Wednesday, 16 May 2012

How things have changed!

Yesterdays calling Little Crake got me thinking about how birding & birders have changed over the last 50 years, since I entered the fray. I have just totalled up my birding mileage (kilometreage just doesn't sound right)! 19,620 kms on my birding trips so far this year. This doesn't include my daily run to & from work, when I am not birding. Whow!

WUV 805 was the registration
 of my Dad's car. It was just like this one!

 In 1962, cars were a little different & certainly not as reliable as they are today. Roads were much slower and even trips to the coast, which as only 100kms away, could take hours! I still remember the first heaters inside cars, what luxury! Birding trips of more than a few miles from home were anticipated as a great event. A trip to Spurn, or Gibraltor Point was often the highlight of a whole year!

Spurn Point - one of my earliest hunting grounds.

We often got together and organised a bus to take us birding, as few people owned cars back then. I remember these trips very well indeed (for contrasting reasons)!

Nice seat covers!

Most of my birding was on foot or by bicycle. I cycled miles on my quest for new species. 50 or 60 miles was normal. I was young, fit & very thin! A birding circuit of my beloved Thorme Moors, could be well over 16 miles! All of it on foot. I thought it was normal. I learned later, it wasn't!

Flooded former peat extraction area
 on Thorne Moors.

Money was in short supply, these trips had to be saved for, often for weeks of doing without lifes little luxuries. We made sandwiches for the day. I existed on Apricot jam sandwiches for several years! It was one of the cheapest options you see. I still can't eat Apricot jam to this day without a suddder! Oxtail soup in a flask for those cold days was a rare treat!


  I remember saving up for ages for a pair of wellington boots, so I could see those bloody snipe which hide in those marshes! For a few months everything went to plan, my boots were perfect for the job. I kicked up loads of Common Snipe + the odd Jack Snipe too. Brilliant!

Wonderful Jack Snipe!
 Rare, but regular in South Yorkshire.

But then I punctured one of the boots climbing over a barbed wire fence. That winter I struggled on with freezing cold water flooding into one boot. My toes got used to being numb. I experimented with trying to repair them with a puncture outfit from my bicycle, but it didn't last very long. I used to sit and ring my socks out after every excursion into the wet. I learned quickly to bring an extra dry sock as well, but those toes still ached! Then disaster happened. My feet slowly but surely, grew too big for my boots. I hobbled around for nearly a year, in a lot of pain, but in the end, my boots won the day. For several months I couldn't go into the marshes.
My most treasured posession was of course, my binoculars. I had worked & saved long & hard for them. They were fantastic, but had limitations. One of my birding haunts was Southfield Reservoir, in South Yorkshire.

Southfield Reservoir - on a nice day! 

This reservoir is two rather large sheets of water. Those black specs at the furthest end were ducks and grebes. Most went unidentified, because of the distance involved. But then a minor miracle happened - I got a telescope! It was mine, all mine for free!

Similar to mine!

 My dad said he knew someone with an old brass telescope that he didn't use anymore & that he was giving it away to someone who would look after it & use it well. Many years later, I found out that this was a little lie for my benefit. My dad had bought it for me, but for some reason didn't want me to know he had done so. I loved that telescope! It was huge! It magnified a dizzyingly high 20x. I could now see those ducks! One day stands out above all others, regarding my telescope. It was late December, just before Christmas. There was snow on the ground. I was peering rather gingerly, over the bank at the reservoir. There were hundreds of ducks of mny pecies packed close together at the far end. I crawled to the top of the banking & lay down in the snow. The cold seeped up to meet me & started to enter my body. I had to lay down you see, to balance the large brass telescope on my knee. It had a long drawtube, which you had to pull out & balance. I peered down this piece of glass, I could see the ducks! Drake Pintails drew my attention first, then Wigeon and the commoner dabblers. A few drab Gadwall were at the back.

Northern Pintails - an uncommon duck in Yorkshire.

The next pack were diving ducks, I started to wade through them, tons of Tufted Duck & Pochard, but nothing too unusual. Then I saw something shining, slightly to one side. It was quick moving & it dived. it looked almost white, with some grey & black on it. I saw it again! It was a ghost! It was a ghost from the far north, the frozen north. Ice thickening over Scandinavian lakes had pushed this bird that little bit further south. The dazzling male Smew was in my beloved telescope! The first Yorkshire record for many years.

My ghost from the frozen north!

 I couldn't tear my eyes away, but eventually I had to. I was starting to freeze! But how to get the news out? No mobile phone in those days. In fact, the nearest phonebox was miles away! And I was on my bicycle! As I was thinking about this situation, a winter Merlin flashed by down the side of the hedegrow. A few minutes later, I saw a man in the distance. I knew his shape well. It was Reg Rhodes, one of the few & probably the best birder around, in those days. I lost no time in telling my tale. He was sceptical! He also has a large brass telescope, we both went back to our cold friend, the snow. Then I heard him exclaim! He had found the Smew! Later on, back in the city, there was no mention of my part in this little saga. Reg had found the Smew! There was no mention of me & me telling him about it. It was his find. This was my first introduction to birding politics!

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