Friday, 31 March 2017

Rewarded in the rain

Part 5: September 1975 After my trip to Scotland, I returned to Beddington as an all-conquering hero – at least in my own little world, that is. My birding confidence had been given an almighty boost and I felt as if I had somehow proven my worth as a bird watcher by having travelled some distance to do so, and in the process had lost my ornithological virginity. This was the first time that I was conscious of the fact that it mattered to me how I appeared to other bird watchers, as until then my time spent in the field had been about the seeing of birds, with no added agenda.

A short family break, on a farm near Penshurst in Kent, was my next opportunity to bird watch away from north-Surrey. It was notable for my first Kingfisher, the initial sighting being a matter of delayed gratification, as my Father and brothers had already seen one as they fished in a nearby river, at the same time that I was wandering the adjacent lanes and fields, binoculars at the ready. When the moment finally came, it lived up to all expectations – a flash of intense electric blue, blood orange under-parts and a shrill exclamation of noise as it fled away. Marsh and Willow Tits were present on a daily basis. I spent a lot of time familiarising myself with them, checking their plumage and structures with my field guide, and trying to make sense of the phonetic rendering of their calls. By the end of the week I was identifying them both by call alone, and I felt as if I had climbed another rung on the birding ladder. Throughout the stay I was in the company of Spotted Flycatchers. It seemed as though every bush in the farmyard, and each hedgerow radiating from it, played host to small parties that sallied forth to feed on abundant insects, the delicate snap of bills a subtle accompaniment to the other farmyard noises. And, just over the hedges, haunting the fields, were Grey Partridges, calling unseen or startling me as they were flushed as I walked the margins.

The field guide that I was using had changed. I had been seduced by ‘The Birds of Britain and Europe with North Africa and the Middle East’ a collaboration by Hermann Heinzel, Richard Fitter and John Parslow. This book, published by Collins, had won me over by including a whole host of additional species from the more arid extremities of the Western Palearctic. I might not need to know what a Hoopoe Lark looked like, but it made me feel that much more worthy by doing so. My allegiance to the Hamlyn Guide wasn’t totally lost however, as I often packed both books in my rucksack before leaving the house.

After leaving school in the summer, I had enrolled onto a foundation course at Epsom School of Art and Design. Much to my pleasure, I discovered that it was but a 15-minute walk from the college’s front door to the beginning of Epsom Common. Whereas a pupil’s attendance in class was mandatory at secondary school, such demands upon an art student were not as rigorous, and I started to exploit this fact by taking myself off to the common during ‘college hours’ on a regular basis.

Whereas my attendance at college was open to abuse, my weekend visits to Beddington were not. I just had to be there, no matter what. To me, by being present proved to my fellow bird watchers that I was serious about my birding, I was committed to the Beddington ‘family’ and the more time that I spent in the field, the more proficient I would get at identifying birds. The idea that I had another ‘family’, this one being based at the farm, had slowly grown during the summer. It took root through my acceptance by the older birdwatchers, the encouragement that I was receiving in my endeavours, and the congratulations that came my way if I found a good bird. I gratefully took them and craved for more. So, when September 17th dawned with torrential rain - all the gutters and drains overflowing - I knew that I would still cycle to Beddington even though I would get a soaking in the process, that my cheap binoculars would steam up and that the chances were that any birds present would keep well hidden in the adverse weather. I delayed departure until the early afternoon. It was a very wet, uncomfortable bike journey, but I just needed to make it. I expected to see nothing, but on checking the settling beds on One Hundred Acre, I put up a medium-sized wader that circled above me, calling with a highly distinctive “chew-it!” Although I had not heard this call before, I knew exactly what was making it, as in conversation with Mike Netherwood only a week before, had asked him how I would know a Spotted Redshank if I came across one - and apart from running through a few salient plumage details, he had mimicked its call to perfection – almost exactly the same as the one being uttered above me. No wing bars, white lozenge from rump to lower back, long bill, long red legs, all present and correct. I may have been soaked to the skin, squelching with every footstep, my binoculars fogged, note book all wet pulp, but I had found, and identified, my very first Spotted Redshank. And not for the first, or the last time, I floated back home from that most special of places with yet another fantastic memory replaying itself, over and over again.

