The story of a bog-standard birder
Growing up in the 1960s
How does someone start talking about themselves without sounding self-obsessed or self-important? Well if you have progressed beyond the foreword and started reading this you will have already consumed about five hundred words (more if you count hyphenated words as two) so I will take the liberty of assuming there is at least a germ of interest there and will risk starting at the very beginning. Don’t worry, I will get to the birdy stuff as quickly as I can but I do have a genuinely held philosophy that all the people we have ever been remain a part of us as we grow older, so there may be some merit in having a look at who I once was before we get too tied up in trying to explain how I came to be the person that I am today.
I will totally understand if you don’t approve of that approach and just want to read about birdwatching and stuff and won’t be offended if you skip to the next bit which I will endeavour to make more interesting. For those of you who haven’t jumped to the next chapter I will start (as it were) with my Start.
Perhaps the biggest mystery of my life is, exactly how did I come to be conceived?
No – not the mechanics, I may be naive sometimes, but not THAT naive? These days’ dysfunctional families and lone parents are perceived as the social norm in some areas, but in the late nineteen fifties it was verging on a shameful state of affairs and not something to be discussed by decent people except in hushed whispers.
I was born in a pub on the front of Lindop’s Foundry, Walsall, in the same year that Sputnik went up, so I suppose I really am a child of the space age. I don’t remember my parents ever being on more than essential speaking terms, my mother’s territory being the scullery with its trendy fifties breakfast unit and Belfast Sink - and yes, I was occasionally bathed in the Sink – I really was that small once.
My dad on the other hand occupied the Living Room with its coal fire range and cupboards that were usually filled with dying Cockroaches. I suppose my first wildlife experience was pulling back the sheets on the bed each night to make sure that no cockroaches had taken refuge in the unguarded bed during the daytime. Now that was a real introduction to urban wildlife!
The actual reasons for the conflicted family relationships remain a mystery to me although I later found out that a lifetime of being in the pub trade had resulted in my dad at one point becoming an alcoholic and having got into such an addictive state that he had needed to be taken into care and dried out. This all happened before I was born and I have nothing but good memories of my dad (who had always wanted a son) but I understand that whatever had happened during those earlier times when things were bad had been very serious and had effectively alienated my mother and sisters from my father for all time.
My parent’s relationship continued for appearance’s sake until 1964 when my sisters were old enough to have left home and my mother finally left my dad, taking me with her. That would be the last time I saw my dad, my cousin Roy Duce from Pelsall would come to see me a couple of years later to tell me that he had passed away of Cancer in his early fifties.
Both of my sisters were significantly older than me so from 1964 onwards I was effectively an only child being brought up by a mother who I now see was ill-prepared for bringing up a son on her own. I won’t say she didn’t do her best but I can now see how being in her forties with a growing boy significantly restricted her chances of having a life of her own. Looking back from the vantage point of age and experience, I suspect that there was a significant amount of both sacrifice and resentment in her relationship with me that often resulted in periods of antipathy on both our parts.
Anyway, such introspection does not move my story forward, so on to happier days.
It is something of a cliché now that if you can remember the1960s you can’t have been there! People may also think that things always look better in retrospect but I was a child who grew up in the 1960s and I think things were actually better, not least because kids were allowed to be kids and not pressurised by television or parents, to become ‘little grown-ups’ as soon as we could.
Between 1961 and 1968 I was a pupil at Alumwell Infant and Junior Schools in Walsall and have nothing but fond memories of the experience. In those days there was no M6 Motorway or ribbon development of trading estates and retail parks. The school looked back across fields of farmland; often with grazing horses and the only intrusion was the occasional green and yellow trolleybus (Wolverhampton Corporation, Service 29!) that slowly meandered its way along the route of the old Wolverhampton Road. This was all to change of course and in 1966 our class work would be interrupted by the distraction of huge yellow earthmoving vehicles cutting the route of what would eventually become the busiest stretch of motorway in Europe!
I recall the first day at Infant school, lots of worried looking kids getting kisses from their mums (except me of course) before marching off to doom like Tommy Atkins, home-made pump-bags hanging over the right shoulder, as the little soldiers disappeared toward the exotic experience of education. Something perhaps implied by the ornamental palm-tree that had been contrived into the school brickwork? I could not wait, it was straight in and into the realm of our surrogate mothers, lavender smelling ladies who fussed over us and made sure our coats were hung up on our designated coat hooks. Even today there are some perfumes favoured by mature ladies that still evoke a mental flashback of that time, and in that gentle way my uninspiring journey through education began.
School was something to be enjoyed rather than endured, I don’t remember much about the course content but there is the odd thing that still endures. I was very quick to pick up reading, probably because I had two older sisters, the younger of which had introduced me to the delights of ‘Buster’ comic and ‘Dan Dare’ in the ‘Eagle’ before she decided to go girly and started having ‘Bunty’.
With the onset of teenage years she progressed to music magazines that could be looted for pin-ups to adorn the obligatory bedroom ‘bulletin boards’ so when I was at school, I was glad to find the ‘Pirate’ books where I could learn to read with ‘Roderick the Red’ and ‘Gregory the Green’. I am pretty sure that I was the first in my class to work my way through to the final book, adorned with a beautiful illustration of a golden griffon and I was also one of the first to discover the delights of American Comic Books (nine old pence each from ‘Allen’s paper shop’ at the bottom of Primley Avenue).
Reading was to provide my first introduction to the world of birds in the form of the well-known Ladybird books. From an early age I had been fascinated by animals and my favourite toy was a Noah’s Ark my dad had made for me downstairs in his workshop in the cellar. This brightly painted toy accommodated my large collection of plastic animals usually purchased from W. Sherwood Millers amazing toy shop in Walsall’s main arcade or perhaps from Backhouses toy shop in Wilson’s Arcade.
I can’t remember who it was, but someone purchased the Ladybird books for me, presumably hoping to engage my enthusiasm in such a way as to promote an interest in reading. They needn’t have bothered, it was already in place by the time I was seven and has remained with me all my life. I do remember many happy hours looking through those books though and particularly remember looking with interest at the illustrations of familiar birds such as Flamingo and Moorhen as well as more exotic creatures such as the Cock-of-the-Rocks in its fabulous scarlet plumage and the unbelievable Shoebill. Somewhere inside me the passion for birds that was to blossom many years later was stirring but at that place and time there was not even a breeze to fan those early sparks of interest.
Strangely school did not at that time do a lot to support or stimulate an interest in wildlife either, although we did at least have the nature table where various curiosities such as pine cones, seaweed or mysterious lumps of wood would sit alongside pressed leaves and Fossils. When you were at such an early age in an environment where there was no formal distinction about what constituted real and mythical creatures it’s perhaps not surprising that there was some confusion and I do fondly remember one regular aspect of the curriculum, St. George’s Day. Everyone knew that we would be expected to paint a picture of our patron saint saving the maiden in distress, but for us lads it was just a great opportunity to legitimately spend time painting the most awesome dragon that we could imagine! These days I suspect that most kids aren’t even taught who our patron saint is (which is perhaps just as well as they are so much more sophisticated than we were that they would probably want to know why England’s patron saint was actually Turkish)?
I really enjoyed school but it is probably memories of ‘play-time’ that have stayed with me over the years, climbing frames and monkey-bars which seemed colossally high and dangerous, or rolling huge snowballs up the bank to make snowmen. I can also remember taking the cereal-box guitars that we had made in art and pretending to be The Beatles (inevitably our repertoire was strictly limited to-” She loves you (yeah, yeah, yeah”). Putting on a performance from the low brick terraces around the edge of the playground. That at least is one aspect of my personality that hasn’t changed over the years, when it comes to music I am still as talentless today as ever I was then!
It must be remembered that the children of the nineteen sixties were probably the first generation to have television, and this must have broadened our horizons and stimulated our imaginations. Throughout the time at infant and junior school we would role-play our current favourites, progressing from Supercar and Fireball XL5 to Doctor Who, James Bond, Batman, Thunderbirds and The Man from U.N.C.L.E. And there were of course animal programmes to be watched although by ‘Attenborough’ Standards I suspect that the most familiar of these, (Zoo Time) would not really stand up very well to scrutiny as an accurate vehicle for educational purposes?
Perhaps it was this new medium that triggered the school legends? Were there really escaped crocodiles in the brook at the bottom of the field? I never saw one but I did learn what a Moorhen’s foot-print looked like. Was there really deadly quicksand on the old tip-site at the far end of the school grounds? No but there was some mucky sand that got wet when it rained (Although I suspect that there must be a lot of kids who had wished there was quicksand on that site, it’s where they built the secondary school)!
Kids do like to dramatise though and perhaps the most unfair legend was the dreaded Caretaker. I don’t remember his name (although I’m pretty sure it began with T.) but this man was portrayed as the meanest of ogres by most of the kids. I know that I for one lived in terror of him. Strangely, long after leaving Alumwell I remember bumping into him and daring to say hello and he was a nice and friendly man who really seemed pleased to be remembered – can’t kids be horrible?
School dinners were awful though. The existing (and I suspect now quite decrepit) dinning hall adjacent to the Junior School was being built during my last year at Alumwell and I think opened in 1968/69, so I never benefited from it. I remember someone trying to force feed me Cheese-Pie at one point and I made the mistake of telling my kids about flicking stodgy lumps of pea and potato at the ceiling where it occasionally stuck (this anecdote came back to haunt me several times when I tried to impress on my children the need for decorum in their school dining hall!).
Dinner was something to be got over as quickly as possible though, so that play could continue outside. Sometimes it was spy’s or our current television favourite or occasionally kiss-chase. I remember having a crush on one particular girl who I think in retrospect must have reciprocated my feelings (I seemed to catch her quite often and I was never that fast a runner!). Of course in these enlightened days such pastimes are probably deemed to be politically incorrect, but in the naive and innocent sixties it was a harmless adventure that allowed kids to recognise the fact that there were two different genders and undertake what in modern terms would be described as interactive social development (and we just thought we were having fun)!
Eventually though, Playtime would come to an end, the air-raid siren on a nearby factory would wail briefly at five-to-one to warn errant employees that it was again ‘clocking-on’ time and we knew that soon a whistle would blow and we would be expected to stand like statues until summoned inside.
The afternoons would pass quickly and soon enough we would be heading home. The teachers would head for their ‘Morris Travellers’ (a mandatory vehicle for teachers in those days, usually the estate version with mock-Tudor woodwork all around it and usually pea-green in colour!) while the kids would head for the blue Walsall Corporation bus where if they were lucky they would find a partially used roll of pink bus tickets to roll off the open platform as the bus went down the street.
Walking home could also be an adventure though, this was still a time before clear air with many houses burning coal that turned the occasional autumn fog into a real ‘pea-souper’ Snow drifts were also a common occurrence and I can rarely remember the schools closing, even when roadside cars were buried roof-high in roadside drifts. How different it is today when an inch of snow now brings the country to a standstill!
greatly impressed by the outcome of her academic journey so somehow she negotiated a swap with another child and I commenced the autumn term of my eleventh year at W.R. Wheway School in Leamore.
When you hear people talking about Wheway you could be forgiven for thinking that they actually undertook secondary education at Fort Apache rather than a secondary school in England and I have heard that it was described as one of the toughest schools in the area but I was a good if relatively boring kid and managed to get through the experience unscathed and despite the usual bullying that unfortunately still persists (I refer you to my early comments about horrible kids) I don’t have any memories of any serious incidents. In fact one of my strongest memories was when our headmaster, a small man with a physical disability, somehow made around four hundred pupils (some of whom were big enough to pick him up and hold him over their heads) sit still with their arms folded on the floor of the main hall all afternoon because two unidentified individuals had been shop-lifting chocolate bars in the newsagent shop in Beeches Road. At home time we were allowed to go but with the firm threat that if the two individuals did not turn themselves in we would go through the same thing again tomorrow. They did and we didn’t– astonishing eh?
School ended – I did not distinguish myself academically. It would be tedious to regale you with the various companies and jobs that I had but almost inevitably my licensed trade upbringing provided me with an excuse (or genetic disposition) toward alcohol as a release from the tedium of work and as an effective way of losing the inhibitions that made it difficult for me to relate to people in general and girls in particular.
Fortunately drinking alcohol never became an uncontrolled aspect of my life as it had for my father (although there were moments). I was also fortunate to be young, idealistic and reasonably knowledgeable about beer just as the real ale revolution was beginning to occur. I joined the local branch of the Campaign for Real Ale and made some good friends, one of which was to be the catalyst that would reawaken that long forgotten interest in wildlife in general and Birds in particular. And if you have stayed with me this far, that folks is where the birding begins!
