Wednesday, 22 March 2017

Any day soon...

Beddington in the 1970s (Beddington Farmlands)
Part 3: March - May 1975 When it came to grabbing my binoculars and rushing out of the front door to go bird watching, there was one place above all the others that became my favoured destination, and that was Beddington Sewage Farm. Although I wasn’t aware of it at the time, the ornithological record for the site stretched back to the early years of the 20th century, and my modest observations were becoming a part of that impressive canon of work. My regularity at the farm had started to help forge friendships with other Beddington attendees – and apart from Mark and Neil (who often accompanied me) there was Nick Gardener (a highly confident lad of my age), Ken Parsley and Mike Netherwood. The latter two were both involved in the capture and ringing of birds, an on-going scientific study of, among other things, movements and longevity. Other observers, such as Keith Mitchell, Martin King, John Dalgleish and Bill Blake would often be bumped into, and it was always a tense, exciting affair to hear of their latest observations. Being exposed to other birdwatchers was an education. They were, by and large, more experienced than me, and would willingly pass on their identification skills, particularly how to differentiate the many, and varying, birdcalls and songs.

I became familiar with the place names scattered across the farm – Irrigation Bridge, Cuckoo Lane, One Hundred Acre, Parkside, Milne’s Hedge – a living, evolving folk lore. What people, what events were behind their naming? No visit was complete without a thorough search of the entire site, striding across each field, walking single-file along the miles of sludge lagoon banking, peering into culverts, checking the hedgerows and copses. Around every bend was an opportunity, behind each tree or bush a possibility. Within a short space of time the farm had taken me over. It owned me. Most visits ended when it became too dark to carry on. My bicycle would be un-padlocked and I would mentally replay the day’s events as I peddled home. If I were with Mark and Neil we would make the short journey to their Grandparents home, where tea and cake would be offered.

New birds came thick and fast – Green Sandpiper, Dunlin, Brambling, Common Snipe, Jack Snipe and Redshank. These were species removed from the common and garden birds that I had cut my teeth on. They were specialists that could only be found by visiting specialist habitats, away from the gardens, parks and woods that I had been used to, and in Beddington I had adopted one of the best. Of these new species it was the Green Sandpiper that captured me most and became an icon of the sewage farm. As many as three of them haunted the fast-running shallow water that coursed through the concrete culverts, and they would not tolerate close approach, soon fleeing with a cheerful, shrill fruity whistle, their blackish upper parts contrasting with a shockingly white rump. I would follow them in flight until they dropped down into another watery hiding place, where the game of hide-and-seek could be played all over again.

There was one particular bird that I longed to see, and that was a Wheatear. The description in my field guide suggested that it was a bird of mountains and moorland, but Mike Netherwood gave me hope – “we get them moving through here on passage, they’ll be along any day soon”. They came here! And soon! My life then revolved around waiting for this apparition to turn up. The month of March ended without any show and we were then into April. Any day soon… that mantra was repeatedly recited… and then, on the morning of Sunday April 6th, four of these most exquisite of beauties arrived at once, proudly standing on hummocks and posts on the field up against the railway line, close to Irrigation Bridge. The following day, for a change of scenery, I visited Epsom Common, and there awaiting me was a Wheatear - I watched it with a nonchalance that it did not deserve. I was captivated by the urgent pulses of summer migrants that were now arriving – yet more Wheatears, joined by Yellow Wagtails, Swallows, House Martins, Blackcaps, Sedge Warblers – all vibrantly fresh of plumage, some full of tremendous song. Together with the bursting forth of blossom and leaves from the trees, my newly discovered world was like a carnival, celebrating the cycle of life.

I had contacted the Epsom RSPB group and arranged to join them for an early-May evening walk at Epsom Common. I thought that I knew the area from my previous visits, but in the company of those that really did know the place, I was shown another side to it – one of calling Cuckoos, singing Nightingales, reeling Grasshopper Warblers and, best of all, croaking, roding Woodcocks. I returned home, in the dark, reeling from this birding overload.

A family weekend break, camping close to East Horsley in the west Surrey countryside, saw me creeping away from the tents on a calm, warm, late-May dawn. The fields held both displaying Red-legged and Grey Partridges; purring Turtle Doves gave themselves up in the hedgerows; a scratchy song from a bramble patch was tracked down to a Whitethroat; and after only having previously heard Cuckoos, I finally saw one, perched on top a bush, calling incessantly, an image never forgotten. I was systematically being exposed to wonderful birds, and my devotion to all things ornithological was unquestioned. Any other interests that I had were unceremoniously dumped. Bird watching was it. Nothing else mattered.

9 comments:

  1. Funnily enough I remember my first patch Wheatear as if it were yesterday too. Nicely written. I didn't have anyone to tell me that they would arrive any day soon, so my excitement was unreal!

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    1. And I would suggest that every Wheatear since has affected you in just the same way...

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  2. Reading this I can't help feeling that I missed out in my early days of birding. Yes, there was always the excitement of new sightings, but I was introduced to it all by a couple who had been birding for quite some time and we travelled all over the county to see as much as possible in the free time we had so I had no real idea that some of the birds I saw were quite special and would take some time before I ever came across them again.
    The joy of birding in a particular location over and over is something that I found later in life and is where I am now happiest.
    My pan-species site has given me 11 birds in 2 visits so it's not the large numbers that appeal but the thought of what could appear on the next visit.

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    1. David, maybe you are getting those 'early biding experiences' just a bit later than usual!

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  3. Thirty years I birded Epsom Common, Steve. Thirty. You know how many Wheatears I saw there in that time? None. Not a one. Grrrripped by a 42 year old sighting, ha! My very first visit there was with the Epsom & Ewell RSPB Group, though it was a YOC outing. Saw my first ever Shoveler at the back of the Great Pond, 26th September 1986. Mad how some dates just stay with you forever.

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    1. Just checked on BUBO, it was 21st September 1986. Senility is hitting me harder than I thought...

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    2. In a later instalment Seth you will find out about my small part in the creation of the Great Stew Pond - bet you cannot wait...

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    3. You were a monk of Chertsey Abbey? Blimey, you're looking good for it mate!

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    4. As you well know young man, that original pond was drained and only restored in 1980. Don't you know nuffink?

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