Friday 10 June 2022

Thirty Years Ago - May 1992

1st May:

A mad afternoon dash for an adult female Red-footed Falcon that had been present in Winterton Dunes for about a week and Stuart and I eventually got there to find only two birders on site but thankfully she was still sitting pretty and catching beetles from a small dead tree.  There was absolutely nothing else to watch so after an hour we headed back hearing invisible trumpeting Cranes

[Eds: Different times; I thought nothing about an afternoon twitch to Norfolk via Newmarket for bird had had seen several of before. Nowadays, I struggle to muster up the enthusiasm to go and see something new let along an over 300mile potter out just for the hell of it! Oh and fuel was a bit cheaper then too!]

Red-footed Falcon

3rd May:

Yesterday evening there was big news; a Cattle Egret has been found on North Wales on the Llyn Peninsular and Britain’s first ‘real’ Lesser Short-toed Lark had been discovered on Portland Bill.  For some strange reason Stuart, Aubrey and I stuck to our original plan and opted for the long drive for the Egret as we reckoned that the Lark would depart overnight.  [Eds: Retrospectively a bizarre decision but as it turned out, the right one]. 

Carl Chapman was just leaving Aberdaron when we arrived and had seen the Cattle Egret fly off but we re-found it forty minutes later amongst a herd of cows.  A smart, stocky bird with a heavier jowl than I can remember from seeing them in France.

 Cattle Egret #376

There were lots of migrants on the move with Turtle Doves and Whimbrels overhead and Willow Warblers moving through the hedges. At the far end there was a superb flock of 40 Chough and they danced in the crisp air calling and tumbling with glowing red bills and legs. Ravens joined in the fun and Wheatears and Stonechats were everywhere while a Ring Ouzel was heard singing and see on the rocks. [Eds: my notes descend into a geology session at this point with talk of pillow lavas and the Bardsey magmatic melange!]

A phone box [Eds: a tall red box like a smaller TARDIS with a door with little grimy windows with a telephone into which you had to put coins (circular metal disks with different monetary values) and then dial a premium rate number to discover 20ps worth of bird news] was next and we watched Stuart emerge with a look of horror on his face.  It was not the Lark (which had done a bunk) but eight Cattle Egrets near home in bloody Rickmansworth! 

From here we headed south to Dolgellau and spent a very pleasant afternoon visiting firstly the tiny RSPB Reserve at Coed Garth Gell which afforded us wonderful views of many Pied Flycatchers and Wood Warblers and a few Redstarts, Tree Pipits and Warblers.  We moved on to try and find the only Red Kites in Snowdonia at Llanymawddwy and we were fortunate enough to see a single bird over the pine copse in wonderful sunshine. There were more Pied Flys and Redstarts to end a great day out.

Red Kite

4th May:

The first and initially only stop of the day was in Gravesend [Eds: I have no idea where this was!] where a fine Spotted Crake had been obliging in a boggy corner of a rubbish filled field.  It was still there and was a real poser.

Spotted Crake

Spotted Crake

The Cattle Egrets were still at Rickmansworth so Vince and I headed that way and an hour round the M25 later we were watching them feeding actively in the long grass around within sight and sound of the motorway.  These were in full summer plumage with lots of orangey buff and bright coloured legs.

Cattle Egrets

Cattle Egrets

After the excitement of the Egrets we moved onto Radley to have anther look at the now one eyed Pied Billed Grebe and this time the views were superb in good light.

Pied Billed Grebe - Jack Levene

Pied Billed Grebe

9th May:

National Student Bird Race day – and what a disgustingly horrible one it was too.  We started well with dozens of singing Nightingales in the fine drizzle at 2am at Fingringhoe Wick with a Tawny Owl on a post being the first of two seen. Minsmere added a lot of the usual species to the list and we were in the mid eighties by 8am.  Then it got bad and although we saw some more good birds our list only increased to a measly 117 by the end of the day by which time we were very tired, cold, wet and not a little frustrated. Highlights for me at any rate were the Temminck’s Stint and Curlew Sandpiper at Welney and I managed five year ticks as well with Little Stint, Arctic Tern and Whinchat in addition.