I first met Dave Glover in 1980. He used to turn up with his good friend Melvyn Morgan at Camra branch meetings but although they both seemed quite approachable, for a few months there was little interaction between us. For beer lovers the world was a different place in the early eighties. For one thing beer cost about 30p a pint but there was certainly a lot less of it about in those days. Today you can go into any specialist real ale pub and see fifteen or more beers on sale but in those days we used to have an annual coach trip to Lichfield as there were as many as twelve beers on sale in the various pubs around the town! 1981 was to be an adventure though.
In an ill-fated piece of industrial action that would eventually result in brewery closure, staff at the well-known Birmingham Brewery Ansells went on strike, stemming the flow of beer to the many tied pubs that they had throughout the region. This left the managers and tenants with a dilemma. How would they keep the beer flowing for their customers?
Underhand activities prevailed with licensees doing whatever it took to get a supply of beer below the radar of the parent company. Many obtained beer from local suppliers such as Simpkiss or Davenports while a few went to larger regional breweries such as Robinsons of Stockport, beer that could normally only be tried by travelling north or (if you were lucky) finding it on sale at a beer festival.
Many brewers refused to reveal the identity of the beer they were selling and that is how I first got to talk to Dave Glover. We were at a meeting in a pub in Wednesbury (The Rose Hill Tavern I believe) and found ourselves comparing notes and discussing the origins of the pint that we were drinking and that was enough to break the ice. As the months progressed we found ourselves to be like-minded individuals with shared interests and soon became firm friends.
I suppose I had better say a word about Dave as his role in my progression to being a bird watcher is probably the most significant.
Dave is a genuinely kind and generous natured individual who is still one of my favourite people but as a birdwatcher he presents a strange case. Dave was interested in Birds from an early age being a member of the RSPB and being able to identify most of the species that he encountered on a day to day basis. But having seen a good variety of the common species he seemed to reach a point of contentment and was never inclined to become involved in the more racy or competitive aspects of birding. I still see Dave a couple of times a year and we go local birding together and he is brilliant company. The genuine delight he gets from seeing something relatively common is inspirational and often makes me feel guilty about the casual disrespect I show for the birds that I encounter on a regular basis. If we are able to encounter something he hasn’t seen before, his pleasure and excitement is infectious. Being with Dave makes me look at things with a reinvigorated enthusiasm – he is a great friend and always good company.
I relied on Dave very much in my early days. We used to go out drinking all around Britain, usually with a complex itinerary meticulously crafted by Dave or Melvyn. Target pubs, beers and train timetables were always accurately identified and we would sometimes coincide our leave periods to allow train journeys on consecutive days.
Spending so much time on the train Dave would often point out birds from the windows. “That’s a Pied Wagtail on the platform” – “Those are Canada Geese” – “Can you see the Shelduck?” As things progressed I found myself becoming more and more interested and recall a journey to Scotland where I glimpsed a brightly coloured bird sitting on one of the rail-side snow defences. I did my best to memorise it and insisted on visiting W.H. Smiths in Inverness to check through a field guide - there it was, male Stonechat! I also saw my first Curlews that day on Culloden Moor and also a glimpse of my first Hooded Crow alongside the track – I was becoming aware of birds!
Most people would struggle to identify the exact date that they ceased being interested in birds and became a bird watcher but I can! The 5th of September 1983 was the day that we decided to visit a Good Beer Guide recommended pub at Little Stretton in Shropshire. This involved a train journey to Crewe, a Hereford-bound train to Church Stretton and a modest walk to the neighbouring village, arriving just as the pub was opening. It was a really pleasant early autumn morning and quite warm so we all decided to enjoy our pint outside in the pubs extensive back garden. Being a rural pub, the licensee had decided to keep some livestock in the form of either Llamas or Alpacas and I decided to walk up the garden to have a closer look. As I fussed the furry South American contingent I noticed a movement out of the corner of my eye where a pretty blue and cream coloured bird made its way down the bole of the tree. “Hey Dave, what sort of bird looks like…?” I asked – “It sounds like your describing a Nuthatch, why?” – “Because there’s one on this tree” I replied. I can still remember Dave running up the lawn spilling his beer to have a look at my spectacular find. This was one of those birds that birdwatchers saw, not something for the eyes of someone like me – this was exciting!
As we sat on the train toward Crewe I started making a list of the birds I had seen or could recognise and went back through my beer notes to identify the dates on which I had seen them. That night I drew up my first bird list and the die was cast.
My sister-in-law Irene ran a catalogue at that time (as many people did) and I scoured the pages of it for a pair of binoculars that I could afford. I settled for an inexpensive pair of Russian made 10x35, a mistake that many birders have made I expect, not appreciating that the quality of the image your equipment provides has a disproportionate relationship to the amount of enjoyment that you get from seeing a bird. In my case it was several years before I was able to graduate to a half decent pair of Binoculars and discovered that many of the birds I had seen didn’t actually have a slightly yellow cast after all; it was the effect of the cheaply coated Russian lenses!
Knowing what I was looking at was the next criteria that I needed to satisfy. Dave was very supportive and patient but I couldn’t keep calling him every time I found something new. I went to Brownhills Library in Brickiln Street and went through the books available there. Two of them, the R.S.P.B. guide to British Birds and another book called British Birds – An identification Guide (written by the then chairman of the West Midlands Bird Club) were eventually selected and I believe that they were in my possession, month in and month out for the best part of a year, becoming disrespectfully dog-eared on countless local excursions to Brownhills Common and Coppice Lane Woods.
This was my apprenticeship and I strongly recommend it. If you have to identify things for yourself you have to pay far more attention to them than you do if someone shows them to you and if you are fastidious and have a respect for accuracy you will check and double check what you see against the literature until you are absolutely certain about your identification. This is a brilliant way to hone your identification skills and one that I have subsequently re-engaged on many occasions when on holiday abroad (where there is often nobody to ask about the species that you have seen).
At the time that birding first became an important part of my life I was living in the high- rise block on Brownhills High Street (Waine House) and was working in the fancy-leather trade in Walsall for a pittance a week which meant that doing any exotic birding was out of the question. This being the case my formative birding experiences were all local, taking place on summer evenings or at weekends. My first target was always Brownhills Common. In those days it still resembled lowland heath as the scrub woodland that has since overtaken it was in its earliest phase of growth. This meant that there was a lot more of it to ramble over and I would frequently find myself coming out at some point I had never seen before.
The wonderment I had in those days is quite unbelievable now. The bird with a yellow rump that I kept flushing from the ground could that really be a woodpecker? And what was that beautiful large bird with blue in its wing that perched on a telegraph pole, how would I ever sort that one out? I think the first bird to really blow-me away though was a male Bullfinch I found on Holland Park. My first thought was; “It couldn’t be one of those, you only saw birds like that on coffee mugs and fancy plates”, surely nobody would believe that you could find one of those in Brownhills? Of course as time passed I encountered these birds again and again and I became more open in my expectations of what I might find on my local forays. I still have strong memories of some of these encounters.
With (What for me was) a stroke of genius I thought that rather than worry about what it looked like I would try and identify it by its song and to my amazement – the solution was immediate and obvious. These were Willow Warblers; I was sitting in a wood surrounded by a fall of migrant Willow Warblers! The sense of achievement I got from this was totally disproportionate to the reality of the situation (there is no other bird of any kind on the British list that sounds like a Willow Warbler) but that didn’t matter. I was on my own and not only had I sorted out what appeared to be a difficult identification problem, I had done it first and foremost on what the bird sounded like – I was getting the hang of this birding lark!
Of course in those days walking around with a pair of binoculars around your neck usually resulted in one of two possible responses, shared interest or ridicule! This made you tend to be cautious about who you shared these experiences with and also suspicious of any colleagues or friends who asked you about your interests. On one day I remember well, I was walking the track along the back of Brownhills Common from the Rising Sun end. It was much more open in those days with a line of telegraph poles carrying phone lines across toward Brownhills West. I was really enjoying the glorious spring afternoon with the warm sunshine on my face but as usual, somebody has to rain on your parade!
For some folk it’s not acceptable to let other people go about their business and mind their own, and so it was that I heard someone obviously taking the piss! I couldn’t see them, they were presumably hiding behind a bush in front of me but they had obviously decided to make fun of the sad-act bird watcher and were making the most exaggerated Cuckoo calls you could possibly imagine. I think I may have actually shouted something along the lines of “Why don’t you piss off and mind your own business” before walking past a bush and, instead of seeing a retreating figure disappearing into the distance found myself instead looking at a wonderful long-tailed pale grey bird perched on the telegraph wires with an eye like a Rowntree’s Fruit Pastel! “Cuckoo” it said!
This was genuine magic! I was actually alone after all, looking at and listening to a real Cuckoo and this was what a Cuckoo really sounded like? Entranced doesn’t come in to it, this was a legendary species for which the sum total of my previous experience revolved around occasional encounters with poor quality Swiss Clocks! I’m not sure how long I stood absolutely still watching this bird as it called its name to anyone who would listen but I know that he got fed up before I did, eventually flying away toward Wyrley Common.
This was genuine magic! I was actually alone after all, looking at and listening to a real Cuckoo and this was what a Cuckoo really sounded like? Entranced doesn’t come in to it, this was a legendary species for which the sum total of my previous experience revolved around occasional encounters with poor quality Swiss Clocks! I’m not sure how long I stood absolutely still watching this bird as it called its name to anyone who would listen but I know that he got fed up before I did, eventually flying away toward Wyrley Common.
Inevitably though, even my inexperienced eyes became accustomed to the limited variety of birdlife available on the common and in the near-by Coppice Woods (where birdwatching always drew the attention of a nosy and interfering lady from the Hussey Estate, who always assumed you were only in the woods to cause mischief).
I started to search for other local sites where I could increase my knowledge and experience and so paid a visit to the Central Library in Walsall to see if I could glean any useful information from their books. One that I came across was an R.S.P.B. guide to birdwatching sites in Britain. I was astonished to find the Chasewater was not only in there, but it got really good reviews! I was familiar with Norton Pool from a time in my teen years when I had volunteered on the preserved railway there (before two years working for British Rail had worn away the romance and mystique of being a railway man), but had not been aware that it regularly (Sic) played host to rare and exotic species such as Eider Duck, Twite and Snow Bunting!
It was obvious that I could get to Chasewater easily; it was about half an hours walk from the flats to Anglesey Basin. I immediately made a resolution, I would start to visit Chasewater and learn to identify all of these weird and wonderful species that (if I was to believe the book) I was almost certain to see. Needless to say the reality was much different and I would be spending many months walking around that site with my Library Books once more before I made any real progress at all! It was to be a turning point though; Chasewater would be my first introduction to other birders from whom I would learn more in five minutes than could be gleaned from hours with a book.
More importantly, I would have found my real local patch that even thirty years later is still the birding site at which I most feel at home.
In retrospect I just happened to start birding at the perfect time. The early nineteen eighties was seeing the final dissolution of the traditional Black Country, a decline that had perhaps started as long ago as the 1880s when the railways actually carried the highest amount of locally produced merchandise? In the nineteen-eighties though, the transition was not subtle, it was sudden and very real for those employed in the manufacturing and production sector. Many of the middle-aged men at the time were unknowingly becoming involved in what is now regarded as a significant paradigm-shift to the structure of employment in Britain.
A good number of those who were put out of work at this time may have been with one of the large employers such as Rubery Owen, Garringtons, B.R.D. etc. since they were fourteen years old and held genuine expectations of remaining with these estimable employers until they were given their gold watch at the age of sixty-five. The recession of the early eighties was to see many of these men stripped of prestige and self-esteem as these huge employment complexes were reduced to brick-dust. Some people would be flexible enough to change direction and find alternative employment in the newly developing Service Sector but for many, these events would signal the beginning of would become a protracted descent into eventual retirement.
I was in my twenties and all this seemed very remote to me, after all, retirement was still a long way away. Many of those affected by redundancy and unemployment found themselves with time on their hands that they had never had before and so it was with me.
My wife Lynn had always been the bread-winner during the early years of our marriage. Working in the print trade, with its very strong and well-established union, her terms and conditions of employment were excellent and she would often bring home twice my salary. But in1983 the company she worked for closed its doors to all but a handful of employees and Lynn was not one of them. We managed on benefit and my paltry wage from my leather trade employment until 1984 when the ripples of the factory closures started to be felt in people’s pockets and established trades such as leather-work and retail also took a down-turn as people were forced to tighten their belts. I too found myself redundant.