Thursday, 30 March 2017

Look North, young man

Part 4: June – August 1975 Even though it was fast approaching the time to sit my ‘O’-levels, I had little idea as to what I was going to do moving forward, and had just assumed that I would stay on at school and study for ‘A’-levels. A meeting with the careers officer had not been overly productive, although my admission that English and Art were my most enjoyable and profitable lessons had him recommending to me journalism as a possible career choice. What I really wanted to say to him was that all I wanted to do was go bird watching. During a similar discussion at home, my Father revealed that when we moved from our family home at Tring (back in 1970), he had sold our house to a professional ornithologist named Jim Flegg. If I was serious about pursuing a career that revolved around birds, why not write to him for advice? Within a matter of hours, a letter of introduction, and a stamped-addressed envelope, had been sent, and a prompt reply was gratefully received. It contained a clear summary of two differing ornithological career paths. The first, that was more scientific based and financially lucrative, would require a higher education in the sciences, preferably from a university. For a student who had shunned biology, chemistry and physics, this was not good news. His second suggestion, and one that appealed to me, was to get involved in fieldwork, via nature reserves or bird observatories. Although pay was on the whole low, positions frequently became available, and Jim’s parting advice was ‘if you really want it enough, you WILL find employment.’ I was given hope and plenty to think about.

As the summer settled down, an additional shot of adrenalin was being administered for each of my visits to Beddington, thanks to the presence of passage waders. The spring migration of wading birds had been a modest affair, but from late June onwards I was seeing higher numbers and more species. The turn over was fast, and a morning visit when compared to another that afternoon, would reveal a different composition of birds altogether, so I started to visit the farm twice a day if possible. Lapwing and Green Sandpiper were the early vanguards, and by mid July they had been joined by a handful of Redshank and Little Ringed Plover. My wader identification skills were tested with two Ruff and a Greenshank (13th July), a high-flying flock of Curlew (20th July) and by the months end I had also recorded Common Sandpiper and Common Snipe.

At the beginning of August I boarded a train at Euston to embark upon the journey north to Pitlochry in Perthshire. I had booked onto a YOC bird watching course in Scotland. With me were Mark and Neil Greenway. As the fields of middle-England went by, we struck up a conversation with two lads of a similar age to us, sat across the aisle, both who just happened to be on their way to join the same course. They were Ian and Barry Reed from Ware in Hertfordshire.

We arrived at Pitlochry Station to be met by the course leader, Ian Walker.  A short transfer was made by mini-bus, through undulating moorland, to the Kindrogan Field Centre, based in a grand house at Enochdu. This was to be our home for the following week. After unpacking and meeting up with the other course members, we took a walk around the grounds and nearby habitat, which included fast running streams and a footpath that meandered up into the nearby hills, through scrub and coniferous plantations before finally reaching open moorland.

With my bird watching having been confined to inland northern-Surrey, upland Scotland was a culture shock. Within walking distance of the house we were able to find Dippers on the streams and rivers, Red Grouse, Short-eared Owls and Ravens on the moor, Spotted Flycatchers and Tree Pipits in the scrub, and, most memorably, a hillside full of Black Grouse. Our first full day was spent walking the length of the remote Glen Fernach. The weather and scenery were simply glorious, and, although we had magnificent views of a Peregrine, it became almost incidental, so besotted was I with what was all around me. Big skies had announced themselves and a lifetime’s love of them was born.

The following day saw our group getting out of the minibus at Moulin and making the trek to Ben Vrakie, at 2,759 feet the highest that most of us had ever been. The lower elevations had provided us with good numbers of Scotch Argus, and if I hadn’t taken an interest in butterflies before, I certainly started to do so then. Closer to the summit a few Ring Ouzels announced themselves, calling as they bounded across the rocks. We climbed even higher on day four, wandering the plateau of Glas Maol (at 3,504ft). Dotterel, our target bird, was not to be found, but compensation came in the form of four Ptarmigan that tried hard to camouflage themselves amongst the scree, and several ridiculously tame Golden Plover.

A return to the lower slopes of Glas Maol the next morning provided Twite, followed by a trip to Deeside in the hope of finding Golden Eagle. We were unsuccessful, but the weather had continued to bless us so we all stripped off and went swimming in the River Dee, accompanied by calling Crossbills overhead. Our leader gathered us together at the start of day six and asked us if we could keep a secret – to which we all replied “yes”, not knowing yet what we were meant to keep quiet about. He announced that we were to be taken to a secret locality which held breeding Ospreys. And so it was that a gaggle of animated mid-teens made their way to Loch Con, to sit on a heather-clad slope looking down onto the water, where three Ospreys were on view. Creeping back to the minibus, hands-on-heart, the secret would be safe with us.

