Setting Off From Sandwell valley

Sunday, 18 March 2012

My Birding Past, Green Birding and The Birding Clams

Well I don’t want the blog to be redundant so what to do with it?

The Biking Birder started out over 2 years ago now and though the memories are still vividly with me, life’s moved on and birding now is restricted to occasional weekends and holidays.

Back at work, teaching a new subject for me, Design & Technology at Rigby Hall Special School in Bromsgrove, I have little time for such intense birding.

One recent development that gives me real pleasure is the coming together of The Birding Clams. We have our own blog that tells of twitching trips [4 or 5 to a car, eco people] and birds seen The Birding Clams [google it]

For how this came around we’ve got to go back a few years, back to the mid 1980s.

At that time I was teaching at a large secondary school on a very large council estate in Wolverhampton, Coppice High School; teaching mostly science with biology as my main subject. Teaching in those days was less stressful than today and I ran a number of after school clubs, fishing for instance, as well as running year 7’s football and cricket teams according to season. [There was even a fabulous staff football and cricket team. We still meet up occasionally to reminisce and enjoy each other’s company again. It’s the Greyhounds next week! Back then staff socialised and enjoyed their company more than just on the Friday lunchtime sojourn to a local hostelry. Has all this now gone? Has staff goodwill been smashed away by the demands of National Curriculum, league table emphasis on results and other such wonderful educational developments? It’s gone from the places I knew, replaced by deadlines and stress, paper work and monitoring. Staffrooms have become vacant as lunchtimes have been replaced by work half hours with a grabbed bite to eat and a cold coffee.]

Anyway I started a YOC club [Young Ornithologist’s Club] and soon had around 70 members; young working class teenagers desperate for something different, boys and girls of all ages. We began birding the local area, walking en masse after school either through the estate to get to Essington and The Dandoes, an area of fields, scrubby woods and a few small fishing pools; Small Heath with its large expanse of silver birch and alder woodland and many small newt-filled pools or to ‘The Tracks’, a disused old railway line, which lead back in those days to cereal crop fields, a couple of blocks of mature sycamore-dominated woodland and a covered tip which in May would be covered with thousands of common and marsh orchids. The orchids have now gone as the trees planted in the same area have now matured.

Health & Safety people would have kittens if they’d seen one young, I was then, teacher leading around 20 to 30 mixed age school children, boys and girls along streets, over bus roads over stiles and through bramble thickets and the like, paddling in pools and standing close to deep waters. In all the years of doing so there was not one accident and no real incident. No first aid was needed and the mood of the children was one of excitement and exploration.

We saw good birds on the many walks that we enjoyed. Ring ouzels became a regular feature behind Black Cat Woods in April each year. Up to 8 I remember stopping off on their way to their breeding grounds, maybe some on the moorlands of North Staffordshire. I imagine they’d crossed the expanse of industrial desert, The Black Country and needed to clear their lungs of the smoke before continuing. Now the Black Country is an industrial desert of another nature as big industry was decimated by the Thatcher years to be replaced eventually by cleaner production lines.

Another highlight, and one that attracted numbers of local birders and twitchers for many years, was the nesting of a pair of merlins on an electricity pylon almost overlooking the edge of the estate, Ashmore Park, Wolverhampton if you want to goggle map it, alongside Kitchen Lane. Merlins with up to 4 young used to be so easy to see and many did. Lines of scopes lined up along the roadside bemused the working class locals many a time.

Each half term we would go out for a day’s birding on a 50 seater coach, destined to bird a distant nature reserve or outstanding natural area. Helped by a couple of newly converted birding teachers and a small collection of local birders around 40 children would give the coach driver and me hell as we sped along the M6 or M5 depending on the direction to be taken.

Over the years we went to the Dee Estuary, with a walk out to Hilbre Island, Slimbridge and Martin Mere WWT reserves, the latter included Formby Point and the red squirrels of Freshfields. Down to the New Forest on a day when I was desperately ill and spend the whole day sleeping on the length of seats at the back. The children bought me a small present as I hadn’t cancelled the trip. I missed the birds they saw though, dartfords and hobbies.

One year we went and stayed at the youth hostels of Norfolk to spend a few days birding the North coast before heading back home via Minsmere.

Now from this YOC club came a group of really dedicated local patch loving lads. In phases they came [I never forget a phase], some to become twitchers, some to branch off into dragonflies or nature conservation, [one even started his own wildlife park!] and others to lapse as other teenager pursuits took precedence – girls and booze, football and martial arts.

Phase one, the time of Gobbler and Smoothie who together with a few of some very well known local or local-ish birders, John Holian, John Higginson, Paul Tippler, Geoff Russon, Frank Dixon would get to bird Britain and learn the ropes of identification and location.

Phase two, well, now there was a group! Three young boys, Alex [The Bear] Barter, Jason [Ollie] Oliver and Richard Southall, simply know as South.

Bracknell, 1985, an olive-backed pipit was found in the back garden on a town house estate and soon became a national celebrity. Smew down the road at Wrasbury and a ferruginous duck in residence at Paddington Gate, Uxbridge; we had to see them. An early morning, 3.00am, pick up in a bright yellow Datsun Nissan Cherry from outside the Broadway pub and a drive down the long road, before the ease of the M40 remember, to Bracknell and a view of the pipit.

