Friday 31 October 2014

A Ghost Story for Hallowe'en

(This works best if you imagine it being read aloud by someone like Derek Jacobi)

Although the events I am about to relate took place nearly thirty years ago, I can remember them as clearly as if it had been last week. I was but twenty-one years of age, and not given to thinking about, let alone believing in, the supernatural, until one particular night in the cold winter of '86/87 changed that forever...

At that time I was earning my living as an assistant warden at Sandwich Bay Bird Observatory, on the Kent coast. I should say at the start that if you have visited that establishment in recent times, the thoroughly modern Field Centre which now occupies the site is a far cry from the building which stood there in my day, and where I lived for a whole year in conditions which might not unreasonably be described as 'squalid'.

This, the original Observatory building, comprised several low huts, interconnected by corridors, such as would once have been found on many a wartime airfield. Indeed, these particular huts had once been used as officers' quarters, a circumstance which, as shall be seen, has a most pertinent bearing on what follows.

It was the regular custom of the dozen or so inhabitants of the Observatory at that time to repair of an evening once or twice a week to one of several local inns once work was finished for the day, and there to while away a few pleasant hours imbibing the excellent Kentish ales, playing pool or darts, and generally relaxing in convivial company. Our most regular watering hole was undoubtedly the Fleur de Lis in Sandwich (since converted into a 'bar' and restaurant, but in those days a good old-fashioned drinking pub); on other occasions the St Crispin or The Blue Pigeons in Worth would be patronised.

On the night in question we were returning from the first-mentioned hostelry, in good spirits (no pun intended), but I must stress to the reader that, though I cannot vouch for the others, I myself was certainly not so inebriated that the following experience can be attributed to any kind of alcohol-induced hallucination. This is most important to bear in mind.

It so happened that, on this particular occasion, I was the first to enter the building, and it thus fell to me to turn on the lights. In order to get to the light switches, I had to walk a short distance across the hall in darkness, passing as I did so a corridor on my left, which led to the dormitories. As I crossed this, something made me pause and look down the corridor. To my great surprise, for I had supposed the building to be empty, there was a figure, no more than a dark shape, but still clearly a figure, moving (as I was to recall later, almost gliding rather than walking) away from me. I saw it most clearly, especially as it passed a window through which the moon was shining brightly.

Puzzled, I turned to my companions, who were now following me through the door. "Who was that walking down the corridor?" I asked. "I thought everyone was out this evening."

There was an uneasy pause, then someone, I forget who, spoke: "Ah, that'll be Jake."

"Jake? Who's Jake?"

Another pause.

"The Obs Ghost."

"A ghost? Nonsense. I don't believe in ghosts."

"Plenty of people have seen Jake, whether they believe in him or not."

In the Common Room, with the lights comfortingly on and a fire blazing in the hearth, the stories started to come out. 'Jake' had been an airman killed in the First War, and had been billeted in this very building. The place he frequented was the corridor down which I'd just seen a shadowy figure move, and it seemed to be an unwritten rule that he was never mentioned to newcomers until they encountered him for themselves.

Almost everyone living at the Observatory had either seen something, or heard footsteps in that corridor. A former warden, who had lived in the building on his own for months at a time in the sixties and seventies, said he got so used to hearing footsteps outside his room at night that he stopped worrying about it and just accepted that it was Jake going about his nightly business.

Another warden had had a small dog, a normally placid animal, which one night had suddenly jumped up and started barking furiously at a corner of the Common Room adjacent to the corridor, for all the world as if an invisible person were standing there.

I didn't know what to make of all this. I hadn't given ghosts or the supernatural a moment's thought since I was a child, and had come to believe (or perhaps been indoctrinated to believe) that such things were unscientific nonsense, no more worthy of serious consideration than astrology or homeopathy. But now I had seen something inexplicable for myself. There could not possibly have been any living person in that corridor at the time I saw the figure, and yet I had seen someone, or something. My experience could not even be explained away by the power of suggestion, as I had never heard of the occurrence of a ghost in that particular corridor, or indeed anywhere else in the building. The thought of the place being 'haunted' had simply never entered my mind.

But further research has taught me that this is often the way with ghosts, whatever they may be. Those who actively seek them rarely find them, yet time and again they appear to those least expecting them, those who had previously dismissed them. It is almost as if they wish to challenge our lack of belief.

