The difficulty with the smug, beaming armchair ticks of the future, is that you have to do the groundwork first, especially if friends have beaten the path before you.
Following the well-trodden trail down to Staines Reservoir in the shadow of Heathrow’s constant aviation conveyor was a pleasure today though, as I was in the company of Mike Stocker, June Watt and Pete Allen.
A reasonably early start saw us rolling up dahn sarf by about 9.30am, before walking along the fenced causeway that bisects the reservoir in flat calm, mild sunny conditions.
Something unsettlingly infinite about this place (I bet Ishiguro’s Unconsoled bird here), with Coot, Tufties, Pochard, Great Crested Grebes and two Black Necked Grebes on the water, although they were largely thrown into silhouette by the morning sun.
Lovely summer plumage on one of the Black Neckeds though.
Mipits and what sounded like a Water Pipit (I didn’t see it) bounded ahead as we walked along the causeway, until Mike picked up the American Horned Lark, flying in to pitch down on the bank just ahead of us.
We watched the lark for about an hour as it strutted along the reservoir side, in and out of the vegetation, rooting around for invertebrates often only a few metres away.
Clearly it was odd for a bog standard (if such a thing exists) Shorelark – big white supercilium, only the palest of lemon yellow on its throat and nowhere else, and a streaky chest under a reduced black bib.
Big boy birders reckon it to be one of the North American races – hoyti, alpestris or pratincola (ta Niall) and it could be split as a separate species from Shorelark one fine day.
Then we’ll be smug and happy in our armchairs (now that we’ve taken the insurance out by seeing it).
Splitting is great when it works in a birder’s favour, but the less said about the fate of Hudsonian Whimbrel and Thayer’s Gull, the better.
Whatever happens, strolling beside London’s water supply was preferable to crowding onto a South Yorks tow path trying to will a phantom Rubythroat onto a canal boat bird table.
The lark was a whole lot colder and greyer, especially on the undercrackers, than a Shorelark, although when it took to the air, it looked frosty white below in the hard sun.
Its undertail didn’t look as black as a Shorelark’s when it was on the deck, but was sooty in flight, with big white outers.
The call in flight was startling – an urgent semi-trill, reminiscent of a Common Sandpiper (!), loud and obvious, and as it stuttered through the air, it looked big and long winged.
All in all an interesting bird, until it flapped off, calling away to the distant far bank of the reservoir and out of sight.
With mission accomplished June took us back (thanks for the driving June!) onto the M25 car park and we trundled down to Berkshire for a long shot try for the Parrot Crossbills at Wishmoor Bottom.
They didn’t show, but it was a lovely piece of lowland dry and wet heath habitat with Redpolls and croaking Ravens.
You could almost feel the Adders starting to stir in the balmy conditions, before we headed north back home through the mazy lazy flight of the south east’s splendidly burgeoning Red Kite population.