Nostalgia Just Ain't What it Used to be

I mentioned in my first post that my mate and I used to keep written records of bird's nests we found and unusual things we observed. Now at the time we were doing this birds were everywhere and their conservation was not high on anyone's agenda. It wasn't so much of an issue then: lapwings nested in every field, even well into the suburbs of Norwich would you believe; tree sparrows, redpolls, bullfinches and turtle doves were throw away species that didn't afford a second glance; swallows nested in barns, boat houses, sheds and outbuildings all over the place; spotted flycatchers, yellow wagtails, snipe and sand martins could be found with little effort, and species like house martins were so numerous we used to walk through Thorpe St Andrew and watch birds feeding young in nests built above the doors of nearly every bungalow. Halcyon days indeed.

Although our efforts were purely amateurish, the power of recording does prove itself in the sheer numbers of nests our pretty unsophisticated selves managed to find. We didn't stake out the birds, we utilised no special techniques, but simply chose an area to visit and rummaged around. We peered into hedgerows (there were more of them then), we utilised every rod and cone of our youthful eyes to pinpoint the crests of incubating lapwings wavering in the marshland breeze, we climbed trees to inspect likely holes and crevasses, and quartered the marsh dykes for the nests of swans, coots and moorhens. It is illegal now to do this, and quite rightly so, but during the dark ages of the 60's and 70's nobody seemed to care. But we did - in our own way, with our self-made code of morality. Childish egg collecting exploits (believe me all 1960s schoolboys did it) gave way to a simple desire to discover things. And discover things we did, for example:

We found a moorhen's nest with a clutch of 16 eggs, and a blackbird incubating an eventual clutch of 7. The abnormal moorhen clutch could have been a result of multiple occupancy, but we monitored the blackbird every couple of days and witnessed the clutch slowly increasing. Hardly earth-shattering science but interesting nonetheless.

And then the time along the beach at Pwhelli in North Wales where we found a ringed plover’s nest. Nothing unusual about that except the eggs were being incubated by a turnstone. We retreated to a safe distance and sure enough saw the mixed pair of ringed plover and turnstone both return to the vicinity of the nest. Shame it wasn't closer to home otherwise we could have seen what the offspring eventually looked like.

We used to regularly inspect the nests of swallows located under low railway bridges spanning the network of drainage ditches across the Breydon marshes in East Norfolk. These breeding sites had obviously been in undisturbed use for many years and the nests had reached a height of 18 inches or so as they had been piled atop one another season by season. This was mentioned in the 1977 Norfolk Bird & Mammal Report.

More bizarrely, we happened upon a freshly shot rook under Buckenham rookery with a pale blue egg protruding from its ovum. How strange is that? We sent this record to the legendary local naturalist Dick Bagnell-Oakley who replied by handwritten letter on smart BBC letterhead explaining how eggs were formed and how pigmentation was transferred to eggshells.

Without constantly cycling and tramping around the countryside keeping our ears and eyes open we would never have experienced these things and our lives would have been the poorer for it.

We were not saints, but to balance the unintended damage we inflicted (keeping birds off their nests etc), we also did some practical good. We sent our annual records to the county bird recorder Michael Seago, a well-known and respected local Naturalist and author of Birds of Norfolk, a book whose allure was partially responsible for our early birding exploits, and we helped save the lives of some young birds. It sounds a bit silly recounting it here, but I distinctly remember finding a cold, naked young blackbird, one that had spent perhaps only a couple of days in this world, on the ground beneath a raided nest, unmoving, cold and seemingly lifeless. I breathed life into it - literally gave it the kiss of life - cradled it in my warm hands and it miraculously revived. We found a nest full of similar aged young and deposited the orphan therein. I like to think it survived.

And then the kestrel, a freshly fledged youngster from a nest in a drainage mill. Thinking itself adult and invulnerable, it nevertheless crash landing on the mud of Breydon Water having mistaken the sheen on the sun kissed ouse for a solid landing spot. It would have died floundering there on the mud except that a pair of naturalists in the making happened by and saw this matted bundle of feathers struggling to reach dry land. I found a long branch from a dead willow tree nearby and thrust this towards the young raptor. The bird seemed to instinctively realise I was trying to help and struggled determinedly inch by inch towards salvation. After a frustratingly long time the young bird, that had probably never seen a human being before, had gripped the branch allowing me to haul it landwards. Before long it was sitting forlornly on my wrist, no doubt feeling sorry for itself but totally unperturbed by my stroking its wonderfully soft downy head and cheek. This a wild bird, but somehow a connection was made that moment: the fledgling was not in the least frightened and we were as one. A real Kes moment if ever there was one. Once you find yourself actually saving the life of a wild animal can you ever really turn your back on the natural world? I don't think so.

I’ve tracked down some of our original handwritten records from the 1970’s which you may find interesting:

143 blackbirds nests found by a casual searching
of mainly local hedgerows gives some indication
of population densities in suburban areas.  

In 1977 house martins were a widespread breeding species and the
observations from central Norwich are sadly no longer likely. 

In 1976 the sighting of a marsh harrier caused us much
excitement. Nowadays they hardly merit a second glance. How times change.

Some eggstraordinary records (sorry).

To show how widespread and common yellow wagtails
were in the mid-1970s

Spotted flycatchers were easy to find as well.

As were turtle doves

A page from our nest records log. Note the abundance of
songthrush records.

Skylark Nest

Nothing exceptional about that.....except it was found at Mousehold in
Norwich from where these lovely songsters disappeared many years ago.

And finally to give you all a little amusement.........

Scanning the Mud at Breydon in 1979

Scanning the Sea at Sea Palling in 1974

As Ever Sporting a Fashionable Look in 1973


  1. Brave. you know other people can see those photos right?

  2. Oh yes I know. I don't mind since even worse ones have been posted on Facebook (by me) and caused much merriment. The saddest thing is that I didn't look out of place because everyone was dressed in stupid gear in those days.


Post a comment