Sunday, 31 December 1978

The 1970s: Kenya, Scotland (twice), a Scilly weekend and Thailand in 1978

Another dive into the distant past, more unreliable memories backing up notes pretty much restricted to species lists. Worst of all I can’t now remember who some of the day or weekend trips were with. Most of the latter were with some or all of Richard Bosanquet, Andrew Moon, Pete Naylor and Nigel Redman while Richard Kelly, Martyn Kenefick and Brian Short were local birders who I got to know as the year progressed.

I started 1978 in Kenya with Mark Chapman, Chris Heard and Pete Walton (see, returning to the UK on the 21 January. I’d given up my job as a trainee accountant to go to Kenya and on my return signed on while deciding what to do next. The following weekend was spent in mid Wales with London friends seeing the Black Vulture which had taken up residence near New Radnor. It looked very impressive over a Welsh valley, at one stage while snowing, but was never accepted as a wild bird despite extensive enquiries finding none had escaped from captivity in the UK. We also saw 4 Red Kites, Hen Harrier and Barn Owl at Cors Tregaron and 15 Goosanders and a Dipper at Talybont Reservoir.
me in Southern Kenya, January 1978
from Cotteridge & Vinicombe's Rare Birds of Britain & Ireland: A Photographic Record (1996)
Andrew Moon had some time off in early February and suggested going up to Islay. It was somewhere I’d not been and could be fitted in between my fortnightly signing-on so I was keen to go. Andrew hadn’t been with us to see the Black Vulture two weeks earlier so we went via Wales. Before leaving London news of a Killdeer at Pwll near Llanelli had us heading first to South Wales. We arrived in the afternoon and found it quite easily, there being no others looking. We drove to Tregaron where we camped, seeing 2 Red Kites in the morning but not the Black Vulture at New Radnor on 10 February. We later learned it was last seen on 8th. We continued driving up to Scotland camping in Northumberland one night and by Loch Lomond the next. Snow coming off the North Sea covered the fields beside the A1 and in atrocious weather we estimated 1000 Sky Larks were feeding on the road as we crawled along it. It took another day to reach the Mull of Kintyre, seeing 5 Goosanders, 4 Black Guillemots, Dipper and Snow Bunting on the way. We saw 2 Red-necked Grebes and 200 Greenland White-fronted Geese before we caught the ferry to Islay and 2 Red-throated, 5 Black-throated and 20 Great Northern Divers from it. We had four nights camping on Islay. Andrew had a booklet on the Birds of Islay which suggested one could see 100 species in a weekend which gave us a target to see what we could. Despite much effort we fell short seeing 99 (and hearing Tawny Owl) during our visit and that included 3 seen from the ferry in Islay waters. Islay was a brilliant place and the highlights of our very enjoyable visit were 10,000 Barnacle, 1000 Greenland White-fronted, 2 Pink-footed and an adult Blue Snow Goose, 2 Whooper Swans, 500 Scaup, 1200 Eider, a Long-tailed Duck, at least 3 Hen Harriers, 2 Golden Eagles, 4 Peregrines, 2 lekking Black and 3 Red Grouse, 10 Woodcock, a Greenshank, a first-winter Iceland Gull, 5 flocks of Chough (2, 3, 17, 31 & a very impressive 81), a Dipper and 60 Twite. We caught the ferry back to the mainland and headed home seeing a Tawny Owl in the headlights somewhere in SW Scotland. We camped at Murray’s Monument and saw 3 male Black Grouse nearby the following morning. We called in to the Solway seeing more geese (2000 Barnacles with an albino, 500 Greylags, 3000 Pink-feet and 200 Greenland White-fronts) and 230 Scaup and it was then a long drive back South. The following weekend I went up to Norfolk with London friends. On the Saturday evening news broke of a Wallcreeper in a quarry at Cheddar. A quick change of plan had us there soon after dawn enjoying excellent views with many others. The month finished seeing the Serin found in Rustington by Richard Grimmett and 100 Tree Sparrows.
Paps of Jura
dawn at a Black Grouse lek on Islay

First-winter Iceland Gull on Islay
Whooper Swans on Islay
Barnacle Geese on Islay

me on Islay
In March I twice went to St. Nicholas at Wade in East Kent to see a Great Bustard. The first was by public transport and included a visit to Stodmarsh where I saw the Glossy Ibis and 10 Bearded Tits. The second, 5 days later, was with my dad who dropped me there while at a meeting nearby. During the month I started agency work at a Building Society in Hove, it was rather mindless involving being given a list of files to collect and later re-file. At least it was only temporary as I had been accepted on an MSc in Operational Research starting in October at the University of Sussex. I had been sent there as an auditor the previous year and had learned of the course then. My only notable sighting in Sussex was a pair of Cirl Buntings in the Cuckmere on 31st.

