Country diary: The linnets have brought out the merlins – and the twitchers

<span>Photograph: FLPA/Alamy</span>
Photograph: FLPA/Alamy

Two days have transformed the land around our local lake into a test of manhood. The perimeter path we shared 48 hours ago with a single woman being walked by her dog is now bristling with male ego. Men stomp past in grim determination, not meeting our eyes. Others loiter in guarded huddles among the bushes. One has a look of relief on his face as he reveals to us that, yes, he has seen it at last. We have walked into the middle of a local twitch.

A couple of regular birders – the man leaning over a telescope, and the woman scanning with binoculars – tell us a merlin has descended from the uplands to this lowland lakeside and is after linnets. “So they say,” the woman adds. The smallest falcon in the first month is of paramount interest to those who want to mark it on their year list, their county list, their whatever list.

We choose to do what we always do and look at what we find. If we were merlins, we would find prey aplenty on the upper slope over the eastern shore of the lake, where a strip planted with sunflowers last summer continues to yield seed even now. And finches. They flare up from the ground, sink and disappear into it, over and over. In between, those pert little forked tails lead our naked eyes on mazy dances, the flock breaking and coalescing, splinter groups paring off and returning to the core.

I whip up my binoculars, confirm the birds’ uniform linnetry in reddish-brown breasts and white tail feathers, gasp at whirring wings interspersed with showboating glides. I feel the exhilaration of following the chase, absorbed within the binoculars’ blinkered vision, a circle of flutter. We have, it would appear, become part of the twitch.

Such is the stream of ringing chirrups from all around, it seems as if the flock passes through me. I lower my glasses to see a rush of birds go past.

We circuit the entire lake without seeing the merlin, but it doesn’t matter. We chanced upon it here two days ago.

• Country Diary is on Twitter at @gdncountrydiary