Friday, 10 July 2020

Part Five - night and day at the reservoir

The latest round of 'The Good Old Days' harps back to 1975, and is dedicated to that hoary old Welsh English birding veteran of Selsey Bill, Owen Mervyn Jones.

Staines Reservoir had a reputation as one of London’s top bird watching sites. My dog-eared copy of ‘Where to Watch Birds’ by John Gooders was full of praise for it and generous in its suggestion as to what might be seen on any given visit. It was a place that boasted a list of rarities that was more befitting a coastal headland and appeared to have enticed generations of top bird watchers to partake in the ornithological offerings that would be, as far as I could tell, always available. I had successfully twisted the arm of a birdwatching friend to take me there. The drive through south-west London was a monotonous one, a flat and virtually treeless 1930’s suburbia, with the odd flyover and office block attempting to give a little height to the surroundings. We arrived at Ashford, where we parked up alongside an ominous grassy bank that rose steeply into a battleship grey sky. A high metal fence corralled us along a pathway to the start of a long narrow causeway, which ran away from us in a dead straight line, bisecting a vast body of water. I was aware of the ornithological folklore bestowed upon it. The ghosts of those who had been here before were present in my imagination, old boys dressed in sou’westers, with brass-pull telescopes and an eye for the unusual. To me, where I now stood was no different to Stonehenge, The Tower of London or St. Pauls Cathedral – a place that possessed an aura of wonder and a sense of history. That I was standing here to try and add my own modest stitch to its rich tapestry excited and humbled me in equal measure.

Our vision was hampered by more fencing on both sides of the path, hemming us in like cattle. We could see through it however, and those tall enough, and in possession of a telescope, could balance it on the fence’s cross bar and scan beyond to their heart’s content. The water was grey, the surface dulled by the morose sky above, and a stiff breeze whipped up shallow peaks, altogether uninviting. I looked around me, taking in the old ironwork, the lightly vegetated path, the London skies… and as can often be the case, when something has been built up, it is not unusual for it to not deliver. We looked out over the water, on both basins, in a desperate search for the rafts of duck that we believed would surely be here, but we had to concede that there were none - I wondered whether I had, in fact, read the correct script. We walked all the way to the far end of the causeway, where a smart brick water tower was in danger of becoming the day’s highlight. When we were almost back to the point of our entry, there, just the other side of the fence, was a male Snow Bunting, feeding in amongst the weeds strewn across the banking, not six feet away. I was mesmerised by this soft confection of browns, apricots and creamy whites, with a short, stout apricot bill working away to tease seeds from the desiccated vegetation. We left the bird with an appreciative audience that had slowly gathered.

I looked for birds wherever I was and regardless of whatever I was meant to be doing. I could be a passenger in a car, a student in a classroom or a shopper in a town centre, I would look out and up, beyond the confines of my mundane existence. During the late autumn, an afternoon ritual involved gulls. I stood at an Epsom town centre bus stop and counted them. As the light started to fade, they came over in silent, plodding lines, with no deviation or hesitancy. The counting was a means to an end, with me falling into their rhythm and entering a vaguely hypnotic state. My waiting for a bus coincided with the end-of-day gull procession, the birds journeying from the open Surrey fields to the west London reservoirs that offered them a safe, deep-water roost - one of their chosen resting places being Staines. My own journey home from art college was, for a brief few days, aligning itself with that of the gulls. I found comfort in their appearance, a sign that the day had progressed as it should, that all was well with the world. They were silhouetted, and specific identification was beyond me, although I could safely assume that the smaller birds – quicker wing beats, narrower wings – were Black-headed, and that the bow-winged beasts were Herring, Lesser and Great Black-backed. My excitement rose if a great snaking line appeared above the clock tower, the central point of the line firm, with each end of the arm flailing in an attempt to keep together. Sometimes these lines joined, gathering and breaking, knotting and unknotting. They seemed to keep to similar heights, but those that ventured lower seemed messier in flock structure than those that stayed higher. There were certainly hundreds to be expected, thousands not unusual. As the light finally bled out of the sky they still carried on. I liked the thought that, even when I couldn’t see them, they were still up there, late for roost, skimming above the twinkling shop fronts and traffic below. What did they think, these wild birds? What did they make of us, crudely grounded, in need of brick, metal and electricity to survive these colder nights? I would later lie in bed, warm and still, and think of these very same birds, bobbing up and down in the pitch-black night, facing into the wind and repelling the cold reservoir water below. They would be up and away before I rose in the morning, and if the day went well, we would meet again, over Epsom town centre that very evening.

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