In many ways the highlight of April was the Sussex Ornithological Society’s AGM, held in Brighton on the 8th. Alan Kitson spoke and showed exotic slides of his ground-breaking six-month ‘exchange’ visit to Mongolia. That it was delivered in full Mongolian costume only added to the impression it made on me at the time. Asia was suddenly the place I most wanted to visit, although vague hopes of getting last year’s Morocco crew together, or a subset of them, for a trip to Iran failed to develop. An early start the following morning with Brian Short saw us at Portland Bill where we saw the Alpine Accentor, Puffin and Firecrest but little else. I didn’t fancy doing the agency job for long and was on the lookout for something better. British Gas advertised three assistant out-of-hours telephone operator positions. It seemed worth trying for one as it paid better and sounded more interesting than filing so I applied. The competition must have been pretty poor as I was offered one. Perhaps telling my interviewer how important it was to take down accurate directions for rarities was the clincher? The job was only for six months as British Gas were then reorganizing their emergency cover from Blackrock to Crawley. This fitted in very well with the start of my MSc course although the job sounded a bit unnecessary as the three existing operators had been doing the job perfectly well on their own for years. I started few days later and for a couple of weeks was doing both jobs. Nine to five at the Building Society in Hove and then a shift at Blackrock. Our shifts provided 24/7 coverage outside office hours ad entailed answering emergency or five-star service phone calls. Evening calls were about gas escapes which required immediate attention or more often re-lighting of boilers. The phones were attached to alarms and about half our night shifts were untroubled between 1-5am allowing plenty of time for reading or dozing. On 29th while walking back home along the seafront I saw 6 Swifts, 10 Swallows, 20 House Martins and 2 singing Reed Warblers with 2 Sedge, 4 Willow Warblers and a Whitethroat the day after but that was as good as it got for migrants. I hadn’t twigged that one didn’t need to be at a headland to make it worth looking out to sea at this time of year.

I hardly went out locally in May seeing a Tawny Owl in St. Anne’s Wells Gardens one night, 4 Nightingales in the Cuckmere and a Whinchat and 2 Spotted Flycatchers on separate trips to Wolstenbury while dad was looking for orchids. On 16th I went to Canterbury by train (seeing 7 Turtle Doves on the way) and walked to Stodmarsh for Britain’s first Pallid Swift. There were only two other birders there and it took a bit of picking out amongst 500 Common Swifts feeding over the Lampen Wall. One told me he was from Brighton (as I had him) and kindly offered me a lift home. It turned out that Richard Kelly was actually from Hove (as was I).
from Cotteridge & Vinicombe's Rare Birds of Britain & Ireland: A Photographic Record (1996)
I was a bit more active in June and met Martyn Kenefick, a friend of Richard Kelly’s and another keen Sussex birder of about my age. I saw a drake Garganey, Black Tern and 15 Bearded Tits at Stodmarsh on 3rd and Hobby, Nightjar, 4 Wood Larks and 4 Dartford and 5 Wood Warblers in the Beaulieu Road area of the New Forest on 6/7th. A few days later we heard rumours that there had been Black-winged Stilt, Collared Pratincole and Great Reed Warbler at Rye Harbour although it sounded as though the first two had gone. We went on the 11th and arrived to find the Ternery Pool hide almost full. On entering I heard someone say ‘it had just walked behind a tussock’ which sounded odd for aGreat Reed Warbler and a couple of minutes later out walked a Black-winged Stilt. A Nightingale at Lullington on 23rd was my only other notable sighting in June.

