Wednesday, 10 February 2016

The boys and summer of 76

It's another 'first time' post, this one concerning the RSPB's flagship reserve at Minsmere in Suffolk. It was August 1976 and a disparate gang of 16 and 17-year old birders gathered for a fortnights birding extravaganza...

Theberton is a small village a few miles inland and due west of Minsmere RSPB reserve. On the afternoon of August 10 1976, at a tiny campsite situated behind a small petrol station, seven keen home-counties birders were erecting their tents, eager to get the birding started, pumped up by the thought of a full fortnight with nothing else to do. From Surrey there was Mark and Neil Greenway, Paul Butler and myself. From Hertfordshire was Barry and Ian Reed and Tim Andrews. Some of us had met up in Scotland the year before and had forged a birding friendship. Minsmere seemed an obvious place for us to reconvene.

This reserve was by far and wide the most famous in the country. I had not visited Suffolk before and there were a number of iconic species present that I had yet to see. The build up to departure had been a thing of tension and excitement. My waking hours were full of anticipation at finally seeing Marsh Harrier and Bearded Tit. My sleep was haunted by booming Bitterns and as yet to be revealed rarities. I was not to be disappointed.

That first afternoon saw us walk the public footpath from Theberton, across the marshes and onto the beach by the sluice at Minsmere. This was a walk that we repeated many times over the next 14 days. Our walk was enlivened by reed-fringed ditches, small pools, damp fields and a distant horizon that promised birds, birds and more birds. The nearer we got to the reserve the noisier the unseen avian circus became. Our anticipation levels were on red alert. My first ever Marsh Harriers (a male and female) were soon seen, high above the extensive reed beds - this being a time when they were still very rare birds indeed. The public hides allowed us our first view across the famous 'scrape' and on this particular afternoon we logged Little Gull, Spotted Redshank, Avocet, Ruff and Greenshank. As we retraced our steps back to the camp site two more of Minsmere's icons flew onto the list - a Bittern and a small flock of Bearded Tits. All this, and we hadn't actually set foot on the reserve itself!

The next day saw us up early and down by the sluice way before the reserve opened up to the public. But that was not a problem as we had the bushes at the sluice to investigate, the sand dunes (with their old concrete tank traps) to comb through and the public hides, which were a window out onto the never ending bird show beyond. Knot and Little Tern were tidy returns, but were overshadowed by the five Spoonbills that were to be seen in the distance. Once we presented ourselves to the reserve visitor centre, and obtained our day permits, we paid our respects to the breeding Red-backed Shrikes - their presence goes a long way in making us realise that 1976 is forty years ago, after all! A whistle stop tour was made of the hides, all named and all destined to become familiar places over the next few days - Tree Hide, West Hide, Isle of Mere Hide... the last named had a real character inside. A voluntary warden, quite elderly, sat in the corner with the air of a military man about him. Mr Denny was his name, I believe. His passion (and his job) was to alert anybody sitting in the hide to the presence of any Marsh Harrier. He would bark out directions in his clipped English - "Marsh Harrier flying right over the ruined building!" - until everyone was on it. He would ignore other birds. They didn't exist.

Minsmere was not the only site on our itinerary. Being fit young things we often walked north along the beach, past Dunwich and up to Walberswick, even beyond to the Blyth Estuary. Round trips of 20+ miles on foot were made most days. It was the summer of 76. It was hot and sunny every day. We were young and carefree. It was an idyllic period.

The birds kept coming: Aug 12th - Garganey and Nightingale (100 species recorded); August 13 - Aquatic Warbler (found by us and accepted by the BBRC); Aug 14 - White-winged Black Tern (that stayed for several days), Wood Sandpiper, another Red-backed Shrike and Pied Flycatcher; Aug 16 - Black Redstart; August 17 - Grasshopper Warbler, Temminck's Stint and male Montagu's Harrier; Aug 18 - Barred Warbler; August 20 - Wryneck (my dream bird, by the sluice), Wood Warbler, a flock of 150 Turtle Doves and Barn Owl; Aug 22 - 2 Icterine Warblers at the sluice, with one remaining until the following day. But as much as these highlights would live long in the memory, just being out in the stunning Suffolk countryside, tramping across heathland and along hedgerows, threading through woodland and over beaches, scanning the wetlands and the reedbeds, all under a glorious, burnished sun. Each night we stared up into a star spattered sky and watched shooting stars while chattering away below, reliving the day and planning the next. There would be waders on the scrape. Plenty of birds in the reedbed. More surprises hidden and waiting to be found. The summer was winding down into autumn. The grass was browning, the harvest was being gathered in the surrounding fields. Life was good.

Postscript: of those young lads mentioned above, two others carried on birding. Barry Reed became a well-known birder who made a name for himself through twitching and world birding, then settled down to be an elder statesmen in the Hertfordshire birding scene. Tim Andrews also took up the twin batons of twitching and world birding. Tragically, while on a trip to Peru in 1990, he was shot by guerrillas who mistook him for an American spy. His body was never recovered.

9 comments:

  1. Gawd, how life gallops by and I bet that landscape doesn't look as good now if you retraced your walks.
    In 1976 I was 29 and initially helping and then observing, the creation of the RSPB Elmley reserve here on Sheppey. It was being managed by an ex-worker from Minsmere reserve, Peter Makepeace. In your vast collection of natural history books, have you "Minsmere - Portrait of a Bird Reserve" which was published in 1977, just after your visit, it's very good.

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    1. Derek, I came across Peter when he moved to Dungeness in the very early eighties. And no, although I have seen the book you mention, I have never owned it.

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  2. My wife and I went down to Dungeness and stayed at Boulderwall with Peter and his wife for a couple of weekends after his move from Sheppey. The only times I've been to Dungeness.

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  3. Corr! What a fortnight! The best time to be a birder - when you are young, fit and without a care in the world - and during that summer. 150 Turtle Doves? Breeding Red-backed Shrikes? It's making my head spin...

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    1. Out of all of that lot Neil, I suppose it is the Turtle Doves that are the most striking and poignant now.

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  4. Has Mr. Haig gone into latent dormancy or fell off his ladders - seems very quiet his end.

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  5. Well from my diaries I can report that on August 10th 1976, Mr. Haig and myself were fishing the drought affected river Colne at Rickmansworth.
    After many failures between us, Gav finally scored with a Pike of 10oz.

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    1. Aren't keeping diaries wonderful things Ric, especially when we can dig out such golden nuggets as these!

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  6. Yes Steve. I've kept some sort of diary based on a variety of activities since the end of 1975. Not always the mass detail I reserved for my fishing.
    A line here and there tends to remind me of something more detailed. Glad I have them along with pictures.

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