A Woodchat and some geese

Dungeness June 1981
Dorrian Buffery is away for a week and I’m acting warden. It’s like being back in the summer of 1979 again as I survey my shingle kingdom before me. I might not own it but as far as the birding goes I’m in charge. Sean Clancy remains as assistant warden and together we have a laid-back and enjoyable time. Each morning we swap mist-nets for moth traps, lunchtime field work is replaced by quaffing of beer, but we still see plenty of interest: a summer-plumaged Black-throated Diver sitting off-shore behind the patch, a Hobby arriving in off the sea, a Melodious Warbler that we find and then trap in the station gorse. But the highlight is a Woodchat Shrike which graces the bushes of the Oppen Pits on my final Sunday morning. I arrive at the RSPB reserve to be taken to one side by the RSPB warden Peter Makepeace. He tells me of the shrike’s arrival and kindly gives me permission to go and look for it. There is a catch – he doesn’t want anyone else out there. I am soon watching it. A smart bird. I return to the observatory to be met by the Chantler family who are staying nearby and have been tirelessly searching the shingle for birds over the past couple of days. They are regular DBO visitors and friends of mine. The shrike is visible from a public footpath that Peter and his RSPB empire have no control over. I cannot possibly deny these people from seeing such a desirable bird and feel happy that my betrayal of confidence is not going to allow any disturbance of breeding species on the reserve. So, I suggest that if they wander over to the Oppen Pits via the public footpath and scan the bush tops they just might see a Woodchat Shrike. I ask them not to question me further but that if they take up my suggestion and see anybody from the RSPB there that they feign surprise at their luck of jamming in on such a good bird. Of course they go and of course Mr Makepeace is there, who demands to know who told them about the shrike. ‘What shrike?’ the Chantler’s plead, but he’s onto them and doesn’t believe the coincidence of their admittedly unusual choice of route. I later go back onto the RSPB reserve where an angry Peter Makepeace tells me that he’s annoyed that someone has told the Chantler’s about the shrike. “I’ve got my suspicions about who told them,” he tells me. “Just you wait until I see him again!” I hurry away before he puts two and two together.

We’ve noticed a family party of Canada Geese on the Water Tower Pits and have returned to try and capture the youngsters for ringing purposes. They cannot fly and we think it possible to round them up by encouraging them to make their way along a chicken-wire perimeter fence that funnels into a dead-end. Well, that’s the theory. It hasn’t helped our intentions that the geese are, at present, all sat out in the middle of the water. They usually loaf around the shoreline and forage on dry land. We stand at the waters edge trying to fathom out our next move. As if reading our minds they just stay still. We try to move them by clapping our hands, shouting and throwing stones wide of the geese. They won’t budge. After twenty minutes of cat and mouse (or should that be ringer and goose) I decide on drastic action. I strip down to my underwear and plunge into the cold water, much to the amusement of my companions. My intention is to coax the geese out of the water by my swimming toward them, slowly, so not to panic them. It isn’t a coincidence my choice of swimming ‘slowly’ as it is the only speed that I can swim at. At first the geese start to make for the waters edge, but then double-back leaving me between where I want them to go and the middle of the pit. I have been swimming on a regular basis but after a few minutes find my limbs are tiring.  After another aborted attempt to corral the geese I’m knackered, I’m slap bang in the middle of the water and have started to feel mildly alarmed that I might not have the stamina to get back to the waters edge. A small island is closer to me so I set off for it, gasping for breath. Hauling myself onto the stony, goose-shit splattered shore I lie flat out panting for precious air, listening to the hoots of derision coming from dry land. The geese, as if revelling in my situation, swim by only yards away, seemingly watching this strange pink shape that has shipwrecked on their island. My rest over I once again brave the cold, murky water and reach terra firma. I’ve ballsed-up again however and have to walk around to the other side of the pit to retrieve my clothing. Walking barefoot on shingle is painful. I now realise that I haven’t taken my watch off. It isn’t waterproof and it’s stopped working.


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