Monday 31 December 1973

The 1970s, part one: getting started, 1970-73

A bit of unreliable history with no images.

I’ve been interested in animals for as long as I can remember but my interest in birds probably started around my eleventh birthday while on a family holiday to the Isles of Scilly in June 1965.  We went to Samson and were surprised by the number of eggs and newly hatched chicks right by the paths there.  We saw an egg with a small hole in it and a beak poking through and decided to await developments.  The chick struggled to emerge from the egg, often flopping down exhausted for a few minutes after some of its efforts.  Slowly the hole got larger as the chick broke more pieces from the shell and after nearly an hour it emerged, a wet sticky mess.  Prior to this I have a vague recollection of seeing a male harrier on Bodmin Moor when I was 9 or 10 (and living in Cornwall) but was more interested in animals with zoo visits a highlight.  Family holidays to the Isles of Scilly continued to 1969 when I went on one of the first Seabird Specials and saw Storm Petrel, Manx Shearwater and Puffin.  Birds were beginning to register more and animal watching in the UK was never rewarding enough to really catch my attention so it was birds almost by default.  Birds were virtually everywhere, did interesting things and there were enough different types to make them interesting without being an overwhelmingly unmanageable species most if which I could never know.  Some birds were pretty good looking too!

I started making a note of the birds I saw in 1970, initially when taken on Sussex Ornithological Society outings by my dad.  I bumbled along in a very low-key way for a couple of years without seeing that much.  Looking back now highlights were probably Little Egret (then a rarity) and some superb Bearded Tits at Stodmarsh, Nightingale and Dartford Warblers at Lullington Heath, Osprey and Bearded Tits at Pagham as well as a December tern (probably Sandwich), Snow Buntings at Rye and the regular wintering Glaucous Gull at Hove.  Most I have long since forgotten, not the same unfortunately with the March 1972 Gyrfalcon on the Downs behind Worthing.  My Biology teacher told me on a Thursday that his son had seen it a few days previously and I went after School the next day.  I’d been told it was at Cissbury and spent the couple of hours to dusk aimlessly wandering around there seeing nothing and nobody.  I had failed on my first ever twitch.  It later transpired it had been most often seen at No Man’s Land a mile or so to the north, and was last seen that evening.  So close yet so far and a lesson to myself to make sure I got more precise information in future!  I tell myself I wouldn’t have appreciated such a rare bird then if I had seen it, but as it was a white morph I’m sure that I would have.

We had two family holidays walking in Austria.  I was looking out for birds each day and saw Golden Eagle, Black Woodpecker, Alpine Accentor, Nutcracker, Alpine Chough and Red-backed Shrikes although my favourite bird was the Dipper.  The first was a rather tame looking individual in Saltzburg which I didn’t count!  I was also quite taken by a pair of Siskins watched feeding at close range on a thistle head.

In October 1972 I went to University in Cardiff and immediately joined the Cardiff Naturalists Society which had a very active programme of indoor meetings and field outings and was very encouraging to new young members.  In my first week I attended an indoor meeting and signed up for a coach trip to Portland the following weekend.  2 Shore Lark were the highlight there but I’d really got the bug.  I made my first visit to Kenfig, a good area I’d been told about that was about 25 miles west of Cardiff, reached by bus and a 3 mile walk.  I was rewarded with 3 Whooper Swans while the term finished with a coach trip to Tregaron Bog  where I saw Red Kite and Hen Harrier.  A trip to Pagham with my dad at the end of the year produced my first Water Rail feeding in one of the ditches.

In 1973 I went on all the Cardiff based outings I could, spent odd hours between lectures in Bute Park and made occasional visits on the bus to Kenfig, which was then a 45 minute walk.  I saw a Great Grey Shrike on the Gower Peninsular but it was the Fulmar’s effortless flight at Worm’s Head that really knocked me out.  On a trip to Slimbridge I saw my first Peregrine and had Bean and Pink-footed Geese pointed out amongst the White-fronts but was not fortunate with the Lesser White-front there at the time – modern optics would have helped a lot.  The Tropical House provided welcome respite from the biting cold of the Dumbles but it usually took a while for binoculars to demist themselves.  It was the Tropical House that gave me a first taste of what birding in the jungle might be like (rather good!) and their Orange-headed Ground Thrush became a firm favourite and a most wanted bird.  In the dunes at Kenfig I found a dead Great Northern Diver with most of its neck missing, a bird I’d not seen alive.

In mid March 1973 Maurice Chown asked if I’d like to join a week-end trip to North Norfolk.  A long drive ‘cross-country’ from Cardiff but it was great fun, camping out on Salthouse Heath.  While driving back to our campsite at dusk we disturbed a Barn Owl from a tree by the road, a new bird for me.  It flew down the road ahead of us for about 100m before coming to an open field which it started quartering.  We quickly pulled up alongside the field and had excellent views of the owl as it did two circuits of the field before continuing down the road.  Brilliant.  On that trip we also saw 13 Whooper Swans, Short-eared Owl, 6 Shore Lark and 50 Snow Bunting.  In mid April, while home for Easter, I returned to Cley with my dad, staying in the George for three nights.  We saw 25 Shore Larks, some excellent Bearded Tits and 4 Snow Buntings and returned home via Minsmere. 

