I put on a pair of brand new socks the other day and they felt majestic. There seems to be a heightened level of sensation whenever something is new to us. I suspect it’s a genetically imprinted survival mechanism, sharpening our faculties to evaluate new threats or opportunities while allowing things with which we’re familiar to demand less of our attention.
That might go some way to explaining something I’m sure you’ve all experienced – the difference between how you feel when you see a thing for the first time and how you feel when it’s the 248th time. This is the root of the spotter’s addiction, the eternal quest for the undiscovered.
Those of us who take delight in looking at birds sometimes feel compelled to utter noble statements along the lines of, “I like all birds really” or “the robin is just as special as the red kite”. Of course, what we mean is, “robins are great but I’d sell an organ to see a montagu’s harrier.” If it’s a new bird to us and especially if it’s unusual or long-sought, the moment generally lives large in the memory.
Two days ago, a family friend and well-regarded birder told me he’d seen both a pair of kingfishers and a grey wagtail at a spot about three minutes walk from my house (and about one minute from his). Grey wagtails aren’t rare but neither are they an everyday bird, especially in the east. They like fast-flowing water and stony nooks and crannies so upland streams are their prime habitat. I’d never seen one. I’d also never seen a kingfisher, at least not in the flesh. In photographic and illustrative form, I’ve probably seen more kingfishers than almost any other bird, such is its popularity with the designers of promotional materials for conservation bodies. Real kingfishers are genuinely rare with only a few thousand pairs in the UK. They are, however, well represented in Norfolk, to the extent that most people who own a pair of binoculars have seen the highly distinctive flash of electric blue as one dives off its perch or shoots along a stream. I’m not quite sure how I avoided them for so long.
Sensing an opportunity, I grabbed my bins and my camera and scampered up the road. With the afternoon sun behind me, I took up a position a little way from the river. I was just downstream of a mill so the water was rushing through the race before slacking off into the millpond. Fast-flowing for the grey wagtail, slower for the kingfisher – perfect. And there, hopping about with its tail wagging up and down, was the grey wagtail. Despite its name, the dominant colour is yellow. True, its head and back are all grey but it’s the yellow underparts that catch the eye, especially with that sunshine twinkling off the water.
So I watched for a while, trying to take in as much as possible about this new bird. How did it move? Where did it go? What were its most recognisable features? And then I saw another.
A pair, the male with his black “beard”, the female without. Clearly, Mr and Mrs grey wagtail are setting up home under the arch through which the river races, a nice substitute for the mountain stream bridges they tend to use. Good luck to them. Let’s hope there are half a dozen young flying around by June.
The kingfisher blurred across my viewfinder like a missile. Crikey they’re fast. The jolt of adrenaline that went through me was the product of years of hearing people say, “look, there’s a kingfi… oh it’s gone” and feeling like an incomplete Norfolkman for having never witnessed one of these pocket rockets before. Fortunately, she (and it was a she – the orange lower beak is the giveaway) deigned to sit still for a moment, so my eyes could get used to her colour and I could be certain I wasn’t imagining it all.
Shortly after, she was off, so quick I couldn’t keep up with the camera. If I have another chance I may look less through the viewfinder and more with my eyes. Sometimes a memory is the best photo of all, private though it remains. There are different ways of seeing and to allow one to dominate to the exclusion of others is rarely beneficial. That said, this was my first ever sighting; I wanted to preserve it, if only to prove to myself it had happened. I also enjoy a challenge and I wanted to capture a shot of the kingfisher in flight. Senses primed, settings ready, I waited to see if she would return. She didn’t, but the male did.
At least now I can look at this image and remind myself of the vividness of the blue back and the compact streamlining of the body in flight. Next time I’ll have a better idea of what to look for. At least I’ll be ready for the speed at which they travel. Maybe, if I’m prepared to learn and gain fresh insights, subsequent viewings can become new experiences in their own right and rather than sliding into contemptuous familiarity, I can enjoy a burgeoning understanding, knowledge and respect for these two species.
Until next time, gotta go.