April 9 1977 Dungeness, Kent
The day had begun with snow showers and a north-easterly wind. I was staying at the bird observatory and by midday, together with four other birders, was sitting in the patch sea-watch hide. Little was moving and after half an hour we had started to lose interest. The noise of somebody running across the shingle towards the hide caught our attention before the firm knocking on the hide door. It was local birder, Mick Sinden.
"I don't know how true this is, but there are rumours of a Wallcreeper on the cliffs at Ecclesbourne Glen". This was, apparently, close to the village of Fairlight (just over the border and into East Sussex), just before you reach the town of Hastings. That is all the information that we had - no times, exact location or names of observers. Welcome to the pre-digital, pre-phone line and pre-pager world of 1977. A mild panic ensued. We all returned to the observatory, where two of the Dungeness birding faces of the time, Keith Redshaw and Kenny Thomas, had also gathered on hearing the news. A road atlas was hastily opened and the exact whereabouts of Fairlight confirmed. Somebody had been there before, but warned that it was a wooded clifftop with no access to the beach below. Surely we would need to be able to scan the cliffs to stand any chance of seeing the bird. It was decided to drive to Hastings and then walk along the beach until we drew level with Fairlight, enabling us to clearly see all of the cliffs.
A convoy of four cars left the observatory, one of them reversing into another before we finally left. It was like a scene from the Keystone Kops (if you are under 50, google them. They are what used to pass as comedy in the olden days). After 45 minutes we arrived at Hastings and parked as close to the eastern cliffs as we could and walked to the beach. Our first major problem faced us - the tide was in and the sea was lapping up at the bottom of the cliff - there was no beach to walk on.
However, when you are young, foolish and there is the promise of a Wallcreeper, all sense goes out of the window and we started to clamber along the narrow ledges and loose rocks at the base of the cliff face. I wouldn't do it now. A few slips were experienced, the odd mini rock fall, but after clambering along maybe half a mile of cliff we met our second major problem - we didn't know where we were in relation to Fairlight Glen or exactly the details behind the bird. We had been in a straggly line, but then regrouped to discuss what best to do. Did we return to the cars and drive round to Fairlight itself to see if there were an advantage point from up high? But then something happened that decided it all for us.
We all saw it at the same time - a flash of iridescent crimson, coming towards us from higher up the cliff face. As one we froze. It came closer, a series of flutters and glides, rounded wings with white spots and that shining, flashing red. And finally it alighted, only yards from us, side-on like an illustration in a field guide. A Wallcreeper... summer plumage to boot, with sooty underparts. We sat on the rocks in a beatific trance and for the next twenty minutes were treated to this most splendid of birds feed in front of us, dancing up and down the cliff face like a giant exotic butterfly. By now the sun was out, the wind had dropped. I looked about me, taking in this most absurd vista - just a green sea, a honey-buff cliff face, a blue sky and the best bird that you could ever see.*
I won't bore you with my second UK Wallcreeper, suffice to say that it was the Cheddar Quarry bird and I saw it of March 5th 1978. This one was in winter plumage. When this species finally returns to these shores and is unblocked I will cry.
*Up until my trip to Malaysia in 1994 this remained my most stunning bird. It was then overtaken by Banded Pitta, then Blue Nuthatch and finally by Cutia. Ever seen a Cutia? F*** me...