I had one further encounter with Jake that winter, on this occasion auditory rather than visual. One night myself and another warden were alone in the building, having opted for a night in rather than yet another night in the Fleur. We were in the Common Room, pursuing some of the tedious, but necessary clerical work generated by the work of a bird observatory. It was a remarkably still night, with not a breath of wind outside. Winter Moths fluttered at the windows. Around nine o'clock we heard the distinct sound of the inner fire door (between 'Jake's  corridor' and the outer entrance hall) opening and closing. This was strange, as we had not heard the familiar rattle of the outer door opening, but maybe whoever had come in had somehow managed to open and close that door quietly. We looked up and waited a moment, expecting someone to come into the Common Room, then when no-one appeared I went out to see who was there. But there was no-one there. The outer door was still firmly closed. We searched the entire building, but we were the only two people in it. A spring-loaded fire door had, without any doubt, opened and closed itself.

It is safe to say that those two incidents, and other people's experiences of 'Jake' at least opened my mind to the possibility of things beyond our immediate understanding. I still wouldn't say that I believe in ghosts, at least not in the sense of them being the spirits of the dead, but neither would I totally dismiss reports of them out of hand. There are stranger things in Heaven and Earth...

Post Script

I would be very interested to hear of anyone else's experiences or stories of Jake, the Sandwich Bay ghost, and also to learn what happened to him when the old building was demolished. Did he disappear forever, or has he moved into the altogether more salubrious accommodation of the new Field Centre?

Friday 5 September 2014

EU to Ban High-powered Optics

by Nathan Rare

Birders are rallying round (and also flocking) to vent their fury as Brussels bureaucrats unveiled their latest plan to erode the "lifestyles and choices of ordinary people".

It follows the banning this week of binoculars with a higher magnification than 6x and spotting scopes above 15x. In further moves which seem certain to provoke outrage amongst the nation's birders, tripods will be restricted to a maximum fully extended height of 1.2m, and DSLR burst rates will not be permitted to exceed 3 frames per second.

EU Commissioner for Birding Affairs, Lars Ole, speaking from his palatial penthouse suite at the Stockholm Hilton, said, "This new legislation is essential to improve standards of fieldcraft. For years now, people have been using high-powered optics to avoid the need to learn any kind of fieldcraft. We feel that reducing magnifications will improve the situation dramatically, especially in the UK, where birders' field skills are lamentable."

Condemnation of the announcement was swift and almost universal. Derek Sandpiper, 52, a twitching veteran with a British list of "nearly 300", said, "This will just mean that I need to get even closer to the bird than I do already. Fieldcraft? I thought that's what people did in the 19th century. Things have moved on since then, mate." He went on to say that he would be stockpiling "enough pairs of 10x42 Swaro ELs and 30-70x eyepieces to see me out. I can afford it, so bollocks to the EU".

L.G.R. Falarga, 52, of the IQ40 Club seemed rather confused by the news: "I've been saying for years that everyone should vote UKIP because of their thoroughly sound environmental policies, and this just proves my point. But on the plus side, maybe some people will give up birding, which would be a good thing. There are far too many birders in this country nowadays. And it might also save a lot of time chasing up reports of Great Knots and Long-toed Stints, as they'll be too distant for anyone to string them in the first place. Maybe we shouldn't vote UKIP after all? I don't know really. What planet am I on again?"

However, Billy Boring, 52, who described himself as a "keen patcher" said, "I couldn't give a toss really. No-one else ever goes to my patch, so I can get as close to the birds as I like, and it doesn't matter if I flush them. I don't even own a pair of binoculars, let alone a scope."

While Mrs Bessy Ducker, 93, a keen back garden birdspotter said, "How am I supposed to identify anything down the end of my garden with 6x binoculars? What do they expect me to do, go outside? At my age? It's fucking ridiculous. I'm 94, you know!"

When asked about the proposed decrease in permissable tripod height, Mr Ole was evasive. "Um, I can't remember – I think it was something to do with the legs obstructing air flow near wind turbines."

And the DSLR burst rate restriction? "Oh, that's simply because people at twitches with machine gun rate burst speeds are annoying twats."

Tuesday 12 August 2014

Experts Predict Best Autumn EVER!!

by Nathan Rare

Twitchers throughout the country are set to spend tens of thousands of pounds EACH to charter planes, boats and helicopters after experts predicted that this autumn could be the best EVER for rare birds in the UK.

A boat similar to one which might be chartered by twitchers

Eric Twatt, of Forecast-A-Rare Technology Ltd, made his startling prediction after studying ancient manuscripts, the movements of eels, sunspot activity and conducting lengthy conversations with Princess Diana via a medium.