Mayday Farm was the worst stop with Siskin being the only species added as Russell, Paul H and I trudged up in the freezing rain leaving Peter and Jill Pyke in the car for a bit. Woodland birds were near impossible and those we saw were bedraggled. Only I heard a Firecrest at Brandon [Eds: not much change there…] and in my numb waterlogged mind I dismissed five white birds in a flooded meadow as we drove passed Welney despite my head shouting ‘Cattle Egrets!’ before I drifted back to sleep.  The day was concluded at about 8pm at Abberton where Ruddy Duck and Goldeneye were added to the flagging list.  Out of the 11 teams we were easily last. Just how the UEA team got 150 in those conditions I do not know.

10th May:

A day out with Roy W, Simon S and Neil M but it did not start well with no Dotterel in the vast fields near Baldock but the day was salvaged by the five poxy Cattle Egrets at Welney.  Who would have thought, no Cattle Egrets on my UK list and now within just a few days. A male Montagu’s Harrier was seen briefly and a Grasshopper Warbler reeled before we came home.

11th May:

A quick afternoon look at Connaught Water produced no basking Terrapins but I did see my first ever Mandarin brood with a female with 13 button top young.

12th May:

Stuart persuaded me to join him on a long day trip to Scotland.  He had already been up to Paisley to see an Alpine Swift at Belgray Reservoir on the Saturday but he ‘forgot’ to go for the Spotted Sandpiper on the shores of Loch Rannoch.  I agreed to go if we could do the Swift first and this it was where we started on an overcast morning but the bird made us wait over an hour before scything into view.  Fabulous views were had as it attempted to part our hair and you could feel the wind as it swept past.  It got into set flight pattern and I was able to get a few shots of this speeding monster. A juvenile Dipper bobbed on the small stream alongside.

Alpine Swift

Alpine Swift

From here we headed north east towards Dunkeld where we soon located Loch of the Lowes and its attendant Ospreys.  I can remember dipping them in July 1986! The male even obliged by bringing in  large trout which he refused to hand over to the sitting female. Reed Warblers, Sedge Warblers, Redstarts and a Pied Fly were singing in the surrounding habitat. Tufted Ducks were numerous and a single Wigeon was noted along with Redshanks and Oystercatchers.

Our route took us across towards Aberfeldy and this Loch Rannoch and produced Grey Wagtails and Common Sandpipers on the rivers and a large Black-headed Gull colony on a lochan. A female Black Grouse scooted down the road in front of the car and Red Grouse were a little more obvious and easy to observe while a beautiful pale Short-eared Owl quartered the heather.

Short-eared Owl

A male Whinchat sang from a plantation fence and a male Hen Harrier was hunting over a craggy hillside with Buzzards and Kestrels. Later on, once on the shore of Loch Rannoch I started to recognise things from a July ’86 holiday. Pied Wagtails were still on every turn in the road as we wound along the northern shoreline. We easily found the spot where the Spotted Sandpiper had been residing and it took thirty minutes to locate it as it was not with the multitude of Common Sandpipers present.

Spotted Sandpiper 

We watched it in all its spotty glory as it methodically fed amongst the pebbles and tree roots.  

Spotted Sandpiper 

After a short flight we lost it and so we continued on our way around the loch and once on the southern side I headed us to the belt of ancient Scots Pines where, back in ’86 I had been told that Capercaillie lurked and where we had seen Scottish Crossbills. The wood was as impressive as I remembered with it huge gnarled trunks but there were very few birds with just two Chaffinches, Coal Tits, Goldcrest and two calling Scot Bills. [Eds: Am wondering if Loch Rannoch is even within Scot Bill range?]