There were few jobs to chase and too much time to sit around feeling depressed so the escape of a couple of hours walking around Chasewater during the day not only helped in terms of keeping fit, it also helped the unemployed to keep sane! A visit to Chasewater on almost any day of the week would find anything from one or two to sometimes half a dozen birdwatchers strolling around the site and inevitably, an awareness of each other developed and occasional nods became hellos. Eventually, the familiarity that comes to like-minded people with a shared interest led to many acquaintances becoming birding friends. The first person I recall extending the hand of friendship was a lovely guy from Hammerwich called Roger.
Roger Hancocks was not only a brilliant artist (many of his line drawings can be found adorning the pages of many a West Midland Bird Club report of the time) but also the head of the art department at a major secondary school. This was to be my first experience of how birding is a great equaliser. It doesn’t matter if you are rich or poor, important or a menial worker, if you share the passion for birdwatching whoever you are in the real world is irrelevant – you are a fellow birder!
I had walked across the South Shore at Chasewater and was at the corner by the Power Boat Club inlet when a bearded chap in a red car leaned from his window and shouted across to me; “Have you seen the Little Ringed Plover”? Little Ringed Plover – wasn’t that really significant? L.R.P. had only bred in Britain for the first time in 1968 and from my limited knowledge was something special. I also remember that it shared a page in my field guide with a related species Ringed Plover, and I had always wondered if I would be competent enough to separate and identify them if I was ever fortunate enough to find one.
I strolled across to the car indicating that indeed I had not seen this wondrous bird and Roger nodded toward the shoreline just beyond his car. Surely there was nothing there, certainly not one of the obvious black and white wading birds that festooned the pages of my pocket guide? And then it moved. In the years that followed I became very familiar with this species and I now think nothing of picking-out one of these birds, sometimes at quite a distance as it strolls along the Chasewater shoreline but that first specimen looked tiny. It was a real learning experience, I am sure if the more experienced eyes of Roger had not found it I would have walked straight past the bird and continued my visit in total ignorance of what I had missed.
Roger obviously picked up on how new I was to birding and also told me where to find a Dabchick (that was not in my book but I subsequently discovered that this was the old name for Little Grebe) and also where to find Meadow Pipit (I was sure I had seen Meadow Pipit but to the beginner, Pipits all looked so alike that I had not had the courage to count them on my list in case I was looking at a Tree or Rock Pipit).
Roger and I would remain friends until he sadly decided to drop off the birding scene, I used to phone him if I had found anything significant and remember well getting him to leave his bath to look for an Osprey that had flown past my window in Waine House before soaring over Brownhills and drifting toward Hammerwich. Roger also helped me to see a bird that I was desperate to encounter, a Waxwing, and this led to the most unusual twitch of my life.
I had been out on a Sunday outing, I can’t remember where, and returned home to find a message to give Roger a call when I got the chance. This would usually mean I had missed something at Chasewater so with trepidation I called Roger’s home number.
“I know that you really want to see a Waxwing, well I thought you would like to know that there are two showing well at Friary Grange School in Lichfield and they were there until dusk so might still be there in the morning”
How was I going to get to Lichfield for daybreak and see these birds before the school opened and they would be disturbed by kids? I would need to get on site before first light but there were no buses at the time I needed one. I know, I would hitchhike into Lichfield.
At 06.00 I left the flat, wrapped warm against the winter cold and made my way up to the traffic lights at Shire Oak. The roads were deathly quiet and in a ten minute wait only half a dozen cars went by, none of which seemed inclined to stop and pick up an unkempt, hairy individual like me.
Then at about 06.30 a milk float came into sight from the direction of Walsall Wood and stopped right by me to deliver some milk. I was desperate; “Hey mate, you aren’t going into Lichfield are you?” I asked hopefully. “I am but I’ve got to deliver to half a dozen places before I get there” was the reply. A deal was struck; I would ride into Lichfield and deliver some of the milk as we went.
I got to the Bowling Green Island for about 07.15 and then yomped as fast as I could up the main road and made my way to the school where the Waxwing had already fallen out of bed and were sitting in the middle of a tree waiting for my arrival! – The things birders will do when they are desperate for a tick!
As I have already said, Roger was a teacher and it seems that teaching is a profession that attracts birders. For many years the best known character at Chasewater was Graham Evans and he too played an important part in my formative birdwatching years. In those days the Gull roost did not seem to hold as many treasures as it does today but the lure of white-winged gulls during the winter and the possibility of finding something even rarer always guaranteed a good turn-out for the winter gull roost. Graham was a mainstay of this and set up the first proper log at Chasewater. This was an old film canister with a piece of rolled up paper that was deposited in a hollow tube on the Sailing Club foreshore.
In those early days I learned a lot just listening to Graham and sometimes (to disguise my ignorance) looking into what he had been talking about when I got home. He was always the arbiter of any contentious observations and for a while was also the county recorder. Perhaps my best lingering memory of Graham was sitting by his car as he showed me both Rock and Water pipit side-by-side on the south shore. How obvious the differences were when someone pointed them out to you!
At this time Chasewater also regularly lured in birders from further afield including the Pensnet birders. These were some of the most experienced birders in the Black Country. Eric Phillips was the person who commanded the most respect and he is still one of the most respected birders in the region, but for me, the most influential birder of my formative years was the late Alan Perry.
There has always been an unconscious pecking order in birding as in most things and you did not get involved in discussions with birders far more experienced than yourself unless you were very well read or prepared to take embarrassment on the chin when they put you right. Birders are like most people I’m afraid, and always happy to see someone brought down a peg or two. You can call it right ninety-nine times but you can guarantee that it’s that hundredth time when you call it wrong that gets remembered! Alan was never like that, of all the experienced birders about at the time, Alan was the one who would sit down with you and explain why something was what it was. He had no time for self-important people or ‘stringers’ he would not give them house-room, but if you were honest and said that you didn’t know something there was never any indication of disrespect from Alan, he would just explain what you needed to know and put you right.
Alan was such a down-to-earth person that he had to be the most unlikely member of a Conservative Club that you could ever imagine but for some reason this activity resulted in him becoming whimsically known as ‘The Chairman’. He used to catch the bus into Walsall, than another to Brownhills and then walk across the Common to Chasewater for about 10.00 in the morning. He would then set-up camp by Target Point with two flasks, a pack of sandwiches and the best-part of a whole sponge cake in a biscuit tin to see him through the day. Everyone doing a circuit of the pool would stop by to say hello and share what they had seen before moving on, but I used to go and sit on the shore with him learning more about bird behaviour from him than I had picked up from countless hours of reading. He taught me how to separate Common and Arctic Tern in flight, summer plumage Dunlin from Sanderling (something that seems easy through experienced eyes but a seemingly insurmountable problem for a novice birder) as well as pointing out lots of other migrants during spring and autumn afternoons, many of which were new to my inexperienced eyes.
Alan also introduced me to butterflies for the first time, showing me why a Small Skipper was not a Small Heath and calling out the names of butterflies as they flew past the point with a speed and accuracy that I never expected to be able to match. Those were certainly the golden years of Chasewater birding, with an experienced birder like Alan often putting in a five-day week, very little got missed. My favourite memory of Alan wasn’t at Chasewater though; it was a totally unexpected encounter with him in Norfolk that really demonstrated what a genuine kind and generous person lurked behind ‘The Chairman’s’ gruff Black Country exterior.
Seeing a new bird for the first time is always exciting whatever and wherever it is but wise birders would agree, some birds are just ticks on your list and some… well, some are something else! The bird we were pursuing in Norfolk was a North American rarity called an Indigo Bunting. This seemingly unlikely vagrant had been found on the opposite side of the country to where you would normally expect to find an American vagrant, turning up as it did at Wells Woods on the north Norfolk coast. Now an Indigo Bunting is an extreme rarity and one of those ‘knock-your-eyes-out’ beauties that always drew your attention in the field guide. The possibility of actually seeing one of these stunningly beautiful birds on this side of the pond was therefore irresistible!
I was not hopeful! Wells Woods is a big area to find just one bird in, but then I had never really been on a major ‘Twitch’ before! I could not have expected the sheer number of birders who would be in attendance, all racing toward one specific clearing where the bird was apparently showing well.
We all arrived and the bird was indeed showing in the middle of the clearing. I tried to get a good view of the Bunting through my less than optimum quality binoculars but it was no good; I would have to assemble my scope and tripod if I was to have any chance of seeing this wonderful creature properly. I was beginning to panic, trying to fit the telescope and extend the tripod legs at the same time and generally making a dogs-breakfast of it. Then a hand dropped on my shoulder and there was Alan.
“Leave that and come over here” I had learned to have so much respect for Alan that there was no way I was going to argue; he led me to his scope. “Look in there!” he said, and using this far superior telescope I put my eyes on what is still one of my favourite birds that I have ever seen. I took a minute and then thought I had better surrender the scope but Alan says; “Carry on Chaz; I’ve been watching it for a while. You won’t see many of them so make sure you have looked at it properly”.
Getting on for thirty years have passed since that encounter in Wells Woods and it was not the way things were done for me to ever express how genuinely grateful I was to Alan for making that day such a special one for me. As I write this it must have been at least twenty years since Alan passed away so I hope that expressing my genuine gratitude in writing will perhaps make up in some way for that omission on my part. Thanks Alan wherever you are. I hope that I have followed the example that you set in a way that would have pleased you.
Another birder who was an active part of the Chasewater scene at the same time was a delivery man who was usually driving a small white van full of light bulbs. He often turned up for his afternoon break on the south shore and if there was something interesting on the far side of the reservoir, we would be invited to climb in the back with the lightbulbs for a bumpy but welcome ride across the dam to the sailing club. Little did I know that this bearded individual would go on to be one of my best and oldest friends, John Holian.
John was another one who took people at face value and if you told him you thought you had found something he would turn-out regardless to check out what you had seen. If you were honest there would be no recriminations from John, even if you didn’t relocate the bird in question. He knew birds and birding as well as anyone at the time and was well aware of how uncooperative and frustrating birds could be.
John already had a crew that he regularly birded with and as is the way with birding, they always had first refusal on a chance to go birding but gradually I began to take up a sort of first-reserve position should any of his regulars not be able to go for a bird. This would lead to many successful trips pursuing birds, butterflies and even rare orchids from one end of the country to another.
For most people though its John’s involvement at Chasewater in 1987 that will probably be regarded as his greatest contribution to birding. In the late winter of that year a strange diving duck turned up on Geoffrey’s Swag. It was obviously an Aythya duck but it seemed to show characteristics suggestive of an American species that had never officially been recorded in Britain – the Lesser Scaup. I was aware of this bird and had seen it on several occasions but like most birders there, I only gave it a cursory glance and assumed it was probably just another interesting hybrid (diving duck species often interbreed and produce bizarre offspring which often show characteristics similar to a genuine species). In fact, all previous claims of Lesser Scaup in the U.K. had ultimately resolved themselves into aythya hybrids so this was probably a fair assumption to make.
The bird had been there for several days when I first became aware that there was a frisson of controversy about it and that several experienced birders were finding it very difficult to rubbish this bird as just another hybrid. In fact there was a slowly developing support for this bird being the real deal, led by a highly respected birder called John Forte. Over the years since the bird occurred there have been a number of people who have expressed an opinion that their part in the identification of this bird was significant and that may well be the case. What I can say is that as far as I am aware, John Forte was the first to call-it for what it was and that John Holian not only performed a great service to the case for this bird by making a special trip to the collection at Slimbridge in order to verify that some characteristics were correct but he was also the second birder to pin his colours to the mast and call this bird for what it was.
This was the first genuinely twitchable Lesser Scaup in Britain and at the time, a first for the British List (although a retrospective record would eventually be accepted from another site, pushing the Chasewater bird into second place). In March 1987 Chasewater was the place to be if you were a birder and visitors from every corner of the United Kingdom made the pilgrimage to the Norton East Road to view this unexpected Nearctic duck. On the first Saturday following its identification the bird briefly moved onto the main lake (the only time in fourteen visits that I saw it there) and I have fond memories of the top corner of the pool supporting a crowd of around two hundred birders, many of whom had travelled overnight to see our special duck.
The Lesser Scaup remained for several weeks during which time I don’t think that I managed to complete even one single circuit of the Pool. I would arrive at the main entrance to be flagged down by some lost birder from another part of the country asking for directions to the swag and of course, it was always easier to jump in and escort them round to the smaller pool rather than hope that they would be able to follow my complex directions.
