Tuesday 10 January 2017

Murder on the Common

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...

We waited.

And waited.

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.


  1. Well, now that's off your chest Gav you can fess up about shooting that suppressed Houbara Bustard on Staines Moor in 1982!

  2. Ouch. I'm sure every birder has an awful tale stashed away that that they relive frequently, possibly daily, but that's terrible. As you say, were that you were one to the left or the right in that line you were walking. Not sure what lessons there are to be learned, unless as per your previous post it's stick to the path at all times, but kudos for writing this despite the time elapsed.
    I've experienced purgatory too, it is very refreshing and in my case I learnt a lot from it. You cannot undo what is done sadly, I'm sure you would have done, but if it is any solace I'm certain that every person there that day including you instantly became a better birder, and has been for the 40 years you mention.

    1. It's telling that none of us - even the more experienced - considered the possibility that the bird might have a nest. So naive.

  3. Gav, as one of the aforementioned few, the moment I read the blog title I knew what it was about.
    Years later at a place called the Goshawk trail, I met one of the Daves'. We were watching Woodlarks in large area of felled conifers when he started up about leading a group of students...and one accidentally stepped on 'the bird'.
    Needless to say I revealed that I knew all about this episode.
    My recollections may have become hazy over time, but I'm sure he claimed it was his fault.
    Sounded good enough. Of that I could bet my Shirt on it, if you catch my drift?
    Anyway, this was bird damage at a primary level. Worse would be the loss of the entire breeding habitat.

    1. Ric, I remember you telling me about that encounter. I guess no one present that day is likely to have forgotten the event. The Dave you met was most probably the 'senior' of the two. The other Dave was only a second-year student at the time. He is still birding, and leads tours on occasion. I'll bet he's very cautious around ground nesters.

  4. I know I shouldn't say this, but what an amazing story! I really feel for you – even after so many years moments like that simply refuse to budge from the consciousness, unwilling to leave you free from the pain you felt at the time. We've all been there - not the same scenario, obviously – but we've all had moments, accidental or otherwise, that will stay with us for our lifetime.

    1. Very true Neil. I'm still not really sure what prompted me to write about it after all this time, but a blog post somehow seemed appropriate.

  5. Gav, I'd say, If I can say? you are forgiven. Forgiven for what is harder to determine, after all, technically speaking all you did was agree to someone else's plan and walk through some grass.
    Ironically, that Woodlark has achieved a kind of immortality. Discussed in terms, which hint at the failings and mistakes of humans.
    In some countries it would have been just another filling in a sandwich.

    1. Your last sentence made me smile, Ric. I'd been thinking along similar lines. Strange creatures we are for sure...

  6. There can't be many people who don't have regrets of things done or not done, it's all a part of growing. Much better that something like this occurs early on and changes how we do things forever than to be one of those who now know better but still feel it's OK to trample fields and disturb birds for the sake of a tick or photograph.

    1. David, thanks for the comment. You're right, we do (or at least should!) learn from our mistakes.