Even Sparrows... Bird watchers


Posted: 01.07.20 in Articles category

It seems a good summer for Quails in Northumberland. They are being reported almost daily by members of the local birdwatchers' WhatsApp group to which I belong. Yet I read people's postings with a mix of emotions. While I am pleased to know that these rare summer migrants have returned to the North East, I am loath to go looking as I anticipate being frustrated once again by my failure to spot them. For Quails are one of my UK 'bogey birds'. I have tried to see them here on various occasions in the past without success despite hearing them close by. More than once I have stood at the edge of an arable field near to a singing male and listened to his distinctive "wet my lips" song being repeatedly delivered, yet all the while unable to see him lurking low under cover of vegetation.

But that's not my whole story. I have seen several Quails on one memorable occasion in 1999 - appropriately enough in southern Israel. For the Quail is a biblical bird, one of the twenty three kinds of bird specifically mentioned in the Bible. All four references are cited here and refer to one event - the apparently miraculous provision of huge flocks of Quail during the Exodus:

Exodus chapter 16 verse 13

That evening quail came and covered the camp, and in the morning there was a layer of dew around the camp.

Numbers 11 verses 31, 32

Now a wind went out from the Lord and drove quail in from the sea. It scattered them up to two cubits deep all around the camp, as far as a day's walk in any direction. All that day and night and all the next day the people went out and gathered quail. No one gathered less than ten homers. Then they spread them out all around the camp.

Psalm 78 verses 26-8

He let loose the east wind from the heavens and by his power made the south wind blow. He rained meat on them like dust, birds like sand on the seashore. He made them come down inside their camp, all around their tents.

Psalm 105 verse 40

They asked, and he brought them quail; he fed them well with the bread of heaven.

This event was clearly interpreted as a miracle, at least in retrospect by the psalmists who viewed it as an example of God's loving provision. Perhaps it was. However, the sudden appearance of migrating birds in large numbers is a frequently observed natural phenomenon. As birdwatchers we talk about 'falls' of migrants when an area can be blanketed with birds that have been blown off their normal course by strong winds. On that memorable occasion in Israel I was birdwatching at Eilat - the seaside town at the northern end of the Gulf of Aquaba. It was early morning on 15 March in a local park and for an hour I watched in excitement as I saw a host of migrant birds stopping and feeding including several Quails. I wrote in my notebook at the time that I saw twenty new species that day (Red-throated Pipit, Olivaceous Warbler, Pallid Swift and Quail among them), but it was the sight of those Quails that has stayed in my memory. Perhaps that's why I am so reluctant to look for them this summer.

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