Chasewater has given me some wonderful friends and some great birds (191 species so far). I’m pleased to be able to claim the friendship of the well-known photographer Phil Ward for over thirty years and he and I have had many adventures along with our late friend John Simons who sadly passed away a couple of years ago. Julien Allen and I spent many happy hours birding around the pool in the nineteen eighties and nineties as well as a fascinating week with the Mercian Ringing Group on Lundy Island in 1987 (the sailing on that outward journey is a legendary story in itself)!
In those days I was always being praised for having exceptional distance-vision, often picking up birds on the horizon well before anyone else. Anyone else apart from Paul Jeynes that is. If I saw something half a minute before everyone else you could guarantee that Paul would have picked it up twenty seconds before me. If Roger Hancocks was the first to come forward in friendship, Paul was the second and I remember him knocking on the window of our car on the south shore in the early eighties to ask if we had seen either the Black Tern or the Red-Necked Grebe that were present. We hadn’t so he walked us along to where they were showing and both birds were found and seen well, becoming my first records of those species – now that’s the way to start a friendship for a birder.
Perhaps if you have been to a winter gull roost at Chasewater you have encountered Paul and also Ian Ward, in my opinion not only the best gull watchers in the region but surely amongst the best and most knowledgeable specialist birders in Britain. I have been standing with Paul beyond the Power Boat Club at Chasewater and seen him correctly pick out and age a second-winter Caspian Gull as it flew in over the dam – and that’s a bird that many experienced birders have trouble identifying when it’s sitting in front of them on the water!
I’m still a Chasewater birder at heart. These days I seem to have become something of a figure-head for Clayhanger Marsh and Ryders Mere (mainly as a result of the blog that I do for the sites) and many people find it hard to understand why I would rather miss a bird at either of those venues than miss one at Chasewater. I don’t have many birding ambitions these days but I would dearly like to be able to see my two-hundredth bird at Chasewater. Perhaps then I will put my feet up and retire from birding?
Developing Confidence and the lure of the ‘Twitch’!
By 1984 I was an established if insignificant component of the local birding scene. I was a long, long way from fully competent, many of the species on my British list had been seen only once and then in only one stage of plumage so I had no delusions and I knew I was not fated to ever become one of ‘The Names’ or join the big-league of local Birders. I was however a half-decent bog-standard birder and had seen most of the common birds and regular migrants that pass through our area. This should have given me some satisfaction, looking back on my progress from the half-interested individual looking at strange unknown birds from the window of a moving train – but it didn’t! I just found the increasing gaps between the experiences of seeing new species bloody frustrating!
I had to find a way to learn more, get about more and see more – but how? I was an occasional visitor to the local Walsall R.S.P.B. group that met at Bluecoat School and had been on a trip with them to Radipole. It was at that group where I first met Ray Wilson, and Bernard Smith, two birders who would become genuine friends and birding companions on many occasions over the next thirty-odd years. On the trip to Radipole, I had already identified Ray as someone who knew ‘what’s what’ so had followed close behind him around the reserve and had been rewarded with my first views of Cetti’s Warbler. This day out was a great experience but was unlikely to become a regular event. Getting to Walsall from Brownhills for an early start on a Sunday was just not on (the only options being a night at my mother’s house once a month or an expensive taxi ride which would add greatly to the cost of the day).
During that summer I decided to research the options that were available and by good fortune came across a promotional leaflet for a ‘Field Bird Study’ course run by the extra-mural department of Birmingham University, this would be run initially on one Thursday evening a month from the old Wolverhampton Road School (long since closed and now a West Indian Community Centre). So sixteen years after I should have walked through those less than hallowed doors I finally found myself walking into my sister’s alma-mater and along with Dave Glover, attended the first meeting of this course which was being run by Brian George.
Brian had been a birder all his life. He was not ashamed to confess that in his childhood he had been an egg collector but then so had many contemporary birders. Prior to the 1967 Protection of Birds Act this hobby had been regarded as an acceptable and educational pastime for a young boy to take part in. Fortunately a greater awareness of the value of birds for themselves had begun to develop. The decline of several species had occurred through the use of D.D.T. and also because of the mixamotosis virus (which wiped out the rabbits but also deprived their predators of a food source!) and this had brought home to the ordinary ‘Man in the Street’ the fragility of the complex trophic levels from which nature in all its glory, is formed.
Brian is one of those people who have over the years divided opinion and I soon became aware that there were some individuals who openly disrespected him and this dated back to an event that had occurred some years before. Brian and another well-known birder had reported an extremely rare and unlikely species at a site in Staffordshire. This record was treated with derision by many of the local birders but both Brian and his colleague were experienced birders and the species concerned was frankly unmistakable. This being the case the only conclusions that could be drawn were that they either saw the bird or they were deliberately falsifying the record.
Having heard the details ‘from the horse’s mouth’ I have no reason to doubt the veracity of Brian’s claim and over the years I got to know Brian and his family very well and I can vouch for the fact that he was not the kind of person to court notoriety by such dubious behaviour as falsifying a record. Brian was always one of the kindest and most generous natured individuals that you could wish to meet. I attended not only his bird study class but several of his Urban Wildlife classes over a ten year period and learned an awful lot about a huge range of subjects. In fact I would go so far as to say that without the knowledge I gleaned from attending Brian’s class it is doubtful that I would ever have gone forward for or passed my Environmental Science Degree.
Apart from what I learned at those classes I was genuinely honoured to be accepted by Brian as a friend and he himself commented that apart from his family, I had probably spent more time in his car and done more miles with him than anyone else. Regardless of the issues about the controversial rarity, getting to know Brian had introduced me to probably the least attractive aspect of the birding community, those that my good friend John has christened ‘The Begrudgers’!
I would come across them myself over the years, people who will undermine other peoples records because they were not fortunate enough to share an experience or see the bird. These are the type of people who are likely to put the personality of an individual ahead of their actual ability or who will accept a record because of who someone is rather than because of the accuracy of a description, often while disparaging well-presented records because the person submitting them was not of known pedigree, or in some cases, just because they could.
A good example is this. Someone who I won’t name once had a rare pelagic species in the West Midlands County. It was a fly over and not seen well and this was reflected in the sparse description but it subsequently appeared in the Bird Report for the appropriate year and although it was a genuine record the individuals themselves confided to me that the only reason the record had been accepted was because of who had submitted it and that if anyone else had seen the bird, the record would probably not have been accepted! No harm was done on this occasion but it is still not the way a system should be allowed to operate.
In my opinion, the begrudgers are the people who genuinely undermine birdwatching at both a social and an official level, and unfortunately they often wheedle their way into positions of authority such as local or regional rarity committees. This then gives them a platform to vent their power or influence whenever they wish. The effect of this behaviour is to deter many people from submitting records and the whole recording mechanism is therefore adversely affected by these individuals (a bad experience once is likely to result in any subsequent good and honest records never getting submitted for fear of ridicule).
If you read that last paragraph again, I could understand why you might think that I have revealed a deep seated distrust of rarities committees and how they operate, or perhaps I have an axe to grind? But you would be wrong! I will willingly concede that there are a lot of fair minded and genuine individuals who give their valuable time to reviewing records in an open and honest way and for their unbiased efforts they have my respect and thanks.
The truth is that I ceased to care about that aspect of birdwatching a long time ago. Yes I have been upset and affronted by dubious decisions in the past but I won’t even bother to use this text as a platform to discuss those situations. I have done what everyone should do when they have had a bad experience – learned from it and moved on.
Brian George’s extra-mural classes though were exactly what I needed. Not only did I get to be shown how to separate and identify different species, once a month there would be a field trip where we were able to put this knowledge into practice. Initially it was not easy for me as being someone who genuinely needed to learn I was seen as something of an obstruction by the established members of the group who were often upset because I dared to ask questions. Fortunately my personality is so abrasive that those elements quickly retreated, voting with their feet and leaving behind the nucleus of a group who were there to learn and who became great friends. Liz Boulton, Brian Rollands, Frank Harford, Cath and Jack Middlehurst and the afore-mentioned Ray Wilson. David Guy and John Beechy. People I have spent many happy hours with and who took a novice birder and passed on their knowledge. If I am any kind of half-decent birder now a lot of the credit for that must go to these individuals, their patience, tolerance and willingness to share their time and knowledge.
But that is how birding works.
In Chinese philosophy there is a story of a man who when walking at night falls into a deep hole in the road and is badly injured. The following morning a stranger comes along and takes him from the hole and cares for the traveller in his home until he is recovered. When the traveller is returned to health he explains that he is a rich merchant and wishes to repay the kindness that has been done for him. Instead the rescuer says that he doesn’t want any reward except that the merchant must promise to go out and help ten other people, making sure that each of them repays his kindness in turn by helping ten others. That way good deeds spread out like the ripples from a pebble thrown into a pool.
Birding is very similar. When you start you know nothing and rely on the kindness of others to show you how to learn the differences between species and how to identify their sounds. This encourages your interest and you learn more and get more enjoyment from watching birds until you are no longer a beginner but an experienced birder. At this point you will come across people who don’t know what you know and you will repay the debt that you owe to those who nurtured you by passing on your knowledge to those who know less about it than you do. That kindness that you show will hopefully inspire those who you help to do the same when they are at a similar point in their experience.
One definition of Zen is: “Emphasising enlightenment for the student by the most direct possible means. Accepting formal studies and observances only when they form part of such means”. If you accept that then I would contend that birding is one of the purist forms of Zen that you can aspire to as a hobby! – I bet you never looked at it in such a spiritual way? But I digress. Let’s talk about birds again.
In October 1984 I was to go on a field trip that would change my life and start a love affair that goes on to this very day, it was my first visit to Spurn Head in what was then, Humberside (Spurn has long since been returned to its natural home in the county of East Yorkshire).
Although there is far less of Spurn Point these days it remains the exciting frontier that it always was. If you are unfamiliar with Spurn, it’s the spit of land east of Hull that sticks out into the North Sea and looks like a bit like a chap’s todger! As well as a frontier for birdwatching where many migrants and vagrants make first landfall it is unfortunately also the frontier for east coast erosion, being now far slimmer than it was thirty years ago.
For me there has always been something wild and almost north-American about the landscape here, reminding me of the Maine or New England coastlines. At low tide, the mudflats of the Humber Estuary on the west side provide shelter for thousands of waders and wildfowl and the open expanses of the sea with its twice yearly migration of pelagic birds to make it an endlessly exciting place for birdwatching.
I have been at Spurn when absolutely nothing was happening and it’s still exciting because there is always that feeling that something rare or unexpected could appear at any moment. While writing this I have checked my notes and although I can’t be totally accurate this site has given me at least thirty-five first species for my British list, and at least fifteen of those have been significant rarities. In addition to that there have also been many other significant rare birds that I have seen there for a second or third time! It is a truly amazing site and it will be a sad day when it inevitably surrenders to the ravages of the North Sea.
Spurn is on an east coast flyway and birds flying past on the coastal side will often be seen an hour or two later passing down the Lincolnshire coast at sites like Gibraltar Point or even on occasion, coming in off the sea in Norfolk. I remember one occasion when I had travelled with Bernard Smith to see a Black-faced Bunting down at the point (which unfortunately seemed to show evidence of a previous life in an aviary – the bird that is, not the point!).
Suddenly a message comes across on the pager that three Common Crane had just flown over the pub at the north end of the site. All eyes turned northward and sure enough, a few minutes’ later three huge graceful shapes could be discerned flying toward us, then over our heads and away south. They were then picked up by other birders as they moved southwards along the coast until they eventually made landfall a few hours later near Thornham on the north Norfolk coastline.
Perhaps the best remembered Crane at Spurn though was a well watched Demoiselle Crane. This is a much rarer species from Eastern Europe and an unlikely vagrant to our shores. Despite this, one turned up a Spurn and showed well in the fields at Beacon Lane for several days. Despite a supporting cast of eastern birds and also a westward movement of these birds in Hungary, this beautiful creature was rejected by the rarities committees, allegedly because it was too confiding (it was walking behind the tractor feeding – something several people have told me that the wild birds also do on their home range). There are many birders who felt robbed when that bird didn’t make it onto the British list and it still comes up in conversation now and then. Birders have long memories!
A trip to Spurn is still on my annual itinerary and is often the only real outing I do these days, thanks mostly to my good mate Martyn Pass and his son Joseph who also seemed to have fallen for the allure of Spurn with its wild and rugged landscape.
Spurn was just one site though and much of my time in the eighties was spent desperately trying to get to three hundred on my British list. Birdwatchers are generally relentless list keepers and these days, only occasionally note takers. Be warned! If a visiting birder sits in your garden for an hour or two take care, they will probably start a list for your house and you will have to provide tea and biscuits every time they nip around to twitch the latest visitor to your bird table!
