Sunday, 16 April 2017

Stoking the birding fire

Part 8: November – December 1975 I had fallen into a comfortable birding routine, with Beddington Sewage Farm and Staines Reservoir being my venues of choice. A visit to the latter site required two bus journeys (Cheam – Kingston and Kingston – Ashford), with departure from Cheam pre-dawn, so as to maximise birding time. Since my first visit to the reservoir, the duck and wader numbers had thankfully increased, so that the scanning of the exposed mud and water had a meaningful end result. There was one session that did not end with success, as the flat west London basin was prone to fog, and on this particular morning visibility was down to 50m. Having made the effort to travel I stubbornly remained waiting for it to lift, a lone figure on the causeway making-do with the odd Dunlin (or Tufted Duck) that wandered (or floated) into visible range. However, on most visits my observation time was unimpeded, and the monochrome waters were usually home to rafts of diving duck, with the cold slabs of mud being populated by several hundred Teal, Lapwings and Dunlin. I was still not connecting with some of the more desirable of Staines Reservoir’s ‘notable’ species, although a lone female Goldeneye that popped up in front of me one late December morning was ample compensation. My lack of a telescope did not help me in my quest for the rare grebes, divers and Smew that might be out there, but to buy one was out of the range of my limited finances – and apart from my visits to the reservoir one was not really needed closer to home. Such an extravagance could wait. My relationship with Staines was an odd one. I didn’t really like the place. Too open, too exposed, man-made. Surrounded by busy roads, with heavy air traffic from Heathrow, the panorama bled of colour, a severe lack of vegetation. It was a veritable festival of concrete and metal fencing, a celebration of how man can extinguish nature. But I returned because it had birds, and that was all the excuse that I needed to dismiss any sensitivities that I might harbour.


The last two months of the year at Beddington were not without highlight. A long-awaited Water Rail atypically swam across a flooded settling bed, in clear view, allowing me ample time to take in the curved coral-red bill, beady wine-red eye, chestnut back and humbug barred flanks – it was much better than the field guide illustrations, a moment of wonder. I relived those few seconds for weeks afterwards, they cheered up otherwise dull, bird-less days. Such moments added oxygen to the bird watching quest, they kept the fire of enthusiasm burning. The odd Ruff and Golden Plover found the fields to their liking and were jewels to be winkled out of the Lapwing flocks.  Unusually for Beddington, Corn Bunting and Yellowhammer became part of the winter picture. As the year drew to a close, I had plans for 1976 already in place – an August birding fortnight in the Minsmere area with birding friends; plus a place on an RSPB/YOC course to one of HG Alexander’s old haunts – Dungeness in Kent. 1975 had been tremendous – 1976 would be even better.

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