A smudge of grey, ever so slightly darker than the flat tones of the fenland sky against which it moves, catches my eye above the peaty horizon. ‘Plovers’ I say but Lyn cannot pick them out at this distance; ‘I can’t see them, where are you looking?’ I point but it makes no difference. It is not until we are much closer, 30 seconds or so as the car speeds along the carriageway, that the smudge becomes a flock of individual birds and is now close enough for Lyn to see. ‘How did you manage to spot them at that distance?’ comes the question but I cannot answer. It is just something that I do; the birders sense of what is out there to be seen.
The birds are golden plovers, their identity now clear as they turn and pass through a shaft of sunlight that has forced its way between the heavy clouds. This is plover country and at this time of the year the fields provide feeding opportunities for these winter visitors. This is only a small flock, numbering fifty or so birds, but I have seen much bigger flocks out here in the fens in previous years. More often than not they may be seen feeding on the ground alongside lapwing and black-headed gulls but it is in flight that they most readily capture the imagination.
At the distance that I first spotted them they might have been a flock of one of these others species, but at the back of my mind I was already thinking ‘golden plover’. At times, when I have called distant flocks in this manner, my companions have sometimes accused me of conjuring the birds out of the air. The magic, if there is any to be found, is in knowing what might occur at a particular time and place and in being alert to the possibility of its presence. It is based on experience and is an important tool for the birdwatcher. Knowing what to look for is the starting point but familiarity with different species is what refines this base knowledge into something more tractable. If it gives the appearance of magic then it shows that I’m alert to the possibilities.