Sea watching and the games that 'men' play

Sea watching can be a dull affair.

One of the frustrations (and joys) of this sport is that a sudden change of wind direction can kick start birds to move. So, if there is the promise of an onshore wind, it is best to be in place before it actually happens - after all, you don't want to miss anything. Sometimes you would wait... and wait... and the hoped for change never happened. If you are really keen on seawatching however, you may well stare out across the waves regardless of the weather conditions just in case...

I used to seawatch an awful lot, 99% of this being at Dungeness. I'm pretty sure that between 1976 - 1991 I most probably saw the same individual birds move east in the spring and west in the autumn on an annual basis. Part of the joys of this particular branch of ornithology is the unpredictability of what will happen, the fact that the birds come to the observer (like an avian conveyor belt) and it is also the ultimate test of one's identification prowess (the birds don't stay long, they just bomb through giving you minimal time to clinch an id). It is also a licence to string.

But back to my first sentence - 'sea watching can be a dull affair' - how does the watcher pass the time if nothing is moving?

At Dungeness there would invariably be a gang of regular seawatchers, mostly grizzled veterans of the spume and spray. It wouldn't be long before somebody would start to churn out the word games. Some might be 'clever word play', which might have even been accepted by Radio 4 shows, based around the latin names of birds (The Missile Thrush - Turdus polaris; The Religious Auk - Alle allelujah; that kind of thing). Birding-themed songs (Do You Veery Want to Hurt Me? by Vulture Club; Brambling On My Mind by Terek Clapton - yes I know that they are old songs, but this was thirty years ago!); crude schoolboy humour (I was once part of a team of adults that came up with over thirty slang words for a penis); inventing limericks (this could get very messy and libellous indeed); coming up with predictions for what the next species of duck would fly past (invariably Common Scoter); recalling old birding adventures; planning new ones. Our choices were endless... I'm sure that being a primarily male grouping created this third-form behaviour (I typed in 'sixth-form behaviour' to begin with but decided it was far more juvenile than that). If all else failed then throwing stones at a target on the beach (invariably a tin can) could be contested, and was done so with much venom and serious intent.

Walking down to the seawatch hide was also enlivened by a game involving a pebble. The road that ran alongside the power station fence had been laid out in concrete slabs some 3m wide and 6m long, each clearly defined. The game was to kick the pebble from one slab to the next without deviation. You took it in turns with your opponent to 'shoot'. Whoever failed to make a clean score lost. Falling short lost you the game. Overshooting by a further slab lost you the game. As did the pebble coming off the slabs altogether. This did call for great skill - if you could get the pebble to just get onto the next slab, your opponent had a longer and trickier shot to make.

'Sea watching can be a dull affair' - no, I was wrong, not with all these side shows going on!


Stewart said…
I am a seawatcher Steve. Maybe cos the furthest I have ever lived from the sea is 6 miles. I've read these tales of boring seawatches, but it rarely happens if you pick your day, or up here 6pm can be killer. Odd times I wander down hoping for something and there is nowt, you can usually feel there will be nothing so it gets half an hour then off I go elsewhere.

I like it though when non-seawatchers turn up to seawatch. The scope gets the full tripod legs and they stand up facing the sea. On the north east coast that would kill off Nanook so they sicken and head off for a foil blanket and cocoa after 5 minutes saying theyve seen nothing!

So my tip, is in August ( or any month) wrap up like January, take a deckchair and find some lee of the wind and bobs your uncle.

Days with 2000 Sooties or 200 Poms, 100 Long tailed Skuas or a morning ( yes morning) with 6,000 Little Auks is well worth it!
Paul Trodd said…
Steve, your post prompted quite a few comments from the old-school Dunge seawatchers yesterday. What I love about this mob down here is the banter; its particularly lively and blokey when nothing much is happening over the briny; it reminds me of seawatching off Cley in the late 60`s/70`s with Mutley Clarke, Tim Lawrence, Spinney Norman et al. I remember once Mutley falling asleep on watch and cacooning him in shingle `til all that could be seen was his head sticking out of the beach, we then yelled "albatross" and fell about as he rocketed forth from the shingle! How childish us blokes are, but hey-ho we were only teenagers. As for Stewarts remarks about "non-seawatchers", I recall a brilliant put-down by the late R A Richardson. Whilst watching a very distant Fulmar a pompous and voluble women questioned how he could id a bird at that distance, and the great man retorted as quick as a flash in is stuttering brogue, " `cos, I can see the t,t,tubular nostrils"! All us youngsters spluttered into our parkas and the old girl was never seen again. Which just goes to prove that seawatching is rarely dull if you`re in company, and some of the best memories from seawatches often concern the people, not the birds. Here endeth the sermon.
Cheers, Paul
Steve Gale said…
In my formative years Stewart, we were told of a race of hard men that sea watched in the north-east, from places like Hartlepool. I was in awe...
Steve Gale said…
Thanks for sharing your sea watch memories Paul. It certainly seems to attract an interesting sort of person!
Quote Paul Trodd "...........some of the best memories from seawatches often concern the people, not the birds."

Quite true, other people often make the seawatch no matter the numbers. However, my favourite seawatch was actually just one species in thousands. A sunny September day spent all on my own on Shipman Head (Bryher) with nothing but Manxies continuously passing by all day long is a memory that prompts a smile to myself. The large cherry pie from the Post Office on the way back to the boat put the icing on the cake.
Steve Gale said…
I don't know what I'm more envious of Andrew - the Manxies or the Cherry Pie...

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