“ANYTHING about?” I asked the muffled figure by the barbed wire fence on Burpham Downs along the edge of the Arun Valley. “Not a lot at the moment,” replied the birder. “Had a pallid harrier last week.”
You just let these bombshells slip from hand to hand when you’re professional, like soldiers of old, throwing hand grenades to one another for cricket practice during the NAAFI break. Yes, I’ve seen that happen. I was reminded of that marvellous cartoon in the Guardian once, by Neil Bennett, of two birders loafing on the edge of the seawall looking out across the marshes in front. Bored, one was just saying to the other, “Anything about?” while about to pass low over their heads from behind was a pterodactyl.
My mind raced to pin together the few scattered bits of information I could muster on the pallid harrier. One had been in Norfolk, several years ago, arriving at Winterton Dunes near Great Yarmouth and departing for Africa and October 7. Hardly seen in the UK, this big bird closely related to the hen harrier and the Montagu’s harrier, properly belongs in the Kirghiz steppe and faraway places like Volgograd and the edges of the Caspian Sea.
“Oh nice,” I replied feebly, “And when was it here then?” “September 22 to October 7 or thereabouts,” he replied. “Lots of people saw it.” I didn’t. Well I was too busy, I complained to myself. And also I had stretched a tendon from that new pair of boots. So I missed the chance of a lifetime. However, I am not really a collector of names, I told myself once again.
“What are you watching out there in the fields?” “Oh just a couple of buzzards and a kite fighting over a dead rabbit. Want to have a look?” As I had forgotten my binoculars the answer was yes please. Now we have all seen those Attenborough vultures in Africa and the Andes squabbling like yahoos over shreds of rotten skin and bone. From eagles in heaven slipping the surly bonds of earth, birds of prey have to come down to earth like us and grovel around the trough. Two buzzards were rolling about on the plough like prairie sage bushes in the wind. A crow was being nifty with his marlin spike and a red kite was doing what all kites do best- lifting effortlessly into the wind and swooping back to ground again without actually touching.
For a few minutes I forgot all about the pallid harrier which had passed through Sussex, as seen by hundreds. That was what the newsletter at Burpham’s St Mary the Virgin said in one of its panels. People from all over the UK had descended on Burpham to see the bird of a lifetime. And what a wonderful place Burpham was, with the Farming and Wildlife Advisory Group’s wild bird seed strips along the edge of all the downland fields. You can bet your bottom dollar if I wait on Burpham Down for the next September 22 for the next 20 years, that pallid harrier won’t come back again.