Of sludge beds, Jack Snipe and Water Pipits
Part nine: January - March 1976 The year started in the company of Barry Reed, who I had met on the Scottish bird watching course the previous August. I stayed with him at his home in Ware and we spent three days birding across a number of sites – The Blackwater Estuary, Tollesbury and Abberton Reservoir (all in Essex); Stoke Newington Reservoir (north London) and two of Barry’s local Hertfordshire haunts – Amwell and Rye Meads. Although a year younger than me, he was a far more experienced and confident birder, with boundless enthusiasm. Together with his friend Tim Andrews, we spent every minute of daylight looking for birds. We travelled on foot, by train and bus, and, when he could persuade his Mother to give up her time, by car.
I was inundated with new species. On New Year’s Day alone, thanks to the Essex estuaries and reservoirs, we recorded Great Northern Diver, Red-necked, Black-necked and Slavonian Grebe, Bewick’s Swan, a dodgy triple of Egyptian Goose, Red –crested Pochard and Ruddy Duck (whose origins were certainly as escapees from wildfowl collections), Smew and Red-breasted Merganser. The three days provided a high-octane birding that was new to me – until now everything (even in Scotland) had been quite sedate, unhurried and relaxing. This was different. Itineraries had been planned, with places to go and a list of target species to see. We seemed to run everywhere. We looked with more intent. As soon as a bird was identified we moved on to the next one. On returning home I worked out my life list. I had now seen 166 species. My UK list had been born and I wanted to add more to it.
A quickly targeted bird was Mandarin Duck (another duck with dodgy credentials). I had heard that they could reliably be seen on the ponds to be found in Richmond and Bushy Parks. A gaudy male flew onto my list at the latter site. This was followed with a successful raid on Staines Reservoir for Goosander. My bird watching had changed. Although the pure joy of ‘being out and about’ was still with me, the observation of new and uncommon species was becoming a driving force, and this was no longer treated as being a ‘guilty pleasure’.
However, Beddington Sewage Farm was still my default place of choice. The winter had been plodding along modestly, with a sizeable flock of Brambling and a handful of Ruff being the constant attractions. A sizable gathering of finches had been attracted to seed that had been inadvertently scattered by the farm workers, this being referred to as ‘screenings’ – basically items that could not pass through the sewage works filters after the waste matter had been treated, which included foodstuff that the birds took full advantage of. The inability of human beings to successfully break down the pips, seeds and skin from fruit and vegetables was further evidenced away from the ‘screenings’ with a profuse sprouting of tomato plants across the filter beds, and at the right time of year they would be joined by Giant Puffballs, football-sized fungi. These would be dispatched with a hefty kick, with a subsequent cloud of spores being released into the air like indignant smoke.
The Brambling flock built to 175 birds by late February, and were joined by Chaffinches, Linnets, Goldfinches and Tree Sparrows, along with the odd Brown Rat. Jack Snipe started to become more frequent as well, with favoured settling-beds being identified, and any visit was not complete without a walk across them to see how many could be flushed – this species rarely took flight unless closely approached, and because they kept still and possessed superb camouflage were very difficult to see. This did take a leap of faith on the part of the observer – would the sludge within the bed have dried out and be firm enough to take the weight of a person? A completely dried bed would not attract any waders, so the Jack Snipe would only choose those that had wet areas. Many a birder’s wellington boot broke through a hard crust only to sink down into a thick, pungent slop. Walking on ground that bounced beneath you was a strange feeling, with this sensation further heightened by the realisation that, if misjudged, you would be up to your thighs within seconds. But it was worth chancing, as to have a Jack Snipe silently take flight off the end of your boot was a magical experience and one that lost none of its potency however often it happened. The Water Pipits that haunted the same beds were far warier and would take flight at the slightest hint of an approaching birder, and liked to disappear off into the distance before settling back down again. Attempts to observe either species on the ground were therefore a challenge, that could be met only with a great deal of patience or luck.