On Tuesday night - I lost my third Granddad. I was fortunate to grow up with a full suite of Grandparents all of whom lived to a ripe old age, so to inherit another one was one of those rare bonuses that life throws your way.
|Sam being silly on Scilly in 2009 - (Jono Lethbridge)
I suspect I knew Sam for something like 35 years starting from early visits to Dagenham Chase when I was under the wing of Ken Barrett and then through my fervent 1990s birding scene when I was also asked to become art editor for the Essex Bird Watching Society. Sam, like me, was one of the artistic contributors and I remember asking him for specific pieces to put into the publications.
|Sam's Bittern on my wall
In 1997 we ventured to the Isles of Scilly in the October where the combination of Sam, Jim Smith and Barry Hough made for an enlightening week away, with a Yellowthroat fresh in from America to spice things up and a return twelve years later with the ‘lads’ was no less exciting.
|The trio on Penninis, St Mary's in October 1997
|In the thick of it for a Radde's Warbler on Scilly October 2009
In July 2000 the RSPB bought Rainham Marshes from the MoD and I was asked to find ten birding volunteers to assist with surveying the site which of course also gave us access to the fabled east end where we had never set foot before. Sam had birded the area since 1955 if memory serves and was an obvious choice.
He also offered to help with guided walks and we managed to fit in a few each year that slowly became a weekly fixture even before the doors officially opened in November 2006. These sporadic ventures morphed into the Wednesday Walk and twenty years later Sam was still with us and had become my indispensible ‘second’ on my regular tour around the trails with the public.
|Wednesday Walk - 6th September 2006
|Wednesday Walk - 26th June 2006
To be fair in the last five years of so it became Sam’s walk rather than mine as my job kept me inside more but his ability to engage and enthuse with the public made him a winner with the punters many of whom would go onto be firm friends.
|Wednesday Walk - 18th December 2007
We had some great times on those walks together and found some wondrous birds over the years but probably none more so than the White-tailed Plover in July 2010. ‘Have a look in my scope’ he said knowing full well what he had found. I glanced, swore and picked Sam up off the ground in a massive ‘thank you’ bear hug that he would always tell people about thereafter.
|White-tailed Plover at RSPB Rainham Marshes - 7th July 2010
|The subsequent happy crowd - (Jonathan Lethbridge)
In 2005 I began taking some of the Rainham regulars with me on trips further afield. Our group became known as the Boozy Birders and once again Sam was my constant companion – not a second – but an equal to share the delightful task of enlightening others to the natural wonders around us.
We stood together on cliff tops engulfed in the fishy odour of a hundred thousand seabirds, watched fishball flocks of Knots twirl and whirl across a pink painted Wash at dawn, stalked Bluetails in the gloom of a Norfolk wood, froze on the Harty Watchpoint as raptors and owls floated by and similarly at Stubbs Mill with bugling Cranes and wild geese across a winter sky, stumbled on more punky crested Hoopoes than any tour group ever should, endured howling squalls to seawatch for hours and listened to the last Golden Orioles whistling from the poplars while Bitterns boomed. We stood on heathland after dark battling mossies and hoping the Nightjars would wake up and eat them all, savoured a Nags Head dawn chorus of Pied Flycatchers, Redstarts and Wood Warblers and watched the steady rise and return of the Red Kite, making trips to the Chilterns just to see them whereas now they breed so close to home. We endured a white out at Dingle as we crunched through the snow covered shingle for Buntings and Larks, followed winter Waxwings around Kentish supermarkets and nearly drowned on a particularly wet January day chasing rare geese around the Buckenham Marshes.
|Success with a Hooded Crow on Sheppey 8th February 2008. Sam is in there!
|We had just found a Black Kite and several Goshawks at New Fancy View 13th May 2006
|Waders swirling over a snoy Snettisham - 10th February 2012 - Sam
|Tiptoe Sam snapping Puffins at Bempton - 6th April 2006 - I will even forgive him the sandals and socks
|A Breckland Brambling - Sam
|Checking Crests in Holkham - 26th January 2008
|A foul day at Ness Point as the snow started to fall - 29th November 2010 - (Denis Tuck)
|And very soon it looked like this as we stomped off at Walberswick for Snow Buntings and Shorelarks
|Purple Sandpiper at Ness Point - Sam
|Dungeness - 15th April 2011
|A Wryneck on Kelling Heath at dusk - 29th August 2008 - Sam painted me a picture of this very shot just a a couple of months ago
|Buckenham Marshes - 17th January 2011 - the most appalling weather while goose watching
|The wait for Cranes and Harriers at Stubbs Mill 8th January 2011 - we took over the viewing area as usual - but in a nice way! - (Denis Tuck)
It was never just about the birds and there were trips to the hot Surrey Heaths just to look for dragonflies or summer woodlands to wait for Purple Emperors to descend and beat their wings in annoyance in your face. Downland butterflies were followed through hazy flower meadows, huge Raft Spiders were watched stalking Damselflies and Bee Wolfs were studied as they despatched their Honey Bee prey.
