I finished February 1996 on 173 for the year, way ahead of my previous best by that time. It was at this point that I started to think seriously about doing 300 again, though anything more had not occurred to me at this stage. As the last day of February drew to a close my immediate focus was on a tick, though – a White-billed Diver that had, remarkably, turned up 20 miles inland along the River Witham in Lincolnshire (only the second inland record)!
A skittles match the night before ensured I couldn’t be there at dawn, but by 10 am on 1 March I was at Tattershall Bridge. I parked up and started pegging it along the riverside road to try to see the bird. There it was! A proper ‘bananabill’, it was an impressive beast indeed, and on a river which was only 20 or so yards wide it couldn’t help but to show staggeringly well. The downside was that it was slightly oiled, and preening constantly at a small patch on its flank. I was also told that there was a big fishing match along that stretch of river the next day, so I feared for its safety – and sadly was to be proved all too right.
I struck up a conversation with a bloke near me who turned out not to be a birder at all, but a roving reporter for Yorkshire TV. When he heard that I had travelled from Somerset, he interviewed me on the spot. What’s more, I found out later that the interview went out on the local news that night. Fame at last! Given how I must have looked that morning, I hope it went out after the 9pm watershed.
There seemed to have been a pretty good arrival of seabirds in the area. Both Red-throated and Great Northern Divers were reported from nearby Tattershall Gravel Pits, and a Black-throated had also been reported the day before. Nobody at the White-billed seemed to know what birds exactly were where, and it was tricky enough just to find the right pits. The Great Northern reported that morning turned out in fact to be the Black-throated, but there was no sign of the Red-throated. There was, however, a Red-necked Grebe that nobody had mentioned, and a Slav Grebe on the river added to the list. The Red-crested Pochard by the bridge only had one intact wing, though.
Having the time, I went down the road to Peterborough to see my second Black-throated Thrush of the year, the long-staying Werrington bird. Another first-winter male, it gave excellent, close-range views.
The next day was Alastair’s wedding (the reason he hadn’t been able to come with me for the diver), so I hid from him all afternoon the horrible news of the demise of the White-billed Diver at the hands of a (distraught) fisherman. It swallowed two sets of treble hooks intended for pike, and despite being taken into care, it could not be saved. A sad end to a magnificent bird.
A happier ending, though, for Alastair, as another twitchable bird turned up later the same month at Blyth, and also showed excellently. (Hang on – that means he’s got it up on me for Northumberland – rats!)