Our final full day was spent at the Montrose Basin. I had not bird watched on the coast before, and had spent the previous evening familiarising myself with all manner of shorebirds. I was not to be disappointed. My first scan out to the sea was overwhelming – there were birds everywhere, and most of them species that I had not seen before. Fulmar, Gannet, Shag, Common Scoter, Eider, Razorbill, Guillemot, Shelduck, Turnstone, Whimbrel, Purple Sandpiper, Kittiwake, Common Tern, Arctic Tern, Sandwich Tern – they just kept on coming, all very close, an ornithological overload if ever there was one. Dazed, I returned back to the Field Centre with a notebook full of names and a head-full of memories. The week’s tally was of 119 species, of which 38 were lifers for me. And the sun had done nothing but shine.

Wednesday, 29 March 2017

Ring Ouzel at Priest Hill

Yes I know that the image above is not quite in focus - that you are having to peer between branches of a bush - and look through a strand of barbed-wire fence - but at least you can share in my joy of this morning's male Ring Ouzel at Priest Hill. It even drew a crowd of admirers, as four birders made the trip once twitter 'twatted'. The bird stayed in Bunting Field for up to an hour, but was very wary and flighty, so I largely let it be.

As some form of compensation for the poor pic, have a male Kestrel from this morning...

Tuesday, 28 March 2017

A few Priest Hill facts

Priest Hill forms part of the dip slope of the North Downs as it makes its chalky way down to meet the clay of the Thames Basin. It used to be a place of agriculture, with cereal crops and dairy cows gracing the high, open ground. In the 1950s the land was transformed into an enormous area of playing fields, with schools from London being bussed out to use the amenities, but by the 1980s it mostly fell out of use, and nature started to reclaim it. Four years ago Surrey County Council sold a portion of the land off for development and gifted 33 hectares of it to the Surrey Wildlife Trust.

In all honesty, there is little to immediately suggest that this area is worthy of reserve status, although it does hold breeding Skylarks and Meadow Pipits, and has a good colony of Brown Hairsteak. It is largely botanically impoverished. However, management has already helped to encourage nearby wildlife to colonise. Large areas of tarmac and rubble have been cleared where tennis courts and changing rooms once stood, the ground here being scraped back to the bare chalk. Green hay from nearby Howell Hill has been spread out and such species as Kidney Vetch has appeared, along with the first Small Blue butterflies. The fencing of fields (and the accompanying grazing from Belted Galloway cattle) has produced an undisturbed and sympathetic grassland for the continued breeding of Skylarks.

Selective control (and in places removal) of scrub has provided 'wildlife corridors' of hedges and scrubby strips, with the open spaces punctuated by a few mature trees. A copse and a spinney, plus a few small ponds, add to the reserves charm, which in itself sits surrounded by more green space - paddocks, playing fields and a small college farm.

I first visited the site 20 years ago, when it was a rubbish-strewn wasteland, heavily scrubbed-up but full of strange plants that sprang up from the rubble and mounds of dumped earth. When the clearing up process began and the reserve was being created, I was invited to help out with the monitoring of the birds by the then ranger, Rachael Thornley and the first breeding bird survey was carried out in 2015. My visits have increased greatly since last November and the rewards have been pleasantly surprising. Apart from a couple of unexpected records (Cattle Egret in December and a Jack Snipe at the beginning of this month), wintering flocks of Reed Buntings were discovered, along with a constant presence of Stonechats. A Red Kite passage has been obvious this Spring (highest day count of four), Chiffchaffs and Meadow Pipits are moving through and Tawny and Little Owls are resident on site. Last weekend a Peregrine was on the Glyn playing field, feasting on a recently dispatched pigeon. The potential is high.

I've cobbled together a map (above), with the dark-green areas indicating the reserve, and the mid-green extensions showing my own Priest Hill recording area - after all, why neglect the paying fields? None of the place names are official, they are just what I use for my own reference. Although the south-eastern section of the reserve is largely private, the public can see most of it via a network of footpaths that allow the fields to be scanned with ease, with much of the scrub and hedgerow being accessible. I am convinced that regular observation will reveal more surprises - but, as is the case with all 'dry' inland sites, you will need to put in the hours to get the rewards!

Sunday, 26 March 2017

Flora exotica

Priest Hill used to be a dumping ground for all sorts of debris, including heaps of soil, garden waste and hardcore. It was unsightly, but after a while the seeds and bulbs that were within sprang forth. There is a Flowering Currant onsite that I believe to be the same one that I 'ticked' over 15 years ago. Today I came across this:

I believe that it's Mediterranean Spurge (Euphorbia characias), and, if I might be so bold, of the ssp veneta. There will, no doubt, be somebody out there ready to correct me if I'm wrong. Nearby in Ewell, close to Bourne Hall, the Creeping Comfrey (below) and Abraham-Isaac-Jacob (next two images) are at their best.

