Sunday 1 December 2019

The Shingle Wasteland

I first became aware of Dungeness through Richard Millington's A Twitcher's Diary, and the illustrations of some birds he saw there on 11th May, 1980: a flock of 8 Pom Skuas, a Roseate Tern and two Med Gulls. Dungeness was clearly a brilliant place. So when Mrs NQS and I first visited in spring '82 we were expecting similar. Obviously. In the event it was dire, and I don't recall a single notable bird. Eventually, and mostly through twitching, I did see some decent birds there. Least Sandpiper, White-winged Black Tern, Booted Warbler and, on a memorable May seawatch in 1990, my own flock of Poms (nine) heading up-Channel.

By the early '90s I was phasing somewhat, but one spring day at that time I drove down with a birding friend who was very ill with motor neurone disease. The day is memorable only for its poignancy, and I can recall nothing about any birds. My waning interest left me wondering if that sad trip might be my last to Dunge.

In truth I didn't like the place at all. I thought it bleak and soulless. During one visit in the '80s a friend and I had trudged across a vast and birdless expanse of shingle only to be accosted by an irate warden on a quad bike. We had inadvertantly wandered onto forbidden land behind the RSPB reserve. Our protests of innocence fell on deaf ears. We should simply have known better, apparently. It all got a bit heated, and the whole experience kind of sums up my feelings about Dungeness in those days. More trouble than it's worth...

Fast-forward a tiny bit, to 1994.

Our eldest son, Rob, is 11 years old and in his final year at primary school. While most of the rest of his class are off on some dubious and expensive trip somewhere we decide to take him out of school for the duration, intent on filling his week with educational, but fun stuff. For some reason Rob's phased-birder dad suggests a few days at a bird observatory. Goodness knows why. He had never even stayed at one himself! "Dungeness is probably the nearest," he added. The idiot. The next thing I know, that same fool is booking us in for three nights. What was he thinking?

We loved it! Even now Rob remembers it with fondness, and the relentless football banter when the obs inmates found out he was an Arsenal supporter. Actually living there for a few days made all the difference for me. Just mooching about in relaxed fashion, doing as much or as little birding as I felt like. Or we could watch the ringing for a while, or join warden Dave Walker and his assistant Dave Okines on the net rounds if we wanted. No pressure at all. Kicking back, chilling out...terrific...

It was mid-May, so the birding was hardly frenetic. But one morning...

Rob and I were up at the crack, and headed for the trapping area. There was a heady freshness to the air, and I can remember having that optimistic feeling of anticipation that borders on excitement at being the first into the field on a morning of promise. In reality I cannot recall us seeing anything special at all, but on our return, passing almost the final clumps of trapping area sallow, a burst of song stopped us. Initially I thought it was a Nightingale. But there was just something a bit off... For example, no piping 'piu-piu-piu' phrases that my memory told me were characteristic of that species. And a really harsh rattle on occasion. We could hear it just fine, but actually seeing the songster was another matter; it was buried in the middle of a clump. I tried poking my head in and got bad views of a silhouette. We needed reinforcements.

Back at the obs nobody was up. We had to knock on Dave Walker's door. The first thing he did was play us recordings. Nightingale? Hmmm. Or could it be this...? Well...Thrush Nightingale sounded good, but phased birders don't find rarities.

During the course of the morning that bird led us a right merry dance. Ray Turley and I squeezed into the sallows and had fairly poor views of it bellowing away at the far end, but both of us saw enough to say its breast looked mottled. It was favouring a particular pair of clumps, so a net was erected between the two. After an endless wait the bird flew across the gap, straight into the net. And bounced straight out again! Obligingly it tried again, and this time Dave Okines was like a sprinter out of the blocks, and it was ours. And it was a Thrush Nightingale...

The very bird. Thrush Nightingale, Dungeness, 18/5/1994  [DBO photo] 

Sleep was sweet that night, and the glowing, throbbing power station just across the shingle almost friendly somehow. That was the first of four or five short stays at Dungeness Bird Observatory over the next couple of years, and I grew to love that shingle wasteland after all. I'd like to think that one day I'll return...


  1. The warden on the quad bike! Yes Gav, that guy. I remember the incident well, mainly for the satisfaction of arguing the case from a position of innocence, or at least ignorance.

    The fence and barriers to visitors did exist but we'd gone so far down the coast, we'd come to the end of it. Looking right we saw scrub, so went for a look without realising where we were.

    The warden assumed we did and acted accordingly. He said his piece. We listened. Then I let him have ours.

    Obviously we wouldn't have been where we were if we had known. So I pointed that out - I suspect with some force.

    So it ended being a case of, 'I'll take his reaction if he catches us there again'. But not this time.

    He pushed off back to base, while we headed for a rather official looking gate to the outside world (was it orange with signs?)

    Shame we hadn't found anything much. It was a quiet day apart from that.

    1. Ah yes Ric, you've reminded me how we did it now. I'd forgotten. Along the coast to beyond the power station I think, and then right...

    2. Ric,

      As I recall you were always a fiery little sod, even back in the Tring days. Must have been the boy-racer in you?

    3. Sorry Ric, I just laughed out loud at Dylan's comment there!!

  2. That's ok Gav.

    Even now I have my moments. As for 'Boy-racer? That aspect of behaviour was removed when I got within a second of wiping out a horse and rider in a country lane.

    It was 'that' close.

    Btw, I'm posting this from New Zealand, hence the delay in response.