Friday, 30 December 2011

Adrian Chapman - a pioneering birder in the UAE

I met Adrian in May 1992. I remember the day well. I was up before dawn, birding the fields and hedgerows in the Spurn Point, Kilnsea area. The wind was in the east and it had rained overnight. These were classic conditions for finding scarce & rare migrant birds along the east coast. It was one of those days, when you just knew it was going to be good & so it proved. A succession of sought after rare birds, fell into my notebook, as the morning progressed.  

As I moved northwards, the birding got better, so I continued, past Kilnsea, to Easington village. Just as I reached the caravan park, the heavens opened once more & a terrific rain storm was upon me. Absolutely drenched, I saw the pub in the village had just opened & I thought I could dry out there, have a drink, a bite to eat & wait out the storm.

There were only two people in the bar, the barman & the guy he was talking to, who already had a pint in front of him. They both turned to me & as I swung my rucksack to the floor, rainwater slightly sprinkled the two men. My smile didn’t seem to work, the guy on the bar stool uttered something, which was not complimentary at all! I ordered my beer & took off my outercoat, leaving my binoculars in plain view, around my neck.

The guy on the bar stool, grumbled “I suppose you call yourself a birder, don’t you?” I replied that, yes, I was a keen birder, and told him my name was Steve. I offered my hand, it was ignored. He looked at me carefully before uttering “ What have you seen then?” I told him. He started to look at me with interest & a certain amount of disbelief. He then started to bark out questions, on where I had seen a certain species & how I identified a certain bird. I must have somehow passed this unofficial test, because as the minutes went by, his creased up face, took on a more friendly tone. As he drained his pint, he said ‘what are you drinking youth?” Now in 1992, I was far from being a youth, infact, I was 37 years old, but I told him my order & shortly, my new pint was placed in front of me. When ever I was with him, in the following years, he always called me youth, rarely if ever, using my given name.

As I sipped my new pint, I asked him his name. “Chapman” he barked. “Adrian Chapman”. My recently lubricated brain cells began to stir, I had heard that name before, but many years ago in the back of beyond, a flooded colliery wasteland; the nearby village, was called Fairburn. I was eleven years old & following closely, infact, sometimes too closely, upon the heels of a certain Reg Rhodes. If ever there was a son of a bitch, Reg was it. He was a tough, hardened miner, a chain smoker, one who would punch you, as soon as look at you. For some reason Reg had taken a liking to me, probably because I carried his large, & very heavy brass telescope. Reg had one saving grace, he was a bloody good birder. I was learning a lot under his tutilage & I think he quite liked me, although he never showed it. After a couple of particuarly nasty insults, I remember thinking to myself, when I am sixteen, I am going to punch this old boys lights out!

As we turned the corner and surveyed a large, newly formed lake, there were three men in front of us. Two of them were two of the biggest ruffians I had seen, they seemed to be arguing, but later on, I found out that they always talked like that to each other! Their names were Charlie Wynn and Adrian Chapman. The third man was a complete contrast to the other two. He was reserved and cultured and he was the only person who bothered to speak to me. His name was Bob Dickens. The trio of ruffians, Reg, Charlie & Adrian continued their animated conversation, oblivious to my presence. Then something quite strange happened, Bob Dickens spoke. To my complete surprise, the trio who looked as if they had just finished nicking lead off the roofs of nearby houses, stopped talking & listened. Bob, looked a toff, he wasn’t the kind of guy, who I thought would associate with these three guys! Many years later, I found out that this genteel man was in fact, the local schoolmaster and one of his old pupils, Adrian, was actually stood in front of him. Bob had had a profound influence on boy Adrian. He detected a quality in him, that wasn’t easily seen. Importantly, he instilled discipline into him and encouraged him in birds & natural history & Adrians other talent, that of making things. Adrian could do stuff, with wood, metal, infact, anything that came to hand. He told me later that he struggled at school, but if it could be tinkered with, or made, Adrian could probably do it. Years later, I found out that Adrian designed and put in place, the bird information boards for the Fairburn Ings newly declared reserve. Over the years I saw a lot of those boards on my regular visits. Reg died of lung cancer. I never did get to punch him. I often saw Charlie, but I never saw Adrian or Bob, at Fairburn again. I found out later Adrian was at sea, something I found to be remarkably attractive at my young age. All those seabirds to see! How I envied his travels!

