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.


Gibster said…
Heinzel, Fitter & Parslow was my first bird book. I bought it in Scotland whilst on holiday. I clearly recall my mom saying, "Don't you dare let your dad know you wasted your money on THAT!!!" I still have (and cherish) that book some 35 years later. That book almost single-handedly started me off on my own quest into the world of birding. Spotshank. There's a bird I've never self-found in Surrey. YOC Steve was clearly skilled.
Steve Gale said…
YOC Steve did put in the time, and was quite lucky as well. The Collins book was truly eye-opening - so many species that I'd never heard of!
Derek Faulkner said…
So surprised at your constant need to impress and be accepted by senior birdwatchers.
Steve Gale said…
I was an impressionable 16-year old Derek - nothing unusual in that, and even if ithere were, that's how I was - a wish to belong.
Derek Faulkner said…
Fair enough Steve. When I was 16, in 1963, I was doing my best to rebel, following the trend at the time. Pretty much stayed that way for the rest of my life then, never been one for being part of the gang, so I guess we're different in that way.

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