Monday, 26 December 2011

50 years of Birding - a bit of a Milestone?

With 2012 quickly approaching, it is the usual thing to reflect upon the fading year. However, 2011, has not been my greatest year and so I thought, I would do the opposite and look forward to the approaching one! (But, not just yet)!

The coming year, will be a very special one for me – it will be my 50th year of birding! I cannot remember a time, when I wasn’t interested in natural history. I supppose there must have been, it’s just that I can’t remember it! I always tell people that I started birding in 1962, but this is not strictly true. I was birding for a couple of years before this date, its just that I never kept a diary, or a bird journal of any kind. I couldn't yet write, you see!

Looking for the Bridlington Med Gull in 1956!
I am the one wearing the white hat!
A pre-birding photo, aged 3 years old.

1962 was a bit of a landmark in several ways:

a)      1962/63 was one of the severest winters in the UK in living memory. I saw unprecedented  numbers of birds in the garden. My first Woodcock lay dead, on the snow (not tickable, though)!

b)      The family home changed! It changed, from a very modest two up two down pit house, with an outside toilet, to a rather grand Norman Castle! To be honest, it was one wing of a Norman Castle, not the whole castle! But, I had acres of woodland to explore!

Me, with my first dog,
the girls are my cousins, Susan & Pauline.

c)      I mastered the art of reading! And did I read? I read everything connected to natural history. I began on my life-long path to speed reading. I still do it today! Then I discovered the local library! My earliest favourite, was A.F.C. Hillstead’s, The Young Birdwatchers and a little later, Adventure Lit their Star, by Kenneth Allsop. This latter volume was published in 1962 and I virtually memorised it! I also devoured every Obervers book series, that was connected to natural history.
The staple birding ID book in 1962!

d)      My mother was often incarcerated in a physcatric wing of a local hospital and my father was down the coal mines. To me, this meant one thing – freedom! Freedom to explore, to try and find the local Badgers and Foxes and of course, a few birds!

e) I started to keep my birding journal. I still have the lot from 1962, until the present day.

1962, was the year I began living, really living. Doing the things I wanted to do and not what they (my parents) expected me to do! Fate, had thrown me a very nice hand – I lived in a natural history paradise and to a seven year old boy, this had no boundaries. I was going to make the most of this opportunity!

I was an enthusiastic egg collector and this lead to me looking at things very carefully and methodically. I would often walk slowly down a privet hedge looking for nests. In season, I found them and out of season, I found insects, mice and short-tailed field voles sometimes using them. I had a moat, complete with a working drawbridge! Several pairs of Moorhen nested here and I was a frequent raider of their nests, not only just taking the eggs for my collection, but also eating the eggs themselves! It was while engaged in such an activity, that one afternoon lingers in my mind. It was a defining moment for me, in my pursuit of birds. I had sat down on the bank of the moat, looking at the three moorhen’s eggs I had just taken, when I noticed that one of the eggs, showed signs of hatching! Now, this put me in a dilemma, because I really wanted these eggs, but something in the back of my mind, told me that this wasn’t quite right. Was I being cruel?

A Common Moorhen's nest, with eggs.
The start of a life-long obsession?

I suppose, I must have sat there for a while, because I remember seeing a flash just past my head! It was a physcodelic whirl of colour and it landed on a stick in the water. It was of course, my first Kingfisher and it was perched in profile in the open, just for me! This was exactly like the painting in the Observer’s book of British Birds. He must have painted it here – the same stick, the same bird! He had been here before me! It dived into the water and re-emerged with a small stickleback in its bill, which it began to bash on its perch. It was quickly swallowed and the spell was broken, when the bird flew off further down the moat. I went back to the Moorhen’s nest and returned my stolen bootie. I then ran, as fast as I could, to the castle and into the library. Yes, I had my own private library, because both my parents were barely literate, (leaving school at 12 years old in 1932)! Hardly anyone but me, entered the library, it was my own little sanctuary. I caressed the book and turned the pages, until I found my dream bird. It looked back at me, just as it had done on the moat. I had seen a Kingfisher! Remember, I was seven years old!

