1980 Part 8: Of committees

After returning home on November 2nd I was back on the shingle a week later, just a quick morning visit that provided two Wheatears, three Black Redstarts and a Firecrest in the moat. It was then on to Elmley, on the Isle of Sheppey, where a wealth of wildfowl included a single White-fronted Goose and three Bewick’s Swans. Wader numbers were high, with 1,000 Dunlins and good numbers of Grey Plovers and Knots, along with two Avocets, two Greenshanks and a Spotted Redshank. In a cold, blue, late-afternoon sky, bathed in sunlight, we sat and watched a minimum of six Short-eared Owls, that hunted over the honey-coloured panorama before us.

Back at Beddington, Mike Netherwood had found a Spotted Crake, that was being faithful to one of the large settling beds on 100acre. After a three day wait I saw the bird on November 15th, joining a few other birders sitting on the banking that surrounded the muddy rectangle of vegetated sludge. The crake was oblivious to its admirers, feeding out in the open, pecking at the surface, turning leaf mould and dead vegetation over to obtain food items. It would sometimes get spooked, becoming furtive, carefully, and slowly taking each step while looking around. I returned the following day, and whilst observing the crake it approached within three feet, peering over a clump of grass before swimming across open water and into cover. Nearby one of six Redpolls warranted scrutiny, as it exhibited unstreaked pale underparts and bright white wing-bars.

On November 21st I took up Jack Chantler’s kind offer and spent the night with his family in Ashford, prior to a day’s birding in Kent. We started at Reculver, where a flock of six Snow Buntings were feeding by a pool along the coastal footpath. Some of our time was spent untangling and freeing a Herring Gull from a ball of fishing wire, the hook being particularly tricky to disengage, not helped by the gull’s frantic efforts to take our fingers off with its bill. A quick stop at Chislet Marshes (1,400 Lapwings) and Stodmarsh (an empty half-hearted effort) was followed by a drive down to Dungeness, where a Red-necked Grebe was watched on Burrowes pit.

The previous autumn I had been invited to join the ranks of the Dungeness Bird Observatory committee, to fill the vacancy as the representative of the London Natural History Society, a body that had ties with the observatory. The other committee members were Mary Waller (chairman), Harry Cawkell (secretary), Geoff Harris (treasurer), Nick Riddiford (warden), Bob Scott, Jim Flegg, Gene Tunney, Peter Grant, Tony Greenland, Keith Redshaw, Marjorie Hayes, John Clements and Dave Coker.

Mary and Marjorie were the matriarchs. They turned up early on the day of a committee meeting and cooked lunch for a chosen few (the older members generally). They clucked and fussed around and seemed rather disapproving of the ‘younger’ members, although the younger members in turn believed their elders were fusty and didn’t have their fingers on the ornithological pulse. It was a light-hearted rivalry, and not one that was poisonous in any way. These younger members were all excellent birders, individuals who were independent in mind and certainly didn’t bow and scrape to the etiquette of committee protocol. These pre-committee lunches were an ideal platform for Harry to reminisce and for the matriarchs to discuss such pressing issues as the curtains in the common room, at the same time as we would be out in the field talking about wing formula, migration patterns or where the best pint of bitter could be bought in Lydd. To run an establishment such as DBO, to keep it financially stable, and to make the right operational choices you needed the likes of Mary, Marjorie, and Harry above us youngsters - what use was a member who could separate Richard’s and Tawny Pipits yet did not have a grasp on the machinations of finance, sourcing of needed items, winning the hearts and minds of the locals and steering the observatory into a successful future?

At the end of the autumn, Nick R had given notice that he was leaving to go to Fair Isle Bird Observatory as warden, the blue-ribband job in bird observatories, sending the committee on a mission to find a replacement. Much discussion took place amongst the observatory regulars as to what sort of person should fill his shoes. Nick was well respected and liked by the committee members, being of a scientific bent, scholarly in his approach, and his tenure had changed the vibe of the observatory from a bit of a 'social club' to a field centre. With change in the air, a few of the younger members felt that the older members of the committee were not moving with the times as quickly as they wanted them to and there was a need for not just evolution, but revolution -  the time was ripe for a serious discussion as to how the observatory should move forward. I was invited to attend an unofficial and highly questionable pre-committee meeting a week before the official committee get together in late-November. In all honesty it was a meeting short on answers.

