fact that the church itself seemed to be surrounded by building sites, which had turned to a sea of mud in the rain.

The birds didn’t seem happy either, and came slowly or not at all. An early Abyssinian Oriole (Oriolus monacha) was followed by a long hiatus filled only with two showy Mountain Wagtails (Motacilla clara). But though we could hear Abyssinian Woodpeckers (Dendropicos abyssinicus) above the din of the unending liturgy, we could not see them. We began to wander up into the surrounding forest. Alarm calls were pinging around, but not, apparently for us. Then Meseret, with his astonishing eye for perched, unmoving birds, identified the reason - an African Goshawk (Accipiter tachiro) of the local unduliventer race, perched in a branch and causing a ruckus of excitement among a small group of stunning, amazing, magnificent White-cheeked Turacos (Tauraco leucotis). This is my third species of Turaco, and there are insufficient superlatives to describe them. If they aren’t the single most beautiful family of birds in the world, then they are certainly in the top few.

The rain continued, though, and after the excitement of the Turacos the longueurs set in again, mitigated only by a bedraggled troop of Gelada Baboons (Theropithecus gelada) on the top of the nearest cliff. The time for my departure was approaching, so we headed back to the hotel for breakfast. A good move, as it turned out.

Alone, I headed back down towards the edge of the scarp slope, seeing Black-crowned Tchagras (Tchagra senegalus), White-rumped Babblers (Turdoides leucopygia) and a single Blue-spotted Wood-dove (Turtur afer) as I did so. A movement drew me to the right; a single Lesser Whitethroat (Sylvia curruca), my first of the year, amazingly. This bird had drawn me to a point where I could overlook the tops of the cliffs, and there were birds there too; a Singing Cisticola (Cisticola cantans), a Streaky Seedeater (Serinus striolatus). And something else. It was small - smaller than the Streaky Seedeater - pale and short-billed and it had noticeable short streaking on its nape and a large white patch below and behind the eye, but no eyestripe. Could it be? No, it couldn’t be. But it was. An ANKOBER SERIN (Serinus ankoberensis). An endemic amongst endemics, only discovered in 1976, and well out of range according to my field guide. It was a bird I had absolutely not expected to see. But there was nothing else that it could be, and Meseret told me afterwards that he’s seen the species here twice before. What an end to my visit to this wonderful place.

Another view of the scarp slope. The Ankober Serin was sighted on the rocks towards the lower right of this picture

Our drive back to Addis was a good deal quicker than our drive out, but it still managed to produce a new species for the visit and for me; a huge, adult female White-headed Vulture (Trigonoceps occipitalis) which circled low, then swooped into land near a group of Ruppell’s Griffon Vultures which looked tiny by comparison and which, in turn, dwarfed the Tawny Eagle sitting with them.

So, altogether a fantastic trip, and well worth the $340 it set me back, which covered all expenses including the hotel and meals, plus Meseret's well-deserved fee. We saw 109 species of bird, over the two days, and four species of mammal. Of these 30 of the bird species were new for me, as was one of the mammals.

If you are lucky enough to visit Addis for work, you cannot but be happy with the birds you will see there. But take my advice. Get out into the countryside and be delighted. And if you do, you will do very well to engage Meseret who is not only knowledgeable and astonishingly eagle-eyed, but also good company and a careful driver. I loved the fact that he got terribly excited about the Long-billed Pipit, as well as the Blue Rock Thrush (Monticola solitarius) and Grey Wagtail (Motacilla cinerea) which I found, and which are scarce winter visitors here. Shared excitement. You can’t say fairer than that. He can be contacted on mesbuki@yahoo.com or by phone on +251 911332712.

Meseret in his natural environment

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Thoughts on winter Thrushes

I was in Washington D.C. during the Spring, and had an excellent day’s birding there that I have woefully failed to write-up. While there my boss dragged me, none too reluctantly, into an old second-hand bookshop either on, or near, Dupont Circle. I forget the name now. There it was that I picked up a copy of Chuck Bernstein’s The Joy of Birding, published in 1984, which I suppose to be one of the earliest of the new wave of books on birding, now so legion. There had been an earlier wave, now largely forgotten, between the First and Second World Wars, exemplified by Edward Grey’s The Charm of Birds and another book, mentioned below.

