Worst Dips

There is a lot of pleasure to be gained in seeing a new bird. Purists argue that twitching or chasing, call it what you will, is unproductive. This, of course, is not true, it produces experience, a commodity of very high value in any sphere, especially so with birding. Twitching also teaches another valuable lesson, determination. People start birding in these times of instant news and very often see a lot in a short space of time. The dice always seem to roll kindly for them but those who have been at it a while know that a fall will come. It might just be a stumble or it could be a full blown fall, a run of dreadful luck that has you questioning your sanity. At this time in your birding career you are at a crossroads, you can chuck it all in and go back to pottering or take it in the chin and fight back with renewed determination. I met such a crossroads way back in 1984 and I’m still going strong.

To put this in context, I was doing a big year, no cellphones,orpagers just phone booths when you could find one and a diary in a café in Norfolk – and you had to hope a friendly voice answered the phone when you called and asked the age-old question, “anything about?” My year turned out well but there was a major dip for a major bird in Europe, a Belted Kingfisher. For you entertainment here is the story of that dip and, just so you know, I dipped the same bird on the west coast of Ireland in March (I think) of the next year!

The story so far. With almost zero cash and a tendency to destroy my cars, I was nearing the magic 300 species in a year that I was aiming for. I’d been everywhere in the UK accumulating that total and, despite the transport issues, was still managing to get to birds, one way or another. This excerpt is from my first eBook, ‘Going for Broke’.


West Ireland

Despite the expense of the year so far, both in terms of finance and days off work, a nagging itch had developed in November that required remedial treatment. The cause of the itch can be directly traced to the presence of a Belted Kingfisher in Ireland, a Nearctic species that is very rare in Europe. The bird had been present for some time, frequenting a stone pier in the little County Clare village of Ballyvaughan in West Ireland. The intensity of the itch increased when Bill Simpson (a birding friend and ace twitcher) went for, saw and even painted the bird. I’d always admired his paintings and I very much admired the bird in this one, I had to go.

I took the coach from Nottingham to Birmingham, then changed to another, bound for Holyhead and across to Dublin, That was the easy part. Once in Dublin, I had to cross Ireland and then find transport to the isolated village. I managed to locate a coach that went so far, and then I started to hitch. I was not a seasoned hitchhiker like Bill and I probably should have had a better idea of what I was doing, before trying something as ambitious as a West Ireland trip – we all have to learn, I suppose.

Almost as soon as I left the coach it started to rain, I started to walk. After a mile or so a sign said ‘Ballyvaughan 15 miles’, nearly there I thought, then realised that I might end up walking the equivalent distance of Nottingham to Mansfield in the rain and, fairly soon, the dark too. Undaunted, I took the turn and walked another few miles, flashing my optimistic thumb at any and every passing vehicle. As I followed the course of the coast I realised I would probably not get there before dark now and so I slowed to a stop to consult the map I had, I was lost. It was then that I heard the barking of dogs. To my right, three rather large animals, each capable of competing for the lead in the Hound of the Baskervilles, were bounding down the drive of the posh mansion behind them and the imposing steel gates, whose sole purpose may have been the limiting of their freedom, were open. I started to move away as fast as I could.

Woof Woof

The dogs came out into the road and began to move purposefully towards me. I threw down my only bag of chocolates (chocolate drops to be precise), hoping to deflect them and to buy some time and yards. Luckily it worked and, as I continued to make distance between the pooches and myself, I could see them snuffling around the bag and wagging their tails, maybe they were not so vicious after all! My luck then changed when I stumbled into a small village; there was a shop, where I could replenish my chocolate supply, and a pub where I could quench the thirst now present in my strangely dry throat.

Mine’s a Pint

I made for the pub first and sat by the fire, drying the only clothes I had with me. The landlord served me up my first pint of real Irish Guinness and I dried off in a haze of alcohol and steam. Once I had dried out the map a bit, I walked over to the bar and asked the barmaid to show me where I was. After much consideration and a few reorientations of the admittedly large-scale map, she called the landlord over. To my utter astonishment, neither could actually pinpoint the place on my map that their little piece of creation occupied; they just pointed generally to an area south of Galway Bay. I put this lapse in basic awareness down to the poor condition of the by now bedraggled, map and left it there.

I wandered outside into the rain suitably refreshed via the Guinness. The remarkably well-stocked shop provided me with an adequate chocolate supply and the time in front of the pub fire had given me a less damp coat. I stuck my thumb out and hoped that whoever stopped, if anyone did, would have more idea of where they actually were than the folks in the pub. Almost immediately, a young guy in an aged Mazda pulled over and offered me a lift. Yes, he knew Ballyvaughan, it was perhaps 12 miles away and could take me to within two miles of it, I could then walk or hitch the rest of the way. This was definitely an upturn in fortunes and I gleefully dumped my bag in the back and off we went.

He was clearly very proud of the car, perhaps not enough to maintain it mechanically get an M.O.T (Ministry of Transport certificate of road worthiness) or even insurance, but he did like to show off. This became more apparent when we proceeded to hurtle down country lanes at ridiculous speeds, with his English passenger worrying about getting wet again but this time from the inside. Eventually, and it did seem like a lifetime, he stopped, wished me luck and tore off into the gathering gloom. Ballyvaughan next stop.

