Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Hello Icterines, Goodbye Elvis

Dungeness August 1977
It’s been predominately cloudy and wet. My two-week stay has coincided with a period of easterly winds and this combination has lead to some of the largest falls of migrants that I have witnessed at Dungeness. I have spent many hours slogging around the nets when they are up, a task shared with at least six others currently residing at DBO who are also ringers. The maximum number of nets available have been erected and the total catch has increased proportionately. Fortunately there are plenty of birds to be shared around. Day after day the sallow bushes have been alive with birds, mostly warblers, predominantly Willows, with Pied Flycatchers and Redstarts to add spice to the proceedings. 7 different Icterine Warblers have been trapped and we all get to ring one, a most unusual state of affairs. We would normally be looking on enviously at the lucky individual who gets given such a rare bird to ring, but even those of us at the bottom of the pecking order are joining in the fun. Quality continues with Barred Warbler, a very early Fieldfare, a Wryneck and a Red-backed Shrike (the latter two species seen in the field only). We are at it from dawn till dusk on many days, processing 200-300 birds regularly. On one particular day an arrival of 600 Willow Warblers is recorded and we trap no fewer than 250 of them. Birds are also streaming overhead, with hirundines, Yellow Wagtails and Tree Pipits being a daily accompaniment to our shingle crunching beneath.

My ambition bird is a Hoopoe. I have coveted this exotic species since I first clapped eyes onto its illustration in my first field guide. I have been on a net round and return to the observatory to be greeted by jubilant birders who have seen a Hoopoe by the old lighthouse. I at once break out into a sweat. My dream bird. Only 400 yards away.  As soon as I can relieve myself of ringing responsibilities I rush out towards the old lighthouse. My searching, however, is in vain. It’s gone. I’m not just disappointed, I’m thoroughly depressed. More than that, I'm crushed. I carry on sweeping through the low gorse as far as the area beyond the railway station, but as every minute passes my optimism of seeing the bird drains away. For the first time at Dungeness I feel the hurt of a dip. Get used to it mate, there’s plenty more of those to come…

A few of the birders staying are getting restless – there are two Little Bitterns at Rye Harbour, not very far away at all. Nobody with a car wants to go so half a dozen of them decide to walk/hitch. A group of six aren’t going to all get a lift unless an empty coach happens to be heading along the twisting Lydd to Camber road. Walking to Rye will take a lot longer than they think. The road corkscrews all over the place and walking cross country is out of the question as you would need to traverse active firing ranges and swim across an estuary.  I think about joining them but elect to stay. Not long after they leave we trap an Icterine Warbler that I ring.

For a change of scene one evening Nick Riddiford takes us over onto the RSPB reserve where we set up a clap-net. This trap is basically a mist net that is stretched out flat on the ground and held taut by large elastic bands. By some sort of ingenious mechanism (that I have clean forgotten the workings of), a trip wire is set up so as the net can be launched in an arc to cover the neighbouring ground, thus trapping nearby birds. You need to have a person close enough to the net to trigger the mechanism and it needs that person to also be hidden from view. I somehow get the job.

After erecting the clap-net on a sandy spit jutting out into Burrowes pit, my fellow ringers retire to the relative comfort of a wooden hide overlooking the action about to unfold. I meanwhile crawl into a tiny canvas tent, only large enough to crouch in, resulting in bouts of cramp and the need to show patience. We have timed our visit to coincide with the high tide in the hope that waders driven off of Lade Sands will use our chosen spit to roost on. However, for all of the calling waders wheeling around the general area none settle where we want them to. But then a couple of Black Terns land. Encouraged by this a few Common Terns join them and very soon a flock of twenty terns have assembled. They are restless but I can’t pull the trip wire and activate the net for fear of catching a bird in flight and thus injuring it. The light is fading fast but I have to wait. One by one the birds start to leave and in the end I activate the trap with only a couple of terns left on the spit. We don’t trap either of them. On our return to the observatory we learn that Elvis Presley has died. So when I am asked "Where were you when you heard that Elvis had died?" I can quite confidently state that I was in the common room at Dungeness Bird Observatory.


  1. Brilliant, Steve. What a great story. For me, the best post of the year

  2. That's very kind Neil. Thank you.

  3. Top post, Steve, and you`ve just reminded me of what we`ve lost - 7 Ickys! (I`ve lived here for 9 years and seen 3), and as for 250 Willow Warblers trapped in a day... young ringers just would not believe it. Oh, and as for where-you-were when Elvis croaked, I was on HMS Juno based at Malta witnessing the locals slaughtering everything from Purple Herons to Red-backed Shrikes; sadly some things never change...

    1. We had 4 Icky's together in the moat on one of those days Paul! And I didn't mention the counts of 300 Wheatear, 70 Tree Pipts and 250 Yellow Wags - counts like these throughout the period!

    2. I like to think I`m an optimist, but sadly, I don`t think we`ll ever see those days again. Reminds me of a legendary 1971 August day walk from Cley East Bank to Blakeney Point, with amongst others R A Richardson. Although I saw my first Greenish Warbler that day, it was the numbers of migrants that will live long in the memory - double figures of Red-backed Shrikes and Wrynecks and literally hundreds of Redstarts and Whinchats, oh happy days....