Sunday, 6 January 2013

Big Dipper

Patchy fog clings to the Breckland turf and trees on winter mornings like these. We drive through the dawn towards Thetford on a road that periodically disappears in its gothic shroud, abruptly reappears, and then disappears over the next field again. It sets a rhythm for our dawn jaunt.

There and then gone again. The Black-bellied Dipper turned up at the start of November, the start of December and the start of January and hasn’t been regularly seen later in the month. I’ve no idea why this should be. Its choice of location is unexpected. East Anglia doesn’t have a great selection of rivers, but nobody could’ve guessed that this Dipper would turn up on a dismal stream in the middle of Thetford: a town so pleasant it’s locally known as ‘Thefthood’.

Through the foggy morning emerged a small band of birders lined up by the stream. The bird was showing from our arrival: dipping, bobbing, wading through the gentle flow of the stream and picking out invertebrates from the leaf litter. Its white bib glowed amidst a body of black and brown, an environment of black and brown, and a stream and sky of grey. The breast band was all black: a sign of a foreign origin. Scandinavian, I reckon: it makes more sense to me as an origin, than anywhere else in mainland Europe. Compared to the Scottish, brown-bellied, birds I’m familiar with, it seemed significantly chunkier, broader as if packed with additional buoyancy aids. Certainly it didn’t submerge itself and swim as I’m used to seeing, but this may be down to the shallow, slow stream it was sat in: not a habitat I would expect to see one in Scotland, either.
The justification for this twitch? It’s a bird. There’s not a lot around this winter. It’s an unusual form too: not a species but something sitting uncomfortably outside of the normal but short of the difference required for speciation. And, on a much more superficial level: have you ever seen a thrush-sized bird wading through water? It’s just got charisma this species.

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