In mid-July I went up to Scotland with Andrew Moon and Richard Bosanquet. We left London on 13th making it into Scotland and camping near Yellowcraig. The following morning we briefly stopped at Aberlady Bay before crossing Skye and catching the ferry to Lochmaddy. On the crossing we saw Great Northern Diver, 40 Storm Petrels, 8 Manx Shearwaters and the 4 expected auk species. We spent a day and a half on South Uist seeing the male Steller’s Eider, 2 Whooper and 362 Mute Swans, 2 Hen Harriers, immature Little Gull, Short-eared Owl, Redwing, Hebridean Song Thrushes, Hebridean Wrens and 10 Twite. The Steller’s had hardly moved from where I’d seen it on Vorran Island the previous year but although only two weeks later in the year it was showing signs of eclipse and no longer looking pristine. We drove back up to Balranald on North Uist hearing about 10 Corncrakes without seeing any. Having a tape that wasn’t audible more than six feet away probably didn’t help. We did see 2 Whooper Swans, Hen Harrier, male Red-necked Phalarope and 2 Short-eared Owls. We heard 2 Corncrakes the following morning before heading back to the ferry, seeing 2 Storm Petrels and 38 Manx Shearwaters on the crossing. We headed east towards Inverness seeing 16 Slavonian Grebes, male Hen Harrier, 2 Red Kites and 50 Twite before camping in the Cairngorms. The 18th was a brilliant day with a male and 2 female Capercallies and 7 Crested Tits in Rothiemurchus, 3 more Crested Tits, a female Osprey with 3 young and 4 Scottish Crossbills at Loch Garten and 3 Ptarmigan and a male and 2 female Dotterel on Cairn Ban Mor. On 19th was saw 2 more Capercallies and a Hen Harrier at Badan Dubh, a Crested Tit at Loch Morlich and the female Osprey with 2 visible young at Loch Garten, a Dipper at Nethy Bridge and 4 Woodcock at dusk on the road to Carn Ban Mor. We left Cairngorm on 20th and drove to Aberdeen to catch the overnight ferry to Lerwick. On the way we stopped at Spey Bay where we saw over 250 Common, 150 Velvet and a male Surf Scoter. We arrived on Shetland and drove across Mainland, Yell and Unst to Burrafirth, seeing a superb summer plumage Great Northern Diver on the final section. We walked out to the Saito outcrop on Hermaness where the lonely Black-browed Albatross (Albert) was standing in his usual place in the Gannetry, a sixth year hoping to find a mate there. On Hermaness we also saw 500 Fulmars, 5000 Gannets, 100 Great and 20 Arctic Skuas and 400 Puffins although didn’t have time to walk around and soon headed back to Belmont where we caught the ferry to Odsta seeing 50 Black Guillemots on our crossing to Fetlar. On Fetlar we saw the female Snowy Owl and Red-necked Phalarope before an evening climb up to a cliff where between 22:30 and 00:30 the following morning we saw about 20 Storm Petrels returning to their burrows and as we were leaving heard a Manx Shearwater. A magical experience. We saw 2 Red-necked Phalaropes and the Snowy Owl again before leaving the following morning, twitched a smart but likely escaped male Painted Bunting on Yell and caught the overnight ferry back to Aberdeen. It was then a long drive back south. I saw the Tawny Owl in the park again on 28th.

August was a very quiet month for me with the Tawny Owl in the park on 8th, 23 Turtle Doves on the Downs behind Shoreham on 10th, 3 Greenshank in the Cuckmere, 2 Redstarts at Beachy, 3 Spotted Redshank at Pett and 4 at Rye and a Black-necked Grebe, Little Gull and 2 Black and a White-winged Black Tern at Dungeness. The month ended as it started with the Tawny Owl in the park on 31st.

September also started with the Tawny Owl, in the park again on 2nd. I then had a week in Norfolk seeing 12 Pink-footed Geese, 123 Little Stints and a 39 Curlew Sandpipers at Wisbeach on 12th before basing myself at Cley. It was to be a quiet week, the highlights being an escaped Purple Gallinule on 12th, Spotted Crake and at Weybourne adult Glaucous Gull on 13th, Bittern, a different adult Glaucous Gull and a Wryneck on 14th, 15 Little Stints on 15th, 18 Arctic and 2 Pomarine Skuas on 16th, a Leach’s Petrel and 2 Manx Shearwaters and near Snettisham a Quail on 17th, a Pomarine Skua and 25 Bearded Tits on 18th and a Garganey and 7 Curlew Sandpipers on 19th. On 24th I saw 2 Firecrests at Beachy, 10 Curlew Sandpipers, 5 Little Stints and 6 Spotted Redshank at Pett and a Sooty Shearwater and 2 Pomarine Skuas off Dungeness.