|Dolomedes fimbriatus - the Raft Spider - Ashdown Forest 21st June 2010
|Purple Emperor on Deni's leg at Fermyn Woods - 23rd July 2012
Lunchtime was an important fixture of any day out and a convivial picnic atmosphere was always present although only very rarely was there actually any booze! We would find a spot and spread out and enjoy a leisurely repast. At Dungeness we always sat outside and did so, on the benches in the snow one winter’s day while I am still trying to forget the Oare Marshes visit when a front garden may have been commandeered despite my protestations.
|A rare pub lunch (ish) at the Harty Ferry Inn on Sheppey on a balmy 16th November 2010
|And Sam at The Dun Cow at Salthouse on the 12th May 2009
And through all this Sam was always a focus of attention. He did not like a fuss being made but it was impossible not to be drawn to him. He had stories to tell and I sincerely regret not sitting down with him and writing them down as promised. He would tell of his days ringing at Romford Sewage Works when Tree Sparrows were so common you just let them go and Red-backed Shrikes nested in the local hedgerows. Listening to Sam always made it all the clearer what we have lost in the last few decades from this country’s avifauna. I can notice the changes during my nearly fifty years but Sam had a further 35 years of memories to call upon. We listened in wonder at a different era of birding.
|Tree Sparrow at Bempton - Sam
I remember his tale of a poorly Pelican at Canvey that they picked up and even earlier, a species of Darter sitting on the beach there that waddled back into the Thames and swam away with just its serpentine neck and dagger bill showing. Sam was disappointed that he could not find his original 1955 notes from that day for a species that is not even on the British list! But the big one in his head that got away was a little brown bird up on the silt lagoons at Rainham one October in the 1960s that flashed a blue tail as it dashed away. Back then it would have been unthinkable to find a Red-flanked Bluetail in the UK but now they are an expected autumn waif although Essex still hasn’t been graced by one and it seems likely that Sam did indeed have a county first all those years ago. Infact when he saw the one in Norfolk in 2015 he turned and said to me, ‘yep, that’s what I had...’ with a big knowing smile.
|Red-flanked Bluetail - Wells Wood - 19th October 2015 - Sam
Sam would come to Lesvos with us whenever he had the chance and he quickly fell in love with this beautiful Greek island, its wildlife and the people that make it such a special place. It was just the right balance between a good day’s birding and sipping a cold beer that appealed to his laid back character.
|Listening to Bee-eaters in the blue on Lesvos - 16th September 2016
|Watching fish at Sigri over lunch with his old friend Dave Wimpress - 25th April 2012
|Al fresco lunch with my parents at Faneromeni 13th September 2016
|And the best one of us all larking around on leaving day in May 2015 with Thekla, Andrea, me, my parents and Annie. - Taken by Barry Jackson
The last eight months have been troubling and trying times for all of us but Sam’s spirit never wavered and when it became possible once again to get out and about we were able to appropriately meet up and explore some of the local Kentish summer countryside and share magical butterfly, orchid and dragonfly encounters along with a host of other insect and plant life. Those last few days out will always remain very special to me.
|Sam stalking butterflies at Fackenden Down - 23rd July 2020
|And Adders too
|And Dark-green Fritillary at Lullingstone the same day was a new species for Sam
|Autumn Ladies Tresses at Queendown Warren - 6th August 2020
|You had to get low down and avoid the Dwarf Thistles to take a shot! Sam with Steve and Hazel Cullum
|The odd Yellow Birds Nest - or Dutchman's Pipe at The Larches - 6th August 2020
|And Sam just can't resist rolling in the leaflitter again
|Our last trip out together was to North Kent on the 27th August 2020 where I suprised him with a visit to Ospringe church in search of Wall Lizards - on a wall
I knew that losing Sam would hurt but it is actually more difficult that I could ever have imagined. He was there, we spoke and then he was gone just a few days later. There was no chance to say goodbye.
|A Spitfire over Oare Marshes on our last day out
I will celebrate his long life and his guidance and friendship and all that this gentlest of souls was able to share with me and those around him.
Sam loved his birds, his Spitfires and his painting and there will always be an ornithological moment to trigger a memory, the chance of a guttural Merlin engine roaring overhead to make me look up and smile and his wonderful artwork forever on my wall.
Howard Vaughan 3rd December 2020