I am still a note taker though. These days’ people look at you as if you’re deranged if you pull out a notebook, probably because photography has reached the point where almost everything that is found anywhere gets recorded for posterity. But I have an almost O.C.D. compulsion to keep notes, after all they are the only tangible record of some very enjoyable moments that I have experienced birding. A few years ago I spent eighteen months of my spare time re-writing my notes as taxonomic changes had caused them to become so disorganised that they no longer made any sense. It was an amazing experience as I was reading about events that I didn’t remember taking place with descriptions of birds that I didn’t remember seeing.
Another benefit of note taking is that it can sometimes be useful to re-read you own notes before going to see something you have seen before. I occasionally re-read my own notes on Yellow-legged and Caspian Gull before doing an early winter gull roost at Chasewater. When you are getting-on a bit it’s difficult to remember all of the nuances of plumage that you are looking for when it’s been almost a year since you last used them and let’s face it, if you are going to go and stand in the freezing cold at Chasewater you might as well be tooled-up to make the most of it.
The numerous field trips that took place during the eighties inevitably resulted in some friendships developing and I gradually became an occasional component of various crews of birders chasing the latest rarities. It’s a good reciprocal to have a car full of birders as the cost of the day is divided equally and if you choose your crew well, some fun and laughs can be had along the way.
I have to confess that during this period I was manic and there were weekends when I left home before dawn on a Saturday, arrived home at ten and fell into bed only to be up at six and off to the opposite end of the country on Sunday. Inevitably this cost me valuable time with my family but I always tried to make up for it when I was at home by reading stories at bedtime or sitting together watching a video or some TV together as a family.
I also tried to minimise the effect of birding on our family holidays and I still try to keep a sense of perspective about that today. If we are on holiday it is for Lynn just that – her hard earned holiday so I will try to bird casually although I am not adverse to getting up well before breakfast to ‘do my thing’ before we start the day proper and this has often proven to be an effective way of birding when abroad (something I will cover in more detail later on). I will also usually have one selfish day where Lynn will do what she wants and I will go and chase whatever rare and wonderful birding treat is local to wherever we are. Bottom line – Lynn is not a birder. She likes birds and will enjoy the thrill of the chase but give her five minutes and she will have forgotten what the pretty ‘thingy’ she saw was called. It’s just not something she finds important and I respect that.
Needless to say as the eighties went on I became more involved in birding and was invited to write an article about local birding for one of the freebie newspapers. This then became occasional articles and in turn exposed me to some of the estimable local organisations such as local history and photographic groups and almost inevitably I ended up being invited to do talks and presentations for them, I suspect more often than not as light relief from their usual fair?
Somehow this activity came to the attention of the then head of the local Community Association who at the time was looking for projects that could attract funding for the local area from the Manpower Services Committee (M.S.C.). He asked me how I felt about taking the lead with an environmental project and as a consequence I ended up interviewing for a Nature Trail Supervisor position. If you have been to a stressful interview you should try sitting in a big chair in the middle of the room (think Mastermind) while the whole Community Association Board sit looking at you and bombarding you with questions. Somehow I managed to get through it all and the upshot was that I ended up designing, recruiting and organising the creation of a nature trail on Brownhills Common.
It was around this time in my life that Clayhanger Marsh first became a factor. I had occasionally birded the site, usually when someone else had found something and I had actually seen my first Garganey there with Julien Allen. Wallace Estates who owned the land then decided to exploit the Mineral rights they held for the coal beneath the site. This led to the creation of the Walsall Wetlands Campaign led by local villager Gareth, Mike Dando from the Urban Wildlife Group and Graham Evans from Chasewater and I was very pleased to become a part of this team, promoting interest in the site and raising its profile locally. The result is now history of course as the site was eventually awarded protection under the 1981 Wildlife and Countryside Act as an S.S.S.I.
When the nature trail scheme eventually came to an end it was widely applauded and well received but with the hindsight of thirty years there are so many things I would do differently. Yes there were funding issues (nowhere near enough money in the budget) and yes there was a big black-hole where the ongoing management strategy should have been but that is not what I am talking about. There were a lot of flaws in the way I ran the project, responding to pressures to produce something visually appealing and as a result compromising the best interests of some of the wildlife that we discovered.
These days I would throw my toys out of the pram and stand my ground over some of the issues but in those days I was young and so very pleased to have found a role that I was interested in and which gave me the opportunity to do some work in the field of employment that I most wanted to work in. These days there is nothing really left of the work that we did except for some thirty year old trees where we transplanted them. A few years after the project had finished, the Manager of the Community Association employed me to do an Environmental Impact Assessment on the site and a costing for the ongoing management but sadly he passed away before this came to anything
For me personally something positive did come out of the experience. Suddenly people in the environmental professions knew my name and generally approved of what had been achieved. There was much flattery and head patting and a general feedback that there would be work for me if only I had a degree. Well I didn’t so this was so much pie in the sky as far as I was concerned. But then, one evening there was a thirty second public information advert on the television. A friendly-looking chap called Mike Lomax from Walsall College was looking for mature adults to attend on what was called an Access Course. If this could be successfully completed there was a guaranteed place on a degree course at Wolverhampton University. I was at the time struggling to find anything other than short term contract work and had two young children to consider and too be honest, What had I got to lose?
NOT AN ACADEMIC – those words should be carved on my Gravestone. If you bothered to read the first chapter and didn’t just skip to the birdy-bits (you did didn’t you – well, go back and read it now please) you will have observed that I did not shine as any kind of rising star during my formal education and to be honest I had subsequently drifted in an aimless way through a broad variety of jobs, most of which were undemanding, but paid the bills and left me enough beer money for a few nights out. Nobody in our family had ever had a degree but then, nobody in our family had ever really had the chance or the inclination. The bit of paper was meaningless, it was just the kit that was required to play for the team that I wanted to play for so I either acquired it or I didn’t. If I failed at least the old me would be able to look back and say “Well, I had my shot!”
I won’t bore you with the next four years. I got through my Access, went on to University and got my degree. There were high points like field work on the Isle of Man and in North Wales and the huge pleasure of working under the supervision of Doctor (now Professor) Ian Truman and Doctor John Smith. I also had the pleasure of being taught by John Packham and David Harding (Google Packham and Harding and you should come up with the ultimate scientific book on woodland ecology – everything you could want to know). I also used Clayhanger Marsh as the research site for much of my activity, using it to support my interest in post-industrial wildlife, something which I would like to think has given me a better than average insight into its value and condition.
The nineteen eighties were over, it was 1991 and I had a degree to my name. Still no bloody work though!
Life in the Nineties (Clayhanger beckons)
We had lived in the High Street flats in Brownhills for nine years. This was after five years on a council waiting list for an offer of accommodation as in those days you could put your name on a waiting list only once you were engaged. Despite all the bad press that tower blocks get, I think I can say that these were happy years? For those who are not familiar with this way of life though, perhaps I should describe exactly what life for us was like?
Waine House was one of five high rise blocks built in 1965 and was eventually demolished in 2004. We moved into an eastward facing seventh floor flat (Number 41), on our wedding day in 1980. Once you had entered the block, a central lift carried you to the main landing on your floor. This landing surrounded the lift, with flats running off the landing on three sides and with two fire doors protecting the escape stairway and the rubbish chute which was shared by all residents.
On entering the flat you came into a small hallway with a corridor off to the right from which access to two bedrooms were on the right and a small toilet cubicle was on the left (facing the further of the two bedrooms). At the end of the corridor was the main living room with a moderately sized kitchen to the left. Immediately in front of the front door was the small bathroom which contained a bath, a sink and an airing cupboard sheathed in steel plate (this was kept warm from the water heating boiler which was situated within the wall between the bathroom and the hall). The floor and ceiling were of thick concrete and quite soundproof which resulted in a large degree of quiet when you were in the main living area. The Kitchen window was smaller and gave an excellent view down the length of the high street (northwards).
The only noise disturbance was at night when the lift doors could be heard opening and closing occasionally accompanied by the voices of returning tenants. Apart from passing traffic the only external sounds were those of trains passing through Brownhills and the hourly tolling of the bell on the ‘Three-Faced Liar’ - the clock on the front of the old Brownhills Town Hall building. The clock was eventually silenced by public demand (although we liked the sound and found it comforting through the early hours) and the railway lines were eventually lifted in 1986.
The flats were actually very comfortable The picture window in the living room provided a wonderful vista across the Trent valley and beyond with a monument situated on a hill on the far side of Burton Upon Trent (easily 20 Miles Away) clearly visible. Looking out of the window southward gave a view up Shire Oak Hill while immediately opposite were some low rise flats, a canal bridge on the Anglesey Branch of the Wyrley & Essington Canal – Once the site of a toll house – and the “Anchor Inn” which at the time was an old canal side pub which has since been replaced by a more modern building.
Over to the right of the field of view, the three spires of Lichfield Cathedral could be seen and at night these were illuminated with spotlights and looked magnificent. The majority of the immediate land beyond Brownhills were Farm fields, (Lane’s Farm and beyond) and one of the highlights for us in the autumn was the burning of the stubble fields toward and beyond Hammerwich, a practice which has since been outlawed. Hammerwich Church was itself another visible landmark and while looking further into the distance, the power stations of the Trent Valley (Drakelow, Repton and Willington etc.) were easily identifiable landmarks along the route of the A38.
An interesting fact about our flat was the reception of radio signals. It was very difficult to get good reception on any of the local West Midland radio stations but Radio Derby used to come in very strongly and became one of the regular stations that my wife would listen to when working in the kitchen. I suspect that residents on the opposite side of the flats had a different experience? The side you lived on also had implications during hard weather. Our water supply rarely froze up but people living on the prevailing south-west side of the buildings would often find their water supply frozen for several days during a cold snap. On these occasions we would often fill ‘Home Brew’ buckets with water for them so that toilets could be flushed and washing up done.
It is often said that high rise living did not produce a sense of community. I would argue with that. When you saw neighbours from other flats or floors out and about there was an immediate recognition and perhaps a feeling that you were somehow belonging to an exclusive group within the local area with shared experiences. This often resulted in acts of kindness and support. I have lent money to unemployed neighbours who had not received a giro-cheque from the benefit office and an old man called George who lived alone but worked an allotment would see me in the lift and would sometimes give us a bag of vegetables that he had grown to help to feed our young family.
On one occasion I was asked by a neighbour on our landing to break into her flat as her husband was not expected home for several hours and she had lost her keys and needed to feed her baby. What was particularly shocking was that I hit her Yale lock with a brick- hammer just once and the barrel of the lock flew out of the door and into her bathroom. This really brought home the need for security and as a result I further reinforced our front door.
Other advantages of high rise living were the annual Carnival at Brownhills where residents at the front of the block such as ourselves were granted a grandstand view of the floats and marching bands as they passed by. We also had good views of local wildlife including the bats that used to hunt insects below the height of the seventh floor so we could actually look down on them. On one spring evening we even had an Osprey fly in from the south east, soar on the thermals over Brownhills High Street and then drift off toward Hammerwich (that was the occasion I mentioned before when Roger Hancocks was lured from his bath)
Security was probably the biggest advantage though. Once the front door was secured your property was safe and secure and on many occasions we have gone away on day trips to the seaside leaving the windows wide open and returning to cool and well ventilated accommodation. If the weather was fine we even left washing to dry hanging out of the windows as the rooftop washing lines which had originally been provided when the flats were new were effectively out-of-bounds as it was not deemed safe to use them by the time that we were residents.
Security was probably the biggest advantage though. Once the front door was secured your property was safe and secure and on many occasions we have gone away on day trips to the seaside leaving the windows wide open and returning to cool and well ventilated accommodation. If the weather was fine we even left washing to dry hanging out of the windows as the rooftop washing lines which had originally been provided when the flats were new were effectively out-of-bounds as it was not deemed safe to use them by the time that we were residents.
Perhaps the weirdest experience during our tenure was an early morning earthquake which made the bed bounce violently and which caused the residents of a neighboring block to leave in panic when things had started flying off shelves as they apparently thought they had acquired a poltergeist! It was later explained that deep mine workings below the flats had resulted in the earth tremor having a more pronounced effect on the tower blocks.
The flats were eventually emptied and demolished over several weeks in the early part of the twenty-first century. They have now been replaced with a combination of sheltered accommodation for the elderly and small apartments (Knaves Court).