We were just talking about Black-throated Divers when what should pop up alongside but a full summer plumaged bird. We stopped the car as it dived and quickly got out and went and sat on the beach. It soon resurfaced and mouth-watering views were had as it looked at us quizzically from the ripple less water.

 Black-throated Diver

After the diver had drifted further out we retraced our steps to Aberfeldy passing another male Hen Harrier as we went. Schielhallion (3553ft) was visible right to the summit and there was still a Common Gull colony in the lochan at the base.  [Eds: Dad, my brother Russell and I climbed this Munro in ’86 and we had to put stones in Russell’s blue cagoule pockets to weigh him down as it got a bit windy.  I can also remember being overtaken by someone wearing flip-flops!]

The road back to Dunkeld added female Merlin before making our way to Braco Moor where 12 Black Grouse were seen easily in the small fields either side of the road and even crossing the road to a small larch plantation. Curlews, Redshank and Oystercatchers were all around and there were vast flocks of Herring and Lesser Black-backed Gulls.  A female Hen Harrier spooked the Curlews and a six Short-eared Owls were seen at incredibly close range but of course I had by now run out of film. [Eds: Don’t laugh. It was ‘thing’ that happened!]

From here the journey home was a bit of a blur and the next thing I remember it was 2am and I was back in Newmarket.  My slow journey home (I kept off the M11) was enlivened by a tug from Essex Police as they drove along behind me with their main beam on and so I pulled over to let them pass but instead they decided to find out why I had stopped! I do not think that they believed me that I was returning from a birding day trip to Scotland and I had to point out my scope and tripod in the boot and my numerous car stickers. [Eds: those sticker were an integral part of any birders car and my white Morris Marina’s back window was well decorated.] 

A few hours kip and then up at 7.30am to get to Uni for a lecture.

15th May:

It was now Thursday night and I had not really recovered from the Scottish jaunt and when the phone rang at 10.45pm it had to be for me.  It was Stuart. A female Sardinian Warbler at Weybourne had been trapped too late in the day to be released and so would be kept overnight and released at 5am the next morning.  I dipped one there last April and was thus keen to get one back on the dreaded Muckleburgh Hill.

I had to be at Newmarket at 3.20am and thus got no sleep whatsoever but the adrenaline was flowing at the chance of a dead cert tick! [Eds: Stuart, Carl C and I left Newmarket on time and had a slightly nervous moment as we got stopped in the town by the Police as this was in the aftermath of the IRA attack and everyone was a bit jittery. I can clearly remember Stuart looking at his watch and getting out of the car before the solo Policeman got out of his and rushing over to tell him that we were birders and on a tight deadline. I imagine that the poor Policeman had a brown trouser moment at the looming Stuart and somehow we were just sent on our way.]

By 4.40 we were on site with 50 other birders and the bird was quickly produced and shown around with very little fuss to the quietly appreciative crowd before being released. It performed for a few minutes in a small oak tree before disappearing into cover never to be seen again.  A Hobby flew over and a Nightingale sang.

Sardinian Warbler #377

News of a 1st summer Red-footed Falcon drew us inland to Salthouse where the heavens opened but fortunately she was still there looking tired and bedraggled but still managed a couple of brief hunting sorties.

Red-footed Falcon

We spent the next couple of hours searching for a Red-throated pipit at Cley Eye proved fruitless but we did see some summer plumaged Bar-tailed Godwits and Grey Plovers.  I had to be back in Ponders End for an 11.30 lecture and made it with 15 minutes to spare.

After lectures I took Rachel for a walk around Fishers Green in the afternoon. Nice but quiet with Little Ringed Plovers and a couple of Kingfishers.

16th May:

I got up late after my first real sleep since the 11th but the chance of a Woodchat at the end of Blakeney Point and Red-throated Pipits at Happisburgh lured me out on a solo trip [Eds: I read this stuff and do marvel at my youthful enthusiasm!].