I finished my pint before Adrian did. Without asking him, I ordered him a drink. The two pints appeared on the bar. I looked outside, it had stopped raining. I made a mental note to finish this one quickly & get back to birding, there were rarities to be found out there! I looked at him and asked him where he lived. He said “Hull” I told him I lived in Hull & asked him where. It turned out he lived outside Hull, at a very middle class place, a village on the banks of the River Humber, called Welton. As I looked at him, he didn’t seem the type to live in the very posh Welton. I was drinking my pint quickly, I was going to leave.
Two beers appeared on the bar. I settled back in to my seat. I told him I saw a great rarity at Welton in the mid 70’s, an American, White rumped Sandpiper on the foreshore. He stared at me closely. He growled “your Steve bloody James, aren’t you?” I replied in the affirmative. He scowled & said “seen you before, at Fairburn”. My mind peeled back the years, to the three guys, who you certainly wouldn’t want to pick a fight with, on the edge of Fairburn Ings. He hadn’t changed that much over the last twenty odd years. He had a lined, lived in face, which changed in front of my eyes, as a slight smile escaped from his lips.

Somewhow, he had remembered, that small boy, loaded down with that cannon of a brass telescope on that cold, November morning, that he never spoke to. He did know my name, he had probably heard it many times, as I ran the rare bird network for North East England & I was well known at the time, both in Hull and beyond.
Two more beers appeared on the bar. We started to talk. He told me about Abu Dhabi, where he lived. He told me about the birds to be found there, exotic sounding names being spat out at regular intervals. Hypocolius, Crab Plover and Sooty Falcon. My mind went back to a small boy, rustling the pages of a very dog eared copy of Birds of Europe & the Middle East. Since childhood, those were the birds I most wanted to see. I had done a lot of travelling over the years, but so far, those three species had alluded me. I was hooked. I paid close attention to the man on the bar stool, who was doing all the talking.
Two more beers appeared on the bar. Thoughts of venturing outside started to recede, I sat listening to this grumpy guy. He talked of four wheel drive trips into the desert & mountains. He talked of the birds & the photography he was doing. He talked about his companions, but never mentioned their names. Little did I know at the time, that one of them, Jenny, I had known since being a boy. He talked of the night sky & of the beers in the coolbox! As he recounted tales, he started to smile a bit more. Two more beers appeared on the bar.

Adrian also talked about the sea & the birds he had seen in the various oceans. I could now add to the conversation. He seemed impressed that I knew some of his old ports of call, & even more importantly, the birds to be found there. Over the last two decades I had put in a lot of mileage, birding all around the globe. He told me he was only here for a visit & was shortly to return to Abu Dhabi. He said it might be a good place for me to go to. We parted, somewhat unsteady, on our feet. We had touched on a lot of things over the past few hours. I never thought I would see him again.

Something of our conversation must have stuck in my mind. I looked up Abu Dhabi on the map. I had birded the Middle East before, but not this part. I checked on the list of possible new birds for me. It was over 40. I started looking for jobs!

I arrived in Abu Dhabi, alone on 20th August 1992. It was hot, bloody hot! It seemed like all the oxygen had been sucked out of the air. It was hard to breathe. Abu Dhabi itself was a surprise. So modern! Not a bit like I expected. I walked around the Cultural Foundation doing all the normal, touristy things. There was a small notice on a board. It proclaimed that there will be a meeting of the Emirates Natural History Group on the first Monday in September, here at the Cultural Foundation. I made a mental note to turn up. I hadn’t anything better to do. Carol & the family were still in England, making arangements to join me later, in September.

I arrived slightly before 8 pm. The venue was huge and very impressive. There were a lot of people around, maybe sixty, or so. Suddenly, a guy with blonde hair took to the stage & started speaking, in very cultured, plummy tones. I didn’t know it at the time, but his name was Peter Hellyer. He was quite pompous, & the whole thing was very formal. I made a mental note to slip out when he stopped talking & head for the nearest bar. As he went on a bit, my eyes started to wonder, across the room. I saw a lady with short blonde hair seated, listening intently. She must have felt my eyes upon her, because she turned her head very slightly & directly looked at me. There was something in those eyes that was familiar, very familiar! Then she smiled at me & I knew it was Jenny Hollingworth. A face I hadn’t seen, for seventeen years!