I have very fond memories of this period of my life but eventually we had to leave as we had two young children and nowhere for them to play safely or with others. The fact that our children lived in a high rise allowed them early entry to the local primary school reception class and this was the only social interaction that they had with other children. For us high rise living ended in May nineteen eighty-nine when we moved to a house in central Brownhills where we would reside for the next six years. The day we moved is burned into my memory as an Avocet turned up at Chasewater as well as some Whimbrel and I couldn’t get away to see them. And yes – as I write this I still need both for the site!
The first five years of the nineties did not provide anything of great significance that I can share with you, I continued to chase rarities around the country including an epic overnight journey to Burghead in Grampian one late December. Four guys, eighteen hours in a car only to find that the bird had been taken by a Sparrowhawk the previous day .You win some and you lose some I suppose. Some small compensation for the effort, was sitting in shirt sleeves along the side of the Moray Firth and enjoying late December Sunshine (oh, not forgetting my first King Eider)! Sadly by the time we got back to Brownhills we were driving through freezing fog again.
I obtained a little bit of environmental work but not enough to sustain us and during ninety-three I commenced my first proper role in what was to become my long-term career. By nineteen ninety-five our kids were getting older and because the area we lived in was quite rough and disreputable, we decided to take the plunge, arrange a mortgage in the hope that we could live somewhere decent and where our children would have the chance of a nicer life.
I had known Clayhanger since childhood and if I am honest, had always wanted to live there. When I was a child my best friend’s Aunt Betty and Uncle Jim lived in the village as indeed they still do as I write this. On summer afternoons we would ride our bicycles from Birchills to Bloxwich, then along Field Road and then past the Fingerpost to Jim and Betty’s house. After taking up an hour of Bettie’s valuable time and imbibing a measure of orange juice and some biscuits we would set-off back to Walsall, usually reversing our outbound route. When I look back now it’s hard to believe that the houses just a few doors away would one day play such an important role in my life and that of my family.
In February ninety-five we moved into our current house and started the long and ongoing business of turning it into our home. Of course I still birded Chasewater but the lure of a wetland habitat which I could see from our bedroom window was too much to resist. Besides that, it took forty minutes to walk to Chasewater and the same again to walk back, if I legged it out I could do a full circuit of the Marsh in an hour and this was to a large extent terra-incognita, hardly any serious birders spent any time there (although Graham Evans and John Martin had birded it in the past and occasionally recorded some interesting birds)
So it was that in the late winter of 1995 I began to regularly record the wildlife that I found on Clayhanger Marsh. Even as recently as the nineties though the Marsh and its inhabitants were significantly different to the site today. The Mere was in those days Ryders Hayes Farm and in the early-nineties was still a working farm. The marsh itself had not yet been ravaged by the activities of the recently arrived Riding Stables and there was a much greater diversity of interesting species of plants than there is today.
Birdlife was different too. Red-Legged and Grey Partridge were common residents, Turtle Dove was an annual breeding species and breeding Corn Buntings were supplemented during the winter by significant influxes of birds from the local area. Perhaps the most awesome sight though was the arrival of wintering Golden Plover. I once stood by the Ford Brook and watched three huge movements of Golden Plover fly across the roofs of the village at dusk, several hundred birds which then dropped into the fields beyond the sewage farm to roost. Does it bring things into perspective if I say that every one of those species would now be regarded as rare or significant on the site?
There is one bird that I encountered on the Marsh in the nineties that I have been quizzed about for twenty years and I want to take this opportunity to finally put this story to bed (mainly for the sake of all the begrudgers who have quizzed me about this bird hoping to find some flaw in my story). Hopefully if I do this, people will be able to make their own minds up if they want to accept it or just assume that I’m the type of sad act who would get some kind of weird satisfaction from making the story up.
The story began with a coincidence. On the night before seeing the bird, my eldest son Chris had strangely expressed a desire to learn about warblers. This was an event in itself as both of my sons have generally seen birding as ‘Dad’s thing’ and definitely not a cool thing to express an interest in (although in later years I did tutor Chris in recording wildfowl for his Duke of Edinburgh Award).
I agreed to take Chris with me on the following day (May 21st 1995) but insisted that he listen to the different Warbler songs on my cassette tape so that he would be able to identify a few of them. To be fair though, at one time or another he had heard most of the species that occurred locally while walking around the marsh with me and I was suggesting this more as a revision for him.
The following day was very bright and sunny and shortly after lunch we headed over to the Marsh, crossing the Ford Brook on the old bridge. Ahead of us we could clearly hear Reed Warbler singing in the Phragmites and on the eastern side of the marsh there was a Sedge Warbler singing. A perfect opportunity to do some comparisons. We walked on about thirty yards or so and sat on the edge of the mineral line a few feet short of the singing Reed Warbler.
We had only sat for a few seconds when there was a sudden harsh burst of sound behind me, just a second or so of a hard rasping noise. This was repeated once and then followed by a full continuous burst of harsh monotone reeling that went on for twenty or thirty seconds. Chris was as startled as I was and said “What’s that” to which I replied words to the effect of; “Bloody hell it’s a Savi’s Warbler”.
The bird was immediately behind us – but on the opposite side of the hedge. Instead of singing from the obvious place where there was lots of Reed Mace (Typha latifolia) it was apparently on the edge of the bushes overhanging the flooded boundary ditch. This meant that in order to see it we had a thirty yard yomp toward the Ford Brook and then the same distance again on the opposite side of the ditch to view the bird. Of course we did this but by the time we got to where it had been the bird had stopped singing and could not be seen. We looked for a few minutes and then made our way quickly back to the house. I called a birding friend who immediately headed over with his wife and my next door neighbours came over too, hoping to see the Warbler. But despite grilling the hedge line thoroughly for half an hour or more, nothing could be found.
In those days Grasshopper Warbler was still quite a common species on the Marsh and both Chris and I were well familiar with that song and to this day Chris will affirm that the song he heard was unlike any Grasshopper Warbler he had then or has since heard.
As for me, this wasn’t even an issue, I was already very confident with the species and its song. By the time I heard this specimen I had been familiar with the song of Savis for almost ten years, having seen and heard vagrant birds in Derbyshire and Northamptonshire and having also seen and heard them on their breeding territory at Minsmere where birds were often singing continuously and monotonously during our visit (Island Mere hide April 1993 if you are interested)
One criticism that was aimed at me has been “Why didn’t you submit it”? Ironically this question came from someone on a record committee and I had to point out that the B.B.R.C. did not then (and as far as I know do not now) accept audible only records. A few trusted friends were informed about the bird but otherwise there seemed little reason to expose myself to the inevitable doubt and derision that would be aimed at me for claiming such an extraordinary species in the midlands – you see, I had learned a lesson from Brian Georges experiences.
There is no reason why this record should be dismissed or ridiculed and if supportive evidence for such a bird occurring in the Midlands were required I would point out that a Savis had been in the region just down the M5 at Upton Warren in the previous May and just a month after the Clayhanger record a long staying bird was discovered at Brandon Marsh where it was singing until July 12th.
That’s what happened, unembellished and factual- do you believe it? Do I care? Well for myself no, but I am sad that such a significant record will be disregarded and not allowed to contribute to either our understanding of this species occurrence in the midlands or the prestige of the site.
The area where the record occurred was the boundary of the farm that in those days was no longer being worked. Of course just a couple of years later the farm was closed and demolished and the area was open-casted for the coal reserves that lay just below the surface. Two years of tractors, Lorries and dust but the end result was a landscaped depression with two hills, this would quickly fill with water over the following months and by the beginning of the new millennium, Ryders Mere had been born and the site began to take on its now familiar structure.
The development of the Mere would have a startling effect on the frequency and occurrence of wildfowl although that was not immediately apparent. Once the extraction vehicles had gone, they initially left behind an enormous wader scrape and I well remember watching Greenshank walking around on an area that is now about thirty feet under water. But as the pool filled, species such as Great Crested Grebe that had previously held rarity status on the site began to occur with some regularity and the new growth around the Mere provided perfect habitat for flocks of up to three hundred wintering Wigeon as well as numerous breeding Skylark.
The Mere has given me many hours of happy birding and some notable highlights including half a dozen Twite perched on a perimeter fence, a Ruff amongst an over-flying flock of Lapwing, finding the first Great Northern Diver and Smew for the site (the latter a female that remained for several days), twitching the Black Tern that were found by Ray Fellows and most recently, seeing the site establish a county record for Egyptian Geese when fourteen birds dropped in to spend an afternoon on the island. My favorite memory though inevitably involved the sites rarest record. A North American Bufflehead that had been doing its rounds of the country.
I was on Cannock Chase on the evening that it materialized on the Mere and had a very fitful night’s sleep and an early morning start the following day in the hopes of seeing it. I shouldn’t have worried, it lingered for several days and on one evening I took my wife over to see it. At about 19.30 on a warm and pleasant evening we arrived to find the Bufflehead (the only duck on the Mere), preening about thirty yards away. On that particular day things were very quiet nationally on the birding front and the Bufflehead happened to be the most significant rarity on show anywhere in Britain, and we were alone with it – nobody else was about, just us and the Bufflehead – now that’s exclusive bird watching!
Dippers in the office and lost Blue Jays
By now you should have realised that birding is one of those all-consuming hobbies! Once it becomes an established part of your life it remains with you for every waking hour of your day. I have heard it compared to drug addiction and can agree with that, the highs you get from seeing something new just make you want to see more and the lows you get from missing something good can leave you sullen and depressed for days.
What rational people (Non-birders) don’t understand is that It’s also impossible to turn it off. You may be in that important management meeting when something flies past the window that catches your attention, or you may be watching that most dramatic moment of an American drama on Television when a Wood Thrush lands on the branch behind the leading man to make you jump up and down.
It can also spoil television programs for you. I was once watching an Episode of Sherlock Holmes starring the wonderful Jeremy Brett. He was walking through the ruins of a derelict building in the 1890s when in the background a Collared Dove started calling. My heart sank – you see, they didn’t arrive in Britain until the 1950s – so much for the suspension of disbelief when you are a manic birder?
I’m not kidding; it really does insert itself that deeply into your consciousness. I was once in an important feedback meeting at work when it suddenly occurred to me that the room had gone quiet. Everyone was looking at me – but I was somewhere else, the television in reception could be seen through the glass windows of the office and was showing a wildlife programme.
I had been completely distracted by a film they were showing of an American Dipper and wishing they would turn up the volume so I could hear what was being said. Fortunately by this time my colleagues and my manager had got the measure of my obsession. I just looked sheepish and said; “Sorry! – It’s an American Dipper” The expression of contempt I received said it all – ‘Little things and little minds’!
But there comes a point in every hobby when you start to feel that you have more or less done it all and for some birders, this can be where interest wains as the ‘buzz’ of seeing something new becomes less and less frequent. In order to overcome this, birders inevitably start exploring other ways to get their ‘fix’.
For some ‘twitching’ is the answer. Embracing the pursuit of rarities to the exclusion of everything else so that what was once a hobby becomes an all-consuming obsession. Fortunately, this could never happen to me (even if I had wanted it to) for one significant reason – insufficient funds. When I used to chase around the countryside petrol was a lot cheaper than it is these days and although I sacrificed far more family time than I should have, the overall cost of my birding was trivial compared to that of those for whom birding had become both competitive and an obsession.
So, if you are not someone with a competitive nature, lots of money and an understanding partner but still desire the thrill that comes with seeing new species the alternative is obvious, get off your backside, get on a plane and enjoy the birds on their home territory – go birding abroad!
In my earliest days of birding, under the tutelage of Alan Perry he once dismissed birding abroad as something that didn’t really count, it was just “practice for seeing birds in Britain”. I have to confess that although that principle has stayed with me throughout, it is still lovely to find yourself in some foreign country where everything that flies past has the potential to be something new or interesting.
For affluent birders, this is likely to be achieved without too much effort through guided bird tours where you are led around by the nose to well-worn sites where the birds you want to see will more often than not, be on show, but once again, this was never an option for me for the same reason that I could not become a major league ‘twitcher’ – I suppose the expression ‘financially challenged’ would be a polite way to sum it up.
No, for me birding abroad was always about family holidays in far off places, something that is achievable for most people these days, often for nominal cost. The problem is that birding is only one aspect of that type of holiday and something that always has to be balanced against the rest of the family’s wishes.
I have always been blessed in this regard, although my wife would never profess to have a serious interest in birding and normally forgets the name of what she was just looking at five minutes after she has seen it, she actually does like to see those birds and also enjoys the adventure of leaving the beaten track for an hour or two to traipse around foreign housing estates, ramble over scruffy vacant lots or occasionally circumnavigate golf courses with her bird obsessed husband. As a result of this I have experienced some exciting moments of bird watching in foreign climes.
