Sunday 7 November 2021

DIM Wallace - gone today but never forgotten -1933-2021

Forty years ago in October 1981 our local Redbridge YOC was born and suddenly the world of ornithology was far more than just what I could see in my parental Ilford garden. There were days out to Essex and Kent and trips away to Suffolk and Bempton in those formative years with our various parents at the helm with quite literally, caravans in tow.

Under the guidance of the ‘grown ups’ we spread our natural history wings (and even ended up on Saturday Superstore on my 14th birthday in 1986 with Bill Oddie and Peter Holden!) Dead or Alive played in the studio and David Icke was not yet the Son of God…

We held our indoor meetings in my Ilford School and on one such evening there was a quiz in which I got all the answers correct.  I proudly even wrote on the piece of tracing paper that I won a book for doing so.

That little Usborne book was the making of me as an ornithologist.  It was written by a chap called Ian Wallace and in a wonderfully unfluffy way it showed what I could be doing  and what I could be finding.  It showed me how to work a habitat, how to take notes, to study a roost, to understand anatomy, to watch the weather and to hope for the unexpected. Some of the pages contained seawatches at the mighty Flamborough with birds I could only dream off calmly listed for all to see in a font at the time that I did not know was DIM Wallace’s own hand.

Fast forward ten years to 1991 and I was going through a rough patch with my birding.  It was not a case of I was not seeing birds – as you will have seen from my monthly thirty years ago posts, I was having the most amazing time but I still felt on the outside, too young to be believed and almost too enthusiastic. My crew back then was largely made up of us YOC ‘kids’ who had grown up and learnt to drive but we were still in the minority and on the outside of things – or at least that was how it felt to me.  After my run in with a big fat grey Turtle Dove sp at Easington in October 1991 I took it into my head to write to Ian by sending the letter to Birdwatching Magazine to see if they would forward it on. 

At that time I savoured every article in the magazine that Ian had written with tales of migration from all directions, about the ones that got away, about the possibilities of Asian vagrancy (many of which have now happened) and all illustrated with his quirky drawing style so full of movement and life.  I asked him what he thought about my Wells Wood Ficedula Flycatcher and Easington Dove and politely vented my frustrations about being a young birder.

Once again Ian, this time is a wonderfully hand written response (in that writing style I had first seen in my little book!), steered me back on course. His input on my two birds was incisive and detailed and told me that he had been hearing from others about ‘the pressures put upon young observers’ and that my companions should have looked at my two birds.

‘I hope that you will persevere. You clearly have a sharp eye and have excellent perception of crucial detail. I am most impressed by your drawings and notes. Well done!’  

This was all I needed to hear as a floundering 19 year old. DIM Wallace was impressed – who would have thought it.

Almost thirty years later and although I had seen the tam o shanter and kilt wearing legend at several Bird Fairs, I had not plucked up the courage to say hello so I asked his good friend and mine, Mark Thomas to do the introductions. It was brief but I had spoken to the great man at long last. A year later I was lucky enough to bump into him at the Fair once again but this time I had my little Usborne to hand and was able to explain its importance to me.  I did not take it with me for him to sign but he did so anyway which made me smile.  He even remembered  my Turtle Dove communications and was pleased to see me proudly now working for the RSPB.  He commented that he had never actually owned a copy of that book and was in fact the only gap in his own library of publications. The internet is a wonderful thing and within a few days I had another copy and posted it to him with my gratitude.

He was overjoyed to at last own a copy and this was around the time of the Siberian Accentor at Easington and we exchanged several letters that autumn although he decided to stay on his local old airfield patch rather than twitch the coast.

Ian's 2016 autumn…

‘So far, nothing to match the Steppe Martin of 13 February but along with a record autumn passage of 115 Wheatears I have enjoyed a stream of White Wags, a large Pipit, Quail, Little Bunting, Caspian Gulls, rubicola Stonechat, a small, short-tailed, white bellied Water Pipit, Red-throated Pipit and just as intriguing, pulses of large, pale toned Skylarks and grey toned Meadow Pipits (which given the state of the fields and grass may have been my carrier species but close to 1000 of each) towards the end of 15 days of easterlies/high pressure. All these at my airfield hot spot and mostly from my slowly driven car…

Quite what has “tipped the Siberian bottle” one can only guess; that some species must have bred well seems likely, particularly perhaps at the North end of the Urals where so many species breed sympatrically. Pin-tailed Snipe next?!’

To me this was the classic Ian that I grew up with in his magazine postings. I will treasure these and the original water colour of the 1968 Great Pool Northern Waterthrush that he sent me by way of a thank you.

I know that my friendship with him was tenuous but his influence on my ornithological awakening, art and undoubtedly career is immeasurable and despite being on the periphery of his life, I will miss him.

Northern Waterthrush - on my wall - one day I will see one in the UK

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