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.


Derek Faulkner said…
Ah, the great Jim Flegg, for so long the President of the Kent Ornithology Society and co-presenter of the TVS countryside programme Country Ways. Listened to Jim at many KOS AGM'S and have some of his books.
Chris Janman said…
Lovely tales, keep them coming.
Steve Gale said…
When I met Jim a few years later, I didn't tell him that I had written to him.
Steve Gale said…
Thanks Chris, you'll be appearing at some point!
Gibster said…
So this high-flying flock of July Curlew over Surrey...?
Steve Gale said…
Three birds, calling. Like Curlews. Long curved bills. Accepted?
Gibster said…
If it calls like a Curlew, and looks like a Curlew, then I guess YOC Steve had a good hit that day with a flock of high-flying July Curlew. Fair play mate, you've turned up some stuff in your time (and still are!)

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