Mr Twatt, 52, said “All the portents are in place for a mega rare autumn. According to my calculations, MILLIONS of birds never seen before in Britain are poised to make epic journeys in a bid to claim their place on the British List.

One of the many birds never seen before in Britain
“Birds from all over the globe will descend on the country between now and the end of November, bringing CHAOS to the roads and long delays at all major airports. Twitchers literally won’t know which way to turn.”

Mr Twatt’s exciting predictions were immediately confirmed by The Reverend John Vague, a fundamentalist Baptist preacher from Wisbech, who said “This has long been foretold in the Bible, for example Wallace ch.14, v.12: And lo!, the winds shall rise mightily and blow from the eastern lands of Dauria, and yet further east thereof, and from the west also shall they come (but not at the same time). Great shall be the accompanying precipitation, and a plague of Locustellas shall fall from the sky.

“And I’m sure there was something about the Moon as well. You always get rare birds when there’s a Moon.”

 The Moon. It’s a Sign...
Avid twitcher Ross Franklin, 52, said “I can’t wait. It’s about time we had a decent autumn, and hopefully it won’t all be on Shetland, because I can’t afford to go there. Or Scilly. And Ireland doesn’t count, of course. Something like a mainland Canada Warbler would be nice, but not a gull please. I fucking hate gulls.”

  Adult Scruttock’s Gull, showing the diagnostic flange coverts, or something
But others in the birding world sought to play down Mr Twatt’s sensational forecasts. Len Savee, 52, President of the IQ40 Club® said “Eric Twatt is absolutely clueless. Easily in the bottom 6.73% of birders ranked according to ability. He once claimed to have seen a Pacific Swift when everyone knew he was miles away at the time. He just wants to get his name in the papers and be on the telly.”

A spokesman from information service Birders’ Rarity Alerts who insisted on remaining anonymous agreed. “He might be right. He might not. Who cares really? I’ll still be raking it in from subscriptions and app sales whether there’s actually anything to go and look at or not!”

He later retracted this statement when he realised how many customers he was losing to the growing number of free Twitter news services.

Saturday 9 August 2014

Silly Season

I was highly alarmed to read this today, until I realised that ‘the Daily Express’ is just another one of those spoof news sites which litter the Internet these days. Oh how I laughed to think that I'd fallen for something as ridiculous as that.

Good job it’s not a real news site really, as there was also this! Blimey – the end of the world AND some wind and rain – I don’t think I could cope with that. Tom Logan, a retard from Plagiarismsville (near Bristol, I think), said “Well, I heard where it said something in the Bible about the Moon being something to do with the end of the world, or something, and it proper shit me up, like”.

But ‘Bertha’ might at least fart a few decent birds our way, although more likely off the coast of Cornwall rather than this far inland. It certainly looks pretty grim first thing tomorrow, so I think I’ll stay in bed and see whether there’s anything around anywhere in the Midlands before venturing out. Trouble is, everyone else will probably do the same, and Leicestershire’s first Wilson’s Petrel will be pattering its yellow webs over the water at Eyebrook with no-one there to see it.

Bargain of the year (even better than the 2012 Suffolk Bird Report I found in a charity shop in Southwold for two quid recently) – I bought a hardback Collins Bird Guide today, in really good condition, for 20p from a stall at the local fete. I even paid for it with a 50p and made sure I got my 30p change. Mwa-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-haaaaa.

Friday 30 May 2014

Affordable Art Sale

I'm having a bit of a sale of a few pieces of original art, all priced between £35 & £55.

Full details on my new 'serious' website, which you may have noticed has rather taken over from this one recently!

Update - the Nightingale and the landscape format Hare are now sold.

Thursday 27 March 2014

March PWC roundup

With other commitments from Saturday till Monday, I shan't be going to Eyebrook again this month (unless someone else finds something mega there today or tomorrow!), so that's March done for me, and on the whole I shall be glad to see the back of it, to be honest. Seven visits totalling nearly 27 hours for a measly six new birds for the year, bringing the total to 96 species and 107 points.

But at least a couple of the birds were unexpected: a pair of Egyptian Geese (woohoo!) on the 9th, and a Nuthatch on the 21st. The latter appears to be the first record for the site for several years, and to show just how scarce Nuthatches are around Eyebrook, here's the BirdTrack map for the species. The red flag in the middle is my record for this month, and there are no others in about a 5 mile radius. Which is odd really, as there is plenty of suitable woodland in the area. No doubt it's largely down to under-recording, but there's a definite Nuthatch 'hole' here!