Even though a nagging easterly wind is present today, the butterflies have come out in numbers, particularly Brimstones. Also recorded were Comma (first image), Small Tortoiseshell (next) and Red Admiral.

The birds haven't been neglected - two Red Kites flew through Priest Hill (one north and the other east), a Common Buzzard passed high overhead northbound, and two Chiffchaffs were in full song in the copse area.

Saturday, 25 March 2017

Pigeon for breakfast

This morning, when scanning the Priest Hill playing fields for a Wheatear, this came into my view - an enormous female Peregrine in the middle of a pigeon breakfast. I was far enough away not to bother it too much, although a nagging Carrion Crow moved it on, with the falcon still in possession of its prey. This is, in all likelihood, one half of the Sutton breeding pair. Also of note were a small arrival of Chiffchaff (5) and a singing Blackcap.

Thursday, 23 March 2017

Diaries and sparrows

You could be forgiven for assuming that I have recently forsaken 'actual birding' to delve through old dusty diaries and notebooks - I have been doing both, it's just that the birding has been slow. My visits to Priest Hill have been ongoing, with most of the time spent scanning empty fields and bushes. However, a few Chiffchaffs and Meadow Pipits have passed through and both Tawny and Little Owls are on site. My hopes are high for a little bit of spring magic in the coming weeks.

Back home I was entertained by a gaggle of House Sparrows that were loafing around in a neighbour's pyracantha bush (no, I don't know which species). We are still blessed with good numbers around here, for which I am grateful. Now, back to those diaries...

Wednesday, 22 March 2017

Any day soon...

Beddington in the 1970s (Beddington Farmlands)
Part 3: March - May 1975 When it came to grabbing my binoculars and rushing out of the front door to go bird watching, there was one place above all the others that became my favoured destination, and that was Beddington Sewage Farm. Although I wasn’t aware of it at the time, the ornithological record for the site stretched back to the early years of the 20th century, and my modest observations were becoming a part of that impressive canon of work. My regularity at the farm had started to help forge friendships with other Beddington attendees – and apart from Mark and Neil (who often accompanied me) there was Nick Gardener (a highly confident lad of my age), Ken Parsley and Mike Netherwood. The latter two were both involved in the capture and ringing of birds, an on-going scientific study of, among other things, movements and longevity. Other observers, such as Keith Mitchell, Martin King, John Dalgleish and Bill Blake would often be bumped into, and it was always a tense, exciting affair to hear of their latest observations. Being exposed to other birdwatchers was an education. They were, by and large, more experienced than me, and would willingly pass on their identification skills, particularly how to differentiate the many, and varying, birdcalls and songs.

I became familiar with the place names scattered across the farm – Irrigation Bridge, Cuckoo Lane, One Hundred Acre, Parkside, Milne’s Hedge – a living, evolving folk lore. What people, what events were behind their naming? No visit was complete without a thorough search of the entire site, striding across each field, walking single-file along the miles of sludge lagoon banking, peering into culverts, checking the hedgerows and copses. Around every bend was an opportunity, behind each tree or bush a possibility. Within a short space of time the farm had taken me over. It owned me. Most visits ended when it became too dark to carry on. My bicycle would be un-padlocked and I would mentally replay the day’s events as I peddled home. If I were with Mark and Neil we would make the short journey to their Grandparents home, where tea and cake would be offered.

New birds came thick and fast – Green Sandpiper, Dunlin, Brambling, Common Snipe, Jack Snipe and Redshank. These were species removed from the common and garden birds that I had cut my teeth on. They were specialists that could only be found by visiting specialist habitats, away from the gardens, parks and woods that I had been used to, and in Beddington I had adopted one of the best. Of these new species it was the Green Sandpiper that captured me most and became an icon of the sewage farm. As many as three of them haunted the fast-running shallow water that coursed through the concrete culverts, and they would not tolerate close approach, soon fleeing with a cheerful, shrill fruity whistle, their blackish upper parts contrasting with a shockingly white rump. I would follow them in flight until they dropped down into another watery hiding place, where the game of hide-and-seek could be played all over again.

