Tuesday 31 December 1974

The 1970s: finding my feet - 1974

More history, no more pics.  I started 1974 stumbling down to the Bill in the gloom, staring at my feet and ignoring a couple of flushed shapes that may have been Blackbirds and calling gulls overhead.  There had been a flock of up to nine Velvet Scoters semi-resident off the Bill and on reaching the Obelisk I whipped my binoculars up to where they had been the previous evening.  Sure enough five were still there.  My first bird of 1974, as I had hoped it would be.  Later I saw my first live Great Northern Divers in Portland Harbour but they were eclipsed by a male Long-tailed Duck.  It held its tail at an angle of 30-45 degrees above the water where it was occasionally caught by the wind – brilliant. 

Trips during the spring term included a weekend in Dorset and Hampshire (Red-necked Grebe a new bird and 100 Bramblings), Tregaron (41 Whooper Swans, Red Kite, Red Grouse, Dipper and Great Grey Shrike) and an unsuccessful visit to Blackpill for Ring-billed Gull.  I returned home at Easter seeing Rough-legged Buzzard at Windover Hill (after camping up there), visited Pagham by train and bus and spent three nights wardening at Rye Harbour where I saw three pairs of Garganey.  On the last day three males were chasing a female around one of the pits.  It was the first time I’d heard them call – a peculiar and unforgettable crackling or rattling like a ruler being run along a corrugated radiator.  This was trumped by a Firecrest in our garden for most of one day.  While watching it at 5m range from the kitchen window it flared out its crest to two or three times its usual thickness – a brilliant fiery red-orange and one of the brightest colours I’d ever seen.

I really did not want to go back to University, mid course blues, and a few days stay at Portland Bird Observatory got extended by a week – I only had lectures on three days and was sure that I could soon catch up.  I’d started sea-watching and seen a good selection of common migrants although nothing unusual.  My absence had been noted, one of the tutors knowing of my interest in birds asked if I’d been carried off by an eagle?  No just gripped by an albatross was my reply, something reported from a seawatch while I was at Portland.  I’d enjoyed Portland so much I went straight back down for a long weekend seeing more of the same plus the long staying dark ‘Blue’ Fulmar.  The later had been seen from the West Cliffs and after half an hour there a wooshing sound directly over my head caused me to look up and there it was hanging in the air barely five feet away before going off to do another circuit of the cliffs. I watched it for about 20 minutes before it finally left.  It had no white on it at all, just paler traces in the wings.  At times it looked a different shape too.  On my last day I had a look around Radipole Lake before catching the train back to Cardiff and bumped into some birders watching a Terek Sandpiper!  It was the bird that had wintered in Devon and I’d turned down a one-way lift to go for it on my previous visit to Portland (a regret that had not lasted long).

I went on a Spring Bank Holiday minibus trip to East Anglia organised by Peter Lansdown, one of the top birders I had met.  We saw a trip of 6 Dotterel in Cambridgeshire, 4 Stone Curlew, Bittern, Red-backed Shrike and female Montagu’s Harrier (all new birds).  The Dotterel were very approachable with four in full summer-plumage – stunning.  We had to wait for four hours to see the harrier but when it appeared at Titchwell it thrilled us with a superb aerial display including stoops and throw-ups which I noted lasted 37 minutes!  During a week revising at home in early June I returned to the Cuckmere where I’d seen a Cirl Bunting in early April.  The male was in almost exactly the same place and even better was carrying food to the back of some nettles.  The female was also seen carrying food and there was clearly a nest there although it was not in a position where it could be seen.  Back at University I was immersed in exams but as soon as they were over I caught a train to Beaulieu Road for a couple of days in the New Forest.  It was summer and I didn’t think I’d need a tent or sleeping bag.  Foolish me, it was a clear night and freezing and I got hardly any sleep at all – trains passing through the night not helping in that respect.  I returned to Cardiff and the next day went to Pembrokeshire where I saw my first Chough (7 at Elegug Stack) and two days later Dave Pitman and I started hitching to Scotland.

We left Cardiff early morning and hitched up to Perth where we slept in some large pipes by the road.  Traffic had thinned out considerable and with no lifts we got a bus and train on to Aviemore and camped at Loch Morlich.  Lack of transport was a bigger problem than we had anticipated and we had to do everything on foot.  Going up to the Cairngorm Chairlift was OK but Loch Garten was too far to day-trip and we packed up the tent and walked.  The Ospreys were good but the wardens not very welcoming.  Dave had had enough, left me his tent and hitched back to Cardiff.  I walked back to Loch Morlich intending to spend a couple more days there before getting a train to Aberdeen and visiting the Shetlands.  At Loch Morlich I was very fortunate to meet up with Ian Whitehouse and his non-birding friend who had a car.  On my first day on the tops with Dave (chairlift to Cairngorm, walk to Ben Macdui and back down) we had seen a Ptarmigan and four Dotterel.  I took Ian and friend back to the same area where we saw the Ptarmigan and Dotterel and continued on towards Ben Macdui where we had two 2 singing male Snow Buntings.  On the way back we encountered 2 Dotterel with 3 small but very mobile chicks.  The adults didn’t seem concerned by us although they made sure that their chicks were not too inquisitive.  Utterly captivating.  Ian and friend were heading up to Caithness and asked if I’d like to join them.  I certainly would and we headed for Fariad Head via Loch Laide.  We filled up with petrol at Kylestrome (hand pumped by an attractive lass) but missed the last ferry at and camped by the road.  After seeing Corncrake at Faraid Head we drove back down to Strathconnon where we saw 2 Golden Eagles and spent two more days in Rothiemuchus failing to find Capercallie.  We told ourselves that it probably wasn’t the best time of year to look for them.  Ian’s friend had to go back but Ian and I went on to Shetland catching the overnight ferry from Aberdeen.   