Ironically, my first trips abroad were as a teenager, visiting family in Canada just at the period in my life when a combination of hormone imbalances and a dawning awareness of Rock Music made it very uncool to have an interest in anything as boring as birdlife. I well remember my older sister trying to engage my interest in a Blue Jay in her garden which I made a deliberate point of ignoring completely – what a bloody idiot, opportunities like that are sometimes wasted on young people aren’t they? I have still never seen a Blue Jay and I hope I live long enough to go to America where I will make a point of looking for one as a priority just to put that act of youthful stupidity finally to bed.
There is only one bird that I saw during those visits that stands out in my memory. I was introduced to a young Canadian guy (who my sister approved of) called Teddy Brewer and we became good mates spending quite a lot of time together during my visit. One day we were climbing a slope to trespass on the T.H.&B. railway line above Dundas when he pointed to a soaring raptor high above one of the hillsides. “Hey, There’s an eagle” he said.
Many years later and being of a generally sad and obsessive disposition I have reviewed that memory many times and perused various books and articles on the distribution of raptors in southern Canada in a desperate attempt to identify this bird and put it on my list. From this I have concluded that the balance of probability is that I was actually looking at a Red Tailed Hawk, but sadly, despite all of that pointless effort it is another of those experiences that, no matter how hard I try, will forever go unresolved and was wasted on a sixteen year-old me.
Family visits aside, holidays abroad really began for me with inexpensive sea voyages and coach trips to all-inclusive holidays in Spain and Portugal.
A coach journey from the northern Spanish port of Bilbao to our destination on the Atlantic Coast of Portugal was about ten hours and I expect that for many of you, the idea of being stuck in a coach rolling across the scorched and often barren Spanish landscape on a hot summer day would be your worst nightmare?
Not for me though, you would be amazed just what can be seen from a Coach on such a journey, Blue Rock Thrush perched appropriately on large boulders, Griffon Vultures soaring from cliff faces, Crested Larks seen during our roadside comfort stops as they sheltered from the scorching sun in the shadows beneath Lorries. I even found a Golden Eagle looking both conspicuous and incongruous on top of a telegraph pole (the only time I have ever been initially disappointed to see a Goldie – I was hoping for something more exotic you see)?
This type of birding is not as easy as I am making it sound though. It is actually quite humbling in as much as it takes you well outside of your comfort zone. For me it was a flashback to my earliest days. Without a more experienced mentor along to tell me what I was seeing, I was once again dependent on consulting field-guides and distribution maps in order to confirm my sightings. The difference was that I now had enough awareness to at least put most things into a family group and was also experienced enough to appreciate the value of taking note of the features and behavior of what I was seeing and writing down notes to support a retrospective identification when time allowed.
I still had problems though, such as my first Spectacled Warbler. Looking back through the eyes of experience it was quite an obvious specimen but I still had to prove conclusively to myself that it was not just a local form of Whitethroat or something equally mundane. I must have watched that one (if I am totally honest, quite boring) juvenile warbler for about twenty minutes and took at least three pages of notes before I reluctantly left it behind and raced back to the hotel to check it against at least three field guides that I had carted half way across Europe.
It is a much different prospect these days and like many birders, I have discovered that the secret to birding abroad successfully is homework, something that is so much easier to do now than it was ten years ago (let alone thirty)!
Once upon a time there were just a limited number of specialist books which gave a far from comprehensive coverage of the birdlife of foreign countries. These days, no matter where you are going there is a strong probability that numerous birders have been there before you. The internet seems to provide access to a bottomless pit of trip reports for you to read and digest before you even book your ticket. I normally commence this process on the day that I pay my deposit at the travel agents and on occasion that has been six months before we were actually going anywhere, but from a self-confessed compulsive what else would you expect?
Birding abroad has given me some special memories and some of the best birding moments of my life. Standing on the deck of a boat off the coast of Iceland as Brunnich’s Guillemots fly past a few feet away, Desert Sparrow perched on a village roof in the Sahara, and midnight five thousand feet up in the mountains of Madeira watching Zino’s Petrels drop onto their breeding ledges by moonlight. These are just a few highlights that will remain with me forever. My best day however, involved just two species, both of which I had seen before.
From an early age, my eldest Son Christopher was always obsessed with Sharks and Marine life in general. This passion remained with him throughout his formative years and resulted in him eventually qualifying as a Marine Scientist. Unlike many of his peers, Chris actually did something with this qualification and some years ago spent ten weeks surveying coral reefs off the coast of Mexico. This enabled him to fulfil at least one of his ambitions getting up close and personal with a loafing Nurse Shark.
When Chris’s twenty-first birthday came around I wanted to do something special for him and so arranged for a day trip to Norway so that he could fulfil another dream and swim with Killer Whales. This required an intense day of travelling in late November with an early start that resulted in us arriving at a fjord four degrees above the Arctic Circle at daybreak (about 09.45 local time).
Any fears that seeing Killer Whale would prove difficult were dismissed while we stood waiting to board the excursion craft. The towering fins of male Orca could easily be seen over half a mile away. But what were the birds flying over them? At that distance they had to be pretty big and the only other species we had seen were some Ravens that were ‘kronking’ loudly from the ledges above the town.
Of course the penny finally dropped. I had hope that we might be lucky enough to get some views of a White Tailed Eagle while we were in Norway, but did not expect them to be the only common bird out over the Fjord!
As the day progressed things just got better and better. When they found out that this was a birthday treat for Chris I was not only invited to go out on the inflatable rib with him I was also offered the opportunity to put on a dry suit and get into the water. I declined the latter offer as for some reason the idea of immersing myself in icy cold water above the Arctic Circle did not hold the same charm for me as it did for my son (despite which I was concerned that they might have to send one of the dry suits to be let-out in order to contain my estimable girth)!
The day was an education for me, standing on the inflatable boat as pods of killer Whales dived in front of us to be watched by the line of whale enthusiasts lying prostrate on the surface. Occasionally the whales would not dive but would cruise past, just a few yards away and quite capable of capsizing us if they so desired. On one of these occasions the pod was led by a huge male Orca, a beast that seemed to be about the size of a single decker bus and with a fin that was alone taller than I am (and I am over six foot three inches). This provided one of the most spiritual experiences of my life as we both made eye contact.
There is no doubt at all, I was looking a male Orca in the eye and it was equally aware of me. Just for a few seconds two creatures from such totally different environments became aware of each other and shared a few moments of mutual recognition before passing out of each other’s lives forever.
We saw many more Orca during the day, even at nightfall (about 14.40) we drew close to a fishing boat around which the Orcas had gathered, spy-hopping with plumes of vapor and the hiss of exhausted breath. We finished in the town drinking extraordinarily bad lager from the world’s most northerly brewery at just nine pounds a pint and then a final walk across the tarmac to the aircraft for our return flight which furnished us with views of a band of distant twinkling green light across the northern horizon, the Aurora Borealis – what a day – exhausted but happy we returned to the mundanity of the English Midlands but with memories of a wonderful day that both of us would keep forever.
Local Patch Birder
I have never been a smoker. I never got a taste for cigarettes although I did like a Cigar and at one point I wasn’t doing badly for a non-smoker, getting through three packs of Ritmeester Chargers a week! When Lynn first discovered that she was expecting our first child, I stopped smoking cigars to protect the baby and have never had a cigar since. The interesting thing is, more than thirty years later there are still times when I fancy a Cigar (usually being outside on cold frosty mornings is the worst).
At some point in the early twenty-first century I stopped chasing around the country on a regular basis to look at rare birds. You notice I have not said that I have given up ‘twitching’ because I am in great agreement with P.J. Grant, the author of ‘Gulls – an Identification Guide’ (if you are old enough to remember when that was the ultimate book for serious birders)? His assertion was that Twitchers have come in for a lot of undeserved stick over the years and in their defense he expressed the opinion that everybody goes on twitches and that if you walk two doors up the road to see a woodpecker on your neighbours bird feeder you are a twitcher!
Don’t get me wrong, I still get the adrenalin rush if I do get the chance to chase after a rare bird and if you want to test this out by phoning me and offering me a lift to see… I will most probably reply in the affirmative (probably with a sad and grateful ‘Please’ attached) – but doing it on a regular basis just became hard work.
I have given this a lot of thought and there is no simple answer to why my attitude changed. A part of it was certainly the other people who go twitching. I always hated the first day when a major rarity turned up. It was usually a very early start, a stressful journey praying that the bird would be seen and then the enormous rugby scrum of sometimes a thousand birders climbing over each other and becoming bad tempered and aggressive until they got that first glimpse of the bird that would legitimately let them put it on their list (think the twenty-fourteen ‘Black Friday’ event on steroids)!
Then there were the birders themselves! I’m sorry, if you are reading this you are almost certainly a birder and I am probably not having a go at you. It’s just that serious twitching seems to attract some of the most horrendous arseholes! People you would not cross the road to piddle on if they burst into flame and some of the worst are at the top of the twitching ladder.
Even sadder though is the greasy pole climbing of the ‘wanna-be’ names with their tongues firmly up the fundament of the aforementioned ‘celebrity birders’. I have always found sycophancy a sickening aspect of human nature and I have seen some awful examples while out birding for rarities (locally and nationally).
On another issue, if you cast your mind back to when I was rambling-on about the Zen aspects of birding I think you will understand the way I see the reciprocities of the hobby and I am always happy to help people if I can. But over the years I have birded with a number of people who offered me a lift to see something that they wanted to see, (without wishing to be immodest) so that I could find it for them. I am not dim and can see that there is a reciprocal element to this arrangement, and I generally didn’t mind. I enjoy birding at any time and the fact that I may have seen ‘such and such’ a species before often didn’t detract from the challenge of finding it, and on the contrary, for me it usually removed the actual stress of the search and enhanced the enjoyment.
The thing that irritated was that when there was something that I needed or wanted to see, those individuals would somehow be too busy or disinterested to reciprocate. Perhaps because they had seen the bird or (more likely) just didn’t feel like being a chauffeur on the day because the bird was a bit too far away or just because they weren’t as interested as I was. Instead of being a mutually supportive arrangement it became a one-sided arrangement where I was often on the wrong side and it was frustrating .I am an even-tempered individual but this behavior used to genuinely make me angry at times.
I decided that the best way to avoid falling out with friends and suffering this frustration was simply not to do it anymore. Since dropping of the scene a couple of people have been kind enough to suggest that I accompany them on some of their regular outings and (unless they were ‘known quantities) I have always politely declined. It means that I miss some good birds but it also prevents me having to deal with the irritating social complexities of dealing with other people and their attitudes (you see sometimes Hell really can be other people).
These points that I have made are all legitimate contributory factors for me dropping off the twitching scene but a bit of honest introspection would probably find the real reason results from being a non-driver. I just got so tired of having to go ‘Cap in hand’ to mates and fellow birders to ask for a lift.
Once upon a time fellow birders would have a list in their head of people to phone if there was a spare seat but at some point this seemed to go out of fashion and when something turned up that I seriously wanted to see I would have to phone around hoping that at least one of my friends and contacts had not dropped what they were doing and raced off as soon as the news broke.
I can probably identify the point at which I reached breaking point with this. It was a Saturday morning so almost everyone I knew who birded was not at work. A very rare species of Swift had turned up in Nottinghamshire but I didn’t find out about it until late morning. Nobody called to let me know and I later discovered that a good number of mates had just jumped into their cars and raced off with three empty seats. I never saw that bird, even though it remained throughout the following day and was no more than an hour’s drive away.
In the cosmic scheme of things I know it doesn’t matter but I suppose for me it was the stress point at which my total disillusionment with the birding scene began (I was finally able to put this disappointment behind me in 2015 when on one glorious morning in Tunisia, I found my own Little Swift). That was the year that I commenced going to the Isles of Scilly to get ‘my fix’ of rarities and I did that for nine years until the Islands priced themselves out of my pocket.
My first trip to the enchanted islands was in 1998 with Ray Wilson and Ian Smith. I spent many happy hours with Ian and unfortunately we were to fall out the following year over a rarity and a misunderstanding that was never resolved. My first trip to the Scilly Isles though was a memorable long weekend that featured a class-one rarity in the form of a North American Common Yellowthroat.
It was one of those strange chance situations which found us walking toward the area known as Lower Moors just as this bird was found there. Within two minutes we were on site and trying to relocate the bird which had flown a few hundred yards. Many eyes were scouring the bushes and I happened to stand back from the crowd and look up and there was the bird, perched briefly in the branches above our heads before flying out to show well.
