My first solo twitch: 70’s style!

Phil Woollen…

… and a Sociable Plover

I already had an interest in birds when we moved to a little hamlet called Bridge Street on the outskirts of Long Melford, Suffolk in 1972. Suffolk opened up whole new horizons for me with Kingfishers on the local brook, Nightingales & Lesser-spotted Woodpeckers in the woods and a very active local bird club in nearby Lavenham.

It wasn’t until I went to high school in Sudbury that I met a few like-minded members of staff who took me under their wing so to speak and started taking me to dream places like Minsmere and Lakenheath to see such rarities as Marsh Harrier (only 3 pairs in the whole of the UK back then), Avocet, Woodlark, Nightjar and Golden Oriole.

A birding friend and his wife’s cottage in nearby Belchamp Otten became my 2nd home.  I’d pore over their copies of British birds in the evenings looking at the rarity photos and trying to identify the mystery birds (How the quality of the magazine and the photography has improved since then!)

1974. Inter-school bird watching competition Minsmere. Sudbury Upper School won? We each had to identify 10 different birds that the wardens showed us. I'm the one in the middle, pink shirt & bush hat with my old Prinz 8 x 30 before I'd saved enough to buy a pair of Swifts. I think I ticked Wood Sand piper at Minsmere that day as well.   I was 13. years old. Phil Woollen.

1974. Inter-school bird watching competition Minsmere. Sudbury Upper School won? We each had to identify 10 different birds that the wardens showed us. I’m the one in the middle, pink shirt & bush hat with my old Prinz 8 x 30 before I’d saved enough to buy a pair of Swifts. I think I ticked Wood Sand piper at Minsmere that day as well.
I was 13. years old. Phil Woollen.

By the time I was 15 I’d started as a trainee bird ringer at Wicken Fen and was beginning to broaden my horizons with mates from school – hitching to Abberton Reservoir in Essex about 30 miles away and going on the occasional twitch. Memorably one of the first twitches I went on was for a Franklins Gull wintering at Lowestoft in November 1977. I ticked Franklins Gull and two other lifers that day. Purple Sandpiper and Glaucous Gull. I’d got the bug……

My first solo twitch was later that year when a Sociable Plover was discovered near Bures on the  flooded water meadows adjacent to the River Stour (remember this was the 70’s when water meadows weren’t built on and still acted to absorb flood water). It was also seen at nearby Henny. My parents had driven me down several times but I’d failed to catch up with it as it was fairly mobile.

A few days after Christmas I resolved I’d try my luck and cycled the 12 miles from my house to Henny in a gale force wind and driving rain. There was no sign of the bird when I first arrived and I was soon shivering with the cold. Warming up in the nearby telephone box I waited out yet another squall whilst more suitable dressed and older birders with scopes waited it out. Suddenly a flock of Lapwings started appearing and dropping onto the water meadows on the opposite side of the river. A shout went up and the Sociable Plover was there! This marvellous vagrant all the way from the steppes of central Asia was on my fledgling list. My Swift 10 x 50 binoculars couldn’t pick up much detail at that range but luckily I was allowed to look through someone’s telescope (Hertel & Reuss I recall – remember those?).

Elated I forgot how miserable I’d been feeling a few minutes previously and returned to the phone box to ring my friends who duly arrived with another birding friend who’d been staying with them.

The adrenalin soon wore off though and as the rain started again I entered the phone box once again. This time to ring Dad pleading with him to come and collect me. Luckily he took pity on me and I sheltered out of the rain until he arrived to collect me.

One thought on “My first solo twitch: 70’s style!

  1. Julian BIelewicz

    Lovely read, Phil. Reminds me of a similar stormy experience Fay and I endured back in December 1993. We were on one of our occasional visits to “Home” [Staffordshire] from “Down Under” [Queensland, Australia]. We found ourselves at Chasewater [on the fringes of Cannock], in a howling gale with sheets of ice in various pockets around the reservoir. A flock of weather-hardy gulls were sitting on a patch of clear water at the far end of the carpark area. It was Fay who first noticed that one of the gulls “seemed” a little different; it was me who got out of the warm car, bent over almost double as I erected the KOWA and scanned the entire flock looking for the “different” gull. It was there- a Ring-billed Gull. Fay rushed out, peered down the eyepiece, recorded the bird and raced back into the warmth of the car while I endured more Siberian weather conditions in collapsing the tripod legs, etc.

    Ah, halcyon days. My sisters [still domicile in Staffordshire] have considered their eldest brother as something of a eccentric ever since.

    Julian

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