Read About A Big Year Of Birding Long Before It Was Even Thought Of 1979

Blast from the past: A “big year” of birding in 1979

Slavonian Grebe Cemlyn Ruth

The first new bird for a teenager birder in 1979 was a local Slavonian Grebe lots more followed.

A blog looking back at how bird information has changed over the years went down very well so we thought you might like some more of the "good old days"? Here Alan looks back at 1979 when he had his first "big year" of birding, nothing like a big year we might think of today but it was a year of intensive birding and great fun! This is an updated blog of one posted years ago so hopefully enjoyable even if you read the first edition.

Cley-next-the-Sea Windmill

Cley-Next-The-Sea, a tiny village on the North Norfolk coast was HQ for British birding.

Prior to 1978 birding had been limited to mostly local stuff with occasional trips mostly with the family on holidays and seeing what birds were possible along the way. But in 1978 I got a job as assistant warden on Blakeney Point on the North Norfolk coast. This time on the Norfolk coast had been a real eye-opener on to the world of birding and the UK twitching scene. I spent literally every day off birding at Cley which at the time was the epicentre of British birding. It was a chance to not only see amazing birds at Cley Marshes Norfolk Wildlife Trust Reserve but to meet over like-minded birders and spend time at Nancy’s Café – the information centre for the UK twitching scene equipped with one dial up telephone and a log book! How things have changed. It was early in 1979 that I teamed up with another North Wales birder Trevor Jones from just along the coast at Llanfairfechan. Trevor had a car, a Triumph Herald, and this opened up all sorts of birding opportunities!

Norfolk Pink footed Geese snow

Back the sight of a Pink-footed Goose on the Dee Estuary was noteworthy - thousands of them in recent winters.

January 1979 was mostly spent birding locally in North Wales but as a teenager I still picked up some lifers. At Trevor's local patch, the promenade at Llanfairfechan, we somehow managed to identify Slavonian Grebes with our draw-tube telescopes (Hertel and Reuss). We convinced ourselves we had seen Goshawk at nearby Aber Valley; having seen many Goshawk since I am sure those early birds were Sparrowhawks but at the time they went on our growing life lists! A trip to the Dee Estuary came up with another lifer - Pink-footed Goose, much less common in those days than now. A weekend away at the end of the month, staying with friends of Trevor's in Ormskirk, added two more new species. We twitched an adult Iceland Gull at New Brighton on the north coast of the Wirral, a cool 22 years after it was first seen as a winter visitor here! This adult bird had returned faithfully to the same section of coast every winter and as the tide dropped it duly flew in landed below us on the beach. Not often you can wait that long to twitch an individual bird which of course was older than either of us, crazy. The following day we picked out Barnacle Geese amongst more Pink-footed Geese at WWT Martin Mere, Lancashire; they could have been wild birds?

American Wigeon Rutland Water 2017

A drake American Wigeon was one of two "Yank ducks" in North Wales - libary picture.

In February news of a mega bird broke on our doorstep, in fact news of two very rare birds in North Wales! We heard that a Black-throated Thrush had been seen up in the hills above Caernarfon, Gwynedd and we dashed off to look for it, but no sign of it or the observers’, never did get to the bottom of that report! Down on the coast a drake Black Duck had been found at the river mouth at Aber, Gwynedd - a real mega away from the Isles of Scilly in those days, and it still is really. We ran along the beach to join a small gang of twitchers all scoping a flock of Mallard out on the mudflats. We asked where the Black Duck was and received a terse reply from Nick Preston, "Find it yourselves!" Taken aback by this less-than-friendly retort we set up our scopes, jamming them against rocks, no tripods in those days, it was considered very un-cool to use a tripod. Of course even for two eager teenage twitchers picking out an adult drake Black Duck wasn't too difficult and it was more fun. Had the flock flown off before we picked it out we might have felt a little differently.

Just five days later we ticked another yank duck, a drake American Wigeon at Llyn Bodgylched near Beaumaris on Anglesey. This lifer was feeding with a large flock of Eurasian Wigeon in a lakeside field. It took a good while to pick out, again the lack of a tripod made it hard to keep the scope still, but a dry-stone wall helped! We were back on Anglesey just two days later to see our first-ever Red-necked Grebe in Holyhead Harbour. A fantastic few days of North Wales birding.