When it came to the full committee meeting a week later, word had got to the ‘older’ members that there had been a ‘rebel’ gathering. We then felt the wrath of the senior committee members. It was spelt out, in no uncertain terms, that such a pre-gathering was against the protocol of the committee and had no place in the running of Dungeness Bird Observatory. I seemed to have been let off the hook, as most of the disappointment was directed towards others. 

Even though I had been tempted, I decided not to apply for the warden’s job after several weeks of indecision, a seesaw of emotions that changed from a strong conviction that it would be ideal for me, followed by periods of uncertainty as to my suitability and whether it would be a wise move. I later learnt that I had been ear-marked for the position, and there was much surprise that I hadn’t, in fact, applied. The committee continued with the minor rebellion soon forgotten. In the long run I had only admiration for the long-serving committee members who were still there. They did a job for which they received no thanks, received no reward, yet they kept the observatory running, with their contributions to DBO phenomenal. For the time being I stayed on board, producing the twice-yearly bulletins for the ‘Friends of DBO’, a task that I thoroughly enjoyed.

A cold and cloudy dawn on December 6th found me wandering across the saltings between the River Rother and Camber in East Sussex. Reports of Twite had been the lure, but apart from 80 Chaffinches I could not locate any of the hoped-for targets. A brief drive on to Dungeness provided a fine first-winter Glaucous Gull that shared the beach with a flock of 300 Greenfinches; a stop at Bedgebury Pinetum on the way home continued the finch-theme, with five roosting Hawfinches shared the scene with 100 Fieldfares. The following day produced another of those special Beddington memories, when a Great Grey Shrike flew up in front of me on 100 Acre, alighting on top of a dense patch of bramble, a small mammal held proudly in its bill. It then flew off towards a nearby railway bridge, where, on relocation, it gave close views. Two Woodcocks and a group of 1,100 Woodpigeons heading northwards had already kick-started the day’s birding in some style. A week later it was a repeat performance, with Dungeness not only providing the Glaucous Gull once more, but also two Red-necked Grebes, a Velvet Scoter and an assortment of sawbills; followed by an upping of the Bedgebury totals to 25 Hawfinches and 400 Fieldfares. The weather virtually wiped out a visit to Shellness on December 14th, the incessant rain, poor light and force 6-7 south-westerly wind reducing observations to 400 Brent Geese.

On the sunny and dry morning of December 21st I was perched on high ground at Folkestone, my telescope trained onto the undercliff and rocks beneath the East Cliffs. An adult Mediterranean Gull greeted our arrival by the pavilion, with a further two seen over the coming hours. Our six-hour vigil was prompted the by reported presence, and subsequent tardy arrival, of a first-winter Iceland Gull – our wait was ended when a group of 3,000 gulls appeared having been disturbed from the harbour – among mostly Herring Gulls our quarry passed us in flight, but reappeared ten minutes later to alight on the rocky foreshore below our vantage point, sharing its space with four Purple Sandpipers.

A post-Christmas jaunt to Elmley RSPB reserve on December 27th was highly successful, with two Rough-legged Buzzards taking top billing, with ample support from a male Hen Harrier, 4,100 Wigeon, 650 Golden Plover and eight Grey Partridges. At least 210 White-fronted Geese were present at Capel Fleet, and a most arresting sight was a gathering of 5,000 Black-headed Gulls on the sea at Leysdown. December 31st saw a few of us gather at Dungeness Bird Observatory for New Year celebrations, with a worthwhile afternoon session at Brett’s Marina, where both a Great Northern Diver and a Bittern put on a good show for us. Entering the Britannia Pub that evening, our minds were already focussed on the following days birding, our curiosity as to what 1981 would bring heightened – but, in the meantime, there was beer to drink and much to discuss…


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