Apart from these, the only other bird of any real interest during the month was a nice summer adult Med Gull which flew over me at the Stoke Dry car park on the 18th. The other three new species were Oystercatcher, Redshank and Sand Martin, of which there were just two on the 21st, in contrast to the hundreds at Rutland Water.

So that's it for the winter; from next week the list should start to rise dramatically as the migrants start to arrive...

Wednesday 26 February 2014


February has been a surprisingly good month for me at Eyebrook, and I reached my rough target of 90 species for the year this morning with amazing views of the Bittern at the inflow. Definitely a case of third time lucky, having failed to see it last Friday and again on Saturday. This bird has the rather odd habit of feeding under the trees, usually well away from the inflow stream, and today it was doing just that, although it did walk along the stream at one point.

Having never photographed a Bittern before, I was quite pleased to get these first few shots, but even more pleased with the final ones, taken from the bridge in excellent light at a range of about 25 yards. These are just a few from the 150+ I took:

Initial views under the trees were OK, but unspectacular

Then it moved into the open

Posed a bit...

Then appeared much closer at the edge of the stream

Came a bit closer still, then...

Boom! (it didn’t actually go ‘boom’, of course, that’s just a way of expressing satisfaction in modern birding parlance).

After this it walked off back into the trees, where I later saw it catch and eat a vole. In all, it was on view for about an hour.

Other February highlights were the site’s first ever Cetti’s Warbler, which I heard calling at the inflow on the 16th, and a Peregrine on the 2nd. The remaining new species for the year were Pintail, Tawny Owl, Grey Wagtail and Mistle Thrush.

Sunday 2 February 2014

Groundhog Day

If any groundhog living near Eyebrook (Stoke Dry Steve or Great Easton Graham, perhaps?) had poked his head out of his burrow today, he would definitely have seen his shadow, thereby predicting another six weeks of winter. And he would probably also have wondered how the hell he'd come to wake up in the UK after going to sleep in North America.

But apart from any biogeographically inaccurate rodent-based weather forecasting fantasies, today had a definite Groundhog Day feel about it as I paid my second visit in three days to the patch. As it was a nice day (almost spring-like in fact, whatever any fictitious groundhog might say) I decided to walk around the entire 5 mile perimeter of the reservoir, something I've never done before in my 29+ years of watching the site on and off.

My 'reward' for this ridiculously optimistic trek was a Peregrine, and the satisfaction of knowing that there really wasn't anything else new for the list anywhere around the reservoir.

Friday 31 January 2014

January PWC Update

As usual at this time of year I seem to have gone into a sort of cyber-hibernation. Nothing on here since before Christmas and only one post on Facebook so far this year. But I have been making the effort to get out to Eyebrook for the Patchwork Challenge, with a reasonable haul to show from 6 visits totalling  22.5 hours during the month.
Eyebrook on an atypically nice day
Eyebrook on a more typically grim day (this morning)
Before I started, I had a rough target of 80 in mind for January, and I’ve managed to exceed that. As of today, my total stands at 83 species and 90 points. Not surprisingly given the indifferent weather we’ve experienced so far this year, there haven’t been any major surprises amongst the wildfowl. The Velvet Scoter very unsportingly buggered off before the end of 2013, leaving the Ring-necked Duck as the only noteworthy duck present. I say ‘present’; in fact it’s been absent more than it’s been present this month, and I only saw it on my first visit. But that was enough to get it on the list with its very welcome 3 points.

By far the best bird of the month was a female/imm Merlin over the dam on the 17th – this was one I really didn’t expect to see during the year, and a definite bonus, despite being only worth 2 points. Other highlights were a Water Rail at the inflow on the 22nd (another unexpected one), the regular Barn Owl on the 17th, and a Willow Tit on the 25th. Other bits and pieces worth mentioning are Little Owl (first bird of the year), up to 6 Smew, Kingfisher most visits, 1 Lesser Redpoll and a Chiffchaff.

Birds notable by their absence so far include Mandarin and Red-crested Pochard, both of which I saw in December, Grey Wagtail and Mistle Thrush. Ridiculously, Starling very nearly made it onto this list as well, until I saw a small flock flying over the dam this morning! There are also no Goosander or Pintail at Eyebrook this winter, and no gull roost, although I did pick up Yellow-legged Gull on the 25th.

So far I’ve had at least one addition to the list on every visit, but I don’t expect that to continue in February! I’d be happy with 90 species by the end of the month.