No lifers in March and at the end of the month Trevor and I headed down to mid-Wales to work for the RSPB as species protection wardens. Our main task was to protect a pair of Peregrines that had been repeatedly targeted by egg collectors and falconers. It was great fun and we had plenty of adventures, there's a whole new blog there! The Peregrines successfully fledged three young so that was amazing, first success at this site for many years.

Ring billed Gull Dingwall 2

In 1979 Blackpill Beach in South Wales was THE place to see a Ring-billed Gull - libary picture.

During our three-and-a-half months in the hills of mid-Wales we did manage to sneak off on a couple of occasions, thanks to some great volunteers covering for us. On 8th May we dashed down to Blackpill beach, Glamorgan to see a Ring-billed Gull, not long after the first UK record at the same site. We also ticked Mediterranean Gull on the same beach! How times have changed, Ring-billed Gulls are still rare in Wales but now it is possible to see flocks of hundreds of Mediterranean Gulls on the Welsh coast and we even see them from our Llandudno window occasionally, still waiting for a Ring-billed Gull. Another twitch on 31st May as we headed east to add Ruddy Duck, yes Ruddy Duck, to our British Lists! In those days the Ruddy was just spreading across Britain and none had been seen, yet, in North Wales. We also had a bonus lifer in the shape of a fine pair of Hobby, superb birds. I also found a lifer right there just a few hundred yards from the Peregrine site, my first ever Hawfinch! We then saw them a number of times before we left, wonder if they are still there?

I can remember standing in the Elan Valley in mid-Wales with Trevor and a visiting birder, Paul Godolphin, and saying "If we could just get to see 300 species on our life lists, we would be happy!" What would we have thought if someone could have looked into the future and told us what lay ahead?! A life list of 300 in those days was a dream for teen birders think today’s teenagers would aim a lot higher?

Wood Lark 2
Wood Lark was a lifer in the Brecks of Norfolk in July 1979 - libary picture.

Wardening duties done, Trevor and I were off birding again. In July we headed over to Norfolk and picked up four breeding birds as lifers. In the poplar trees at Lakenheath we watched male Golden Orioles swooping between the tree trunks and across the railway line that we trespassed on to see them! It is so sad that these gorgeous birds with such a beautiful song no longer breed at this site. But not all bad news the RSPB now has an amazing reserve here and holds breeding Bitterns, Marsh Harriers and Bearded Tits where there were carrot fields when we visited in 1979. At dusk we were thrilled to see and hear displaying Nightjars and watched a Long-eared Owl float over the heath. I can still remember seeing first ever Nightjar fly over the heath at dusk and then land on a dead tree and being to sing it’s amazing “churring” song just magical. Singing Wood Larks completed our sweep of the Brecks, a wonderful exciting few days.

A phone call on 22nd July had us running out of Trevor's house and dashing west to the Cefni Estuary on Anglesey. We leapt from the Herald and raced along the Cob embankment at Malltraeth: panic, so sign of the bird! Then we saw it, a long way off but no doubting the identification, a lifer: Little Egret! Hard to believe now, it was an official British Birds rarity in the 70's! I have counted over one hundred on the Conwy Estuary just down the road in recent years amazing transformation is distribution and another bird we see occasionally from our window here in Llandudno. Even more amazing, thanks to lockdown keeping us at home a huge amount in 2020 we added both Great White Egret and Cattle Egret to our “seen from the window” list crazy!

We had a rest in August and then the birding really stepped up in September! We had been planning our first ever trip to the fabled Isles of Scilly and we could not wait. At last the day came and we boarded the train for Cornwall. We got off at Redruth late afternoon and yomped miles, with all our camping gear, to Stithians Reservoir. The light was failing and we pushed on exhausted but determined to reach the water before dark. At last there was the reservoir and a lone birder standing looking down at the muddy shore. One last effort and we threw our heavy packs down and summoned the last bit of energy to jog over. Yes! The Solitary Sandpiper was showing well, seldom been so pleased to connect with a rarity, by now we were out on our feet. It is a very long walk from Redruth to Stithians Reservoir and we had hoped to hitch-hike and arrive with plenty of time to enjoy this mega rare wader, thankfully we were pretty fit back then and made it just in time to secure of first life tick of the trip.