Two things struck me about Bernstein’s book, when I read it over the summer. The first is that he uses the terms “Birding” and “Birdwatching” pretty much interchangeably, giving the lie to the idea that the words denote distinct passtimes; the first being American and active, the second British and passive. In fact Bernstein’s isn’t the first book to highlight this false dichotomy for me. That was Willliam Henry Hudson’s The Book of a Naturalist, published shortly after the First World War, in which he refers to the pastime of “birding”. The is the earliest use of the word that I know of, and though Hudson was born and brought up in Argentina, he made his professional life, through writing for the most part, in Britain and it’s striking that the early usage comes from this side of the pond. So much for the great Transatlantic ornithological divide.

The second thing that struck me about Bernstein’s book was his passionate description of migration not as an event, but as a never-ending process. It’s obvious, of course, when you think about it. Birds are never static – they come and go over greater and lesser distances year round, and yet it is difficult not to get geared-up for the Spring migration, or the autumn one to a lesser extent, as if for a sporting tournament, somehow qualitatively different from other similar events; the build-up, the statistics, the attention to the weather forecast. And it is the Spring and (early) autumn movements that prompt this feeling, not the later autumn movements that bring in our “winter visitors”.

I was prompted to this thought by a visit to England at the beginning of November for my son’s half term. The weather was dreadful, so there was no possibility of real birding and I was limited to what could be seen through fog and rain from my parents’ sitting room, which looks onto farmland.

In the Cotswolds, looking out onto rain and fog

Fieldfares (Turdus pilaris) had arrived, as had their warier, smaller and more beautiful counterparts, Redwings (Turdus iliacus). There were larger numbers of Pied Wagtails (Motacilla alba yarrellii) than normal and I also saw a strikingly large roost of these birds on the Said Business Centre near the train station in Oxford. I’ve never seen such a large roost of this species before in England.

These were all nice birds, in good number. I don’t see Fieldfares, still less Redwings, well or often given where I live (in the centre of a city) or where I travel. And they’re really beautiful birds, too; considerably more so than our breeding Thrushes. But they just weren’t as exciting to me as a single singing Garden Warbler (Sylvia borin) or a hunting Hobby (Falco subbuteo) would have been earlier in the year. Why?

In the end I suppose it is a matter of seasons. Spring really is the season of hope, and we greet the birds we see at these times of year like friends at a Wedding or Christening – events marking the beginnings o things. It’s a back-slapping, belly-laughing greeting. Our winter migrants, though, mark the definitive arrival of the season of short days and hunched shoulders, and no matter how happy we are to see them again, it’s harder to articulate that happiness in that context. They’re the friends we see at a funeral; a spontaneous, but fleeting, smile and a somber handshake, firm and with feeling.

Funnily enough, though, I think there is an exception to this rule, and that is for wildfowl; the huge flocks of geese and ducks that will now be in the process of arriving along the Dutch and Belgian coasts impress, somehow, through sheer numbers, seeming to defy the weather that they’re fleeing further North even in the act of escaping it.

Wednesday, December 02, 2015

Brussels - Blackbird

As birders there are probably two questions we are asked more than any others; why and which? Why do we do it, and which is our favourite bird?

I used to hate these questions. The first seemed unanswerable in any meaningful way, and the second facile. I have since developed an answer of kinds to the “why” question, which I’ll elucidate some other time. But for a long time I really thought that there was no answer to the “which” question. It was like being asked what my favourite drink is – the answer, of course, being that it depends. Is the weather hot or cold? Have I been outside all day, or inside reading? Is there food? What kind? Where am I in the world? All these things matter. The answer is contextual.

But then I went to Australia. This was years ago, back in the late 1990s, I’d met a girl, of course. She’d been working with horses in the village next to where I was living at the time in the Cotswolds, and we’d met in the pub. A romance blossomed, but then she had to head back to Australia. Or so I told myself. In fact, she didn’t have to, she chose to, and looking back with the benefit of hindsight I should perhaps have picked up on the important signal evident in that distinction. Still, I was young, etc, etc…

Anyway, for a couple of short visits I ended up in New South Wales, putting a brave face on a decaying relationship, as you do - and birding, as you also do. Although I’d travelled outside Europe before, I’d really only dipped my toes; some time East of the Urals in arctic Siberia, a few weeks in Lebanon, a couple of weeks in Turkey. Only one of these places was outside the Western Palearctic, and then only just, so I was simply not prepared for the shock of a totally new avifauna. With the exception of Feral Pigeons (Columba livia var. dom.), nothing was familiar. It was overwhelming. So much was new that I now have trouble remembering many of the birds I saw. I was in a visual world of Parrots and Honeycreepers and an aural world which, with the exception of a couple of Lyrebirds (Menura novaehollandiaeheard in the Bush one day, seemed to consist of nothing but squawks and screams. They well reflected my mood.

By hook and by crook, and with happy and less happy detours, we came to the town of Berrima. A place built to be big, but which has stayed charmingly small and has been left with a legacy of grand neoclassical buildings far beyond its actual size. It was a low day, I recall, and the sight of my first King Parrots (Alisterus scapularisdid little for my mood.  Nicole was on the phone when out of the evening cacophony emerged a beautiful song. A Blackbird (Turdus merula). I recognised it at once, but realised that I’d never really heard it until that moment, and it went straight to my heart.

Blackbirds get a bad press or, more often, no press at all. They’re tremendously common over much of their range, which has the effect of blinding people to just how stunning the jet black plumage and tangerine-orange bill of a male in top condition really are. But it’s the song that gets you. Unusually, my guru Simon Barnes, despite some polite platitudes, effectively dismisses the Blackbird’s song as muzak in his book Birdwatching with your Eyes Closed. After my epiphany in Berrima, I would naturally reject that, but in fact it precisely proves his point. I had never really listened to Blackbirds before because they’re always there in the background, and they don’t stick out like a Nightingale (Luscinia megarhynchos) or a Mistle Thrush (Turdus viscivorus).  

But just because Mozart is sometimes played in shopping malls, doesn’t mean it’s shopping mall music. For the alternative view it's worth hearing what Lord Grey of Falloden had to say. He, as plain old Sir Edward Grey, was British Foreign Secretary in the run-up to and during the first half of the First World War. He was also a birder and is therefore the ur-diplomat birdwatcher and another guru of mine, for obvious reasons. In the 1930s he wrote what was probably the first blockbuster bestseller about birding – The Charm of Birds, a precursor to Barnes’ How to be a Bad Birdwatcher – and here is what Grey has to say about the Blackbird and its song:

"It is not possible to explain why the blackbird's notes excel and why they mean so much to me. To me there is something in it that I can best describe as intimacy. The songs of other birds please or delight us, but that of the blackbird seems to make a direct appeal to us and stirs some inward emotion"

I think he has it. The very thing that makes the Blackbird’s song so wonderful is its homeliness and companionable quality. It is not histrionic – it is not the grand, throw-everything-to-the-wind love affair song; it’s the song of stability, of a grounded affection. Which is probably why I reacted so strongly to it in Berrima. Listen for yourself at the link below.

As Simon Barnes correctly points out, our reaction to the song says nothing about its true meaning – a cry for sex to females and a threat of violence to rival males. No, this is all about us, and our sense, and how the song has weaved itself into our lives. My own feeling is that I’ve grown into Grey’s view, that it’s a factor of age. As a boy I used to walk into the woods in Blean near Canterbury, where I grew up, to listen to the Nightingales, but I wouldn’t have walked a step for a Blackbird then, and I wouldn't have needed to. They were, and are, pretty much everywhere. I’d still walk for the Nightingales, but I’d do it for a Blackbird now too. 

No Blackbirds are singing now. Winter is coming on apace. But Blackbirds come to our tiny garden in Brussels every day, and if last winter is any guide in a couple of months’ time a male will take up shelter in the laurels at the back of the garden and start, sotto voce, limbering up for the Spring, singing his subsong as if to a private audience – Lieder, rather than opera.

