The monastic life of a sea watcher
Dungeness May 1982
I always feel that you have a good chance of finding something special at the Airport Pits. It takes some effort to get to them. You have to park at Boulderwall, take the footpath heading due north for a good mile before then veering off westwards over the shingle towards Lydd Airport. The pit(s) are small, the water shallow and whenever I visit them (which isn’t very often) there are always plenty of exposed feeding areas for birds. The pits are prone to drying out in prolonged dry spells. Today is the classic type of day that I pick to venture out to check them - a quiet day at the observatory, clement weather so as not to risk a soaking on the exposed trudge and bags of enthusiasm and optimism. The walk out is a pleasure, full of anticipation and because of the irregularity of the visits it is somewhat a novelty. My imagination had initially been fired on the tale of when a Spotted Crake was caught in a walk-in trap placed on the Airport pits shoreline. This visit has turned up trumps – well, modest trumps. A cracking pair of Garganey have tucked themselves into poolside vegetation. The drake briefly swims out on show, the duck hestitant to leave cover. If I hadn’t have come out here these birds wouldn’t have been seen at all. These pits are hardly ever visited. That’s part of the attraction. An added frisson of excitement is also due to the pits being out of bounds as they are on private land. Airport staff can become quite officious and any visit can precipitate the arrival of an angry man in a Land Rover. Many birders do not realise is that if you carry along the footpath northwards instead of turning west to towards the airport you eventually come to a collection of small waterbodies. They are well vegetated and look promising. I have only ever visited these ‘lost’ pits the once. Another aspect of a visit to the Airport Pits that I enjoy is the solitude. There must be weeks on end when nobody visits them for any purpose, let alone birding. It is a perfect place to bird whilst ruminating on life in general. Like the open shingle between the power station and the RSPB reserve you feel alone under vast skies here. The shingle is largely bereft of vegetation, the horizons are distant and you feel at the mercy of nature and the weather in a way that is difficult in our crowded part of Britain.
I’ve been here for a week and the sun hasn’t stopped shining. The wind has been predominantly a strong NE to SE and I have spent hour upon hour on the beach seawatching. I have been getting up at 04.30hrs and been standing on the shoreline by first light, shivering in the dawn chill. Each day the blood-orange ball of the sun has risen from the sea and gradually warmed the air to a point where my layers of clothing have been stripped off to the base t-shirt and shorts. Taking the form of weathered driftwood, my face, arms and legs are nut brown due to sun and wind exposure. I feel totally rested. The birds have been kind. This week I have personally seen 68 Pomarine Skuas, mostly close inshore cracking adults, including flocks of 13, 11 and 10. Accompanying them have been a steady stream of waders, including mixed flocks of Dunlin, Sanderling, Ringed Plover, Grey Plover and Bar-tailed Godwit, many in summer plumage. Whimbrels however, have stolen the show, with two days of heavy passage, including a record breaking 600 on one afternoon and evening alone. Today I have forsaken the shore for the trapping area and have just found a male Golden Oriole flying low over the sallow bushes and head inland, an exotic flash of buttercup yellow and black. All week it has just been Sean McMinn, Dave Davenport and myself. Our lifestyle has been monastic – after such an early start followed by a whole day spent staring through optics into a heat haze out at sea, we retire to bed by 22.00hrs, eyes strained to excess, bodies burnt, minds tired, but wearily fulfilled.