I'm not quite sure what has prompted this post. I am turning the clock back almost 40 years to an event that remains to this day quite painful. Like most unhappy tales there is a moral in it, but I doubt that's the reason for my getting it down in print. If I was writing a memoir it would have to be in there, so perhaps the scope of this blog is broadening even further? Anyway, all I can say is that over the years I have shared this episode with very few, because I'm not proud of it, and yet now for some reason I am doing quite the opposite...
It is 1978. I have just turned 19 and am approaching the end of a three-term flirtation with university. I can boast few notable consequences of this brief dunk in the waters of academia, but it was at university that I received my initiation into proper birding and for this at least, I thank it.
The story begins with a green parrot in the tree outside my window in early May. I could identify many birds, but had no idea what this was. Surely an aviary escape? I knew that a keen birdwatcher lived upstairs so I sought him out. And so it was that Nick Green told me all about Ring-necked Parakeets, as well as what else I could expect to see in and around the grounds of our hall of residence. Roding Woodcock, for example. Really?! It took me until May 18 to see my first, and it was brilliant! The little birding seed within had germinated and sprouted almost overnight. From an Egham bookshop I bought John Gooders' Where to Watch Birds and How to Watch Birds, and the 1976 reprint of Peterson, Mountfort and Hollom's A Field Guide to the Birds of Britain and Europe. In that late spring of '78 a proper birder was born. Through Nick I was introduced to the Royal Holloway College Ornithological Society, which ran field outings at weekends. I still have the Peterson Field Guide, and there are many revealing dates pencilled in its checklist. On Sunday, May 14, 1978, for example, I saw my first Lesser Whitethroat, Reed Warbler and Wood Warbler. This was a jaunt to Hampshire with the RHC OrniSoc. On June 18 we went to West Wycombe in Bucks. As a result there is a neat 'x' in my book next to Cirl Bunting. A cracking male. There's nothing in there about the celebratory pint afterwards, but I remember it quite well.
And then there is Sunday, May 21.
The RHC OrniSoc was driven principally by the two Daves, students a little older than me. They were very knowledgable and led the field trips together. Our outing on this particular Sunday was more local than usual; we were off to Chobham Common for Woodlark and Nightjar. I had seen Nightjar before, but not Woodlark. Nick and I had cycled to Chobham the previous day and although I ticked Stonechat, we couldn't find a Woodlark. Consequently I was pretty keen.
My memory tells me there were maybe nine or ten of us, and that we scattered across the Common in small groups to search. We covered a lot of ground, and found Stonechats and Tree Pipits, and probably other things too, but to be honest my recollection is a bit hazy in all areas except one: the moment we found a Woodlark. It was perched low down in a small tree, on a slope overlooking a lot of quite long, dryish grass. I can see it in my mind's eye quite clearly, perched there nervously on a gently-swaying, twiggy branch. One of the Daves was calling out the ID features. See the little black and white mark on the bend of the wing? And how the supercilia meet round the back of its head? And... Oh no, it's dropping down...! And sure enough, it flew a short distance into the long grass and vanished. Never mind though, what brilliant views!
Unfortunately, not everyone had enjoyed brilliant views. In fact some of our number were only just now arriving, a bit out of breath, and hadn't seen it at all. Not to worry, it'll appear again in a minute...
After what seemed an age those of us who had seen it were getting restless. Time was marching on and we needed to be across the Common and in position for Nightjar pretty soon. Eventually our leaders arrived at a solution. We had seen it fly into the grass. We had not seen it fly out. So it must still be in there. All we needed to do therefore was string ourselves out in a line and walk slowly through the grass. Yes, that should chivvy it up for all to see...
If you are reading this and cringing in horror, I don't blame you. All I can say is that at the time it seemed a perfectly reasonable plan to me.
And so, slowly, we advanced...
A few yards in, and I was expecting it to explode from the grass any second. But nothing happened.
Someone slightly behind and to one side of me made a joke: "Gav, you've trodden on it!"
Looking back after all these years I can't honestly say that those were the exact words spoken, or even whether or not I did think it was a joke. I just needed some words for this narrative right now, and that sentence is close enough. Because I had indeed trodden on it, and as I turned around and followed his eyes I saw the crouched Woodlark expand slightly and at the same time crumple sideways a little, like a very soft, very tired old foam ball recovering from a squeeze. Except there was no recovering for this Woodlark. My Doc Marten had killed it. No! Surely this wasn't possible? Why on earth had the stupid bird not flown? Why had it just sat there and let me step on it?! Well, because it was on a nest is why. Beneath the dead Woodlark lay a clutch of eggs...
Revisiting this scene in my head is quite strange. It is like a badly edited series of home movie clips - there is no sound, but each jumpy fragment is tinged with a musty trace of emotion. Our successful, carefree afternoon had just collapsed around us in a messy heap. I know I was deeply upset, quite possibly to tears if I remember right. I can clearly see everyone gathered round and gawping, some crouched right down close to check that there really was no sign of life. One of the Daves gently picked up the Woodlark, fully revealing the beautiful eggs. It was all so pitiful. I can picture how vividly the black and white wing marking stood out, how someone remarked upon it, and how it felt so inappropriate to be discussing ID features in the face of this little tragedy. With hindsight I can appreciate that we were all very young, just verging on adulthood and ill-equipped to handle such an awkward situation. I think the two Daves were horrified at what their jolly plan had wrought, and they and one or two others offered some kind words. But oh how I wished it hadn't been me.
Life goes on though, and a decision was made. The corpse went back with us to the university - I've no idea what happened to it subsequently - and the nest and eggs were left in place. We expressed optimistic hopes that a single parent might manage somehow. The hopes of the guilty.
Some weeks later I returned to Chobham Common with a friend and we chanced upon a small party of recently fledged Woodlarks. It was in a different part of the Common and I knew there was no chance that these could be from our eggs. But I did very much want them to be.