But come the Spring, here in Brussels, the Blackbirds will take up voice and sing through the night. It’s not something I’ve come across anywhere else, but whether as an adaptation to street lighting, or to take advantage of the silence of the depths of night, or both, I’ve heard them sing out at two o’clock in the morning, an hour when nothing else good is happening. And each time I hear it I cheer for this background bird, this companionable charmer, whose song has perhaps been the most consistent soundtrack of my life. And now whenever anyone asks me which is my favourite bird, I have an answer.


The object of my affections. A fine, male Blackbird.
Photo courtesy of nextdoornature.org

Tuesday, December 01, 2015

Ankara and Rome

Some of my trips allow me ample, or at least sufficient, time for birding, as previous posts in this Blog have made clear. But they’re not all, or even mostly, like that. More typically my travel can resemble John Oliver’s gaming spoof, “World of Peacecraft” (see below).

A good example is the trip I’ve just taken to Ankara. The better part of two days on flights, with one full day spent underground in the basement meeting room of a hotel in an anonymous new development who knows how far from the historical centre of the city. In most respects I could have been anywhere in the world, or at least anywhere where you can see Magpies (Pica pica), Feral Pigeons (Columba livia var. domestica) and Peregrine Falcons (Falco peregrinus) – the only three species of birds I managed to steal glimpses of through the windows of my hotel room.

Ankara as seen from my hotel window. The Peregrine was a fine and uplifting sight from here.

The Peregrine was exciting, of course, as they always are, but even the most hardened anti-lister would have to admit that three species is a disappointing total to see over a period of 36 hours. Despite this the trip wasn’t entirely wasted from a birding perspective. I discovered from a Latvian colleague that the call of a Cuckoo (Cuculus canorus) is regarded with fearful superstition there, much as the sight of a Magpie is by the more susceptible in the UK and Ireland.

Perhaps more pertinently a colleague based in Nairobi, whom I didn’t take as a birder, was able to prove to me with photos that Spotted Eagle Owls (Bubo africanus) are breeding the gardens of our office there. No small news, this, as the species would be a LIFER for me. With his help I’ll be on the look-out for it next time I’m down there. Interestingly I’ve seen another species of owl in the gardens of the same offices – an African Wood Owl (Strix woodfordii), which was flushed by gardeners trimming the palms while I was having a coffee with a colleague a couple of years ago.

As it happens, my bird list for Turkey did increase by a small quantum on the airport run the morning after my meeting: a distant Buzzard (Buteo buteo), presumably a "Steppe Buzzard" (ssp. vulpinus), and numerous Jackdaws of the Eastern subspecies (Corvus monedula soemmerringii). It’s still not a massive list, I’m prepared to accept, but both subspecies were firsts for me this calendar year and we had wonderful views of Topkapi, Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque from the air as we flew in to Istanbul, which goes to show that there’s more to flying than birds.

Now in Rome where "Italian Sparrows" (Passer domesticus italiae) frequent the courtyard of the hotel I’m staying in.

Rome: the creepers on the walls and over the gazebos are made of plastic, but that doesn't seem to bother the Sparrows

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Luxembourg - Cranes

I was in Luxembourg on Monday night. This might seem like something of a non-sequitur with which to preface a Blog post about birding. Luxembourg, after all, is not noted for its bird life, or for anything else very much apart from the discreet and profitable processing of other people’s money.

Luxembourg in the daytime, from Kirchberg. A dreadful photo, but it captures the bourgeois tranquility well enough.

So it was that I came on this visit having unusually decided against bringing my binoculars with me. My boss and I decided to have a quick drink outside our hotel. It was quiet, cold and starlit. Despite its boring reputation, the city is in fact quite pretty, but our minds were on the job, and on a meeting for which we were preparing in the morning.

And then the night was full of noise – not the noise of a city, but the noise of the wild arctic; Common Cranes (Grus grus) migrating invisibly overhead, calling to each other through the darkness.