As the minutes rolled by, someone sneaked in & sat next to Jenny, he said something to her & she laughed! It was Adrian. She then turned to a man on her other side. He was a long limbed, thin man, draped slovenly across the chair. He seemed to be sleeping, only when he was addressed directly, did any signs of life become apparent. I learnt later, his name was Rob Quested. Next to him was a very good looking blonde girl, who looked good enough to eat! She was Lynda Graham.
Finally, the speaker stopped. People started to mill about & chat. I made straight for Jenny, who was next to Adrian. It was difficult who was the more surprised to see me, Adrian or Jenny! We all started talking at once, Adrian slowly working out that Jenny & I knew each other. The noise level must have increased, because a large guy, who I hadn’t noticed before, suggested we all go to the pub. I later learnt his name was Dave Robinson. It soon became apparent that this little circle of friends, were a club within a club & we quickly exited, to a dark & dingy bar, which was strangely, underground!

They were all introduced to me, first of all by Jenny, then Adrian added his bit. The blonde  guy, came & joined us, they made way for him. After the first pint, I thought I had known them all my life. Topics of conversation were varied, but centred on travelling, camping, birding, general natural history and drinking. I had died and gone to heaven! Half way through the evening, there was a sad moment, when we all drank a toast to guy, who had recently died. His name was Bish Brown. All of them felt his loss. Time flew by & before you knew it, it was the early hours. Adrian had been holding court, as the pints flew down. This was a different man, from the one on the bar stool in Easington. He said he was only here for a few days, as he was moving to Dubai because of his work. We made plans for a weekend excursion to Dabbiya, so I could see Crab Plover.

The foray was everything one could have hoped for. Great birding, great conversation and Lynda Graham in a bathing suit! Wine & beer flowed, I couldn’t remember the last time I had enjoyed myself more. They were a funny group, this bunch. Very different individuals, held together by a passion for the natural world & a desire to explore it. I quickly realised that this was the team that Adrian had told me about, back in May. He was a happy & I thought a lucky man, to have such companions. His many years here in the UAE were some of the happiest of his life. In those days, there was an excitement about the place, exotic sounding names, in exotic locations. Places that Dave & Adrian (together with Jenny & Lynda) had all been to many times. I heard their stories & visualised their birds. When Adrian moved to Dubai, I took his place in the group. They were halycon days.

I saw Adrian less & less. He moved from Dubai & added both Gdansk & Hong Kong to his places of residence. Periodically, he returned. We always went to the ENHG meetings, often quietly slipping out at the interval & heading for the bar. The blonde guy, who was front of house,  always followed us later. They were great nights, only cutailed by the bar manager asking us all to leave.

Adrian, finally retired, prompted by a health problem. He had met Edith, who became his wife & they set about building a house on Palawan together. Periodically, he returned to the UAE. A quick phone call was made & we would meet in a local hostelry. It always seemed like he had never been away. He kept talking about his life on Palawan & the birds there. He kept asking us to go out & finally, Rob & I made the trip in January 2008.

Adrian had had health problems, but he looked fit & well, infact, better than I had seen him for a while. He was keen to show us his island & together with his friend Roger, we did just that, having a fine old time in the process. But then, out of nowhere, something happened. We were all attacked by hornets on a jungle trail. Rob, being the only one to get away relatively unscathed. Adrian was badly stung, receiving sixty two hits. He was hurt hard  & upon returning home, he took to his bed, with terrible pains, particularly in his head. He was never to go birding again.

Looking back on my time with Adrian, I feel privileged to have known him. Apart from our love of birds, we had certain things in common. For one, our rough upbringing in South Yorkshire. We both learned to use our fists to settle any disputes at an early age. Another, was our love of travel. I think we both knew there was a whole world out there, waiting just for us. Adrian was a larger than life character, South Yorkshire just wasn’t big enough for him. Nobody gave Adrian anything in his life. From modest beginnings, he rose through the ranks, to a  high position in Lloyds shipping. He got there by dogged determination. Was there a more stubborn man born than Adrian? He applied himself & he was successful. He also loved life, his family & friends. He had fantastic experiences throughout his life. With Adrian, what you saw, wasn’t exactly what you got. He appeared tacturn, grumpy and argumentative. But once you had proved yourself, he was fiercely loyal and with a heart of gold. He had developed this tough outer exterior, but as you got to know the man, these peeled away & all you saw was a small boy, with a wonder for the natural world. He was a great friend & will be sadly missed.

The Youth.

This post originally appeared on the UAE Birding website.

The Youth, Adrian & Rob
Adrian & Rob birding.
The Palawan birdmobile!

Adrian outside his house on Palawan.

Adrian & Edith's house on Palawan
A Yorkshireman till the end!
Adrian & Rob, deciding what to do next!

And this is it! The star bird on Palawan!
Palawan Peacock-Pheasant.

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