Into the adjacent pub, thankfully we didn't have to walk again, and we allowed ourselves one celebratory pint, we were on a very tight budget. That lone birder was a chap nicknamed "Jim Butty", no idea why he was called this. Jim was birding hard and sleeping rough, so we offered to share our tiny tent with him, pitched on the grass verge where we dropped our packs, too tired to move. As Jim squeezed in he said, "Hope you guys don't get my fleas" - lovely! Next morning we woke - scratching - to see the Solitary Sand still next to our campsite and we could really enjoy prolonged views.

Then we had the hike back to Redruth Railway Station but this time we had Solitary Sandpiper under the belt. Down to Marazion Marsh where we jammed in on great views of an Aquatic Warbler and swept along on our high we ticked off Melodious Warbler that was found near the road, with hindsight probably a Reed Warbler, but we were young and easily led!

On 17th September we boarded the helicopter at Penzance feeling like Special Forces troops heading out on a mission, we were that excited! Just getting into a chopper was special but knowing we were finally going to the Isles of Scilly was off the scale, how many lifers lay ahead. We swept over Lands’ End and could just make out Gannets far below out over the Atlantic. Then there they were, laid out below us, The Isles of Scilly!

We hiked down to the Garrison, the headland above the only town on the main island of St Mary's, Hugh Town. Here the campsite was to be our home for the next four weeks; we thought if we were going we should really go for it. In our Welsh innocence we had pre-booked and paid the campsite, but we found that the majority of birders had not booked nor were they paying! We lost count of the number of times campsite staff leapt out at us from behind a tent, tree, bush or washroom to try and catch campers that hadn't paid! Those who had not paid left their tents early and only returned after the pubs had closed, so Trevor and I were the only people to be seen in daylight!

Base camp established, it was back to the airfield, we had heard there was a lifer on show! A couple of birders crouched in the heather near the runway and we slowly approached. It took a little while to see what they were looking at, a Lapland Bunting creeping through the vegetation just a few yards away! Lifer number one!

There followed a very quiet spell, we hadn't expected this! We were on the Isles of Scilly in autumn and did not have a lifer until 22nd September. We went back to the airfield again and were soon watching a juvenile Woodchat Shrike in a small tree just below the buildings, lifer number 2. A short walk from the shrike, following the edge of the runway and we joined more birders watching an American Golden Plover (Lesser Golden Plover in those days) lifer number 3. We had to wait until 26th September before seeing a Richard's Pipit on the Garrison and an Ortolan Bunting on the Golf Course, lifers 4 and 5. Over on the island of Tresco on 28th, we convinced ourselves that the bird we were watching was a Spotted Sandpiper? Might have been! It went down as lifer number 6. The last day of September gave us a Spotted Crake that we had to lie on our bellies to see at Higher Moors on St Mary's. This diminutive rarity was feeding around the edge of small that was covered with willow trees and the only way to see the water, and the bird, was to lie on your belly on the tarmac of the adjacent road! Luckily there wasn’t much traffic on the islands in those days; we often wondered who had first seen it? Someone involved in a traffic accident perhaps?

Into October and the lifers kept coming! A Red-breasted Flycatcher in Holy Vale got the month off to a great start, number 7. A juvenile Purple Heron flapped around over our heads before dropping into a willow tree at Lower Moors - lifer number 8. Barred Warbler on 5th was lifer number 9. Then on 6th of October an arrival of birds had us running around all over the island: Tawny Pipit on the Golf Course, Short-toed Lark on the Airfield, again, and a mobile juvenile Rose-coloured Starling finally nailed late afternoon near Long Stones, whew! These three took the lifer count to 12. A classic day on the Isles of Scilly with lots of running between sites and the adrenalin pumping all day just as we had dreamed!

Mega news broke on 7th October; this is what we had really come for: a Bobolink had been seen on St Agnes!! Bobolinks are large North American finches with only a handful of previous records in the UK and must confess Trevor and I didn’t really even know what one looked like but we knew it had to be seen. CB Radios crackled into life as the news swept around the islands and birders were running! We ran, fast, all that yomping with massive packs had done some good. With just our basic birding kit Trevor and I flew past many slower birders as we tore through the narrow streets of Hugh Town towards the quay. Despite our young legs we were still on the third boatload of birders to head out for the island of St Agnes. The atmosphere on the boat was a mixture of excitement and fear: would the bird still be there? As the boat neared the quay side on St Agnes those birders closest threw themselves ashore deaf to the pleas of the boatmen to wait. It must have looked like a military invasion, dozens of green-clad people clutching scopes and bins charging up the lanes of the peaceful island. As luck would have it the Bobolink had moved nearer the quay and we were soon watching this mega American vagrant as it posed on top of the bracken! Wow! We were in heaven, an American land bird here in the UK in our bins, it doesn't get much better! We also ticked off Yellow-browed Warbler in the Parsonage on St Agnes. I know this because my notebook tells me, but I have no recollection of the poor bird, I was so excited by the Bobolink that it is the only bird I can remember that day! We now had 14 lifers.