I left home at 11am and by 2pm was at Cley Coastguards.  It was very warn and I intended to do the Point at a leisurely pace leaving enough time for the Pipits afterwards but as I started walking I was told of two Black-winged Stilts at Hickling. Thus, if I wanted to see everything I would have to to get out and back quickly. It took me 43 and half minutes to get to the female Woodchat as it was harried across the dunes by impatient birders.  After good views and a natter I trotted back to Coastguards overtaking Stuart and co just before I got back.  


After a quick drink I was off to Happisburgh and got there about 6pm.  The field was alive with birds with a mixed flock of 35 flava Wagtails, 30 White Wagtails and three stunning Red-throated Pipits. 

[Eds: I suspect that my thoughts on the Wagtails at the time were a little optimistic especially given my experience in Lesvos now so please be kind if you look at my drawing below which reads like a page from the old Shell Guide. What is certain is that there were at least 20 Grey-headed Thunbergi and one striking bird that I would happily still call a Black-headed Feldegg. I suspect that the Blue head types were all of eastern origin too given their company and the variation I have seen in the Aegean and that the Ashy-headeds were 1st summer Grey Heads. As for the green backed bird with the unmarked yellow head… who knows but I have certainly never seen anything like it since.]

Red-throated Pipit and flava friends

After a quick look at some of Jack Levene’s photos I left the Pipits and dashed down to Hickling and ran the rest of the way to Rush Hill Scrape. Fortunately the Black-winged Stilts were still present as they deliberately waded in the shallow waters. A elegant as ever.  

Black-winged Stilts

With just a couple of Cuckoos to add I soon headed back as the time had gone well and so I pushed my luck and decided that I could probably get to Reydon for the singing Serin by 8pm.  Shortly after that time I was the sole birders looking at an overgrown building site with tall conifers, elder and Hemlock and there he was jingling away merrily up on to of a fir. This wonderful day ended up quietly with a doze in a heathland car park at Westleton with Roe Deer barking and a briefly churring Nightjar.  I spent the night at my grandparents in Felixstowe.


17th May: 

After a restful night’s sleep in Felixstowe I popped down to Languard before heading for home. The Black Redstarts were performing splendidly with two males and female seen on the common and a female Marsh Harrier headed high and south overhead. Abberton Reservoir was my last stop hoping that there might be some Black Terns and sure enough there were nine beautiful summer plumaged birds dipping down to feed. Green and Common Sandpipers were seen around the edges and a smart Black-necked Grebe stole the show.

Black-necked Grebe

18th May:

Steve Bale had rung to say that there were three White-winged Black Terns at Hanningfield Reservoir and so calculating whether I could get there and back and still make it to Uni lectures, off I dashed. Forty minutes later I was watching these three beauties as they bounced about with six Black Terns.  I was quite taken aback by their starling colour contrasts. I watched them for 30 minutes and made it with 20 minutes to spare.

White-winged Black Terns

Later on I called into Connaught Water on the way home and saw six Red-eared Terrapins hauled out  [Eds: they are now in all the Epping Forest Ponds] and a Nightingale sung from the forest edge.

20th May:

With no sign of the Marsh Sandpiper in Lincolnshire, Pete and I headed up in the late afternoon for a look at the Orioles at Fordham and over the next coupe of hours really great views were had and several could be heard singing. One female even came down to a bramble clump and dashed out like a green and gold flycatcher.

22nd May:

I decided to tie in taking Rachel out for the afternoon with the chance of getting – at long last – Long-billed Dowitcher on my list.  The journey to Ferry Pool at Sidlesham in Sussex was horrendous at we eventually arrived at 5pm. 

[Eds: I seem to recall that I thought that it would be quicker from Ponders End to head due south through London! I can remember getting stuck in Brixton and Shepherds Bush! Silly boy and not the way to impress a young lady.  We are still friends to this day so it could not have been too traumatic!]

