Tuesday, 7 October 2014

Annus mirablis

Dungeness Early summer 1979
One warm, sunny evening, Alan Heaven and I leave the bird observatory, cross the road near the entrance to the power station and go through the small gate that leads onto the RSPB reserve. Between here and the Oppen pits is a vast expanse of shingle that has hardly ever been walked upon, let alone birded. It is private, owned by the RSPB but Tony Pickup, the reserve warden, is keen for those staying at the observatory to have access to his kingdom at all times. His thinking behind this charity is that we will collect data for him and also deter egg collectors at certain times of the year – it is still a problem for him. In one summer alone two egg collectors have drowned in the depths of Burrowes Pit as they swim for the islands in persuit of Mediterranean Gull or Roseate Tern eggs. Part of the warden’s job on those black days will be to fish bodies out of the water.

The shingle in this largely unexplored area is different from elsewhere. It lacks steep ridges and is on the whole undisturbed, with larger pebbles forming sweeping swells that can appear flat from a distance. Vegetation is sparser. We trudge along the northern perimeter of the power station fence until we leave behind the main buildings and the view before us opens to our left revealing more shingle expanse heading towards the sea shore. You don’t get this feeling of exposure elsewhere on the peninsula. It is quite intimidating. You feel at mercy to the big sky above. We reach a large area of gorse, bushes the size of bungalows. This is quite an eye-opener, I didn’t know this place existed. My mind goes into overdrive. What’s been missed here then? A veritable copse of gorse which is isolated in this sea of shingle, 200 yards from the waves, first opportunity for feeding and shelter to any migrant arriving west of the power station. I’m imagining rare Sylvia warblers from the Mediterranean in late spring and eastern vagrants ‘ticking’ away in October. Youthful enthusiasm adds this place to the list of others that should be checked when there’s a fall. But of course I won’t. If it’s good then our efforts are concentrated at the observatory and places like this never achieve their potential. It needs one brave (or foolhardy) individual to throw caution to the wind on such a day and come straight out here.

My daydreaming is brought to an end by a melancholic call floating towards us in the still air. A Stone Curlew. Once a regular summer migrant and breeding species at Dungeness, now sadly very rare indeed. We wait in the fading light hoping to catch a glimpse but are only treated to one more call. Even though we are a good half a mile from Burrowes Pit we can hear the calling gulls and terns very clearly. Our Stone Curlew might not be so close after all. In a purple twilight we slowly trudge back eastwards, not really wanting to leave this magical place.


The summer of 1979 is a golden period in my life. I am currently acting as assistant warden and I don’t have a care in the world. I wake up and go birding, have lunch and go birding, complete the daily log and go down the pub where I talk nonsense into the early hours of the morning with like-minded people until we start the process all over again at dawn. The birds are secondary. It is a time of discovery: about myself and more particularly about Dungeness. I thought I knew the place, but now get to know it on a more intimate level. These months are indelibly making their mark on me. I will undoubtably revisit these times over and over again and it’s fair to say that Dungeness might be more generous with the birds but it will never be more generous with itself. From warm golden dawns to evenings filled with the perfume of Nottingham Catchfly I am being treated to sensory overloads. Remember these times young man, you will never see their like again. Nick and Liz will shortly leave me (they are going on a three week expedition to the Salvage Islands to ring seabirds). I will be left with the keys to the kingdom of Dungeness. It will be all mine...

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