Wednesday, 26 July 2017

Long hot summer

Part 12 - April - July 1976

On returning to Beddington SF, the spring passage was well underway. On April 18th the scratchy, agitated song of a Sedge Warbler greeted me, along with a pair of displaying Redshank, vying for attention with several pairs of tumbling Lapwings – these birds dominated the soundtrack to my sewage farm days during this period. Two days later, both a Little Ringed Plover and a Corn Bunting were newly arrived. Three visits were made to Pagham Harbour, the lure of the coast and its avian promise too much to resist. Garganey, Spotted Redshank, Whimbrel, Greenshank and Common Redstart were all seen, but it was a single Little Tern that stole the show. Up to twenty were present, flying like clockwork toys along the beach, this being accentuated by their ‘cartoon-like’ chattering, but one tern in particular had taken a liking to a ditch parallel to the shoreline at Church Norton. It patrolled this thin ribbon of water as I sat on an earth bank, just feet away and level with the bird. A couple of times it stopped and hovered right in front of me before collapsing and dropping into the water. I needed no optics. It was the first time that I experienced one of those intimate and all-encompassing moments with a bird – we were both present within a bubble, where time and place were secondary considerations, and nothing else existed. I did not yet know that such moments were not only transitory but of rare occurrence. They could last a second or a minute. They would become precious gifts that no amount of longing would create.

I was starting to have the confidence to tackle and try and identify the more ‘difficult’ warblers, those plainer birds whose songs I was not yet familiar with. Mike Netherwood informed me about a Lesser Whitethroat by the rifle range at Beddington SF on May 9th. When I voiced my doubts as to whether or not I would know the species if I did indeed see it, he talked me through the species appearance and song. Within moments of entering the Lesser Whitethroat’s favoured area of scrub, the bird started to sing – a rattle just as Mike had described – and it was then in view allowing me to take in all of the salient identification features. I left the farm that morning a more confident birder. A Reed Warbler at Pagham Harbour on May 22nd and a Garden Warbler at Hartfield, in Sussex, on June 12th quickly followed, with my first sighting of a Wood Warbler sandwiched in between them - a bright bird that delivered its silvery cadence at Epsom Common on May 23rd. This was one warbler that hadn’t proved too bothersome to identify.

I returned to Hertfordshire once more to stay with Barry Reed. An evening visit to Broxbourne Woods provided us with Turtle Dove, Cuckoo, Tree Pipit and, as dusk fell, a singing Nightingale and a churring Nightjar. Our attention wasn’t all reserved for the birds however, as we found a number of glow-worms on the grassy banks. The following day, with Barry’s Mother behind the wheel of the car, we travelled to Breckland. At East Wretham Heath the reserve warden provided us with a conducted tour, full of Spotted Flycatchers, Tree Pipits, Redpolls and Garden Warblers, but it was a Sparrowhawk – still recovering from a slump in numbers due to pesticide poisoning – that stole the show. He also kindly told us of Red-backed Shrikes and Woodlarks at Santon Downham - we needed no other excuse to go and try our luck there - although we could find neither and had to be content with a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker. Our final stop, in heavy drizzle, was at Weeting Heath. I had been particularly looking forward to this part of our itinerary, as the reserve was the summer home for a number of pairs of Stone Curlew. This sizable, large-eyed, crepuscular wader had mesmerised me from the illustrations in my field guides. After drawing a blank from the first two hides that we had entered, reward came from the third, as a single bird was furtively making its way across the broken, open ground. A further two birds were seen, one of which was in flight and carrying food. A pleasant hour or two was spent watching them, along with the other birds using the field to feed and breed in, including Grey Partridge, Red-legged Partridge and Wheatear. A lone, bare and stunted tree was being utilised as a perch by two Hobbys, both launching brief hunting forays, to the accompaniment of Stone Curlews uttering their mournful calls. We left satiated. Weeting Heath had not disappointed. My last day with Barry was spent trawling his local sites. Easneye Woods, apart from Spotted Flycatchers, was memorable due to the grisly sight of a gamekeeper’s gallows, a dark place populated by the corpses of stoats, weasels, squirrels and corvids. Amwell was an altogether brighter experience, with a pair of Little Ringed Plover on show; Rye Meads provided Common Terns; and our final stop, Post Wood, was most generous with Wood Warbler, Marsh and Willow Tit.

As the month of June wore on, it became drier and hotter. Temperatures started to regularly creep into the nineties and there was talk of drought. July carried on in the same vein. As soon as Epsom Art College broke up for the summer holidays, I would head, as often as I could, to Beddington Sewage Farm. The temperatures were not the only thing at high levels, as the vegetation on the farm was luxuriant to say the least.

Back then, this vegetation was just all 'green stuff that got in the way' to me, but in later years I realised that it was mainly Hemlock, Goose-grass and Stinging Nettle. The smell, especially on a hot day, was pungent - a mixture of sewage effluent (not as bad as you might think) and rank vegetation. Hemlock, en masse, does have a distinctive, earthy whiff. Even though it was so hot, I would wear Wellington Boots on the farm. These served as protection against a multitude of evils: stinging nettle rash, insect bites, goose-grass seeds infestation, burdock burr attack and a soaking from either the damp vegetation (which was sopping wet in the morning) or the liquid and mud in the settling beds. Some of these beds were filled with water, and at this time of year were not what we birdwatchers sought. We would winkle out those beds that were drying out. Too dry and they were worse for birds than the very wet ones, but to get one that had wet mud, watery channels and even an island or two of vegetation, then bingo! There was a distinct possibility of waders!

Waders were a virtual ornithological currency at Beddington, sought after above all other bird families. From mid-July I had come to learn that the first Common and Green Sandpipers would start to appear, and by the month's end they would be joined by Greenshank, Ruff, Common Snipe and, if we were lucky a Wood Sandpiper. The individual numbers would also build, so that double-figure counts of some species (particularly Green and Common Sandpipers) could be made.

100 acre seemed to always have the best beds. You reached this area by jumping across a concrete culvert by a fallen willow (the border between the two being the evocatively named Cuckoo Lane). I would get so excited as I ducked under the willow and crossed onto 100 acre. A steep bank of no more than six foot in height was directly ahead - I would crawl up this, risking stings, to peer over the top onto what seemed to always be the best bed. What would be there? How many? If I had succeeded in my stealthy approach, there would be waders feeding without a care in the world. I would settle down and count, always aware that others could be lurking behind an island, or keeping still in vegetation. But to approach noisily, or to break the skyline would send a yelping flock into the air, to circle in protest before settling down on further beds - in which case I would have another chance to see them.

You could visit three times in a day, and the wader composition would have changed. As time went on, certain good beds would dry out and become less desirable to the waders, but these were replaced by some of the wetter beds that had started to form small islands. It was always annoying to turn up at a series of 'good' beds to find that they had been flooded with effluent and were thus virtually useless for our purposes.

As the month came to an end the wader passage strengthened further. There were still other birds apart from waders to look at, with many young birds about the farm, a few Yellow Wagtail families and a covey of Grey Partridges the most notable. Most characteristic of this particular summer were the number of Swifts that fed over the farm. Hundreds would be encountered, flying low across the settling beds and the banks, picking off the plague of insects that had been attracted by the effluent and rank vegetation. I would stand still and experience the exhilaration of these black shadows swoop past, masters of the air, missing me by inches. What did they see in me? Did I even register with them? When they were intent on feeding, it was a silent swarm, but at times, when the mood was elevated, and groups would chase each other, their screams piercing the muggy air.

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