A Rustic Bunting back on St Agnes on 10th October and a fight broke out when a birder known as "Franko" decided he was going to jump into the crop field to see if he could see the bird which was hidden from view. He was hauled out by his hair by a large birder and a fight ensued! Me being me, I waded in and managed to separate the warring birders and we all saw the bird. Lifer number 15.

Then on 12th October another mega! This time on St Mary's and close to "home": a Rose-breasted Grosbeak on the Garrison just yards from our tent! Again we found ourselves running hard with lots of other birders and again we were lucky. Some confusion about where the bird was last seen, and Trevor and I stood wondering where to go when up popped the Grosbeak on some nearby brambles! What a bird! Our second American passerine of the trip. We were elated and it became lifer number 16. The following day we added our last lifer of our first Scilly season - a Subalpine Warbler, lifer number 17. A fantastic trip and so many great birding moments.

A week later and I added Long-billed Dowitcher as a lifer at Abberton Reservoir, Essex, while visiting friends, a nice bonus bird. Then news of a mega, on 30th October, not that far from home and Trevor and I were dashing over to Meols on the north coast of the Wirral to see a Desert Warbler! An amazing record at that time and still a very rare bird, with no further records on the west coast that I can remember.

November passed and it seemed our amazing birding year was all but over, but as so often you never quite know. Rumours began to circulate that a Belted Kingfisher, another mega American vagrant, had been seen in Cornwall. The rumours seemed unlikely as the bird was supposed to have been seen near Wadebridge - the very place where the only previous historic record of this bird ever in the UK had come from. Surely not?

A few days later, on 7th December, the twitch was on! As we did in those days, we met up in the pub in the evening and had a few beers before setting off. Trevor, Hugh Ranson - who now lives and birds in California - and I all jumped into the trusty Triumph Herald and headed for Cornwall. It proved a tough journey with dense fog through the Midlands, we could see about six feet at times, mad, but we wanted that kingfisher bad. Luckily the fog had gone by the time we reached Wadebridge but so had the Belted Kingfisher it seemed, there was no sign at dawn. Long faces all round but we were not giving up and we searched the area seeing a Common Kingfisher, a lifer for some of the twitchers present! Then a loud rattling call had us spinning around to see a huge blue/grey-and-white kingfisher flying towards us, Belted Kingfisher!! Another totally mind-blowing moment in this year full of great birds! Luckily the massive fish-eater landed on a power cable over the river and we soaked up the views.

We still managed a few more birds before the year ended: after the Belted Kingfisher twitch we ticked Cirl Bunting in Devon on the way home. Then on 9th December back down to the south-west where we collected the Greater Sand Plover at Chew Valley Lake, in Somerset before returning to North Wales thinking our big year was done. But no just time for one more twitch, a Two-barred Crossbill watched on Cannock Chase, Staffordshire on 22nd December. A lovely adult male bird with crisp white wing bars that showed off once we eventually found it. Whew!

Come and join us for a “Tour for Two” – very small group just two guests with two guides, tailor made itinerary, low risk in these COVID-19 times and of course lots of birds and an excellent chance of enjoying them all. Do drop us a line and we can make all the arrangements be it a day trip, two days, three day or as long a tour as you wish. Our recent Tours for Two have visited the Highlands of Scotland, North Wales, Norfolk and the Yorkshire coast and we are planning many more! Let us know where you would like to go and we can put together a proposal perfect for you.

We are so lucky to have so many species and habitats within easy reach here in North Wales we would love you to join us for one of our Best of North Wales Birdwatching Trips days out. We expect to enjoy a lot of birds during these relaxed pace tours and we can tailor make the day to suit you.

We would love you to join us on our Birdwatching Trips in the future just drop us a line to arrange a custom tour and please see our tours pages for set departure trips. If you have any questions at all please fire away here….

We look forward to enjoying wonderful birds in beautiful places with you soon!

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