I started my MSc on 2 October, seeing a Pectoral Sandpiper at Weirwood Reservoir beforehand and Common and Black Redstart in our garden after. A long weekend on Scilly started well with 3 Tawny Owls, a Little and a Barn Owl seen on the drive down and a Honey Buzzard and immature Sociable Plover on the Hayle on 13th. The Scillonian crossing on 14th was uneventful and we headed straight to St. Agnes where we saw Britain’s first Semipalmated Plover on the beach at Periglis as well as Red-breasted Flycatcher and Little Bunting. Back on St. Mary’s we saw a Long-billed Dowitcher on Porth Hellick and the next morning a Hawfinch by Newford Duck Pond. An afternoon trip to Tresco produced the Black Duck with several hybrids and an Ortolan Bunting. We left a very quiet Scillies on 16th seeing a Firecrest before doing so. About three miles out from St. Mary’s Steve Whitehouse and a couple of other birders started pointing excitedly at what looked like a massive Great Black-backed Gull sat on the sea not far off to port and slightly ahead of us. Looking at it through binoculars my shocked mind was taking in that it was an adult Black-browed Albatross when Steve started shouting. It just sat on the water as we steamed past. It was accepted as being different from the Shetland bird although I did wonder if they might have been the same bird as my future best mate Nick Preston, who I’d not actually met at that stage, had seen it off the Scillonian in late September and ‘Albert’ was last seen on Shetland in early September. After docking in Penzance we just had time to call in at Worth Maltravers to look for an Isabelline Shrike. It had been present and easy to see for a few days but had been trapped that morning and became much more secretive. I only saw it in flight. Early the next morning we drove up to Norfolk seeing 2 Barn Owls on the way. Our target was a superb male Desert Wheatear which fortunately was still on Blakeney Point. We also saw 4 Shore Lark and 8 Snow Buntings in the area, 2 Willow Tits at Holkham and another Barn Owl on the way home.
Semipalmated Plover, St Agnes October 1987. Photographed by David Hunt and published in Cotteridge & Vinicombe's Rare Birds of Britain & Ireland: A Photographic Record (1996)
the long staying Black Duck, probably not photographed in October 1978, from Cotteridge & Vinicombe's Rare Birds of Britain & Ireland: A Photographic Record (1996)
Desert Wheatear on Blakeney Point (photo: Andrew Moon)
In November I saw a Little Stint at Pagham on 5th, arboreal Dusky Warbler at Sandwich Bay on 12th, a Tree Sparrow on the Downs behind Falmer on 23rd and 40 Little Grebes on the ox-bow lake in the Cuckmere on 26th.

Walking in the woods behind the University on 5 December I saw a greyish Tawny Owl. A trip to Pagham on 10th to look for a reported Kentish Plover turned out rather better than we’d hoped. We were surprised to see some of the Sussex ‘old boys’ present, they had clearly got wind that it might be something good. It was, Alan Kitson and Richard Porter were identifying Britain’s first Greater Sand Plover as we arrived. An identification I concurred with, having seen Lesser and Greater Sand Plovers on the Kenya coast less than 12 months earlier. Our presence might also be the reason the news made it onto the grapevine although as it stayed to the end of the month it probably would have done so eventually. Also at Pagham were a Merlin and 8 Avocets. That evening I heard there had been a Ross’s Gull at Whitley Bay in Northumberland, probably my most wanted bird in Britain at the time, but I wasn’t able to find out much more about it. The following evening I made enquiries and after an agonizing wait – for a Teeside birder to come out of the bath, an episode of Fawlty Towers never seemed so long – I heard it had been seen that afternoon. That was enough for me, I dashed down to the station and bought a train ticket with my Student Railcard, only realizing I’d been sold a ticket to Whitby instead of Whitley Bay when I was on the train. Fortunately nobody noticed. I arrived at King’s Cross at about midnight having missed the last train to Newcastle so went instead to some northern city (Leeds?) where I had to wait three or four hours for a connection. From Whitley Bay Station it was a two mile walk to St. Mary’s Island where I arrived soon after 11:00, disappointed to find nobody there watching it. I didn’t have to wait long for the Ross’s Gull to appear, seeing it fly round and land on the grassy football field in front of me – I’d probably overlooked it until then as it spent most of its time sitting on the grass with the other gulls, asleep with its head under its wing. It flew at regular intervals when the other gulls were disturbed. Landing on its feet it immediately sat down and went back to sleep. I watched it for three hours, the last half hour feeding while walking through the grass quite quickly. It came to within 20m of me and at one stage flew directly at me barely clearing my head by six feet. Also seen at Whitley Bay were an adult Mediterranean Gull and a Short-eared Owl. The Ross’s Gull was absolutely superb and even better than I had expected making the 700 mile round trip very worthwhile. I’d missed our course’s Christmas Lunch which didn’t go down too well the next morning but I had tried to let one of the girls know. Out of respect I’ve been pretty successful at missing work Christmas Lunches ever since. On 14th I went back to Pagham and saw the Greater Sand Plover again as well as 6 Avocets and a Barn Owl. On 17th Andrew Moon, Pete Walton, Steve Whitehouse and I flew to Thailand (see I was missing the family Christmas Lunch too.
extract from my notebook
probably about the only one I'm prepared to share!
me in Northern Thailand, December 1978
[blogged May 2020]

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