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.