There was one particular bird that I longed to see, and that was a Wheatear. The description in my field guide suggested that it was a bird of mountains and moorland, but Mike Netherwood gave me hope – “we get them moving through here on passage, they’ll be along any day soon”. They came here! And soon! My life then revolved around waiting for this apparition to turn up. The month of March ended without any show and we were then into April. Any day soon… that mantra was repeatedly recited… and then, on the morning of Sunday April 6th, four of these most exquisite of beauties arrived at once, proudly standing on hummocks and posts on the field up against the railway line, close to Irrigation Bridge. The following day, for a change of scenery, I visited Epsom Common, and there awaiting me was a Wheatear - I watched it with a nonchalance that it did not deserve. I was captivated by the urgent pulses of summer migrants that were now arriving – yet more Wheatears, joined by Yellow Wagtails, Swallows, House Martins, Blackcaps, Sedge Warblers – all vibrantly fresh of plumage, some full of tremendous song. Together with the bursting forth of blossom and leaves from the trees, my newly discovered world was like a carnival, celebrating the cycle of life.

I had contacted the Epsom RSPB group and arranged to join them for an early-May evening walk at Epsom Common. I thought that I knew the area from my previous visits, but in the company of those that really did know the place, I was shown another side to it – one of calling Cuckoos, singing Nightingales, reeling Grasshopper Warblers and, best of all, croaking, roding Woodcocks. I returned home, in the dark, reeling from this birding overload.

A family weekend break, camping close to East Horsley in the west Surrey countryside, saw me creeping away from the tents on a calm, warm, late-May dawn. The fields held both displaying Red-legged and Grey Partridges; purring Turtle Doves gave themselves up in the hedgerows; a scratchy song from a bramble patch was tracked down to a Whitethroat; and after only having previously heard Cuckoos, I finally saw one, perched on top a bush, calling incessantly, an image never forgotten. I was systematically being exposed to wonderful birds, and my devotion to all things ornithological was unquestioned. Any other interests that I had were unceremoniously dumped. Bird watching was it. Nothing else mattered.

Tuesday, 21 March 2017

The Windhover

The photograph above, of a hovering male Kestrel, was taken this morning at Priest Hill. It was only after I returned home that I became aware that today has been designated as 'World Poetry Day' and, being a surprisingly cultured oaf, immediately thought that this image would be apt for a post. The Windhover was written by Gerard Manley Hopkins, that clerical poet who celebrated the natural world in many of his writings. It was a poem that I came across at school, when studying for my English Literature O-level, where I was lucky enough to be taught by a fine teacher, one Mr McTiffin. He instilled in me a love for the written word that has remained to this very day. So, for an appreciation of the Kestrel, over to you Gerard...

I caught this morning morning's minion, kingdom
of daylight's dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in
his riding
Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,
As a skate's heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl
and gliding
Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird, - the achieve of, the mastery of the thing!
Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here
Buckle! AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion
Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!
No wonder of it: shèer plòd makes plough down sillion
Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,
Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold vermilion.

Monday, 20 March 2017

The birding hook

Part 2: Jan – February 1975 I was starting to move away from the local parks and woodland to get my bird watching fix, and was drawn to two locations in particular – Beddington Sewage Farm and Epsom Common. The former site had come to my attention via the pages of ‘Where to Watch Birds’ by John Gooders. This book listed some of the best places in Britain to go birding, and Beddington had received a glowing write-up from the author, accompanied by a species list and details of how to obtain a permit to visit. Apart from being but a twenty-minute cycle ride from home, the promise of a Short-eared Owl was all the encouragement that I needed. Within a week I had that permit in my hand, a flimsy white piece of paper that had been crudely typewritten – not the grand illuminated document that I had hoped for. But never the less, it was my golden ticket to a promised land, my entry to a place that was notable for its birds. My excitement was barely containable.

That first visit was made on a cool and overcast morning. My mind had been hijacked by visions of flocks of waders and hunting Short-eared Owls. I had no idea what a sewage farm would look like, but had envisaged something not unlike an agricultural farm. For this first trip I went along with a neighbour and his son, both who shared with me a burgeoning interest in birds. He drove us to the offices of the treatment works, which, being a Sunday, was largely deserted. I was immediately crestfallen. This was no open wilderness, but comprised small neat manicured lawns, office buildings and a series of small concrete squares filled with dark water. There were a handful of Starlings and Pied Wagtails strutting about, but certainly no waders or owls. As each minute passed by my enthusiasm was slowly being strangled by disappointment.  We quickly found a member of staff who was able to direct us away from this virtually bird-less zone and onto the fields and settling beds to be found on the other side of a high perimeter fence – to the promised land that John Gooders had written about.