No Rooms at the B&B

As I wended my way down the lane to the town I was passing lots of tidy little bungalows and it was clear that Ballyvaughan was on the up. Tourism is an important part of the Irish GDP (about 4% or five billion Euros) and the locals had clearly been busy kitting out their homes for the impending tourist boom. A good sign I thought, there should be no trouble finding a B&B in this thriving seaside town, wrong!

I later found out that enterprising Irish citizens had (allegedly lawyers, allegedly!) found that EU grants were available to renovate their properties for use as B&B businesses. The grants were intended to boost the economy and bring employment to local builders, etc. It mainly seems to have brought employment to the people who made the ‘No Vacancy’ signs, as that was what all the properties I passed displayed. It seems that some unscrupulous individuals got a subsidised renovation on their home without ever intending to take a guest (again, allegedly!).

Arriving with a little light left, I located the pier (built 1837) where the bird regularly perched and waited. Dusk began to fall quickly and so I asked around in the pub that was at the base of the pier whether there was any accommodation to be had, expecting all the time to be having to find some quiet, dry spot where I could use my sleeping bag. Amazingly my luck was in and I ended up in a nice little place, a real B&B, which had one room left. I booked in with the option of a second night that I optimistically didn’t expect to need. I had a shower and a hot meal and sat in the guest TV room writing some notes up, I was warm and comfy, things were looking up.

Just Dusting

I quickly discovered that I was sharing the guest section of the house with a girl from Newcastle. We chatted for a while about a wide range of topics but without being too strong on opinion, as strangers might do, and then said our goodnights and turned in. She was doing a solo walk of the nearby Burren, one of those oddities of geology and rock-solid evidence of continental drift, where the flora is more akin to that found in Portugal that the rest of Ireland. Ballyvaughan was at one end of the Burren and so the natural starting place from which to walk it. She was expecting to be getting off on her long-distance ramble early the next day. I didn’t envy her; she was hauling a pack the size of a hay bale although, looking at her, she may well have trained for the trip by juggling breeze blocks.

Around two of the clock, nature called and so I dressed suitably and went to the bathroom across the hall. As soon as I opened my bedroom door, the owners of the house appeared in the guest area between the rooms and started tidying the place up. I thought it all very odd but I acknowledged them with a nod and a grunt suitable for the hour, and went about my business. It was only during our early breakfast, while chatting to the girl, that I discovered the same thing had happened to her at some similarly ungodly hour.

It seemed that, good Catholics that they were, the house owners were not going to have any sinning by the sophisticated city types under their roof. The thought had never actually crossed my mind. She was a lesbian (she said, but you have no idea how many times I’ve been told that) and I was even less of an oil painting then than I am now. Her only chance would have been if she’d been covered in feathers and sat on the pier making rattling noises like a Belted Kingfisher, my only chance appeared to have been radical surgery and changing my name to Maude!

Absent Friends

Back to the twitch and I spent the day looking at that pier from all angles, scoped the bay and scanned the whole area roughly once every 30 seconds. As village life went about its normal business, locals stopped to chat with me as they passed by, several had seen the bird and took great care and delight in describing the plumage in detail. They would almost to a man (and woman) stand and point to its favourite perch, and subsequent whitewash as delivered by the bird, could I at least add it to my DNA list?

I was not surprised by the friendliness and familiarity of the locals; Ballyvaughan then was a very sleepy little hamlet, home to about 200 people. Nothing much happened there, week on week, and the Belted Kingfisher and subsequent twitch was the biggest news locally since a stolen cow was found in one of the local castles and caused a mighty fuss. That was in 1540 and the locals had still not got over it!

The next and very wet morning, the fine lady who ran Meek’s, the pub at the base of the pier, opened up early and gave me breakfast (my second of the day). She let me watch the pier from the pub until the rain finished and would not let me pay her for the food, which was just as well as my Irish punts (a currency replaced by the Euro later) had dwindled to alarmingly low levels. The currency crisis was just another one of many little technical problems for me to negotiate later.

It was fascinating to sit there in the pub while she did her daily chores. Local people would just pop in and chat and, it seemed, take a morning tipple. Most conversations were along the lines of how an individual was ‘in himself’, after a fracas in the pub the evening before, or who was supposed to be dallying with whom, to the mock shock of the whole town. It was like being an extra on the set of the TV show, Ballykissangel!

Once the weather dried up, I set about being more proactive in my search. I never strayed too far from the pier, especially after the Wales Sociable Plover debacle (an earlier chapter), but I did walk the sea front a bit and do a bit more than waiting. I spent time enjoying Long-tailed Ducks, diving in the surf, and I checked every gull I saw, finding a Ring-billed; how many of those are there present on the under-watched west coast of Ireland?

It gradually dawned on me that the bird had gone and it was time that I followed. I decided not to try to hitch but to take the coach back to Galway. I got on the twice-weekly service to Galway from Ballyvaughan; the cost was 16 Irish punts. I only had eight, so I offered the driver a cheque, one of the pretty ones from NatWest (a bank) with birds on it. He was sceptical initially, and I got the impression that they were something new to him. Anyway, he agreed to accept it and I then managed to pick up the return coach from Galway, after due negotiation over my return ticket that I’d bought in advance. Five days for a twitch, torrential rain, possibly rabid dogs, Guinness and another self-confessed lesbian but no Belted Kingfisher, such is life.

Postscript – I never did see a Belted Kingfisher in the UK although, not long after moving to Canada, one showed up on a canal not 40 minutes from my Nottingham home!

By the way, I have finished adding photos to my illustrated Nova Scotia list, see the pages at the top. The page is not quite finished, pending I think is the expression.


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