The first time I ever heard this noise was not in fact in the wild, it was in music; the Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara’s Cantus Arcticus, subtitled as a "Concerto for birds and orchestra". It's a haunting piece of soaring symphonic phrases, dissonant but melodic, with arctic birdsong, including Cranes, played on tape behind the orchestra. Below is a Youtube link so you can listen for yourself. I heard this piece for the first time on the radio while driving back with a mate after a drunken weekend at another friend’s place in the Scottish Borders –  a tiny cottage with Redstarts (Phoenicurus phoenicurus) in the garden, Dippers (Cinclus cinclus) nesting under the bridge down the road and an excellent pub in stumbling distance down the road in Kirk Yetholm.

I first saw a Crane at Otmoor in Oxfordshire around 2006 or 2007 at a point when relations with my family were strained, for a variety of reasons. But Dad and I still went birding, and for both of us this was our first Crane. Perhaps it was the maudlin atmosphere, but after a moment of delight I was suddenly struck by the fear at the time that this would be our last new bird together. It wasn’t – we’ve gone on to see our first Pallid Harrier (Circus macrourus) together in Montenegro and a host of new species for both of us at Naivasha, when Mum and Dad visited us in Kenya, and hopefully there are many more to come.

But our Oxfordshire bird didn’t make a sound, so it was years after my hearing of this bird through music that I finally heard it in the wild. Having found a route from a back road over the levees and into the riparian forest on the banks of the Danube outside Belgrade, I was pursuing early Spring passerines and woodpeckers when I disturbed a flock of Cranes using the river’s shoreline as a stopping-off point. I heard them before I saw them, and the sound made the hairs go up on my arms, but I couldn’t place it. Then they soared up and over the treetops as I gaped at them.

And now, here I was, outside a hotel in Luxembourg, and there they were, streaming overhead, over our heads, over our wine and our politics, on and on, hundreds of them in the darkness, ploughing on to the South.

My boss is not a birder. Not by a long stretch of the imagination. But he was caught up in my wonder and excitement and he grinned, and for a while we talked of things other than work, of the more important things in life – family, friends, books, food, the wild. It took a flock of birds to bring us to our senses, but then Cranes are special, as Peter Matthiessen knew when he chose them for the subject of his Birds of Heaven, in which he travelled the world trying to see all the species in the family, Gruidae.

What’s the moral of this? I suppose there are multiple ones. The first, and most obvious, is that you should never judge a book by its cover. Luxembourg may not have a reputation as a birding Mecca, but, thank goodness, there’s no such thing as a place with no birds. In short, I should have brought my binoculars. As if to rub that point in the following morning I took a short walk around the old fortifications of Kirchberg after our meeting and was greeted by a mixed flock of small woodland birds, including a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker (Drybates minor) – my first of the year, as my Cranes had been.

The fortifications at Kirchberg, looking towards the Haute Ville. Learn from me and bring your binoculars.

The second point, though, follows and to an extent contradicts the first; surprise is a wonderful thing. I’m glad I didn’t expect the Cranes. They made me feel alive in a way that a bird I’d sought out never could. This was the world moving on around us as if we didn’t exist, and it’s that sort of wildness that’s particularly pleasing.

And then there’s the effect of that wildness. Hearing these birds lifted us higher, made us think of higher things, made us momentarily less selfish. To people who don’t “get” nature, that might sound absurd. But, as I mentioned, my boss is an urban creature, and he got it. He lived the moment, because I did and he enjoyed my enjoyment.

But, finally, it’s about memories. The sound of those birds brought them all back, good and bad; Luke and me on that long journey, both knowledgeable about music but both bowled over by a piece we’d never heard before (the element of surprise, again); my Otmoor Crane with Dad, quietly lifting the veil of strain between us, and then replacing it with a different, more existential one; my lonely excitement outside Belgrade, and ringing Dragan Simic to tell him about it; now this, which will surely be a central memory of my boss in this job, long after he and I have both moved on from it.

For everyone, specific foods, or drinks, or songs, or pieces of music – not to mention smells, of course – are unconscious hooks and triggers for memory. But for us birdwatchers we have birds too; the sight and sounds of different species bring back memories separate from all those others. So next time I’m asked why I birdwatch, I think in addition to all my usual answers, I think I’ll try answering this way – “Because it helps me remember my life” – and see how that goes down.