In search of the rainbow bunting

Here’s my story for the next writer’s group zoom!

I pulled my beanie further down my forehead, the air so cold it stung my skin. I couldn’t say I didn’t want to be here, but I did think I’d rather be at home and still in bed. The sky was that pearly white before the rising sun brings colour to its cheeks, the rutted track beneath my feet was crisp but not quite frozen, the puddles gelid but not quite ice. I wish I could feel more enthusiastic, but the thought of seeing the rainbow bunting, although probably a unique opportunity, did not really raise my enthusiasm much above a tepid level.

What had the RSPB site said? European – and indeed Asian and African buntings are related to American sparrows… well, good, I did at least know what a sparrow looked like, an English sparrow that is, not its American cousin. Apparently they are finch-like, again good, I know a chaffinch and even a bullfinch when I see one, but I’m not intimately acquainted enough to know what their beaks are like; buntings, the website said, have differently-structured bills but it didn’t reveal differently in which way. ‘Slightly flatter heads, longer bodies, and many have longer tails with white sides…’ I must admit I was thinking about what I’d read and wasn’t concentrating on where I was putting my booted feet and stomped with full force onto some actual ice and only by an athletic leap did I stay upright.

Someone called out asking if I was alright, and I replied in a falsely jovial way. I really would prefer to be back in bed. The narrow path, a greenway apparently, was deeper here, the air colder, the sky bordered by black and leafless branches was a narrow swathe above us. We rounded a bend and emerged into a more open area, and above the bare hill the lambent glow of the still hidden sun touched the few clouds with an apricot pink.

We left the path and stomped across a small meadow towards the copse where apparently the rainbow buntings had been spotted… I had a little mental chuckle at the silly thought, a rainbow bunting with spots. Either I hadn’t properly read the rest of the RSPB information on these birds which were either short-legged and heavy-bodied and strictly terrestrial, or were lighter and lived in trees and bushes (which must be what the rainbow buntings preferred) or the site hadn’t described the actual colours of these birds. Maybe the term rainbow was enough. Apart from the colours they would have sounded quite dull with their simple, unmusical but distinctive songs. I had been sidetracked I think by a description which had led me to the dictionary to check whether there had been a careless typo or a word I didn’t know. These unusual visitors to England are apparently rare vagrants, and unlike other buntings whose behavioural traits are not hugely notable, the rainbow bunting is entertaining and appealing with its ludic antics. Ludic? Ludic? Did the writer mean lucid? No, they meant ludic which is spontaneously lively and full of fun.

I had made such a thing about these ludic birds that Geoffrey had insisted I joined the early morning ornithologists. We left the track and headed towards a hedge in silence. On the other side of the hedge was a hide and we quietly clambered up the few steps and sidled into the wooden shed on stilts. The copse which I’d thought might contain these ludic creatures  was beside an area or saltmarsh which apparently was the perfect location for the rare visitors. Trees, bushes, rushes and reeds – perfect for rainbow buntings.

We waited for several hours, binoculars trained, mine weren’t because I’d forgotten them and left them at home, but everyone else was peering, cameras at the ready. There was an uncomfortable bench which I perched on, ready to have a look at these small birds once they were in sight, but sadly, they decided that today was not a day for display. The sun came up, other birds awoke and there was a cacophony of whistles and chirps and twittering, but no simple, unmusical but distinctive songs. Eventually some of us decided we needed coffee and maybe a bacon sandwich in the little café we’d passed when it was still dark but which must be open by now. Geoffrey and a couple of others remained, but cold and stiff and very bored, I clambered out of the hide and tiptoed back across the field to the footpath which would lead us to the greenway.

“How many of these spontaneously lively rare visitors are here, then?” I asked a lady who might be called Muriel.

“Oh, only the one! That’s what makes it so very exciting!”

I’m not sure I would describe this morning as so very exciting, but I thought about the coffee and how much I would enjoy a bacon sandwich, or maybe two.

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