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You are but mortal, says the whinchat

Will Cresswell

September 25, 2020

I have a picture of this small drab-looking bird, a whinchat, right above my office desk. As I look up from my computer it stares me down, like the servant hired to whisper “you are but mortal” to temper the ego of newly crowned Roman emperors. This whinchat is the one that got away. The bird I couldn’t recatch, no matter how hard I tried. No matter how inventive I was.

I work on small migrant birds like whinchats, which breed in Europe and migrate to spend the northern winter in Africa. They are declining at an alarming rate, so understanding where they go and how they make their journeys is vital in making informed conservation decisions. One of my main methods is to tag birds with sensors that record sunrise and sunset times. Because these times vary depending on location, this method is good enough to locate birds as they move over thousands of kilometers. The tags are small and light enough for a small bird like a whinchat, but they are archival; meaning, we have to recapture the tagged bird a year later to recover the data.

Catching just any bird is easy. Catching a specific bird, and indeed one that you have already caught, is not. Individuals learn to avoid your traps and nets very quickly. We get around this with the whinchats by using a variety of trapping methods. I’ve become very good at it, but some birds seem uncatchable a second time.

Last November in Nigeria, I tried to catch this winchat on six separate days, in six different ways. I had already caught all the other tagged whinchats, and on my last day in the field I pulled out all the stops. I set up all my nets the afternoon before, crisscrossing its little wintering territory to intercept all the flight lines I had observed it using in my previous attempts. To lure the winchat into a false sense of security, I rolled up the nets so they couldn’t catch anything and let the bird fly around and get used to them. When furled, the nets pose no danger to the birds. The next morning, I got up two hours before sunrise, and stealthily unrolled the nets, ready for capture. I was back out of the territory well before first light and hid nearby. It was a perfect setup, I just needed to wait for the window of half-lit dawn when a whinchat patrols its territory, but the nets are still invisible.

But, just as the timing was perfect, a man shuffled along the path towards the territory. He stopped dead in the centre, obviously oblivious to my beautifully invisible nets. He pulled out a pack of cigarettes, lit up, dropped his trousers and settled in for ten minutes of important morning bowel movements. I watched in horror as my whinchat was completely put off by this, and relocated into a neighbouring territory. The man finished, and wandered off, none the wiser. The moment was gone. You can be in the right place, at the right time, but sometimes shit happens.

My consolation, that time, was a white-faced owl that did fly into my net. A lovely thing to see close, but particularly so because I had no idea that they have outrageous bright violet-blue eyelids (you can just see the edge of them in the photo). Ridiculously endearing, like some badly applied party make-up: goodness knows what function they serve in a nocturnal animal. Perhaps they glow alluringly in the ultraviolet half-light. I was left with a big grin as it blinked at me while I released it. My nocturnal efforts were worth it. I might be mortal as far as the whinchats go, but I was left smiling.