Two particular birds

Part 14 September – October 1976
The settling beds at Beddington Sewage Farm were in good condition to entice passage waders down to feed, the effluent being not too wet and not too dry, and when seen from above they mimicked small inland estuaries. The star birds were a Spotted Redshank, a Little Stint and a flock of Ruff that, over the course of a week, built up to 17 birds. House Martin numbers were also increasing, and it was not just passage migrants that were swelling the numbers, as those that had been locally fledged were also taking to the skies. Up to 600 were feeding above Beddington in mid-September and a faithful group of 100-200 birds remained above Sutton town centre well into October. There were still young in some of the nests, these muddy cups being a common enough sight under the eaves of houses in many suburban streets. Another species gathering in numbers was the House Sparrow, with gangs of 30+ being found with regularity in the neighbourhood front gardens, their chatter competing with passing cars, barking dogs and squealing children.

My birding education was continuing at a pace. I took myself off to Pagham Harbour on 25th September and was delighted to find – and to be able to immediately identify – a Great Skua, that had entered the harbour itself and was aimlessly loafing around. Not unlike the Reed Warbler that I had found at this very place back in the summer, it was encouraging to be able to confidently put a name to what was basically a ‘brown’ bird, albeit one with conspicuous white wing-flashes. Waders were building up in number, with a fine cross-section of species to scan through, including Whimbrel, Spotted Redshank and Little Stint. Tardy summer-migrants were still to be found at Church Norton, with Wheatear, Whinchat and up to 5 Spotted Flycatchers. A Lesser Spotted Woodpecker was found by the farmyard.

Both Spotted Flycatcher and Lesser Spotted Woodpecker were present at Beddington SF when I visited on the following day, plus a fine array of departing migrants including a Turtle Dove, seven Yellow Wagtail, two Sedge Warbler, four Wheatear and four Whinchat. These reminders of the summer were lingering, and as we headed into October I desperately wanted them to stay with us. There is a deep-seated affiliation to these creatures of long-daylight, sun and warmth, one that may well have been forged millennia ago when the coming winter was a time of uncertainty and promised privations. 

At the beginning of October two species of bird appeared before me that were to become long-standing avian highlights – events that were to be replayed in my mind over later years. The first occurred on 3rd October, a day when a group of Surrey-birders, all crammed into a white Transit van, went on a tour of the birding hot-spots of the Sussex/Kent border. Rye Harbour had been quiet save for two late Common Swifts, but on arrival at Dungeness we were alerted to the presence of a Red-breasted Flycatcher. In these early days of my birdwatching this was a truly rare bird, one that I barely heard of and certainly didn’t consider that I would ever see. It was not immediately on view, and much time was spent searching the vegetation close to the observatory and in the moat, a deep circular channel that had been gouged out of the shingle. It finally appeared, as if out of nowhere, bathing in a puddle that had formed on the road that crosses the moat. It was far, far better than I had hoped. More subtle than obvious, the clean browns and buffs, large eye and flashing white at the base of the tail had me in their spell. We were able to observe the flycatcher for several minutes before it flicked back into nearby bushes and disappeared.

As unexpected as the flycatcher was, the next species of note was even more so. 10th October dawned overcast, dry and calm and I was at Beddington SF helping Ken and Mike with the ringing. We had set up a number of single panel mist nets in an area of settling beds that had become overgrown with Fathen which was proving attractive to a mixed flock of finches. We had trapped a good number of birds by late morning – including a Grey Wagtail, five Meadow Pipits and a couple of Reed Buntings – so were already happy with the day’s work. Mike and Ken went off to check the nets, leaving me to guard our bags and ringing equipment. A few minutes later they returned, Mike proudly holding a bird bag in front of him, a great beaming smile on his face. 

“Bet you can’t tell me what’s in here,” he asked. 

And to this day I do not know why I instantly blurted out “Bluethroat?”

Because it was! The three of us processed the bird with ‘incredulity’ stamped firmly across our faces. The rusty-red tail patches, buffy supercilium and moustachial stripes plus a spattering of dark markings forming a necklace around the throat were all admired, the lack of any blue feathering instantly forgiven. That evening at home I basked in its memory, enthralled by its appearance, once again coming to terms with birding’s ability to surprise and delight. 


laurence.d said…
I to remember House martins with young in the nest into September/October 1976, but there have been no nests here since the 80,s.
Steve Gale said…
House Martins are scarce here as a breeding species now Laurence - very scarce indeed
laurence.d said…
It took me a while to realise what was missing in the summer, it was their constant calls and chattering around the eave,s , I still miss them.
Arjun Dutta said…
I love and hate reading your older posts Steve. Brilliant stories!
Steve Gale said…
Thanks Arjun, they must seem like ancient history to you.

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