Thursday 1 December 2022

Sam Shippey - two years on - a trip down his own memory lane

Two years ago today we lost Sam Shippey to Covid.  I am still not quite sure where that time has gone but for me and many others who knew him there are little reminders lurking within daily life and the outdoor adventures we take ourselves on.

Memory is undoubtedly a sensory thing and the little triggers can sneak up on you unexpectedly. It can be sitting in a hide at Dungeness and remembering the two Cranes just outside and his excitement at seeing them or walking the beach at Holkham for Shorelarks, enjoying the view from Turkey to Lesvos or ambling through shady woodlands for Purple Emperors.  It may even be the smell of a pack of mini cheddars that he had with every lunch he ever took out or the weight of a hand on your shoulder.

Diana has very kindly let me take possession of his birding journals and it starts with this one encompassing 1950 to 1954 during which time Sam was also on his National Service both at Newhaven and in Holland and Germany.

His journals are snapshots back in time to a different age (and I do not just mean the National Service) and they track the colonisation of Little Ringed Plovers and Great Crested Grebes into the Metropolitan Essex area and the start of the decline of species almost all extinct from the entire south east now such as Redstart, Whinchat, Red-backed Shrike, Tree Pipit, Cirl Bunting and Woodlark.

I have selected a few passages from each year that tell these stories. Many of the place names will be familiar but I am sure that some of the encounters will be surprising.

For me not only was it an ornithological history lesson but a glimpse at a far younger Sam learning about the birds about him wherever he went.  I can hear his voice in my head as he wrote his notes and that makes me smile too.


Like everyone Sam made sure he was out on January 1st.

Spring and winter mix on the 16th April 1950

A singing Tree Pipit at a site that no longer exist. 22nd April 1950 

These Great Crested Grebes seem to be the first local ones to breed (they raised two young) although I can't decipher which of the local existing pits are theses and indeed where the Ham River is although I suspect it links in with Rainham and possibly ran parallel between the Ingrebourne and Mardyke - 30th April 1950

A casual mention of a male Red-backed Shrike at Hornminster Glen that now contains houses between the two railways - I suspect the Shrikes were on the embankment even back then - 14th May 1950

Sam was a regular at Canvey Point where he went to watch for waders and seabirds. Two later stories that he told me from down there occurred later in the 1950s (no journals yet) when him and his fellow birding crew found a bedraggled White Pelican on the beach and even more amazingly and African Darter some years later.  If only I can find those notes! 13th August 1950


Another venture to Canvey - Sam always seemed very particular about the time he saw his birds - 25th January 1951

A trickle of local migrants arrive.  The weather was always noted as was the ellivation at which migrating birds moved - 8th - 18th April 1951

A flurry of Turtle Doves and Garganey into the Ingrebourne Valley area.  I wonder if the duck stayed to breed? 14th May 1951

Sam found time during his National Service to get out birding along the Sussex coast. 23rd & 25th August 1951

I bet the Ingrebourne lads now could not even imagine a thousand Sand Martins in their reedbeds overnight! 11th September 1951

Sam visited Rainham Marshes regularly (often to ring nestlings).  You have to remember that this would only have been at the West end of the marshes.  There were still active Ranges firing both ways at the time and the silt lagoons were not yet in existence. 19th September 1951

Bradwell and the Dengie coastline was another of Sam's haunts.  I am not sure if he drove or got the train out there.  A very late Hobby was the pick of the day on 11th November 1951

Abberton Reservoir was only 12 years old in 1951 and Sam was a regular here too - 16th December 1951


A day out on the Dengie with a Grey Ghost and an early Wheatear - 12th April 1952

Singing Redstarts, Nightingales, Marsh Tits and Garganey - quality local spring birding- 13th April 1952

Another casual Red-backed Shrike discovery and a lovely description of a male Garden Warbler. Sam often wrote copious notes on species he was unfamiliar with but sometimes actually forgot to put what the species was! 10th May 1952

Sam studied these breeding Redstarts at Weald Park and amazing to think that there were still breeding Woodlarks and Hawfinches back then too. 11th May 1952

Back to Rainham Marshes where Stonechats, Whinchats, Yellow Wagtails and Corn Buntings were all breeders.  Like many of his generation Sam was an excellent nest finder. 17th May 1952

The discovery of some unknown Plovers near Aveley on 18th May 1952

Sam followed the progress of this first pair of Little Ringed Plovers with some dedication and this is just the first page of the little report he wrote to go with their success.  The species only bred for the first time in the UK in 1938

Whinchats were found in several spots out on Bulphan Fen.  They used to be a farmland breeder. 22nd May 1952

Looks like the Berwick Pond Garganey were settling down... 23rd May 1952

Keeping tabs on the LRPs some redshank ringing at Rainham followed by some quality nest finding on on the Fens. 22nd June 1952

Back then Hooded Crow was not an uncommon winter visitor to the south east but strangely enough this one out on Bulphan was the only report that I discovered in these early journal. 19th October 1952

Back in Newhaven with his first Black Redstart - 24th October 1952

This Storm Petrel was around Newhaven harbour for a couple of days.  Sam never did get to see a Leach's Petrel. 31st October 1952

Some strange birds at Newhaven that became his first Cirl Buntings.  He saw them again on and off through to the following spring. 7th December 1952

Local Red-backed Shrikes had made bit to another spring - 23rd May 1953

Two more local pairs of Red-backed Shrikes and six Redstarts territories and a Tree Pipit nest at Weald park. 6th June 1953

Sam headed off to near Limburg (not sure if Netherlands or Belgium) with National Service on 17th June 1953 and still managed birding time with regular Great Grey Shrikes from late summer.

And this Rough-legged Buzzard - 1st September 1953

I love the idea of 'innumerable Redwings' and a classic white headed Northern Long-tailed Tit - 7th October 1953

Sam was back in home during November and found a flock of 300 Greenfinch at Rainham Marshes - 20th November 1953

Before heading back via the ferry from Harwich to Hook on 3rd December 1953 where he encountered this 1st winter Kittiwake

By the 31st January 1954 Sam had moved base to Ossendorf near Cologne where he saw his first Crested Lark around the camp

And on the 9th February 1954 he discovered some obliging Waxwings around the cookhouse

He was home on leave from 8th March 1954 and was soon down at his beloved Romford Sewerage Works (home to the local ringing group) where over 300 Bramblings were seen. I remember him telling me that Tree Sparrows were so common that not only did they not even get mentioned but that they would catch so many that they had to let them go as it would quickly eat through their stock of rings which they had to pay for themselves.

It was obviously a Brambling winter as 50 were also down at Rainham Marshes -5th March 1954 

The woods around Ossendorf were seemingly full of birds and captivated Sam including Golden Orioles -  10th May 1954

Back home again and checking up on the birds in Weald Park. Nightingales were already declining it seems. 1st June 1954

Some quality breeding bird work at Rainham Marshes -0 4th June 1954

This odd wader obviously threw Sam when he found it on 18th June 1954 at Canvey Point

Demobbed at last - 4th December 1954 and a quick visit to RSW.

I have Sam's overstuffed Filofaxes from the 1990s and 2000s with all his American travels for work and his further UK and European explorations and will create further posts in the future.  I just hope that somewhere there is a box with all the notes from 1955 to 1990 just waiting to be uncovered.

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