Back in the late 1970s I sometimes teamed up with Ian Brown, a birder from the Woking area, who had a passion for Watford Football Club. Back then they were a Fourth Division team (that's League Two in today's money), but they were on an upwards curve, being managed by a bright young man called Graham Taylor (who was to become England boss - "Do I not like that!")
We went on many birding trips together (sometimes in the company of Charlie Daly and Ian McVeigh) which normally involved a weekend away, dossing in the car or staying in a Youth Hostel, to places as diverse as The New Forest, mid-Wales, the Suffolk Coast and Breckland. But, during the winter of 1978, Ian somehow managed to persuade us to add on the attendance of a Watford match to our birding itinerary...
7 January 1978
West Ham 1 Watford 0 (FA Cup third round)
On arrival in the east end of London, we ensured that Ian's Watford car sticker was removed from the car windscreen and walked to the ground hoping that the infamous ICF were not going to identify us as away supporters (these were still violent times at football grounds). I knew that, under interrogation, I would be found out to be a Spurs supporter and thus receive a bigger kicking. As it happened nothing untoward occurred, and we watched a highly forgettable game. Afterwards we headed up the A12 and arrived in Lowestoft mid-evening. Why Lowestoft? Well, this was where a Franklin's Gull had taken up residence, at the time a very rare bird indeed. I was all laid-back about it however, as I had already seen it only the previous week! After an uncomfortable and cold night spent cramped in the car, we awoke to a very foggy scene. Foggy enough to compromise our ability to find the gull. My companions were all anxious, where as I, having already bagged the bird, wandered around without a care. Although it lifted a little, conditions were far from ideal, but soon enough the gull flew in, and landed on some dockside factory roofs. Purple Sandpiper (2), Sanderling (3) and Eider (12) were nearby.
Then my ornithological interest was awoken, as our next place of call was going to be a small village called Henny, where, on adjacent farmland a Sociable Plover was wintering - a tick in waiting! All in the car, seat-belts on, Ian turned the car key in the ignition. Nothing. Not even a murmur from the engine. None of us were mechanically minded and after a bit of clueless looking under the bonnet the AA were called. In times like these minutes morph into hours. A foggy Lowestoft took on the guise of a prison, as we watched a procession of birders look at the gull and then head off for the plover - my plover... When the big yellow breakdown van finally arrived, and the mechanic sadly surveyed the scene before him, the news was not good for Ian - "You're big ends gone" - or me, because the car was going to be towed back to Surrey. There would be no Sociable Plover.
3 March 1978
Swansea City 3 Watford 3
This turned into an epic birding weekend, all based around a thrilling Friday night fixture at the old Vetch Field ground. On our way to Swansea we picked up Steve Howell from Cardiff, a lad that Ian had met on a field trip (who is the very same Steve Howell who has written countless books, identification papers and migration studies in the USA and Mexico). I should have asked him for his autograph if only I'd known what lay ahead for him! Our first stop was Kenfig Pool, where an adult Whooper Swan was floating about majestically amongst 12 Goldeneye. 2 Ravens 'kronked' above us, yet to make the eastwards expansion that we are all enjoying today. At the impossible to pronounce Eglwys Nunydd Reservoir we were treated to both Black-throated and Great Northern Divers. Our twitching element of the day was reserved until the afternoon, with an attempt on a Killdeer at Pwll. I think that we knew that the bird hadn't been seen for a few days, but we had to have a go. It was not present in its (former) favourite flooded fields.
The match itself was a real belter, highly competitive and a six-goal thriller. We stood at the top of an ancient terrace, trying very hard not to sound like the Londoners that we clearly were. Again we avoided beatings. Night back in Cardiff, on a hard lounge floor.
Saturday saw us head into mid-Wales and the mythical Tregaron Bog. Back then Red Kites were in very low number - this was all pre-reintroduction and population recovery. My first two ever were seen just before we reached the village, plus two more on the bog itself, where three Hen Harriers (including a male) plus a Peregrine made for an unforgettable raptor experience. On the way back to Cardiff, Steve's local knowledge meant that we added Dipper (Bettws Bledrus) and Red Grouse (Mynydd Llangynidr) to our growing list. The hard lounge floor in Cardiff beckoned once more.
Sunday morning saw us bid Steve farewell, but the birding was far from over. We had a red-hot bird to visit on the drive home - a Wallcreeper! I had seen the Hasting's bird the previous year but who wouldn't want seconds of such a stunning creature? This particular individual was wintering in a quarry in the Cheddar area. Health and safety didn't exist in 1978, as 50+ birders were all hanging off of the industrial gantries and walkways that were on site - not a hard hat, clipboard or security guard in sight. The winter-plumaged bird was haunting a sheer stone face only 100 feet in front of us, the cold colour tones of the rocks suddenly spattered by the iridescent red of the Wallcreeper's wings as it flitted around in full view, quite fidgety. Our subsequent visit to Chew Valley Lake was not as intense by comparison, although we did log 14 Goosander and 50 Ruddy Duck (DEFRA had yet to come hunting...)
17 March 1978
Newport County 2 Watford 2
Another Friday night match and one in which us Londoners were rumbled by the Newport boys, but they decided not to beat us up, rather take the mickey out of our accents and ask us how our 'boat races' and 'apple and pears' were. One of them had obviously got a book of cockney rhyming slang for Christmas. Four goals shared, Watford rather threw this one away if memory serves me right. Another night spent on a hard Cardiff lounge floor.
With Steve once again in tow, we went on a tour of his South Wales coastal hotspots, which included Rhymney Wharf (40 Snipe, 4 Jack Snipe, Water Pipit, 2 Little Owl), Eglwys Nunydd reservoir (the divers had gone), Pwll (the Killdeer was still gone) and Blackpill Sands (where any Ring-billed Gulls were frankly beyond us. It is a big place and we had no idea about where to look or what to look for).