There's Nowt so Queer as Folk
Over the years I’ve been fortunate enough to become involved in much interaction with members of the public on all matters wildlife. Most of these encounters are simple pleasant exchanges of information about the weird and wonderful things they have seen or would like to see, but now and then an amusing incident would occur, not to mention the intriguing and downright bizarre.
Let's begin in the early 80s when the RSPB hosted an annual migration hotline for kids, the idea being youngsters could ring up and let us know about the first migrating spring birds they had seen. Great stuff -and it worked. Of course this was well before the advent of mobile phones and the Internet so necessitated a volunteer (me) manning a proper hard wired telephone between 6-8pm whilst all alone in Norwich HQ. It was on one of these lonely vigils that I received a call from a chap who was obviously rather distressed.....
'I've just hit a pheasant' he blurted.
Not really knowing how to respond I murmured something to the effect that these things happen and that he shouldn’t worry. And was he going to roast or grill it, (I may not have said that).
‘No, no’ he continued ‘The bird thass still in the car - I daarn't touch it”, (he was a local man).
After obtaining a bit more information I discovered the caller lived close to my home so I dutifully called in and was shown to his car which had a neat six inch wide hole punched through the radiator grill. Expecting to become immersed in the grizzly task of extracting chunks of medium rare pheasant bedecked around the engine compartment, imagine my surprise when on peering through the hole I could see a black beady eye glaring back at me. To my amazement the pheasant was very much alive and kicking – and after its day to day routine had been curtailed by somebody whacking into it at 50mph was not best pleased. After a bit of ferreting around we found a black plastic bin liner and I managed to extract the bewildered but belligerent bird. I thought it must have sustained some hitherto unnoticed injury, I know I would, but when I released it into nearby woods it sped off, hurtling into the undergrowth on whirring legs. A very game bird you could say.
And then another proud caller to a wildlife information service….
‘I thought you would like to know I’ve just had two eagles over my garden!’
‘Wow’ said I, judging this to be a suitably impressed response. It struck me that more information would be helpful and thinking perhaps we had a caller from the Cairngorm region, I then asked exactly where this gentleman resided.
‘Mulbarton’ was the unexpected reply (this is a village a few miles south of Norwich).
Oh dear! What to do now. I plumped for the standard. ‘Do you think they could have been buzzards?’
‘No I think they were eagles – they were big and brown?’
‘Well buzzards do look like small eagles I suppose, but eagles aren’t common in Mulbarton’.
And so it went on. It really is a nightmare kind of conversation this, because quite understandably people just aren’t used to seeing these things close to and the last thing you want to do is hurt their feelings. After all maybe, just maybe, a sighting of historical significance had indeed been made. We will never know for sure (but trust me they were buzzards).
This kind of call was not uncommon, the classic being somebody asking you whether you could tell them what that ‘big bird was I saw whilst out for a walk with the dog last week’. No further information, just an expectation that you could magically shine light on the mystery. After a while I found it best to say 'buzzard' - I reasoned I stood a 50/50 chance of being right.
The best such birdy story I heard though came from a colleague at the RSPB. Essentially a lady rang in to find out what kind of bird was feeding on her bird table. All she could say by way of description was that it had a red patch on its head. The RSPB guy naturally thought it was a goldfinch or maybe a redpoll, but both these options were dismissed by the caller. Intrigued, and thinking that a rarity may have turned up, the chap agreed to pop into the house which was within striking distance of his office. When he arrived he was amazed to see a tame and presumably escaped common crane pecking seed from the bird table in question. The lady had simply forgotten to mention the bird was four feet tall! Don't know if it's true, but it is certainly believable.
There are also those one liners that baffle and befuddle. For instance, the bloke who commented in a quite disappointed tone that Cley Marshes didn’t look anything like the image he saw on Google Earth. Or again the gentlemen who refused to pay the beach car parking charge because he had only driven down there to blow his nose! The great British public – don’t you just love em!
Not all exchanges have a comic twist though.
Whilst manning the NWT stand at the Royal Norfolk Show a few years back, a lady approached wondering whether we could identify a bird she once saw whilst living overseas. Fearing a potentially fruitless exchange loomed with me limply concluding 'buzzard', I was happy when a colleague stepped in, none other than the Marsh Tit in fact. I cracked on with whatever I was doing and after a few minutes asked Nick (that's his real name) what the outcome of the discussion was. In a bemused voice he said he thought the bird was likely to have been a brown noddy. Nothing particularly surprising perhaps, except that the lady wanted to know because the bird, or birds, effectively saved her life: she was once shipwrecked and fearing starvation had to catch these 'brown seagulls' and eat them raw in order to survive. You just never know do you?
Do you think there are big cats loose in the British countryside? I've always been skeptical, reasoning that 99% of these sightings can be attributed to Chinese water deer that glimpsed in the gloaming, with their white ‘tusks’ aglow, could easily be mistaken for a large feline. So, when early one morning a lady rang the office to say she thought a big cat was loose close to her home, I suggested it may actually be one of the more benign alien invaders.
'Oh, No' she said quite calmly 'I'm familiar with those'.
'Maybe a large dog that's got loose?' I ventured.
'No, I don't think so; I think this is a puma'
'What makes you say that?' I asked, my voice laden with doubt.
'Because I'm looking at it right now in the field next to my house, it's a deep sandy brown, about a metre high at the shoulder and has a long thick tail.'
Nothing more to be said really. No way to validate the claim and no way to know exactly what she had seen; crucially, no photograph to back it up. However should you ever be in the vicinity of Rockland St Mary, beware!
Apart from the 'can you please identify......' type calls the one we all dreaded was the complaint about otters…..
These were a real no win situation because you had to have some sympathy for the poor person whose prized Koi had been munched to a pulp whilst standing up for the legal rights of one of our iconic natural treasures. Easiest thing to do was to refer the caller to an expert conservationist who could cite the appropriate legislative issues, advise knowledgably about mitigation procedures and more importantly take the heat. However, one late afternoon when all alone and unable to bring my sloping shoulders into play, I received a call from a lady who was, to say the least, slightly animated.
'An otter has just now emptied my pond of expensive fish!' She exclaimed.
My heart sank and knowing there was nobody to palm this one off to, I steeled myself for the pending tirade whilst my subconscious groped for the comforting image of me quaffing a large glass of red later that evening.
She continued 'And I love it!'
The relief spread through my hitherto slumped body like a stream of warm treacle 'Really? Well that’s wonderful news'
'Yes, yes, I'm so excited I just had to let you know. I'm now off to the aquatic suppliers to get some more fish so I can watch it over again!'
Sometimes the rewards came in the most unexpected ways.
Whether you believe in UK big cats or not, it does pay to keep an open mind as aptly illustrated by the image below.
Is it a bird? Is it a turtle? Or is it a seal with attitude?
A few days ago a fellow blogger received this pic from a lady who snapped it at Brancaster. She didn't know what on earth it was and neither did we. A turtle suggested itself, but in Norfolk?. In winter? If not a turtle then what? We think we now have a solution, although without further images and more information it is difficult to be absolute. Have a go at identification; let me know what you think and I'll post the 'answer' in a few days.
To conclude this log of ditties, the following instance made me chuckle for some time after it happened, in fact I still chuckle as I write. It occured thus…whilst managing the NWT Ranworth Broad Visitor Centre, I set up a telescope that allowed kids to get a really close view of an Egyptian goose that had chosen to nest on the roof of the building. One little chap approached and I asked him whether he would like to see our goose. ‘No thank you, he politely replied ‘I’ve already eaten’. Priceless.