Recently on Twitter, I described seeing Golden Eagles as being in my top five birding moments. Someone then asked me for the other four. This was an issue, as I didn’t really have a top five, it was just a turn of phrase. But it got me thinking.
So, in reverse order, here are my personal top five.
5. My one and only Crested Tit
While on a family holiday in Scotland around 1990, we spotted a small bird flitting back-and-forth near a broken tree stump. The top of the stump was only about 3 feet off the ground. Figuring it was eating something, we walked over to take a look. Inside the stump was a nesting Crested Tit, it was the male bringing food in we’d seen. The female looked back at us very calmly, but didn’t move.
We didn’t want to disturb the nest, so we backed off. I’ve never seen a Crested Tit since, but doubt I’d get such a good view again.
4. Circled by vultures
On a University field trip, I was doing mapping work in a Spanish mountain range, not far from the Picos de Europa. We’d regularly seen Griffon Vultures (and one Lammergeyer for the rarity fanatics), they’d become a daily spot, leaving the ridge as we arrived in the morning, and heading off to find food in the heat of the day.
One afternoon, I decided I’d follow up my lunch with a little afternoon nap. I was on a peak alone, I knew I’d be undisturbed, and I was probably feeling the worse for the night before.
After about an hour, I woke, feeling the heat. As I opened my eyes, I was shocked to see two of our committee of vultures circling above me! I doubt they thought I was dead and potential prey, but when a bird with a two-and-a-half metre wingspan is within ten feet of you, panic is the first reaction. I stood, and off they went.
A brilliant moment in retrospect.
3. Male Golden Eagles fighting
Some of the best ‘spots’ are complete accidents. This was one of them.
On the same holiday as the Crested Tit sighting, we’d seen Golden Eagles quite a few times. Never less than spectacular to see a bird with a wingspan over 2 metres! But the best time came when we were just looking for somewhere quiet to have lunch.
We’d parked off the road, and walked round the back of a hill until we found an isolated dip, with a small pond in the middle. As we got our lunches out, we realised there were two Golden Eagles in the air. As we watched them, a third appeared, a younger male, flying in from across the hill. Immediately, one of the pair peeled off to meet the younger intruder.
We watched entranced as the two males squared off over the female, taking it in turns to fly high in the air, then dive down on the rival. Eventually, the younger bird realised he was out of his depth, and left to rethink his strategy.
In terms of bird behaviour, this is the most spectacular I’ve seen.
2. Dartford Warbler
This makes the list as it was a very rare bird, seen in a very odd place.
My Dad and me have always been keen birdwatchers. Because my Dad kept racing pigeons, we often took an evening trip out to allow the birds a training flight. This usually took us out to places were we could add a bit of birdwatching in.
The best spot on one of these trips came not far from Hull, somewhere in the mid-late 1980s. After releasing the pigeons, we were looking at a heron on a nearby river. Suddenly, one of us spotted an unusual bird in a bush not far from the road.
As we stared, the conversation took on a clear pattern: “That’s not a Dartford Warbler?” “It can’t be a Dartford Warbler?” “There’s no way that’s a Dartford Warbler?” and so on. But, no matter how much we tried to talk ourselves out of it, there was nothing else it could be. There, not far outside of Hull, was a Dartford Warbler. Well out-of-place, especially at the time they were at an all-time low in numbers.
1. Flock of Peregrines
In 1998 while I was doing a geology degree at the University of Liverpool, I spent nearly 3 months doing fieldwork at Dufton, near Appleby in Cumbria.
One morning, while walking up to the fells past Dufton Pike, I noticed a flock of birds above the Pike. When I looked closer, I realised it was in fact thirteen Peregrine Falcons. All were juveniles, so there was no way it was a family group.
I moved pretty close, but couldn’t see any obvious food source drawing them together. They were circling around, but there was no sign of hostility. This carried on for about ten minutes, before a buzzard flew through the group, breaking it up and dispersing them. I never saw them again.
The buzzard landed, and I was able to creep within about 6 feet of it, which is almost a separate “top five” moment in and of itself.
This sits as one of the most unusual things I’ve seen, totally unique. I’ve spoken to many birders about it, nobody else has ever seen this, and nothing in the literature convinces me it’s a normal occurrence. But if any of you have seen anything similar, please do tell me.
So, that’s my top five. It’s notable they are all incidents from when I was younger, and before I started recording sightings photographically. Our fondest memories tend to be ones from formative times.
There’s honourable mentions for:
- My first Waxwings
- The Turnstone on Bryher
- Red Kites in Leeds
- Goldfinches on Teasels in the family garden
- The Cuckoo on Spurn
- The Slavonian Grebe in Scotland
Do you have a top five you feel like sharing here?