Relieved, and once again buoyed, we wandered down the tarmacked Mile Road (in the shadow of the giant cooling towers) that bisected the open vista of the ‘true’ farm. A mosaic of small banked rectangles, some the size of a living room, others a municipal swimming pool, took up most of the land that we first came across. Many were filled with wet sludge, and could be circumnavigated along narrow ridges. In places this sludge had dried to allow colonising vegetation to establish, but mostly it was wet and pungent. Beyond these, open fields were largely grassed-over, being edged with sparse hedgerows and the odd mature willow or elm. Alongside, concrete culverts ran with fast flowing water, abandoned brick outhouses whispering of the old ways. It felt as if we had stepped back in time. The most obvious landmark was a giant banked reservoir, as tall as a house and as wide and as long as a couple of football pitches. We climbed the grassy bank to be confronted by a sea of effluence, a virtual inland estuary, tributaries of water snaking into the centre of the goo. And yes, there were waders! Maybe not the hoards promised by JG, but a flock of Lapwings, with a scruffy, lethargic Grey Heron close by. After an hour of scratching about, uncertain of where to go and what to do, my neighbour announced that it was time to go home.

My next visit was a far more successful affair. I had cycled alone and entered the western side of the farm at Hackbridge. The settling beds and culverts were much as I had seen on the eastern side, but here were large open fields, some flooded, that had enticed Lapwings, Fieldfares and Redwings onto the rough turf. This was more like it. Highlights came thick and fast, with a Stonechat perched on dead grass stems, two wintering Chiffchaffs which lurked within a series of vegetated earth mounds and – best of all – two magnificent Short-eared Owls, that hunted over the nearby settling beds and alighted on the banks, to stare back at me through cat-like masks, as I in turn stared at them through my binoculars. I couldn’t believe that such birds existed, let alone within striking distance of home. The birding hook was burying itself deep into my increasingly willing flesh.

Epsom Common was an altogether more sedate place to go bird watching. I would catch a bus from Sutton and alight at the edge of the common on the Ashtead road. My early visits were in the company of school friends Mark and Neil Greenway - it was Mark who had painted the picture of the Jay that had kick-started my interest in birds the previous year. We had a set routine. Crossing the railway line we would work our way through scrub (which often provided us with close views of Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers) until we reached the edge of the woods. A wide ride then took us up through the mature trees – always stopping half way for lunch – until reaching its end that abutted the farmland at Maldon Rushett. A loop back to our starting point was made via a check on the stew pond. We always recorded Willow Tits on these trips and I saw my first Little Owl on one memorable late afternoon at the top of the ride. This encouraged us to make, and erect, an owl nest box in the area. Whereas a visit to Beddington was one of heightened expectation, these Epsom Common trips were laid back affairs, the time being spent as much as in the company of the habitat as much as its bird life.

At this time I had started to gather a macabre collection of bird remains, which were proudly kept in an old set of drawers that resided in a garden shed. These exhibits were gathered from corpses found whilst out on my wanderings. A penknife and supply of plastic bags became essential components of any field trip, and they were frequently brought into action – me hacking off the head and wings of the latest unfortunate bird that had been found lying in the gutter or floating on the surface of a pond. I would bury any severed head in the back garden at home, and exhume it several weeks later in the hope that a clean skull would be ready to add to the growing collection. To preserve the meatier parts of the body I would inject formaldehyde into the flesh, via a needle and syringe. All of this equipment was easily purchased over the counter from Boots the Chemist, with barely a question as to their use being asked. I was given a number of items by other birdwatchers, some of who shared in my ghoulish sideshow and others who were aware of my interest and kindly fed it. It got to the point where members of my family would show up with dead birds as presents – on one memorable occasion an adult Lesser Black-backed Gull, that needed prompt treatment before putrefaction set in. I was particularly keen on wings, and was building up quite a collection, my proudest being those of Barn Owl and Jack Snipe. And then one morning I opened the drawers to inspect my ornithological prizes to find that something had been nibbling at the wings – most probably a mouse – and many were destroyed. I considered rescuing a few primary feathers, and keeping the unharmed skulls, but the collection was now, to my mind, sullied - it had been desecrated. I bagged the whole lot up and put them in a dustbin. Why had I kept them in the first place? There was certainly an element of feeling close to the birds, being able to examine the feathers, to appreciate their colouring and patterning. Maybe there was also an exercising of ownership taking place, another echo of our hunter/gatherer past.