Ian and I spent a week on Shetland visiting Noss and Fetlar.  The seabird colony on the cliffs at Noss was amazing although my first view of it, from Bressay, was not particularly spectacular, a small green island sloping away to the east before it drops into the sea on the opposite side.  Once we’d landed on Noss the walk around became more and more interesting and it finally reached an unbelievable climax with the 600ft cliffs at Noup of Noss.  Before reaching the Noup I was amazed by the number of Great and Arctic Skuas, Fulmars and very tame Puffins.  As the cliffs rose they were joined by Kittiwakes and some auks but it was not until the Noup that I saw Gannets on the cliffs – a true seabird colony with thousands of birds on the ledges, in the water and in the air.  Each individual seemed to be adding to the noise, and smell which at times was almost overpowering.  The cliffs were white with dropping, hardly surprising when an estimated 50,000 pairs of seabirds were breeding there!   On Fetlar a pair of Snowy Owls had 2 small young.  A hide had been set up overlooking the nest from a distance.  There was a ‘waiting room’ the other side of a small hill and on being given permission to proceed to the hide I climbed to the brow of the hill and was confronted by the male Snowy Owl banking across in front of me.  Unforgettable.  The female and the chicks were very good too, as were the Red-necked Phalaropes which we saw regularly near our campsite as they chugging around the edge of Loch Funzie catching insects above the surface like a clockwork toy but with more grace and agility than it would ever be possible to programme mechanically. 

While on Shetland I became fascinated by the skuas and their differing methods of deterring trespassers (i.e. me) from their territories.  When walking through a Great Skua colony the particular pair of birds whose territory I had entered would take off from their observation post and fly directly at me 5-10 feet above the ground, veering away at the very last minute.  Sometimes while one bird ‘attacked’ me head on the other would woosh past over my head from the rear.  Attempts would often be half-hearted if I was on the edge of the territory and as I never went close to a chick, all of which had left the nest, I was never hit, but carrying a stick aloft gave a measure of protection.  Once a territory had been left the owners would lose interest as the next pair took over.  In contrast Arctic Skuas would come in in a group, up to 9 or 10 birds one after the other, before regrouping and trying again.  Several times I was clipped on the head and they seemed to mean business more than the Great Skuas.  Arctic Skuas also tried feigning a broken wing to draw me away from a nest, something I never saw Bonxies do.  Leaving Shetland I had had enough of hitching but it was a long journey back by train. 

Back in Sussex I twitched a summer plumaged Spotted Sandpiper at Weir Wood Reservoir (pre-fraudster days!) but the spots were only visible through a telescope which, without a tripod with me, I rested on someone’s car roof.  I spent the last week of August camping at Cley with Dave Pitman seeing Barred & Icterine Warblers, Wryneck and a Purple Heron at Hickling although we missed a Black-winged Pratincole seen over the marsh late one afternoon.  The highlight was a good fall on Blakeney Point on 30 August with 80 Pied Flycatchers, a Red-backed Shrike, Wood Warbler and 7 Wrynecks in the Plantation and an Icterine Warbler on the Hood.  I was now working at the Business Statistics Office in Newport on the sandwich part of my course but as it was an easy, almost door to door, commute on the bus I stayed living in Cardiff.  I saw 2 Melodious Warblers at Portland and a Grey Phalarope and White-rumped Sandpiper at Ferrybridge on a day trip. We returned via Chew Valley Lake where Ruddy Duck was my 4th new bird of the day.  My British List was now 234!
me at Portland (photo by Maurice Chown, kicked around a bit by me)
My first foreign birding trip, as opposed to a family trip abroad where I saw some birds, was a week in Majorca with Richard Bosanquet, Maurice Chown, Graham Hearl, Pete Naylor and Nigel Redman.  Maurice & Graham had met the others who were from around London on the Scillies the previous autumn.  Graham had an eye for a deal and got us a cheap (out of season) package tour to Puerto Pollensa where we hired a car.  It was quite a squeeze for 6 and on one occasion I managed to shut the door on Maurice’s fingers not realising he was coming out my way, ouch!   We went late to maximise the chance of seeing Eleanora’s Falcons which were excellent.  One blustery morning at Cabo Formentor we had excellent views of nine in the air at one time (and 15 in total that day).  They were stopping several hundred feet and ‘throwing up’ to return to their original height, a little above us, at seemingly faster speeds than their descents.  All the time they were calling ‘keya keya keya’.  The rough sea several hundred feet below was the perfect backdrop.   We also saw Cory’s and Balearic Shearwaters (on one occasion I had Cory’s and Eleanora’s in the same telescope view!), Booted Eagle, Black Vulture, Blue Rock Thrush and Olivaceous and Marmora’s Warblers.  I saw 100 species, 15 were new and the trip cost £60!  Back in the UK autumn was pretty much over and quite an anti-climax.  A weekend in East Anglia in mid November with Maurice produced 2 Rough-legged Buzzards, 4 Shore Larks, 3 Great Grey Shrikes and 100+ Snow Buntings.  Otherwise I was finding the routine of working 9-5 every day rather restrictive but made weekend visits to the usual Welsh sites.  I returned home for Christmas and on a visit with my dad to Church Norton on Christmas Eve saw 2 Swallows hawking insects low over the sheltered beach near the graveyard.

[blogged April 2014]