Sunday 20th April 2008 was the day after my youngest son’s third birthday party. The morning was drizzly and overcast, and the easterly wind which had been blowing for three days was still persisting. Over the last few days I’d been watching the wind maps with mounting excitement, as the little arrows all steadfastly marched due west, right across the continent. But Winterton dunes, my local patch, had remained cold and quiet, with hardly any signs of migration. We were putting it down to poor weather in Europe stopping anything from moving.
After a day of family outings, it was nearly 4pm when I finally made it into the North Dunes, just as the wind appeared to have dropped a little and the sun had come out. I figured that if anything had got through from Europe then now was the best time to look for it. I began to search in all the usual nooks and crannies. I saw nothing (except a rather nice Adder). The dunes are often like that, and normally in these conditions my enthusiasm dwindles and I begin to dawdle and daydream, ignoring all the potential bird cover around me, wandering uselessly along the main paths until it’s time to go home and resume family duties. This is probably why in the four years I’ve been living here I’ve yet to find anything rarer than a Firecrest or a Ring Ouzel (a fact which my birding friends in the village seem to relish pointing out to me whenever they manage to get it into conversation). So this Spring I had decided I would try to keep my concentration level higher, even on seemingly birdless days.
I did a big scan round with my bins. Right off in the distance, flying south along the last dune ridge before the sea, I saw a Sand Martin. Given how terrible the spring had been so far in terms of common migrants, this was pretty exciting stuff. I decided to make my way across to the ridge, where I would be able to see any other hirundines moving through, and have views of both the sea, in case any terns were moving past, and the dunes, where I might perhaps pick up a flying Ring Ouzel if I was lucky. I set off in that direction. Within about ten minutes I had broken my new rule and drifted off into another dawdling daydream…
The tail-end of a Wheatear, disappearing over the brow of the dune ahead of me, reminded me of what I was supposed to be doing. I walked up the slope to see if I could get a better look at it. What happened next is etched vividly into my memory. I got to the top expecting to see the Wheatear close by. Instead a significantly larger, all black bird took off from a little hollow about 15 metres in front of me and flew a very short way, landing out of sight behind the next small hillock. For a moment I was completely confused. I just couldn’t work out what I had seen. This will seem a bizarre analogy, but at the time I thought it was like a sort of pygmy Jackdaw, flying as though it was pretending to be injured. I moved carefully until I had a view into the next hollow and there it was. Close and clear in the short grass, walking quickly and easily, then standing still in glorious profile, only a few metres away. Thick set, all black with lovely irregular mottled whitish scalloping on its back, and a large, stout pale bill. Suddenly the flight pattern clicked. Of course! It was a lark! I was looking at the third ever British Black Lark! And yes, it did have the build of a mini-Jackdaw! (I bet that’s not in the field guides!)
Immediately the adrenalin hit. I felt incredible elation and euphoria. I’d found a massive rarity, which was completely easy to identify, and was walking about in the open on short grass instead of skulking in thick undergrowth. My type of bird! But my elation was instantly mixed with anxiety. I had my mobile phone on me, yet I knew I had hardly any battery power left. When I’d set out I’d seen that there were two bars of power left. Normally when I try to make a call with the battery at that level it just goes dead. I wrestled in my coat pocket to get the phone out whilst trying to keep the bird in view. With heart in mouth I dialled my good birding friend and next door neighbour Peter Cawley, who was at Hickling Broad doing conservation work. Heroically my phone made it through and soon I was shout-whispering down the line like a stage villain: “I’m in the dunes and I’ve got a Black Lark and no battery power and I’m not kidding! Call everyone!”
I managed to phone two more local birders, but in the meantime the bird had flown a little further away. I relocated it and then told myself to keep calm and take a careful description, starting with the bare parts then moving carefully through all the feather tracts. The trouble was, I was too amazed and excited, and the bird was too obvious for this to seem important. It was a lark. It was black. What else do you want? However, for those who prefer a more thorough approach however, here are my notes:
Seen very well down to about 10m through 10x42 bins. Starling sized but thicker set, stocky. Immediate impression sort of like pygmy Jackdaw(!). Walking and running at varying speeds, always on the short grass, stopping every few seconds to look around or feed. Occasionally flying low to another area - slightly undulating flight – classic lark flight action, with short tail and “triangular” wings. Large, stout, pale creamy horn coloured bill, with cutting edge and lower mandible curving downwards back into the head, giving it a sort of aloof, glum expression. Dark legs and dark eye. All plumage sooty black except for irregular mottled scalloping effect on feather edges of upper and lower back, scapulars and wing coverts, seemingly varying in visibility depending on angle of viewing and the angle of the bird to the wind; sometimes looking mostly black and sometimes very pale-fringed and scalloped, particularly in an area on the lower central back.
That was as far as I got with my mental description because I was getting increasingly worried that the bird was going to disappear, as it had definitely got slightly warier and was beginning to range further each time it flew. I was beginning to imagine the nightmare of claiming to be the sole observer of a first for Norfolk, and the gentle, patronising looks I’d get from my birding friends as they concluded amongst themselves that I’d made a dreadful mistake. So thank the Lord that it wasn’t long before local birders arrived, toting various photographic items, and managed to get the bird on camera. When Andrew Grieve showed me his first shot – a rear view with the bird looking off to the side with all the diagnostic features visible – I felt a wave of relief sweep over me.
During all this time the bird had not called, but as more people arrived it began to do so in flight, a lovely, warm, rippling call which carried resonantly across the dunes, and my final memory of it, calling loudly and bounding across a sea of appreciative faces, will live with me for a very long time indeed.