I first met Dick Burness at Dungeness some time in the mid-to-late 1970s. He was part of a band of birders that, in my early days at the observatory, I was heavily influenced by. They were all a good 10-15 years older than me and did not fit the birdwatching stereotype that I was used to. Out went my preconception of older birdwatchers as vicars, gentlemen and nerds - I was introduced to a tribe of long-haired, wildly clothed, well-travelled and street-wise geezers.
Most of this Dungeness gang were baby-boomers from London, Surrey and Kent, who had gravitated together and forged a fierce loyalty to Dungeness, whilst pushing the boundaries of their knowledge in the field by travelling to North Africa and the Middle East. They were, in effect, working-class ornithological pioneers. To say that I was impressed by them would be an understatement. Never in my wildest dreams did I think that this exotic band - they looked like a cross between outlaws and pirates - would accept such an insignificant lad like me into their midst. But they did.
In particular Dick, Mark Hollingworth and Keith Redshaw took me under their wings. I was never treated as a junior partner but their equal. That made me feel ten feet tall. They may have seen hundreds of Bar-tailed Desert Larks, and know that I had never heard of them, but my opinion was still sought as to the identification of a bird as if I had been doing it for 50 years. I was welcomed on a social level as well, part of the gang that went to the pub, chatted over copious pots of tea, or talked into the early hours (and sometimes until it got light) while listening to music in Keith's front room. The very best nights would have Dick present. He was never the noisy one, but the thoughtful one, self-deprecating with a dry sense of humour. We shared in many good times which were full of belly laughs, normally at somebody's expense.
As far as I can remember, Dick worked for the Met Office, and this work sometimes took him away for long postings to distant weather stations. During the early 1980s we used to write letters to each other, much of it comprising birding chat but also discussing the latest music that we were listening to. But, as these things do, our letters became infrequent, until we lost touch. I did see Dick in 2014, at a gathering of the '1960s Dungeness birders '. I happened to be in the area and gatecrashed for an hour or so. It was good to see him.
I received a call this morning from Dick's cousin, Pete (himself a good friend and a Dungeness regular) with the sad news that Dick had passed away. My sadness was balanced by remembering what a wonderful time I had had in his company. No doubt he had no idea that his kindness to a young birder all those years ago had made such an impression. Last weekend I was staying with Mark, and funnily enough we talked quite a bit about Dick - Mark reminiscing about their time spent in North Africa and the Middle East, me reliving those fun-filled evenings. The last memory we spoke about was of a seawatch that the three of us did at Dungeness in September 1981. In those days you could drive along the road by the power station and pull up on the top of the beach, staring straight out to sea. Using the car as a hide, we wound the windows down and watched a (then) DBO record Sooty Shearwater passage, while Neil Young blared out from the speakers, the three of us gassing away at the same time. Happy days indeed.