Blue sea, yellow sand, green dunes, the mighty walls of Bamburgh Castle towering into clear light, a white-painted cricket pavilion basking in the warmth of a summer evening, a large and attentive audience, this, said Keith Clarkson, must come close to being the highlight of my career.
Keith is manager of the RSPB reserve at Bempton Cliffs and he had come to address members of North Northumberland Bird Club on the subject of Visible Migration – Vismig to those in the know. And to those who doubt, Clarkson advised www.trektellen.nl where you’ll find not only which birds are on the move in your area right now, but ditto for much of Europe.
You can almost watch migration happening without leaving your own living room.
But that would be to miss the thrill of birding. For not all birds on migration fly non-stop to far-off climes, nor do they pass overhead at such a height as to preclude observation.
Meadow pipits, for instance, pause on sunny days to gorge upon the moors; sedge warblers travel streamside routes of their own devising, and follow the margins of upland ponds and pools; siskins travel stray lines of conifers feasting as they go on the cone-held seeds.
Grey wagtails, chaffinches, greenfinches, bluetits, these are migrating birds that until quite recently nobody had thought to consider, much less to seek and count in marginal and unlikely places.
These are birds on migration, birds moving lesser and greater distances from and to their breeding ground.
The real joy of birding is to make discoveries for oneself. Initially, of course, the company of experienced birders can help.
You learn the jizz of birds and their calls which are different from their songs in spring, or those strident territorial anthems used by male blackbirds and thrushes trying to overcome traffic noise. When you feel confident, or simply enthusiastic, you can go tracking birds by day or by night.
Nocturnal migrants are travelling long distance often over inhospitable terrain and without stopping. But remember those calls, and if you know they’ll be flying at height and with a tail wind you’re half-way to finding them, especially as they make pause before setting off across the sea.
Many were first detected by radar, appearing as ‘angels’, unidentified moving white dots on screen, during the Second World War. Now additional forms of technology: ringing, sound recording and tagging are contributing to our picture of bird migration.
The reasons for migration are complex and still subject to study and debate. We do know, however, that the timing of migration is different for each species and depends not only upon wind direction but upon factors such as availability of food and the timing of their moult - you can’t fly far with half your feathers missing.
Despite these variables, it seems that migration occurs in one or two big surges and on a wide front across the country.
Observations from north Northumberland are few, because birders aren’t out there spotting and reporting.
If you want to observe migration, pay attention to the weather forecast and be prepared to choose your site according to different conditions and at different times of year.
Keith’s talk ended with a test: Images of migrants passing across the screen like moving ducks at a fairground stand.
Catch one if you can.
The audience was reduced to helpless laughter.
This was entertainment and instruction of a high order and a trip to RSPB Bempton Cliffs is recommended as the most suitable tribute to an excellent speaker.