1980 Part 6 - a few characters

I had been introduced to Mike McDonnell by Dave E, who had befriended him on the Isles of Scilly the previous autumn. Mike was a happy-go-lucky birder/photographer who lived in Dartford. I was to spend much time with him over the coming couple of years, regularly being driven to his house by Dave E, where we would invariably wait for Mike to gather his stuff, which would also involve his preparation of lunch for the day’s birding. Mike did not scrimp on his food – he would produce veritable feasts that would shame my simple sandwiches, often featuring an oversized thermos flask full of cuts of meat. It was never a dull moment with Mike, the time being passed with much laughter and the inevitable search for a decent pub at the day’s end.

On this mid-August day, we had driven on to the north-Kent village of Cliffe, where a series of Thames-side pools could be found and had a reputation as being good for waders. Our haul included six Wood Sandpipers, 12 Ruffs and two Curlew Sandpipers, although it was a splendid male Montagu’s Harrier that stole our attention, lazily flying across the grazing marsh, occasionally soaring, and putting up flocks of Lapwings, Woodpigeons and Starlings. We moved further east along the coast to Yantlet Creek, where we quickly located the reported Little Egret, hunched up along the water’s edge on a large lagoon. This was only my second in the UK. Nearby were six Greenshanks, four Wood Sandpipers and two Ruffs. We ended the day at Elmley, a large area of grazing marshes, pools, and dykes, nestled alongside the southern flank of the Isle of Sheppey. The long stony track that led to the hides was lively, with six Yellow Wagtails and two Wheatears being among the highlights. The view out across the first mere was scattered with birds, amongst which was a male Black-winged Stilt, tottering on preposterously long pink-red legs alongside a Little Ringed Plover, 15 Wood Sandpipers, five Spotted Redshanks, two Greenshanks and 25 Ruffs.

There were some new characters appearing on the DBO scene. I had first met Sean Clancy when he was a 13-year-old schoolboy, being ushered around Beddington by Barry Banson. Sean had now left school and had pitched up at Dungeness. He sported short spiky hair, earrings and a dress-sense that hinted strongly at being influenced by the punk-scene, and quickly became a part of our social set. He owned a small portable tape deck that would drain its batteries to the noise of a contemporary soundtrack, with Joy Division, The Psychedelic Furs and The Cure being among the artists of choice. He was already showing a precocious interest in moths, one that would blossom into making an international name for himself in future years.

A gang of late-teens, from north-west Kent, had been staying at the observatory, on-and-off, for a couple of years, and a most amicable and knowledgeable bunch they were – Pete Aley, Steve Smith, Steve Cox and Tim Toohig. The latter became a firm fixture in the new wave of DBO stalwarts. We also welcomed a lad who arrived at the observatory dressed from head to foot in black – donkey jacket, knitted hat, heavy-duty boots. With such attire he looked like one of the members of the band ‘Dexy’s Midnight Runners’. His name was Dave Okines, but we called him Dexy. He drove end-of-life cars, with one infamous vehicle that had rusted terminally on one wing. His answer was to cut out the offending metal and fill it with concrete. We wandered around the vehicle admiring the reinforcement – it was as if he had grafted on a wall. He proudly announced that in a collision with a bus, the bus had come off second best. His driving experiences were legend. He was very strong. I had watched him bend a pair of twisted secateurs back into shape with his bare hands. He could catch rabbits with lightening quick reflexes and break their necks before you can even register what is going on, skin them and cook them for an evening meal. For all of this he was a quiet, thoughtful individual. He was a one off, and together with Sean, they became part of a new wave of birders at Dungeness Bird Observatory, enlivening many a weekend, joining myself, Tim Collins and Alastair Forsyth in what became a most enjoyable period of time. A couple of late-August visits to the shingle had not been blessed by high counts of migrant birds, although a few Spotted Flycatchers and Common Redstarts could be found among the commoner warblers. The sea was also bereft of any real highlights, although the odd Black Tern and Little Gull ensured that we always had something to watch.

On September 6th I joined a throng of expectant birders at Weybourne Camp, in Norfolk, where a Sardinian Warbler had been found. It had been faithful to one area of thick scrub, but decided to play hard to get, and only showed to one enterprising birder who had crawled inside a large bush and was able to watch the bird feeding deep in cover. All was not lost however, as two tame Wrynecks performed to a procession of disappointed birders, also being joined by an immature Red-backed Shrike on the higher bracken slopes. We stopped by Cley after the warbler dip, where a Little Ringed Plover, 20 Ruffs, three Little Stints and two Curlew Sandpipers were found.

Comments

Gavin Haig said…
Really enjoying this series of posts Steve. Lots of bits and bobs with which I can relate...

Were those Cley Curlew Sands and Little Stints on the Eye Pool by any chance?
Steve Gale said…
Hmmm... my notes do not tell me that Gav. Fail!
Gavin Haig said…
I have memory of visiting in September 1980, with my new wife and a non-birding friend. We definitely checked out the Weybourne Camp Sardinian twitch (a site I knew well as a kid) and were in amazement at their patience. We called in for about 2 minutes, tops. I know my first ever Curlew Sands and Little Stints were close views on the Eye Pool, and your post has me wondering if that was the day...

Before I was a proper birder really.
Dave Boyle said…
Hey Steve - do you have any idea what Dexy's up to these days? Last contact I had with him was reading an American newspaper in Santiago Airport about 20 years ago & there was a picture of his big hand holding some sparrow!
Steve Gale said…
Hi Dave. Last I heard he was working in Canada as a professional ornithologist. Jacques Turner-Moss will know more. Where are you at the moment? Missing Brentford’s rise to the top no doubt…
Dave Boyle said…
Still in the Chathams Steve - looks like Brentford aren't the only underdog London team doing ok at the moment!

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