1980 revisited - Part One

I was sitting in the Britannia Inn at Dungeness as 1979 gave way to 1980. The cheering and embracing that greeted this passing of time’s baton was fuelled as much by alcohol as it was bonhomie. Keith and Fran Redshaw, Tim Collins and I stayed in the crowded public bar until 01.00hrs, when we purchased some ‘take-aways’ and then left to carry on our revelries back at the Redshaw’s house, conveniently situated next-door to the bird observatory. I made a mental note of the first piece of music that blasted out of Keith’s speakers in this brand-new decade – ‘Another Girl, Another Planet’ by the Only Ones – and there followed a heady mix of music, alcohol, and conversation until the first glimmer of daylight started to lighten the curtainless windows. We then picked up our binoculars, put on our jackets and boots, and went out into the fresh air. New Year’s morning is a time to cherish as a birder. The previous year’s slate has been wiped clean, with the scores and numbers in notebooks and minds reset to zero. Plans that had been put in place are activated and memories of the previous 12-months archived away, to be revisited in the future. All was new, and we were dead keen. It was a day when, regardless of whether you were being serious about keeping a year list or not what you saw on January 1st resonated strongly, way out of proportion to its true worth.

Adrenalin papered over the cracks of my fatigue and hangover, allowing the morning to be a pleasant one, albeit short on birds. The trapping area was quiet, with Common Snipe and Redpoll of note, and the sea watch not much better. ARC pit did at least provide us with some notebook filler, eight Goosander and a Smew on the water, plus a quite unexpected number of waders on the far sand bowl, with 50 Grey Plovers, 30 Knots and 20 Dunlins. Lade Sands continued the wader theme, with hundreds of Sanderlings and Dunlins dominating the species composition. I then hit a wall, the night’s festivities finally catching up with me. Despite a wicked headache, I made myself venture out onto Walland Marsh, viewing the 16 Bewick’s Swans at Brooklands through bloodshot eyes and an increasing lack of enthusiasm. Early that evening I crawled into my sleeping bag, feeling as if the start to the new decade had been devalued and sullied by my over-indulgences. The next couple of days saw quite a crowd of us staying at the observatory, and although we dutifully spread out across the ‘greater’ Dungeness area in attempts to out-bird each other, it was largely unrewarding, save for the drake Ring-necked Duck that had remained since Christmas day.

In a time before ‘health and safety’ overload, rampant litigation, and the needless erection of miles of fencing, it was quite normal to be able to drive onto a landfill site, unchallenged. This was a boon for the members of a fledgling group of birdwatchers, those who spent a great deal of time scrutinising gulls. Being a Dungeness regular, this aspect of birding was familiar to me, having spent time with one of its greatest exponents, Peter Grant. Surrey might lack a coast, but it did have landfill sites, places that gulls found highly attractive as a source of easily obtainable food. As each lorry dumped its load onto enormous piles of refuse, clouds of gulls and corvids would fight for prime positions, squabbling to be first at the rotting banquet that was to be found hidden within the plastic, wood, and paper. Dave Eland and I were surveying such a scene from his car, parked up by a mountain of rubbish at Farnham Refuse Tip. At least 2,000 gulls were present, and our aim was to find both the Glaucous and Iceland Gulls that had been reported in recent days. The former was straightforward, a grey-brown first-winter with unmarked pale coffee-coloured primaries and a classic large pink bill tipped with black. The Iceland Gull was an altogether different matter, as the bird that was being identified as such was obviously not one, exhibiting an immaculate snow-white plumage, with a debatable build. Surely, we reasoned, a leucistic gull.

A cold snap had arrived in the middle of January, with a daytrip to Pagham Harbour not bestowing upon us the hoped-for influx in bird numbers, but three Scaup and an Avocet were present. On the drive home we were compelled to pull in alongside the A29 at Bury, where a large herd of swans were seen in the distance. Tripods and scopes were hastily reassembled, and 46 Bewick’s Swans (three of them first-winters) were counted.

On the evening of the 18th, together with fellow Dungeness Bird Observatory committee member David Coker, I arrived at West Newton in Norfolk to attend a weekend’s ringing session with the Wash Wader Group. Formed in 1959, its fieldwork and reputation were held in high regard across the globe - it was a privilege to be welcomed as a guest ringer. We had no sooner arrived than were being ushered back into the car to drive the short distance to Snettisham, on the eastern side of The Wash, that great tidal bay flanked by Lincolnshire and Norfolk, world famous for large concentrations of wildfowl and waders. Stumbling across the shingle beach, our paths illuminated by head torches, we set up four 90-foot cannon nets in the dark, in an area by the high-tide mark where waders were known to roost. My lack of experience with electrics and rocket-like propellants relegated me to carry out menial tasks such as humping equipment and taking on the role of a bystander as assembly took place. Birds were calling from the darkness – Shelduck, Teal, Curlew and Dunlin. Once the nets were in place and set, we covered them in ‘grot’, the nickname given to the dead vegetation and beached seaweed that was used to hide the netting from waders that would, we hoped, be roosting alongside in the coming hours. After returning to a series of farm outbuildings, that doubled-up as the group’s HQ, we made tea and sat around chatting. There was a dozen of us, mostly regular attendants of these Wash sessions. As an early start was on the cards, we all turned in, unrolling sleeping bags onto a hard, cold floor. There was no heating, so most went to sleep wearing hats and gloves in deference to, and in defence of, the low outside temperatures that were steadily creeping indoors.

