“See, there, between the two trees – can’t you see it?” Giles knelt down next to his whispering nephew and peered across the clearing between the trees. There, about twenty feet away was a small, moss-lined nest made of twigs supported between two near-vertical thin branches of a small birch tree.
“Can you see the eggs?” whispered Anderson excitedly.
“Yes,” said Giles stretching his head higher, “I think there are about five or six.”
“There’s the mother!” whispered Anderson urgently and pointing up into the branches above, “she’s come back to sit on them.” Giles looked up and saw something he’d never seen before; well not in all his years watching birds. It was an unmistakably exotic Waxwing.
Seeing a nest was unremarkable enough for Giles who had been unofficially named the Smith family’s ‘twitcher’ on account of his lifelong interest in birds; he’d even moved to work and live in Norfolk to satisfy his interest. The 11 year-old Anderson had said that he was taking him to a secret place where there were lots of nests and some really exciting birds. Not really believing he was going to see anything he’d not seen before – especially in Barnes in South west London, Giles had only come along to placate his brother’s son who’d been insistent about his secret place.
“Have you been to this ‘secret’ place?” Giles had asked Sigrid, Anderson’s beautifully blond Swedish mother whom Giles’ not so beautiful (or young!) brother had managed to bag on account of his success in the City when he was a younger man.
“No,” Sigrid had replied with her usual Scandinavian aplomb. ”Anderson is always talking about it – I just assumed he must have some of your ornithological genes!” Her English had always been excellent.
A Waxwing! Surely it was only ever seen rarely on the east coat in the winter when the cold weather of its northern European home forced it south? Just as he was thinking of the potential of announcing that he’d seen a Waxing nesting in south west London on his blog, he felt Anderson nudge him gently on his leg. Looking to the young boy, he saw that he was now pointing to an area of bush about ten feet to the right of the Waxwing nest.
“Look, there, the bird with the funny beak.” Re-focussing his eyes for the darker area of bush Giles looked at a more familiar sight. Or was it? No, it might at first glance have looked like Crossbill, but it was stockier, bull-necked even, and its bill was deeper and stronger looking – could it be a Parrot Crossbill? Again, these were not visitors to the UK and was restricted to northern and eastern Europe?
“His nest is over there,” said Anderson calmly and pointing again into the distance, “but you can’t quite see it from here.”
When they’d gone for their walk that morning - as much as anything for Giles to take a look at what he might see along the Thames bank – he’d understandably assumed that Anderson’s pleading about his secret place would be nothing of any real interest. Pointing out to the boy a couple of Goldfinches washing themselves in the low water puddles near Barnes bridge was, he thought, likely to be the highlight of the sunny June Sunday morning stroll. But he was wrong. He’d been taken to a small area of land on the north west bank of Barnes Bridge, designated a ‘conservation area’, through a small gap in the metal link fence – it was well hidden from the quiet road which ran along the river bank from Chiswick bridge.
Anderson now started to move quickly and quietly away from Giles through the nettle and low shrubs. Crouching again, he beckoned to Giles to join him.
“Shh, this bird is really scared of people and we have to be really quiet.” He whispered as Giles knelt down as low as he could next to Anderson. They sat in silence with only their own breaths to be heard; Giles could even hear his heart beating with excitement of what he’d just seen and what he might be seeing next. He could also feel the wet ground starting to soak his knees through his jeans.
The piece of land in front of them sloped down towards the river and a small beach where the nearby rowing club launched their boats; Giles had seen it from the bridge as they’d crossed over. The nettles had now turned into various reeds which were tall enough to obscure the river itself and, in fact, any view of Giles and Anderson from the bridge itself or the opposite bank of the river. It really was a secret place. Suddenly there was a slight movement in the reeds. Giles started to make out the dark shape of a tall, heron-like bird piecing its way through. Suddenly, a long, sharp-looking bright orange beak poked out of the reeds and drilled into the soft mud. The head followed. It was black. After a moment of poking in the mud, the rest of the bird slowly emerged. A tall, Black Stork, with long red legs emerged into the brightening patch of sunlight, looked up, and cocked its head as if something was amiss. The noise of a train leaving Barnes Bridge Station on the opposite bank eventually permeated Giles’ hearing and he realised he was holding his breath again. The railway passed very close to the secret place and he wondered what the stork would do. Nothing as it happened. The unseen and unseeing train rumbled by on the nearby raised embankment – no more than a hundred feet away; the stork, the man and the boy remained stock still as if all in agreement of the importance of keeping the secret.
Eventually the Black Stork sauntered back into the reeds, seemingly unaware of the presence of the twitchers.
