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.


dmcjournal said…
Do you have diaries going back over the years or a memory that I could only dream of. Whatever, the way you write has a way of drawing me in as if I was there, making me feel a part of the experience and that is a wonderful quality. If I wasn't a birder already this would make me one.
I see a book here and I for one would definitely buy it.
Steve Gale said…
Yes David, 43 years worth of diaries and notebooks! If I get a publisher, I'll let you know :-)
Derek Faulkner said…
Although I don't know the areas you describe, your well written memoirs make me feel that I know it. You have the skill to turn diaries into something that lives. In 1975 I was 28 and helping to shovel the first barrow loads of soil on what was to become RSPB Elmley.
Steve Gale said…
That's very kind of you Derek, thank you
Once again brilliant Steve. You are the Robert Mcfarlane of natural history!
Steve Gale said…
Steady on Seamus!

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