We were awoken just a few hours later, being roused from the relative warmth of sleeping bags with the promise of breakfast. In a makeshift kitchen, laid out on a worktop, were loaves of bread, an industrial sized tub of margarine and an enormous jar of jam. A cauldron of hot water bubbled away which we drew from to make hot drinks. We returned to the beach at Snettisham in darkness, our need to be in place before daylight broke being imperative, so as not to spook any waders that may have settled by the nets. Leaden skies suppressed the dawn. As my vision slowly adjusted in the dissolving darkness, I was able to make first impressions of this part of Norfolk. A shingle beach gently sloped down to the sea, with a shallow ribbon of vegetation running parallel to the lapping water, a high-tide line of detritus hard up against it. It was a flat land with impossibly distant horizons and big, big skies. In the half-light Pink-footed Geese started to call, and as the brightness grew, skeins flew in from the sea and over our heads, up to 600 in total. A calm sea was set before us, with Lincolnshire unseen only a few miles away, and 100 Shelducks and a few Goldeneyes on the surface.

We sat on the shingle at the firing position, where the wires from the cannon nets met at a junction box. Detonation would come courtesy of an electrical charge, the firing to be determined by the head ringer, who sat observing the gathering waders through a telescope. We were far enough away from the nets to not scare the settled waders, but close enough to be able to observe exactly where the birds were in relation to the rocket launchers. It was a responsibility to judge the right time to detonate the charges – as much as it was desirable to trap as many birds as possible, it was imperative that no bird should come to any harm. Any wader that wandered into the rocket’s firing line postponed any thought of proceeding with the operation. As it was, there were only a few waders within the safe catching area, and with the tide starting to turn it was decided to cut our losses and fire, even though the haul would be but a small one. The resulting capture was of a Sanderling, four Turnstones (including a Norwegian control) and, unexpectedly to me at any rate, six Skylarks. I helped with the processing of the few waders trapped, weighing each bird. The gathering in of the nets and winding in of the wires was done in a contemplative silence and a brief spell of heavy snow, which fortunately did not settle.

There was little time for wound-licking, as, in the afternoon, the cannon nets were set up once again, this time on the sandier beach at Heacham, in preparation for a dawn firing. Throughout our preparations, a ring-tailed Hen Harrier was hunting along a bank just inland from our position, and vast flocks of waders, like palls of billowing smoke, weaved around offshore. The birder in me wanted to stop and watch all this activity, to identify and make counts of what was before us, but I had a job to do - the birding had to be put on hold. Even though we had completed the setting up - and the afternoon was quickly dying - our day’s work was not yet done. At dusk, we arrived at Holme, on the north Norfolk coast, at the very mouth of the Wash. Three rows of mist nets, each comprising of five forty footers, were erected on the mud heading out towards the distant sea, which was waiting to come rushing in on the turning tide, and head inland beyond our nets. The bottom panel of each net was set at shoulder-height, as the incoming tide, based on the group’s prior experience, would reach thigh height. We then returned to dry land, and, in the pitch-black, constructed a rudimentary base camp, comprising a few collapsible chairs and a ringing table, on which were placed the paraphernalia of ringing. As the evening wore on and the sea rose, some members put on chest-high waders, held up by braces, and waded into the water to extract any birds that had been caught in the nets. Our evening’s total was a respectable 90 birds. To the light of Tilley-lamps and head-torches I was able to ring Bar-tailed Godwit, Turnstone, Dunlin, Knot, Oystercatcher and Redshank. The Bar-tailed Godwits, in addition to being ringed and having biometrics taken, were also daubed with a yellow dye across the chest; all Knots were treated the same but dyed green. This was done to allow subsequent visual tracking of the birds to be undertaken.

The following morning, once again pre-dawn, we were back at Heacham, huddled behind a shingle bank. As it got light, the ringers at the firing position had seen enough to allow a clean fire to take place. From our hidden spot we heard the muffled ‘bang’ and were stirred into action, leaping over the bank, and running towards the activated nets with the aim of securing any birds that had been trapped. It was at once obvious that it had been a successful launch, as the nets were writhing with birds. Catching pens were promptly erected, and as we extracted the waders from the nets, they were passed on to be placed in specific species holding areas. Once the nets were cleared, we were then assigned roles in the processing of each wader, taking it in turns to ring, weigh, measure, dye or scribe the details into logbooks. 628 birds had been trapped, of which 491 were Knots. Other ringing totals for the morning were 12 Bar-tailed Godwits, 1 Redshank, 27 Grey Plovers, 7 Oystercatchers, 9 Sanderlings, 13 Turnstones and 40 Dunlins. These birds were impassive in the hand, giving themselves obediently to the process under which they found themselves, their black eyes giving away not a hint of what they were feeling, but appearing benign and calm. I had come along on this weekend primarily to handle more waders in readiness to apply for my ringer’s A-permit, which would allow me to practice on my own. This aim had been more than met. As we left the West Newton HQ to return home, the cold having been forgotten thanks to the warm glow of the memory of all the handled shorebirds, a Woodcock flew between the outbuildings, a fitting goodbye from a woodland wader.

Shortly afterwards I was granted my ringer’s ‘A’-permit. However, I had no plans of becoming a free agent or a lone operator, quite happy to carry on at Beddington and Dungeness as a member of their happy groups. I did obtain several nets, but they remained unused. My reticence to branch out alone was down to my wanting to spend more time birding, rather than being metaphorically tied to the mist nets. I was also starting to question my reasons for carrying on ringing – I was, it must be admitted, driven by what might be caught, whether that be a new species or a rarity – rather than by the worthy goal of collecting data to go towards the bigger picture of what our birds did, where they went and for how long they did so. My lack of scientific curiosity was obvious.

Comments

Your experience with the Wash Wader group was a carbon copy of mine Steve. I went out with them in 1987/88 I think, if the old grey matter serves me correct! I remember being constantly cold and tired. Happy days!

Cheers, Seumus

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