It is still a thrill, to see it today,
 as all those years ago!

I think I must have been a bit of a trial to my parents. I was very gifted at school and quickly became a focus of attention for teachers. My enthusiasm for the written word, masked my obsession, that of the natural world. No one seemed to notice, that I read so called, scientific books. I found childrens’ books well – childish! I looked at them with distain! By the time I was ten, my favourite book in the whole world (well South Yorkshire, at least) was T.A. Coward’s Birds of the British Isles & their Eggs. It was a two volume work, published in 1919. How, I loved it! I read every page, hundreds of times. I now had an aim, (everything became very clear to me), I had to see every bird in this hallowed book! Subconciously, I had become a twitcher, before the term was coined!

Euopean Honey Buzzard
from T.A.Coward's landmark work.

The great man himself,
 and he has got my binoculars!

My parents didn’t understand this obession, my mother equating bird watching with homosexuality. (In later years, she found her fears were unfounded)! But, I was insistant, I wanted my pair of binoculars! To date, I had used my wonderful Grandmother’s 2x opera glasses, which I could fold and place in my shirt pocket. But, I had read about proper binoculars –some being able to magnify 6x! Imagine the views I could get, with this state of the art technology! I fantasised and began to beg! At that time, I received my weekly sweet money. I stopped eating sweets! I begged for a job as a paper boy, delivering newspapers, but they said I was too young. I arrived at the shop every day for several weeks at 4.30 am. I used to help unpack the bundles of newspapers and magazines from the back of the van. On cold days, the twine used to cut into my fingers, but after a while, the owner gave me hot tea in the mornings and eventually a job, delivering papers on my bicycle. I now had money, not to spend, but to save! I had a pair of Barr & Stroud 6 x 30 binoculars fixed in my sights! I told everyone what I wanted. November 5th, is bonfire night in the UK. I built a Guy and begged for penny for the guy, in the streets. This was normal practice in those days, to get money to buy fireworks. I never bought any fireworks!

Someone in the town, must have mentioned this to my parents, because one day, my dad sat me down and asked me how much I had saved. I can’t remember the amount, but it was a considerable sum in those days. He said they would match penny for penny, everything I had saved. I told him what I desired. A little over a month later, Santa Claus delivered my spanking new Barr & Stroud 6 x 30 binoculars in a leather case! I cried! It was 1965.

The object of my desire!

Transport, before the luxurious Morris Minor in 1957!
 I am the one on Mum's lap!

In later years,
our driving roles were reversed!

To say a whole new world had opened up to me, was a vast understatement! I could now see anything and everything! Nothing could hide from my gaze! It was at this time, that fate lent a kindly hand. I was eating fish & chips with my parents, on a weekly shopping excursion to Doncaster. I saw an advert for a meeting of the Doncaster & District Ornithological Society – it was next week! But, I had a big problem, how to get there! I begged my dad to take me in his wonderful Morris Minor (we had recently graduated from a motor bike & sidecar, to this fantastic mode of transport. It had a heater in it)! My begging must have been persistent, similar to a young cuckoo’s treatment of its foster parents, I suppose! He drove me to the meeting and stayed with me until the end, often sleeping next to me. I devoured every slide and every word. I was in heaven. I suppose he must have liked those sleeps, because every fortnight for the next five years, he drove me to those meetings. Until in fact, it was deemed, I was old enough to catch the bus, on my own.

I was exploring, I was learning a lot and I was reading! From these meetings I became aware of the multi-volume Witherby’s Practical Handbook of British Birds, published in 1920. This was it! Everything you need to know about British Birds!

I wanted it, but it was about six months of my father’s salary as a miner. Completely out of the question. I went to the local library & enquired about it. I got it from the British Lending Library in Wetherby at the time. I had it for two whole weeks! I read. But, all good things come to an end and I had to return it. But then, I requested it again in my father’s name, two more weeks; my mother’s name, two more weeks and my brother’s name, two more weeks! Then it was my turn again! Now the librarian wasn’t stupid, just very understanding! My parents knew her and much to my delight, the following year, she ushered me into the inner sanctum of her office. She asked me to open the package! 

