Tuesday, 5 September 2017

Seven go mad in Suffolk

Part 14 - August 1976 The sun had not just put his hat on, but also his sunglasses and slapped on plenty of ‘factor 20’ for good measure, as the ‘heat-wave’ that had started in June and rolled on through July was showing no signs of breaking up by August. Grass crisped to a caramel brown, rivers and ponds dried up, any exposed ground cracked and ice cream salesmen were running out of stock. It was against this backdrop that I arrived at a small campsite, hidden behind a garage, at Theberton in Suffolk. My companions were Mark and Neil Greenway, Paul Butler, Ian and Barry Reed and Tim Andrews. We had chosen the site due to its close proximity to the Suffolk coast, in particular the RSPB’s flagship reserve at Minsmere. We had been lured by scarce breeding birds such as Bittern, Bearded Tit and Marsh Harrier, the latter species teetering on the edge of extinction in the UK. Once we had hurriedly pitched our tents we hot-footed it along country lanes to East Bridge and then took a dyke-side footpath down on to the beach at Minsmere. Our walk was enlivened by the 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 first afternoon was a resounding success. A pair of Marsh Harriers greeted us soon after we started to scan the skies over the reserve, both of them circling above the extensive reed beds. To be able to look onto the fabled ‘scrape’ – a man-made clearance constructed to entice breeding birds and passage waders – we needed to carry onto the beach and walk a short way north, to then enter the public hide. The beach was sandy, with a thin ribbon of dunes that were home to large concrete blocks, these having been part of the Second World War sea defences, now abandoned to break up and list alarmingly. From the hide we could see that the exposed mud of the ‘scrape’ was lively with feeding birds, including Spotted Redshank, Ruff, Greenshank and the emblematic Avocet. A Little Gull was also present. On our walk back along the dyke, a Bittern kindly got up and flew across the reed tops. This was quickly followed by several Bearded Tits, which announced themselves by ‘pinging’ away as they acrobatically climbed up nearby reed stems.

The light was fading by the time we returned to our tents. A motley collection of burners, Billy Cans and utensils were soon put into action, and a variety of modest meals were prepared. We were the only campers present – it was a simple campsite with few amenities, just a single toilet and sink, and a rubbish pit (some four feet deep and seven feet wide). We got into the habit of jumping across this refuse ditch as a dare, but Tim refused, which made the rest of us jump it all the more, egging him on to do so.

We were up early the next morning, eager to get back to the beach. On our way we stopped by the Public Hide where both Knot and Little Tern were newly in, before entering the inner-sanctum of the reserve from the beach. It felt to me like walking into a cathedral, with us the disciples about to pray before the birding altar that was Minsmere. We arrived at a large hut that acted as a reception area and shop, and a clearing that was used as a car park. After the formalities of checking in were done, we were free to roam the inner sanctum of this fabled reserve! In the closest scrub were the hoped for Red-backed Shrikes, two female types, a species that was still hanging on and breeding here. We headed off to the Island Mere hide first, mainly due to impatience in wanting to see the Spoonbills, which had been present for a few weeks. Five of them were on show, and in the time we spent with them they fed, preened but mostly slept. The Tree Hide and West Hide were our other bases on this day, and we got to meet an elderly volunteer whose sole purpose in life seemed to be to alert people to the presence of Marsh Harriers. He was an elderly man, smartly turned out and sporting a pencil-thin moustache – we were later told that his name was Mister Denny. He would be largely silent, but as soon as a harrier showed would leap into action, shouting out directions so that all in the hide could share his obsession – no other species got a mention.

Minsmere reserve was visited on a daily basis, but being young, fit and keen we roamed widely. Dunwich Heath, Walberswick and even the Blyth Estuary (that resulted in a 28 mile hike) were on our radar, differing habitats that helped to build up an impressive list of birds and create memories to last a lifetime: a Barn Owl flushed from a dead tree close to Westwood Lodge; a self-found Aquatic Warbler on the RSPB reserve edge that was subsequently accepted by the BBRC; an immature White-winged Black Tern that spent the afternoon feeding over the scrape, appreciated by many and entering my life list five minutes before a Black Tern did; both male and female Red-backed Shrikes enlivening any visit when we bothered to check on them; a Nightjar, silhouetted in the dusking sky, flying around and settling on the old windmill; our first Temminck’s Stint helpfully alongside a Little; my ambition bird, a Wryneck, feeding along the dune line at Minsmere, together with a Pied Flycatcher; a flock of 150 Turtle Doves that we pushed out of a Walberswick hedgerow as we walked alongside; and two Icterine Warblers that arrived at the Sluice bushes and introduced me to the phenomena of witnessing a ‘twitch’; the recording of 100 species of bird in just one day; and watching Barry dive headfirst into a ditch to rescue his notebook, emerging triumphant but covered in slime.

As we packed to go home, Tim stood up and ran at the rubbish pit, clearing it easily. Our cheers summed up our fortnight, with over 150 species recorded and on which not a drop of rain had fallen. 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. Which species of wader would be on the scrape? What would be lurking in the Sluice bushes? Could it possibly get even better? The summer was winding down into autumn. The grass was browning, the harvest was being gathered in the surrounding fields. We were a bunch of 16 and 17 year olds who didn't have a care in the world. Life was good.

11 comments:

  1. Would you believe that I shared many meetings with aforementioned Mr Denney in Horton CP Ranger's Hut! He spent much of his time asleep and farting, or holding a hand to a near-deaf ear shouting "what's that?" Amazing how our lives cross, at the time unbeknown to one another.... He passed away a number if years ago now, bless the old boy.

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    1. During that fortnight we all perfected an impersonation of him shouting directions of how to get onto a Marsh Harrier. He seemed to be old then Seth, must have been ancient when you met him.

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    2. Reckon he must've been in his 80s when I met him, which was probably best part of 25 years back. Proper old school brigadier type, flatulence notwithstanding :)

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  2. The summer of "76" - oh I remember it well! The Tring Reservoirs suffered severe water level losses as the Grand Union Canal sucked them dry. As a consequence, Roy Johnson and, I managed to fish the middle bank of Wilstone and I caught my first tench (all 4 lbs of it!) from the venue. It was this spectacular event which lead to the huge fish of the early eighties as the individuals which survived the drought had unlimited food and no competition once the water levels returned to normal. There would have been birds around, but they hadn't risen above the periphery at that time in my life. Happy memories all the same - Dyl

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    1. Dyl, I love the fact that you have such excellent recall of your angling odyssey - that book will be a seller!!!

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  3. Lovely post Steve, cheers, I am off to Westleton on Friday for the week, you've set me up grand...

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    1. Have a wonderful time Stewart. As you know, you cannot go wrong in Suffolk.

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  4. What a great post! Makes you aware how birdlife has declined 40 years on. So well written for a teenager. Multi-talented!

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    1. Actually Neil, written by a 58 year old looking back on his diaries and notebooks!!

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  5. Great post Steve, a pleasure to read. I too was 17 at the time and spent the long, hot summer of 1976 volunteering at Arne RSPB reserve. It was more like hard labour, cutting fire breaks through the gorse in case the heath went up in flames! I spent the next week recovering at Portland, staying in the bird observatory. Hard to believe it was over 40 years ago.

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    1. Thanks Paul. I cannot imagine most of todays 'birding youth' picking up a saw and shovel, let alone actually using them!

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