Thursday, 6 January 2022

Bird News - Part 7: BIRDLINE - THE ORIGINS by Roy Robinson

NQS has been a pleasurable way to keep mentally active, and it is nice when I get feedback that suggests others enjoy it too. Once in a while though, I get more than I bargained for...

The recent series of NQS posts relating the development of the bird news industry introduced a chap called Roy Robinson. Roy appeared in this post, as the friendly warden of Walsey Hills Info-Migration Centre, situated near the start of the East Bank at Cley, Norfolk. I did say that Roy would feature again later in the series, but in fact that never happened. The reason for this omission was my unreliable memory. I had a feeling that Roy was the first to set up an answerphone system for bird news, that it was initially located in the Walsey Hills bunker, and that he called it Birdline...but I wasn't completely sure, so skipped it. Well, I shall skip it no longer.

Out of the blue, Roy got in touch. He had read the blog, liked it, and offered to send an account of how Birdline really began. Here it is, in Roy's own words...


In Spring 1980, on a days birding trip from March in Cambridgeshire, I called into Holme Bird Observatory. In a chat with  Peter Clark, the warden and leading light of the Norfolk Ornithologists Association (NOA), I talked about  my interest in birds, nature and desire to work in this field. He said he might have some seasonal work later in the year.

I kept in touch and later applied for wardenship of Walsey Hills. Moving to Norfolk was very tempting, so I moved to Melton Constable before being offered the post, not so silly in those employment times! All went fine and I reopened Walsey Hills Information Centre and Migration Watch Point on 1st September 1980.

During the following six years, many visiting and local birders, and members, would call in before or during their visit to the great Cley reserve and surrounding areas. There were queues out of the door for rarity photos etc on holiday weekends.

I was now phoning around fifty telephone numbers with special local news. Memory fails me now (well it was around 35 years ago) - did I get an answerphone to save phoning all those numbers, or was I planning Birdline? The answerphone, powered by a car battery - as there was no power supply - was set up early in August 1986 and Birdline was in operation a little later.

I had decided to develop Birdline as I was already experienced in bird news, liked the idea of my own business and earning a fair living. I was not looking to earn a fortune, having been on very low income at Walsey hills, but where I had had some of the best years of my life.

I was gaining subscribers at £10 a year and so I decided to offer Birdline to the NOA, who turned down the idea but kindly wished me luck. The answerphone was now struggling to cope with so many callers, not helped by some subscribers giving out the number to non-subscribers, and even telling me so. A basic flaw, showing my naivety.

Help was at hand in the form of Adline, based at a BT research and development facility at Martlesham Heath in Suffolk. Again, I forget how I discovered this. I think it might have been a BT employee who visited Walsey Hills. Adline could handle 30 simultaneous calls and be updated remotely. I had no choice if I was to continue Birdline and signed the rental agreement. I then sent a letter to all subscribers to inform them of Adline and asking them to keep the number to themselves or the system might not cope. I also raised the subscription to £12 a year, just £1 a month, to help cover extra cost. I think it was the end of October when I left Walsey Hills and started to operate Birdline from my third floor bedsit flat in Cromer, where I had installed a second phone line, one for incoming information, the other as a backup to Adline.


Week Ending 3/10: 4 CALLS.

Week Ending 10/10: 264 CALLS

WeekEnding 17/10: 1299 CALLS

Week Ending 24/10: 1520 CALLS

Week Ending 31/10: 1514 CALLS

[Does not include number of calls to the established answerphone.]

I was kept busy updating news, correspondence, membership, even TV, radio and newspaper articles, keeping an eye on Cromer from the third floor. Unfortunately no Peregrines then. I found it was impractical to update Birdline except from my flat.

It was some time in the following January that I learnt there was now a competing service (Bird Alert) with a companion magazine - Twitching - run  by Richard and Hazel Millington, Steve Gantlett and Lee Evans.

This of course added to my costs and workload, more advertising, monitoring their service etc.

They approached me later in the year, with the  offer of joining the partnership. 

Much soul searching, for many reasons, but Birdline joined the partnership on 20th May 1987, about 10 months after I launched it on the birding world. It was not a totally new idea as there were USA bird news services, but a first I believe anywhere else.

I left the partnership mid 1997

Many thanks to those who helped along the way.

All Best Roy Robinson

I am very grateful to Roy for delving into old paperwork and putting this account together. For birders of my generation it provides a nostalgic glimpse of an era long gone. Roy was always really helpful with gen when Sandra and I used to visit Walsey Hills in those early days, and it is nice to know that Birdline was begun in such a relatively innocent way by a bloke who had happily dispensed bird news at no cost for several years already. Its development into a grasping, premium-rate money pit came later...


  1. Gav, I guess we have to accept that there's people around who never develop an interest in anything unless they can first find a way of getting other people to pay for it. Either a publication, merchandise or distribution of information.

    1. That's harsh. The amount of work and expense involved in any of the above demands that it pays the organiser for the time and effort and, should that become a major part of his life, it must be his wage. That some get involved because it will pay, is just commerce and that is an avoidable fact of life.

    2. Dave, I saw a feature showing Richard Millington attending to a bank of recording machines, Updating continuously. Essentially 24/7 for the rest of eternity. Forget the money. The commitment and complexity was more than I could have coped with so good luck to those who can endure it.