By 1966, I was going on all kinds of trips with the Doncaster & District Ornithological Society (DDOS). I was popular in the group. I was enthusiastic, but I had one major handicap, which quickly became apparent. I got car sick! It came upon me like a volcano, usually, after a mile or two, in anyone’s car! I prepared well, I got my bags. But, I suppose it was the smell that got to them in the end! Offers of lifts to see birds began to dwindle! But then, we had the bus trips! I could sit next to the driver, he was paid to drive and he changed every trip! Perfect, I could throw up into my sick bags at every opportunity. Others, sat four rows behind. Whenever I sat on a birding bus, there were always four rows of empty seats behind me!

It was October, 1966, we were on a foray from Doncaster to Gibraltar Point. Expectations ran high. One of my most wanted species at the time, was Richard’s Pipit. This was a rare bird in those days and I had recently missed one at Spurn. The combination of October and Gibraltar Point seemed ideal to achieve my goal.

Thanks for the photo Khalifa!

The drive was only punctuated by the necessity for the bus to stop, for me to empty my bulging sick bags, in the nearest bin. This seemed to happen quite frequently! We were nearly at our goal, the lane that leads to Gib! But, I for once, was unprepared, I had run out of bags! I was going to volcano! The driver reacted with admirable fortitude and skill. I leapt out, bent over and did my stuff! Everyone else stayed on the bus. As I became upright, I saw a falcon, perched on a dead snag, quite close. I picked up my bins and saw my very first adult female Red-footed Falcon (infact, it was my first Red-foot of any kind)! I knew what it was instantly, the same bird as in Coward, and in Bensen’s Observer’s Book of Birds. I waved to the throng. No-one moved! I went to the door and shouted, Red-footed Falcon! Nobody moved, I guess the smell was still on my breath! I looked at the leader, Reg Rhodes. Begrudingly, he moved, and as he did so, muttered, "a bloody Kestrel!" He picked up his bins and I do believe that this was the first moment, I had ever heard anyone say "fuck", in my presence! People got off the bus! I was eleven years old and had found my first BB rarity.

Red-footed Falcon - not the 1966 bird,
this photo was taken many years later.

More rarities followed in the coming years, by 1970, I was a regular at Spurn and I had seen a lot of scarce migrants and genuine vagrants. I then went to Hull, to supposedly study geography, but it just happened to be the closest place to Spurn! I went birding

 August, 1971 at Spurn.

A bit closer, so you can see
it is an Icterine Warbler.
Now, the reason I tell you these little tales, is so you know a bit more about me. I go birding and try and find rare birds. That’s what I do. In 2007, I had a stab at a UAE big list. Despite spending 14 weeks out of the country, I amassed a total of 327 species. My final bird of the year, being a Water Rail, at Al Wathba Lake on the last dusk of the year. However, I remained unhappy with this total, I could have done better, 330 is within reach. So the coming year will be my 50th year in birding and what better way, than to go birding!

Looking to the future - 2012 beckons!

Here are my rules:

·        The year list, will be based upon the official UAE Bird Checklist as of 15th November 2011.  Only category A & C species will be counted.
·        If any revision to this list is undertaken during 2012 my list will be revised in line with the  revision.
·        Only species seen, will count. Heard birds will be recorded, but not countable on my year list, until I have seen them.

Here are are my goals:

  • To break 327 species in the year, but really I have set my heart on 330 + species.
  • To find at least three new birds for me, in the UAE. Notable gaps include Red breasted Merganser; Red Knot; Rustic & Red headed Buntings etc. Surely, some of them, must fall to me in 2012?
  • To go on more pelagic trips.
  • To enjoy myself!

My milestones:

  • 200+ species by the end of February.
  • 300+ species by the end of June.
  • 330+ species by the year end.

Will we get any of these beauties in 2012?

It will probably be a whole new selection of rarities, which will delight, and amaze us, in 2012!

I will place regular summaries of my activities on my blog, at least on a monthly basis, but more frequent, if it gets exciting!

Enjoy your birding & have a wonderful 2012!

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