Much to my delight the bird was still there and showed really well as it fed along the edge, sporting finely marked rich rufous plumage. Even Rachel though it looked nice. It was in good company with both  Temminck’s and five Little Stints, two Ruff and several Black-tailed Godwits. It was a lovely evening so we went down to the beach for our picnic. It was crystal clear and amazingly calm.  With the light fading we headed for home, stopping for a fine evening meal in a pub near Goodward racecourse.


23rd May:

An afternoon dash up to Abberton for my third Red-footed Falcon of the month but this one was a fine immature male and it gave excellent views both inflight and perched.  It was in fact my fourth Essex Red-foot with two each at Rainham Marshes and Abberton.

Red-footed Falcon

25th May:

A Greater yellowlegs had spent the day before at Welches Dam in Cambridgeshire but the news had been patchy and so most people had not bothered. As it happened it had been showing very well and so James H and I headed up that way with Neil M and Simon S. It was nowhere to be seen so we enjoyed the day for what it was worth and it actually started very well with a full adult male Red-footed Falcon perched up on roadside wires. This alone made it a worthwhile day out.

The reserve itself was quiet and there were very few birders around but at this point we did not know about the Spectacled Warbler at Filey! A few ducks were paddling about with four immaculate drake Garganey amongst them.  There were plenty of Damselflies and with some help we saw Common Blue, Azure, Blue Tailed, Variable, Red-eyed and Large Red along with Four Spotted Chasers.  Fish were represented by many various sized Pike, Tench and lots of one of the red finned species.

We left around lunchtime and poodled down to Fordham and after watching the Orioles we then moved on to Danes Dyke in the middle of Newmarket Racecourse. There were lots of Pasque Flowers in bloom and dozens of Dingy Skippers around the Kidney Vetch although I was not sure what they were until three days later! A butterfly tick to round up a fine day.

26th May:

Unsurprisingly I was at Filey with Paul Whiteman at 8.30 the next morning but we should have made an earlier start and had already missed the Spectacled Warbler, a Red-foot and a Bee-eater!. We spent the next seven hours searching for the former and dipping the latter again by five minutes at Flamborough. However all came good as the Warbler was eventually re-found three hedges away from where it started its day and we all got great views as it fed in front of its new admirers.  The relief at seeing this first for Britain was plainly audible. In those few moments the mood changed from grumbling and cursing to smiles and laughter. It had been a long day.

Spectacled Warbler #378

Spectacled Warbler - John Humble

30th May:

Back up north again with an earlier start seeing us at South Landing at 6.30am in the hope that the Bee-eater I had dipped on Tuesday would still be around but alas it was not.  We lingered and checked the Swallows but there was no sign of the Red-rumped Swallow either so I had a look into the top of the Ravine and found an Icterine Warbler briefly in song and both Pied and Spotted Flycatchers. This was more like it.  A Hobby shot back and forth through the canopy terrorising the hirundines and suddenly I picked out the Red-rumped Swallow amongst them. Five minutes later it was on the wires and gave brilliant views.

Red-rumped Swallow

It started to rain heavily so we headed for Flamborough Head where two Red-breasted Flycatchers had bee residing in a tiny copse.  There was no access and seeing them was a matter of luck but  I managed to get a good view of both these female type birds with one showing in the closest tree very well.  The other stayed in the car for some reason and even  moved it so that I would think that they had left me behind.

Red-breasted Flycatcher

The weather was getting worse and so we now headed north back towards Filey to get the Spectacled for Julian and Aubrey but it had not been seen all day but the short journey did give me my fifth Red-footed Falcon of the spring with another 1st year female who was hunting insects from telegraph wires near a roundabout and frequently hovered.

Red-footed Falcon

We quickly abandoned Filey and continued north to Seahouses for our trip to the Farnes to look for Elsie the Lesser Crested Tern. I fell asleep on the tortuous journey through thick fog and rain. The Eiders were merrily paddling around the shoreline including a few fluffy youngsters.