The following day was a Saturday and hundreds of birders invaded the island for the day in the hopes of seeing this extreme rarity – but it didn’t show! A couple of hours after everyone had left the island we walked down and there it was perched on top of the bushes and showing well for at most six of us. It just didn’t like crowds apparently.
I missed the following year but from 2001 until 2009 I could be found walking the islands for at least a week every October. Many good birds were seen but few approached the rarity significance of that first American Mega! For a few years I was accompanied by Tony Stackhouse and we had some happy times on Scilly including what was probably the weirdest and most stressful outward journey that I have ever undertaken.
It was October 2004 and just a few days before we were due to visit the islands, a dream bird appeared in the form of a Cream Colored Courser. This is a bird more at home in the desert regions of Africa, but somehow one had made its way across Europe and had found itself on the golf Course on the main island of St Marys. We had little hope of seeing this desert wonder, surely after such a journey it would have expired by the weekend? But no, the Friday of our outward journey arrived and it was still showing well. We were due to sail to the islands on Saturday morning as usual so there was nothing to be done and so we set of quite casually for Cornwall on the Friday morning, expecting an uneventful journey and perhaps a drink and a meal in Penzance that evening.
We were some small way down the M5, but still in the midlands when we decided to listen for the weather forecast for Saturday and our hearts sank! Easterly gales were predicted for Saturday! This meant that there was little chance of the M.V. Scillonian III sailing as easterly’s made it all but impossible to dock at St Marys! We were going to be stuck on the mainland until Monday, losing a fair chunk of our week on the islands and even worse, having to hope that the big rarity would hang on for at least another two days.
I asked Tony to pull in at the next services and I telephoned The Isles of Scilly Steamship Company and sure enough, tomorrows sailing was already cancelled. In desperation I asked if there was any possibility of getting on the islands that day through their alternative service, the Skybus. I expected a firm No, as this service was almost invariably fully booked weeks in advance but to my amazement, there were still two seats left on the very last flight that day. We could have them but would have to be at Penzance Railway Station for a 16.00 minibus pick-up. There was no need for any discussion, Tony was up for the change of plan and our outward journey suddenly became much more focused and purposeful than we had expected.
We arrived at Penzance around three thirty, parked the car at the Heliport ready for our return the following weekend and then we caught the heliport minibus to the railway station. As we were waiting for the bus to the airfield at Lands’ End Tony’s pager went off “Courser showing well on the airfield at St Mary’s” We were two hours away from looking for the bird and there it was, waiting for us to land. I could feel my pulse, blood pressure and stress levels starting to move from the yellow toward the red so it was more of a relief than a disappointment to receive a message a few minutes later saying that the bird had flown off toward the Golf Course. It was still alive, had reportedly been feeding well and there was every chance that we would be on the island to look for it first thing on Saturday. As George Peppard would say, “I love it when a plan comes together”.
The minibus rolled up and we were dropped at the tiny airport at Lands’ End. Our luggage was weighed and passed through and then, we were weighed! The planes were ‘Brit-Norman Islanders’ quite small twin-prop shuttles and the weight of passengers had to be calculated and dispersed around the aircraft evenly. Those who know me will tell you that even today I am something of an ‘over-gauge load’ and in those days was three stone heavier, but for once this paid dividends as I was to be seated at the front of the plane, diagonally behind the pilot. We waited to board and then all plans were in flux as the room was suddenly filled with the sound of a number of pagers going off simultaneously!
“Courser has now returned to St Mary’s Airfield and is showing well’. I was probably imagining it, but there may have been a brief sound of shattering glass as my stress levels suddenly flew through yellow and red and started pushing the outer edge of the pressure gauge, we were about to board the aircraft for a fifteen minute flight at the end of which a dream bird was currently awaiting our arrival.
Take off from Lands’ End is to say the least eccentric. If you imagine driving your car over the bumpiest of lawns then you will have some idea of what taxiing the aircraft felt like. This was then followed by a change in engine tone and a slight sinking in the belly and you were in the air. Compared to other flight experiences this was strange in itself as the plane seemed to hang motionless for a few moments until the cliff edge dropped away beneath us and we were out over the sea. Even the small increase in height gained by the take-off was enough for the islands, twenty-eight miles away, to be visible as dark lines on the horizon which gradually became larger as we traversed the western approaches. In very little time we were able to pick out the distinctive shapes of the Wolf and Bishop Rock lighthouses and then it became possible to discern features on the islands. In just a few minutes the airfield itself was visible. “Can you see anything” The lady to my left asked? “I can see the birders and they seem to be watching something “I replied.
The plane circled around to approach and dropped towards the runway, losing speed as it did so but we were still doing 90 to 100 miles per hour as our wheels hit tarmac. I looked toward the Airport buildings and there on the grass a few hundred yards away was the unmistakable shape of a Cream Colored Courser! “There it is” I shouted. - “I can see it, I can see it” the lady to my left shouted (“You can’t, you can’t” – her desperate husband cried out) and suddenly those of us at the front were pushed forward by a crush of birders desperate to get a first glimpse of this exceptional rarity. By the time the plane drew to a stand we were half the distance from the bird than the other birders had been and we were all very slow at leaving the plane to take advantage of this closer proximity. The last thing we heard was the frustrated pilot, taking off his headphones and saying; “Welcome to Scilly – if anyone is interested”? Ticking a new species at ninety miles an hour from a moving aircraft – that is one experience that I will never forget!
Breaks on Scilly aside, by this time I had seriously begun my slow withdrawal from the national twitching scene and I adjusted my focus to local birding. My Staffordshire list became the most important yardstick by which I would measure my birding achievement and instead of spending hours in a car I would start to concentrate on finding my own birds on my local patch – despite my love of Chasewater I would be able to do this with greater frequency and diligence if this site were to be Clayhanger Marsh. And I suspect that this is where most people reading this come in?
When I started birding the site there was no formal or even informal site list so my first few visits involved getting to know ‘the usual suspects’ – the species that actually make up the normal avifauna of the marsh. I was aware of one or two historic site records, many of which originated from Graham Evans and he was very supportive in digging through his old records to let me know about species that had been seen there in the seventies. Surprisingly I also picked up some bits and pieces of information from doing the odd Slide Show, some of which were quite tantalizing (was there really Corncrake calling from the fields by the High Bridges in the twenties and thirties)? Gradually though I started to put together my own list and – add to it as I discovered previously unrecorded species on migration or perhaps the odd scarcity that dropped in. In those days there were only two other people that I was aware of who did the site, one was Tony Stackhouse who started birding later in life than most but who did his apprenticeship on the Marsh and Pete Newman, an old school birder and who had started birding in the far east when he was in the forces and who was the most serious West Midlands County lister at the time.
In those days if something noteworthy turned up I would put it on Eric Claire’s West Midlands Bird Club Bird line but by then Eric (or Sam if you prefer) had been doing a splendid job for a long time and was talking about giving up the nuisance and responsibility of running this resource. I always felt it was sad that the amazing variety of habitats that were available to local people were more or less unknown. Even the Police didn’t know where the marsh was or how to get to it. If this site had been in any other area I’m sure it would have been protected and turned into a country park a long time ago.
Anyone who has read my blog will know that I am far from technologically competent but it eventually occurred to me was that I could use the new trend for Blogging as a way of sharing information with my fellow birders, all that I needed to do was sort out how to set up the blog in the first place. This as some of you know can actually be done in about ten minutes. When I eventually did set up the Clayhanger Marsh Log in October 2007 it took me three and a half hours (technologically brilliant see)?
Even then I took some stick from several locals (who will remain nameless as they have since become regular blog followers)! You see there was a sort of protectionist feeling about the Marsh. Its status was as a hidden Gem that was ‘Our’ private resource and we don’t want lots of strangers coming over and spoiling it. I pointed out that this local ‘Gem’ was more or less permanently under threat as the mineral extraction rights had long ago been allocated and that if they ever needed to fight for the site, who was ever going to care about a site they didn’t know about and had never visited?
This argument eventually won the day and gradually even the nay-Sayers came on –board with the blog and the rest as they say – is probably boring (because if you are reading this you have probably read the blog at some point anyway).
I am very grateful for the support and following that the blog has acquired and I occasionally express my thanks to the regular supporters in particular, without who the blog would just consist of my inane ramblings. I am constantly amazed at the support there is for a little know post-industrial wetland perched on the edge of the Black Country and frankly astonished at the number of hits there are on the blog (averaging three to four thousand a month at the time of writing)! What I couldn’t have predicted was the number of non-birders that it attracts, people who just walk their dogs or ramble around on a Sunday afternoon to walk off their lunch. In a very real way, that was what I wanted to achieve. People now know where Clayhanger is. It has appeared with some regularity on pagers and birding websites over the last eight years and has also turned up some genuinely awesome rarities for the heart of England (such as Hoopoe and Black Winged Stilts).
My hope now is that there will be a younger generation of birders who adopt the marsh as their patch. I won’t live forever and it’s important that the momentum that has developed through the blog continues. If people think that nobody cares there is sufficient room over there for an awful lot of houses.
I think that’s it – nothing more to say. My kids had pestered me to do an e-book and here it is. If you have read it then I actually saw it through, if you didn’t, well…My final word is the title ‘Clayhanger Birdman’. Do I really see myself as that? Of course not! I hate this idea that we have to all have lables and pirate nick-names it’s pandering to the lowest criteria by which people are measured.
I was going up to Chasewater one day and was wearing my 'greens ‘and wellies’ with my scope and tripod strapped across my back. As I approached the bus stop in Bridge Street a car pulled alongside and the driver leaned over and rolled down his window. I expected to be asked for directions to ‘Howdle’s Butchers Shop in the village instead the occupant shouts; “Are you the Clayhanger birdman, anything about”?
You have no idea how much I would have liked to sprout a pair of angelic wings like the Red Bull advert and glide off toward Chasewater!
Chaz Mason - March 2015
Noted for sartorial elegance and a keen fashion sense
I was also involved in extra-mural courses in Wildlife, Urban Wildlife and Field Bird Study for over ten years and have been co-editor of a Birders Checklist (now out of print). In addition to this I have occasionally provided articles for local media and have extensive experience of delivering illustrated lectures on local wildlife. I have also participated in botanical survey work (published by Birmingham University), and managed Butterfly Transects when a member of Butterfly Conservation during the 1980s and 1990s (some of the results of which were published as part of a scientific paper on the range expansion of the Speckled Wood Butterfly into the midlands).
My academic development was undertaken with a focus on post-industrial sites (Plagiosere habitats) in the local area and specifically at Clayhanger Marsh. During the 1980s I was an active participant in the Walsall Wetlands Campaign which eventually succeeded in the designation of Clayhanger Marsh as an S.S.S.I. From 2008 until 2014 Chaz regularly maintained the Clayhanger Marsh Log.
Although at heart a birdwatcher I have a better than average working knowledge of Butterfly and Dragonfly species, a basic knowledge of botany and have recently been studying the occurrence of different species of Bumble Bee in the local area in order to enhance my identification skills.
For those just interested in the birder, I maintain a Life List in accordance with the B.O.U.R.C. criteria which currently stands at 417 although there are also a modest number of additional species that I have seen which are not recognised (but perhaps should be?).
My second most important list personally is my Staffordshire List (although technically I live in and monitor a site in the West Midlands, I was born in Walsall Staffordshire, and still feel that this county holds my cultural heritage). This list currently stands at 260 (according to the West Midlands Bird Club criteria) with an additional six species that the W.M.B.C. does not recognise but which many local birders consider acceptable (So were I a competitive birder and included species that many other Staffs Lister's do - which I'm not - my Staffs List could be seen to be as high as 263).
When cutting my 'Birding Teeth' Chasewater was my home base and I still consider myself a Chasewater birder. My one birding ambition that remains is to see 200 species there (my Chasewater list currently stands at 193).
Birding achievements and ambitions
Best bird I have seen in Britain? Belted Kingfisher in Staffs must be a serious contender.
Favourite Bird seen in Britain? Baltimore Oriole (I have now seen two of these and would still go a long way to see another) you will find a very distressed hardboard specimen on the front wall of our house which I will be very sad to see inevitably fall apart.
Biggest Tart (Bogey Bird)? Little Bittern (which have eluded me at many sites in Britain and abroad)
Bird I would most like to see in Britain? Pallas's Sand Grouse it used to breed after occasional eruptions into western Europe but this doesn't happen any more!
That's more than you probably wanted to know but there it is. - Chaz