“There is one more bird I want you to see, Uncle Giles – she’s really friendly.” Anderson’s accent was genuinely English but occasionally Giles could make out the slightly clipped words of his mother – the Scandinavian school he’d attended in Barnes had probably helped with this on account that he’d never spent much time in Sweden. The two of them made their way back to near the entrance and after a few moments Anderson started to look into the trees above them and began to whistle gently. It didn’t sound like a bird whistle to Giles but Anderson persisted. Suddenly a small bird colourful bird appeared on a branch about five feet from Anderson’s head. Mainly dark brownish grey, the bright rust orange patches on its wings and tail flashed brightly in its undulating flight down the tree. Anderson put his hand in his pocket and took something out. Offering his hand up, Giles could see a hazelnut between the small boys finger and thumb. He was offering it to the bird. Again, Giles held his breath and felt his heart thumping. It was a Siberian Jay – no one had ever seen one in Britain.
After only a few seconds, but what seemed like an age, the bird eventually fluttered down to Anderson’s hand and alighted on his fingers. The small dark bill immediately set about the firmly held nut. Anderson smiled and brought his hand down for the two of them to watch the feeding. Occasionally, the little bird would stop, look carefully at the two peering faces and then get back to work on the rapidly disappearing nut. When it was all gone, the bird fluttered away; back up into the tree it had just come down from.
“Her nest, is up there, so I always bring her a nut – Mum get’s them for me.”
Giles was dumb-founded. It seemed that Anderson had stumbled across a haven for birds of Scandinavian or Eastern European origin who were just not supposed to be in Britain. It must be the greatest ever ornithological discovery – he just couldn’t understand why no one else had spotted them.
Crossing back over the Barnes Bridge footpath, Giles questioned his nephew about the secret place.
“So, Anderson, how did you find this place?”
“Oh, it was a while ago – we were walking along the riverbank with my teacher and she was showing us the trees and plants and things. I saw a beautiful golden bird high in a tree above the secret place and tried to tell the teacher about it. She said that there weren’t any golden birds in this country. I knew there was because I’d seen it – so I went back after school and found my way into the secret place. I saw the bird again – it was golden, I was right.”
“Good, good,” said Giles who was actually more interested in the ‘golden’ bird than the story of how the place was found. “So how big was the bird – did it have any other colours?” he queried.
“Oh, yes it had black wings and black on its tail – it was quite big, but not as big as a seagull.”
“It was a Golden Oriole, I think,” said Giles not actually believing what he himself was saying.
“Oh,” replied Anderson disinterestedly.
“So,” continued Giles not wanting to stop the conversation, “how often do you go to your secret place?”
“Most days after school. I don’t take my friends though. Mum knows I go there, but I meet her afterwards at the health club down the road – she goes there every day.”
“Do you think anyone else knows about the birds in the secret place?” The reply was instant.
“Yes, the old man with the special binoculars – he goes there most days too.”
“Oh,” said Giles worryingly. “So what is he like?”
“He’s nice –he says that we must keep it a secret, though.”
“So why did you take me there?”
“Because, Uncle Giles, Mum says you’re an expert on birds and you would know all about them.”
“Oh, so does your Mum know about Albert?”
“No, he said he should be a secret as well.”
“Oh, did he…do you know what his other name is?”
“So what is it?”
“Albert Elphick.” Giles stopped dead.
“Did you say Albert Elphick?”
“Is he quite short with a long grey beard?”
“Yes, that’s him – do you know him?”
“Yes I do, yes I do.”
“Oh, I thought you might – he’s an expert like you.”
The rest of the walk back to the Smith’s Barnes residence – an uncommonly large detached Victorian house with seven bedrooms on the edge of Barnes Common – was in relative silence. Giles wondered how he would tell the Secretary of the South East Birdwatching Society, Albert Elphick, whom he’d met several times at the annual birdwatching fair at Rutland Water – and, in fact, who’s book on ‘Scandinavian Birds’ he’d bought – that he too knew about the secret place.
Albert was known to be a very thorough ‘twitcher’ who’s spent most of his life watching birds. He was married with older children and so there was no suspicion in Giles’ mind that the secret shared with Anderson was anything other than for entirely professional reasons.
“Anderson, I have an idea for you.”
“What’s that Uncle Giles?”
“Well, you shouldn’t tell Albert that you have shown me the secret place, but you should tell him that I am your uncle.”
“Oh, why, do you know him?”
“Yes, but only a little bit – he’ll remember me though.”
“So did you see the secret place, Giles?” asked Sigrid as Anderson and he tucked into ham sandwiches made ready for them when they returned.
“Oh yes, it was delightful,” replied Giles, winking conspiratorially at Anderson across the large pine kitchen table, “there were lots of birds.”
“So was there anything really special?”
“Well, to be honest,” Giles looked hard at Anderson, “nothing that I wouldn’t have expected.” Anderson smiled.
Later that evening after he’d driven back from London, Giles logged onto the birdwatchers blogging site where he knew Albert was a regular contributor. After thinking for a while, he wrote an entry;
‘I cannot believe what I saw this weekend. I think I saw a Golden oriole, a Waxwing, a Black Stork, a Siberian Jay and a Parrot Crossbill near the River Thames. Am I going mad? Giles Smith’