As for the boat trip – the less said the better. Everyone had been duped into believing that the nest was visible from the boat.  It was not and during the four or so hours we spent out there the Lesser Crested Tern only took off once and thankfully I was looking at the right spot at that moment but I wisely kept quiet to ensure a peaceful journey home. There were thousands of auks and terns (including a couple of Roseates) with Gannets, Shags, Fulmars and Kittiwakes in the mix. Tensions were very high on the small cramped boat with even talk of someone swimming to shore to make it fly! Several well-known birders were almost at each other’s throats and another was threatening legal action.  It did not help that the pager kept bleeping with unhelpful messages like ‘Spectacled Warbler back at Filey’ which it wasn’t and ‘Little Bittern at Holkham’.

We got back to Seahouses at 11pm where we got baited by the rowdy locals who had just come out of the pubs and we burning rubber through the town while we raided the chippy.  Personally I thought it quite brave to antagonise a seafront full of tired grumpy birders.  Five minutes later the same two Escorts were chased through the town by three Police cars.  It’s fun in the north-east!

It was time to head for home and we arrived at Aubrey’s house [Eds: which I think was a farm in Herts somewhere] at 4.15am and…

31st May:

Then Stuart, Julian and I changed cars and drove straight across country to Fordham and the Orioles. We heard one and then I went to sleep for 40 winks. On again to Holme which was useless with no sign of anything let alone the Rosefinch so we went straight to Holkham to at least try for the Little Bittern. We had missed it be 40 minutes but a Savi’s Warbler was heard reeling and showed a couple of times and a Spoonbill joined it on my year list while a few Marsh Harriers quartered the freshmarsh.

Cley was our next stop but all the hoped for waders had moved on and we were then told that the Little Bittern had shown again so we dashed back there stopping  on the way to ring Birdline ‘Little Bittern still Holkham, White-throated Sparrow at Fagbury Cliff, male Lesser Kestrel on Hampstead Heath and Great Reed Warbler at Aldeburgh’. AHHGHHHGHHHHHHHHH! What were we to do? Twitchers in turmoil!

We opted to give the Bittern another go as news on everything else was flaky and we wasted another couple of hours staring at the distant hazy, reeds where on the last time it was seen it was glimpsed by two people; one dangling from a tree and another balancing on top of a gatepost.

The Great Reed Warbler was now ‘showing well’ [Eds: usually a kiss of death] so we dashed across to Thorpeness. Quite a crowd had gathered around a large Sallow clump and the bird was instantly croaking and grinding away from within.  Seeing it was another matter and only glimpses were initially had.  Chaos then ensued with a gullible birder being persuaded by one of the great and the good to go into the clump for a 'look'. 

His idea of how to ‘pish’ was to grab a tree limb and shake it vigorously whilst clapping one hand against his leg. Astonishing behaviour and despite being told to come back he persisted.  The bird flew out on a couple of occasions and eventually a briefly perched view was had although I believe Mr Tree Shaker was still in the bushes at that time. 

It all got very fractious and as the light faded the behaviour got worse as new arrivals got desperate to see the bird and loud arguments erupted.  It was getting a bit iffy so I moved well away and nattered while Stuart attempted to see the bird and keep out of a fight.  Certainly not the most pleasant of birding moments and not the best of conditions under which to see a new bird.

The journey back to Newmarket was enlivened by a final year tick with a Woodcock over the A11 after a great weekend of which about a whole day was probably spent on the road.

[Eds: It was a truly amazing month with 190 species seen with five lifers amongst them but I dread to think of the amount of time I spent in a car.  Something must have happened with my life list between April and May – a recount had dropped me down four – no spreadsheet then for me but it was still ticking along in the right direction!  

Some of the twitch behaviour left a lot to be desired – almost any bird back then would draw a huge crowd but regardless of that I still look back fondly on those mad overnighters when the days started to merge together. I never missed a lecture by the way…]

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