The smew were never seen as we chose the wrong reservoir and got locked in for 4 hours! Four hours of circling the massive high banked concrete lined reservoir looking for a way out after the worker who had been painting the main gates had left, locking those gates behind them. Our escape was only due to the diligent public reporting to the police that some lads were trying to remove the gates from their hinges. Police duly arrived and laughingly promised that someone would be along with a key to let us out. 3 hours later that person arrived; a little old man on a push bike! The smew meanwhile had been smiling at our missing them by hiding on the adjacent smaller gravel pits Back then there weren’t the pagers, mobile phone text alerts and the Satnavs that pinpointed every bird and made a birder’s life almost as easy it is for the

Gricer using his railway timetable and notebook. May birding never become that easy. At least birds fly!

The fudge duck refused to be found despite a couple hours searching the many pools in the area and collecting carrier bags full of old Victorian bottles discarded by the Cockney collectors, who having dug their large pits into the ancient rubbish tip, had taken away the choice items.

It turned out that the duck [well drake actually] had been hiding under the overhanging branches of the gravel pit right next to the parked car, less than 50 yards from where we would have ticked it off as we all needed it at the time.

Our first twitching trip! Eventful yes, and with a fabulous new bird for all of our British life lists. This started a few years of reasonably regular early morning pick ups and speedy headlong rushes to places across the British Isles. As the lads grew from young boys to young men so their birding knowledge grew, as did the friendship and my pride in them likewise.

They birded passionately. Alex I remember recorded 500 visits to his patch, ‘The Tracks’ and Black Cat Woods in one year! Morning and evening straight from school the Bear would bird. Richard would join him and together they found birds; white stork, black redstart, pied flycatchers, wheatears and the like, together with the regulars, little owl and willow tits.

They started to go with other birders and take their own trips by bus and foot to the nearby birding hotspots, Belvide and Chasewater, Cannock Chase and Blithfield. Indeed Alex and Jason found a first for Europe!

1987. A small duck couldn’t be identified by them or anyone else after being found by them at Chasewater. Male lesser scaup identified after a trip down to Slimbridge by Jason, Alex, John Holian and John Fortey and according to the West Midlands article of the event [] Graham Evans, who makes no mention of the lads, attracted hundreds of national birders as this male American duck was present for the first time this side of ‘The Pond’.

Who but a bird-obssessed teenager would skive off school and take a train to Aberdeen, a boat to Shetland and a hitch to Hermaness to see Albert? Alex did and I covered for his absence at school by writing his absence note. A bad case of abdominal worms it said.

Then Jason lapsed. The team had seemed inseparable yet maybe their coming of age brought with it the temptations of pre mentioned more ‘normal’ attractions. I’d like to think that it wasn’t the disastrous day of a double dip for him when we missed out by one day on a long-staying little crake at Cuckmere Haven and I flushed a seen by three of us red-breasted goose in Kent not once but twice! Norfolk geese never got so spooked! The crake had also got national attention due to it boldly taking worms from birder’s hands.

Eventually we went our separate ways as the lads left school, formed relationships and had children. I went through a divorce and found a new love, Karen who took me away from birding for a while into the bedroom.

Then in 1998 Alex died suddenly. An undetected heart problem took him from us and it seemed that the three of us would meet for the last time at his funeral and burial amongst the bushes of Lower Goral Cemetry, near Dudley. Only years old, the mightly Bear was gone. His funeral had been attended by hundreds of birders from across the Midlands and body builders; the puny mixing with the mighty with standing room only at Wednesfield’s main church.

Years passed, Richard lapsed to a domestic life of Julie, his son little Richard, gulls and dragonflies and I, birding again, moved to Worcestershire to bird Upton Warren and travel and bird abroad with Karen and the four children. We moved down to Dorset and birding took on another level as Swanage has so many habitats within a 15 mile radius of it. New friendships formed, one of such intensity with the most wonderful man I was ever to meet, Gordon Barnes, and contact was lost eventually with Richard.

Then in 2011, due to contacts formed by the Biking Birder experience, the rumour went around that Jason was back, birding with renewed vigour. Phone numbers found and phone calls made and the team was back. New members in the shape of Phase 3 border, Stephen Allcott and Ian Crutchley, previously unknown birder and friend of Jason’s, Tom and even Alex’s brother Anthony who’s taken up the gauntlet and Alex’s bins to bird with the Barter enthusiasm of old.

Ladies and Gentlemen, may I present The Birding Clams!?

Wow, got that off my chest! As or this blog, I’ll use it from now on to tell of some of my travels, starting with a fabulous trip to Turkey last year and to promote Green Birding with news of this year’s Green Birding Day in the forthcoming May.

Speaking of The Green Big Day, last year teams from Britain, Australia and mostly the USA competed by birding in a Green fashion.

Now the event is on again and if you want tto find out more please go to:-

Please register a team and tell your birding mates. Organise a local competition and if you could get school children involved all the better.

Earth Hour grew from a small local event in Sydney, Australia into a massive international event - March 31st this year i believe. Here's hoping that The Green Big Day [GBD 2] will do the same for birding. Surely we are the closest people to see the effects of climate change on our birds so let's all do our bit to stop it's devastating effects.

So May the Fourth be with you – well fifth and sixth as well.

All the very best everyone.


Now for a few Turkey photos to whet the appetite: