Saturday 27 November 2021

Bird News - Part 1: The Need to Know

Once upon a time I had absolutely no interest at all in bird news. I simply went birding, saw what I saw, and was quite content with that. This morning it occurred to me that lots of us must have started this way, perfectly happy in our ignorance. I hadn't intended to begin a series of bird news posts in quite this fashion but, because a birder's 'need to know' is exactly what drives the market, I thought it might be worth exploring how and why bird news suddenly becomes valuable to an individual. I'm sure each of us will have a slightly different take on it, but this is mine...

Until I married in 1980, birds had always been a second-string interest. But Sandra really enjoyed our days out birdwatching, and by the autumn of 1981 I was taking it pretty seriously. We lived near Northolt back then and, though we visited a few spots on the western fringes of suburban London, our number one location for a birding trip was the North Norfolk coast at Cley. There was a reason for this...

I have written briefly before about boyhood holidays at my grandparents' place in Weybourne, a few miles east of Cley; about boat trips from Morston out to Blakeney Point, and the long trudge back to Cley Coastguards. I enjoyed pointing my monstrous ex-army bins at the countless birds, and could even identify a few. Most of all, I came to equate that coastline with avian abundance; I just knew it was brilliant for birds. So it seemed the obvious destination for two keen new birders.

'Twin Pines', Temple Drive, Weybourne. My grandparents' old bungalow in Norfolk. The year is 1979. A friend and I were on a motorcycling jolly in East Anglia, and I couldn't resist dropping by for this memento. My grandparents no longer lived here though; by now they had been in Budleigh Salterton for a year or two. Norfolk winters were a bit too much.

A few weeks after our marriage, Sandra and I had a day out in North Norfolk with a couple of friends. The date was 6th September, 1980. We enjoyed point-blank views of our first Little Stint and Curlew Sandpiper on the Eye Pool at Cley, and at some point learned there was a Sardinian Warbler at Weybourne Camp, a place I had explored with my sister when we were kids. I had never heard of Sardinian Warbler, but we nevertheless popped over to see it. Ha! No chance. It was deep in some thicket, surrounded by loads of loafing birders waiting for it to show. Bo-o-o-ring! We didn't stay long. There was no sense of disappointment at our failure to see it. Birding was still a casual interest, and Sardinian Warbler was just a bird.

Almost exactly one year later, on 5th September 1981, we were at Cley again. By this point the birding bug has bitten. We have discovered the Walsey Hills migration watch-point, run by the Norfolk Ornithologists Association, and park just below it. On top of the little hill is a concrete bunker thing. Inside is the friendly warden, Roy Robinson...

Roy features again later in the bird news saga, but for now his role is very straightforward: Roy was the bloke who knew what was about. In 1981 Sandra and I were newbies. We had no idea that Nancy's Café was just down the road. Actually we had never heard of it. But no matter. A quick chat with Roy that day acquainted us with the fact that a Buff-breasted Sandpiper was on Cley beach. So we went to have a look. What a corker! We sat on the pebbles and watched this characterful, super-tame Nearctic wader poking about just feet away. I can see it clearly in my mind's eye. I remember too being aware of its rarity, and therefore - possibly for the first time - its value.

From this bird on, we always made an effort to find out what was around. The following weekend we were back again. On Saturday, 12th September 1981, we watched our first ever Bittern from the Walsey Hills watch-point, showing superbly in the reedbed below. Gen from Roy gave us our first Pectoral Sandpiper that day, and a Black Guillemot offshore, another tick. We failed to see the Spotted Crake that was making regular appearances in front of the viewing screen in Snipe's Marsh, so kipped in our van overnight by the roadside, and enjoyed cracking views first thing in the morning. Tick again.

Yes, seeing new birds had suddenly become important. And, crucially, so had bird news. I blame that Buff-breast.

I'll close with this vintage photo...

Roy Robinson's rusty old Ford Escort was even more of a banger than our little Bedford van.

There in that photo which date it to autumn 1982, by which point this old car and its noticeboard had become a very welcome sight. It guaranteed that Roy would be up there, in or near the bunker, and that we could therefore find out what was about. Because now there was - very much - a need to know.

Next: The Grapevine


  1. Great memories and photos, Gavin. I'm looking forward to the next one in this series. When I started birding, I had very much the same approach as you. That was back in 1974. It really was a different world.


    1. Thanks Malcolm. Agreed, a very different world!

  2. The feel of your photos is just great, takes me back to that era, along with the cars.... Superb! Looks like a red Mk2 Carpi trundling up the road to the left. What bike were you riding then Gav?
    I am enthralled by how your birding history started and am looking forward to your future posts. My birding during the 80's was mainly done within the local RSPB group, but as with yourself the memories never fade.

    Thank you Gav


    1. Cheers Tony. I was a passenger that day, on the back of my mate's brand new Honda XL500. I was between BSAs. My first had been nicked in the summer, and my second (and last) was, and still in bits. A few weeks after that photo was taken I passed my driving test, bought a little Bedford van (HA Viva type) and bikes were history. I've never owned one since.

  3. Great post Gavin! My first visit to north Norfolk was in October 1985, so 3 years later than your last photo. I was 14! I remember the Walsey Hills Observatory and being in Nancy's Cafe - a bloke answering the phone every 30 seconds and repeating the same news "Radde's Warbler in Wells Wood, RB Flicker in Titchwell Car Park etc etc" - fantastic memories of long gone birding times! We saw the radde's, don't think we got the rb fly but it was a great experience at the time! Looking forward to the next installment!


    1. Cheers Colin, great story! Not sure if I visited in October '85, but I was definitely there in late August. 😉

  4. My 'journey' began in Norfolk with an October half term holiday in 1985... I can still picture all the new birds and asking my dad to stop each day at Walsey Hill for the gen! Magic memories

    1. Great stuff Howard! Thanks for your comment. 😊👍