Strictly for the birds

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Yesterday, one eye on the weather (that’s a quarter of an eye each, as there were four of us), we visited a miracle.

This is where I get evangelical and stuff.

You must visit the London Wetland Centre.

It doesn’t matter where you live or what your level of interest in wildlife is: go there.

Birdwatcher living in Barnes? It’s on your doorstep. Go there.

From Fremantle, Western Australia and don’t do outdoorsy stuff or nature of any description? Go there.

Live on the moon and enjoy hunting birds until they’re extinct? Go there. But don’t bring your gun.

Seriously, that a place such as this should exist anywhere is good enough, and proof that amidst all the earth-plundering insanity that overwhelms modern life there are people who are quietly doing the right thing in an unpreachy kind of way. But the true miracle is that it’s right slap bang in the middle (ish) of London. A short bus ride from Hammersmith tube and you’re immersed in forty-two (Douglas Adams would be so happy) hectares of twitching paradise. Eider ducks threaten to trip you up as they take the kids for a walk; red-breasted geese honk en masse as if to compensate for their weird anatomical-drawing like appearance; tufted ducks dive obligingly for between twenty and thirty seconds, just like what it says on the laminated sheet. And much more besides.

If you’re not interested in the minutiae, it’s just a brilliant walk with a convenient shop and cafe to anticipate.

But if ornithological trivia is (should be ‘are’, really, because trivia are plural) your thang, I have news.

Apparently there was an American Golden Plover on site yesterday.

Now although I was once a junior birder of almost unparalleled spoddiness, I wouldn’t know an American Golden Plover from a speck of volcanic ash on my binoculars, which is generally what birds look like in real life. I know what a regular (or, as I discover, Eurasian) Golden Plover looks like. Or at least I do as long as it’s sitting on my desk with a big sign saying ‘I am a Golden Plover’ round its neck. But put me in the wild and I am reduced to ridiculous and ever-more-fanciful guesswork.

“Cranes,” I murmur, as a pair of suitably-wide-winged birds take off half a mile away on the other side of the lake. I say it just loudly enough for my family to be impressed, but too quietly for the bona fide birders standing two yards away from me to hear. For if they do, I am undone, the gossamer fabric of my expertise unravelled like an Andrex roll fleeing an overexcited puppy.

Tactical game, birdwatching.

I came over a touch Fotherington-Thomas as we walked round, marvelling at nature in the raw, at one with the awesome delicacy and beauty of the planet, and as near as dammit wept when I saw a mother coot with its two fluffy chicks doggy-paddling (cooty-paddling?) into the reeds. How wonderful, I thought, that in stark contrast to the general mood of things these days, there are people who really value nature, devoting themselves to the preservation of habitat and cherishing the lives of the birds as they might their own children.

How inspiring, I thought.

We nipped into a hide, to shelter from one of the brief but violent showers that are the hallmark of any self-respecting Bank Holiday Monday. Scanning the horizon, binoculars glued to my eyes, I fielded questions from both sides, as my family tried to ascertain firstly what that brown bird bobbing up and down on the water was, and secondly what sandwich or tortilla wrap I would prefer for lunch.

I blanched a little as I realised the answer to both questions was ‘duck’.

I like my hypocrisy with hoisin sauce.

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