Back in Cardiff after Easter I visited Kenfig (Grasshopper Warbler), Ynys-Hir and Gwenffrwd (Pied Flycatchers and Wood Warblers) and did a boat trip from Penarth to Lundy but it was too rough to land (Manx Shearwater and 2 Puffins).  In mid May I watched a pair of Nuthatches nesting in Bute Park in a plastered up hole 4m up in an Elm.  Both parents were feeding young and in almost three hours of watching I recorded 40 visits, an average of one every four minutes of so with most visits lasting 5-20 seconds.  I was unable to visit the site again until after the birds had flown but on a later visit I saw a Nuthatch enter the hole and suddenly become excited, perhaps remembering the family it had raised there?

My first successful twitch was to Kenfig on 24 May 1973.  I’d been told the previous evening of a female Red-footed Falcon there and so caught the bus to Bridgend and Pyle and then walked to Kenfig.  I was almost half-way around the pool before I was suddenly confronted by the bird on the top of a nearby bush.  I spent most of the day there watching it on and off hawking over the pool, catching insects with its feet and transferring them to its mouth, before disappearing without trace a couple of times.  An excellent bird.  Graham Hearl, the local RSPB rep and by now a good friend arranged a long weekend of wardening at Worms Head and we called in at Kenfig on the way but although the Red-foot was still around we didn’t see it.  It made me even more pleased to have bunked off the previous day!  I was then into first year exams and feeling I’d not done very well in my first one had to put all ideas of birding to one side and get stuck into it.  Half those on my course were either kicked out or had to retake the year.  Fortunately my knuckling down had paid off.

Back home we had a walking holiday in Scotland, based near Inverness, where I saw Slavonian Grebes (10 with 2 juveniles on Loch Laide), Short-eared Owl (seen 4 times on evening walks around Strathpeffer Golf Course), Dipper and Twite.  On one occasion the owl landed on a fence post 40m away with its back to me but would swing its head around to peer at me with its bright yellow eyes, decided that I was not a threat and swing it back, repeating the process several times before flying off.  One day I persuaded the family to visit Ullapool where I went on a tourist boat to the Summer Isles seeing my first Black Guillemots - 40 including one which swam within 5m of the boat - and wild Rock Doves.  On the way home we climbed up Cairn Ban Mor, me hoping for Ptarmigan and Dotterel.  We didn’t find the latter but saw a flock of seven male and three female Ptarmigan, first spotted by Anna when a ‘stone’ in front of her got up and started walking away!

I saw my first Cirl Bunting in the Cuckmere and in September stayed for a week at Portland Bird Observatory on an interesting BTO run Bird and Weather Movement course.  We saw Balearic Shearwater and Barred and Melodious Warblers but the course was a bit inflexible at times and we didn’t get out in time to see a Wryneck or a Scarlet Rosefinch found by local Grahame Walbridge.  Some of us had brief views of an interesting looking warbler creeping around in the Bill quarries that flew into the Admiralty and disappeared before any experts arrived.  We described it as like a brown Phylloscopus warbler with a rounded tail and very prominent white supercillium.  From the limited literature we had we wondered if it might have been a Radde’s or Dusky but mid September was definitely rather early.  Looking back it was probably just a Sedge Warbler seen out of context but it was still rather frustrating.  Term started in October and the first Cardiff Naturalists outing was also to Portland where a juvenile Woodchat Shrike showed well on telephone wires behind the Devonshire Pub.  Described by some as like a paper bag it wasn’t the most exciting of rarities but while talking to Grahame Walbridge as we were waiting for the coach to collect us from the Observatory he spotted an Alpine Swift flying around dwarfing the hirundines it seemed to be accompanying.

I was visiting Bute Park regularly and on 25 October saw my first Lesser Spotted Woodpecker, my 200th British species.  I saw it a further 7 times to late January, approximately once in every three visits.  I nearly always located it by first hearing it tapping on branches although Nuthatches and Great Tits did that too.  On one occasion it, a Treecreeper and a Nuthatch were within 3m of each other on the same branch.  A weekend in East Anglia in November produced 9 Shore Lark, Willow Tit, Brambling, 50 Snow Buntings and a Stoat with a dead Greenfinch.  I also visited Kenfig, Tregaron and Lisvane Reservoir, the latter several times as it was easily reached by train from Cardiff, even if they ran rather infrequently.  Back in Sussex for Christmas I visited East Head and saw the King Alfred Glaucous Gull which had returned for another winter.  On New Year’s Eve I caught the train to Weymouth and bus to Portland for a four night stay in the Observatory.  There, by arrangement, I met Dave Pitman who had come down from Cardiff.
me at Tregaron (photo Maurice Chown)

[blogged March 2014]