Wednesday, 1 December 2021

Bird News - Part 2: The Grapevine

In a cathartic act of heresy I ditched all my old notebooks several years ago, so can no longer view the list of names and telephone numbers at the beginning of each. They were my bird news contacts. My precious links to the grapevine.

Though I don't consciously recall it, there must have been a time when I had zero contacts, a blank page. But gradually, mainly through regular visits to the Staines area in West London, I began to meet other birders and acquire a few contacts. I guess this began to happen from autumn 1981 on. At this stage I wasn't much of a twitcher, but nevertheless keen to know what was about. 

As the months and years passed, and my interest in twitching grew, the grapevine became ever more vital. Like anyone else with a 'need to know' about the latest rarities, I was always on the lookout for those extra-special contacts, those birders with access to branches of the grapevine otherwise closed to me. In those pre-digital times it was all very well learning that there was a Stilt Sandpiper at some place called Frodsham, but where on earth was that? And even if you found it on a map, you still needed to know where to park, and where exactly the bird was. Enter Bob Eckersley of Leeds, my prized 'northern contact'. I don't recall us ever meeting, but there were plenty of telephone conversations. Ditto Paul, my excellent Lea Valley and East London contact. Back then there was an unhappy disconnect between West and East London for some reason, but our telephone link bridged it quite well.

It all sounds rather clunky and primitive doesn't it? And it was. But it worked.

So, here is a real-life example of the grapevine in action...

Staines Res in the early 1980s. North basin on the left.

It is 14th October 1982, a Thursday. The north basin of Staines Res has been slowly emptying over the past two or three months, and looks amazing, like a massive inland estuary. I notice that the Dunlin flock is unusually close to the causeway this afternoon, so have a go at counting them...

Thirty-five, thirty-six... Hello, what's this?

Long story short: it's a Baird's Sandpiper!

Present on the causeway were myself, Sandra, Jon Herbert and Gordon Richards. We took a while to settle confidently on the identification, but it helped that Sandra and I had seen our first Baird's as recently as August - an adult at Salthouse in Norfolk - so the diagnostic features were pretty fresh in our minds. But obviously we were still very cautious. This was a serious London rarity!

In 2021 it is easy to predict what would happen next. There would be photos taken and uploaded straight from camera to smartphone, then punted out via WhatsApp, Twitter, etc. The first twitchers would be there within the hour.

In 1982, this is what happened... 

That evening I phoned Pete Naylor. Pete is sadly no longer with us, but back then he was one of the London area recorders and, along with Andrew Moon, pretty much a Staines Res fixture. He seemed the obvious person to call. Apart from my description of the bird, I had nothing to offer in the way of evidence. From our few meetings in the field thus far, Pete would probably have known me as a keen young birder, but also a bit of a newbie. Could he trust me enough to widely broadcast news of a Baird's Sandpiper at Staines Res?

Unbeknown to me, Pete passed the news to someone who could check it out the next day, which was a Friday. I have a feeling that that someone was Jeff Hazell. But whoever it was, the identity was confirmed, and on Saturday the causeway was rather busy.

In fact the causeway was busy all weekend. And how did all these Baird's twitchers become aware of its presence? The grapevine. That intricate web of telephone contacts.

However, one aspect of the grapevine that I've not really mentioned yet, and which no doubt had a role in disseminating news of that Baird's Sandpiper at Staines Res, was a tiny café in Cley, Norfolk.

Coming next: Nancy's.


  1. I'd often bump into either Morecambe or Wise (as I dubbed them) when I visited Staines Causeway (by train and bike!), both a bit wary of the young me but pleasantly chatty once you managed to distract them long enough to peel their eyes away from counting small grebes or scrutinising the wader half a mile away on the far bank. I sometimes wondered if they realised there was a South Basin too, I'm not convinced I ever saw them facing that direction!

    1. Ha ha! The S basin had its turn in 1985 (drained) but the light always better on N basin of course.

    2. Fond memories of Stained Res even though you could quickly freeze to death in the winter!First traversed the causeway in (wait for it!) Jan 1949 at the tender age of 14 carrying a pair of x4 opera glasses and ticked off my first Smew and Goosanders etc. A regular from 1953 and so many wonderful friends around. Long may it last! Peter

    3. 1949! Great story. Thanks very much for your comment Peter. 😊👍

  2. old known names - but none still there anymore? Gordon gave up birding when he retired, bucking the trend :)

    1. Among other things, I remember Gordon as being one of presumably very few birders to have seen two Cream-coloured Coursers prior to the 1984 Essex bird!

  3. Sadly I never twitched during my years of birding, we might have gone to see the odd rarity if it turned up. Tell a lie, we did go to see a Grey Pharlarope near Selsey Bill in 1980 something, but that was probably it. Saying that though, I do go for the odd rarity nowadays if something turns up locally.

    I have a great interest in reading about birding and twitching throughout the years, from the late 70's onwards, and enjoy reading about other birders exploits similar to yours. So thanks again Gav for a fascinating read.
    Looking forward to Nancy's, have read a lot about this place.


    1. Cheers Tony. Glad you're enjoying the blog.

      Much as I enjoy a nice local rarity, these days I am much more easily pleased. A Wheatear on the beach will do me nicely!

  4. I can attest to Gav's almost complete grasp of the network on one of our outings to Staines. To me it seemed that every other birder knew who he was, and with much information to be shared. I played no part in all of this, being happy enough to go along in support or as a driver.
    One incident on the causeway that I confess to was one day, while Gav worked the throng, I was quietly and mindlessly whistling the call of a Grey Plover to myself. Only when people started leaping about looking for the flyover did I realise my part in this. I hid my part thereon with silence😶

  5. I've never been much of a twitcher but, by coincidence, I saw two of the birds mentioned here. The Frodsham stilt sandpiper was a fluke. I had given up birdwatching for Lent (honestly) and on Easter Sunday I decided to drive to Frodsham Marshes. (I was staying with my parents in Manchester at the time.) I only heard about the SS when I arrived at the marshes. I remember it had a badly damaged leg and was hopping around. I was interviewed by a national paper (Daily xxx) about the bird (about which I knew next-to-nothing - but it didn't matter because the quote they attributed to me was definitely not mine! And I'm pretty sure that their photo of the bird was taken from a field guide.) I also saw the Baird's at Staines, again, I just happened to turn up there on the right day. Happy memories!

    1. Nice one Ken! That's a great way to see good birds - completely by chance! Mind you, with the Baird's Sandpiper any time in a 6-month period would have been the right day. It didn't leave until late April 1983! 😄

    2. I saw two UK firsts entirely by chance, too - red-breasted nuthatch and yellow-fronted vireo. Mind you, there are lots of birds that every twitcher must have seen that I haven't (at least, not in the UK).