Birdwatching is arguably Britain’s most popular hobby; it’s certainly something that can be enjoyed by groups, and the experience enhanced by shared trips, as Val Baynton discovers by talking to the trip organisers of the RSPB North Staffs Local Group.
Hailing from the south coast and initially studying earth sciences because of the enthusiasm for nature he developed as a child, Ian Worden eventually joined the police force and settled in Staffordshire. His interest in the natural world, and in particular bird watching, was ‘put on hold’ as family and work commitments increased, and it was not till 2007 that he was able to devote more time to these leisure pursuits once again. Ian met members of the RSPB North Staffs Local Group after inviting them to come along to investigate young peregrine falcons that were roosting in his local church tower and, having made contact, he joined the group himself. He’s now Coach Trips Organiser and he runs the monthly Sunday outings with his wife, Anne.
The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) has over one million members, and over 220 Local Groups, which organise a variety of activities including days out to discover and see birds in their natural habitats, run by birding enthusiasts throughout the UK.
The RSPB was founded as a charity in 1889 and its work is supported by a nationwide network of Local Groups, run by volunteers. The groups organise events including walks, talks and fund-raising activities, and each acts as a local forum for enthusiasts to learn more about birds, conservation and wildlife.
The RSPB North Staffs Local Group is a typical group, founded over 30 years ago and currently with around 200 members, ranging from 20-year-olds to octogenarians! Monthly trips, taking place from September to early June, are organised by Geoff Sales, Peter Durnall, and Ian and Anne Worden. To cater for all the needs of the group, they have developed three types of trip – a full-day coach trip on Sundays, a mid-week ‘Bins and Boots’ short walk and occasional car-share trips running on both weekdays and at weekends. Although birds are the prime interest, trips sometimes take in other aspects of wildlife, such as butterflies. The social and health aspects are also important factors for many of the members. Geoff says, ‘I joined to take my interest in birding further, and to meet like-minded people. Since I’ve retired, it means I can do more trips and I find it’s a good way to make friends and meet new people.’
Membership of the group is £5 per year and trips are costed out individually, with most members also joining the RSPB, local Wildlife Trusts, and the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust (WWT), thus getting free entry into the reserves they run. Any surplus monies at the end of the year are donated to the RSPB and following the 2014-2015 year, Geoff Sales was able to send a cheque for over £2,500 to the charity. Affiliation to the RSPB as a group means that there is also insurance cover for group activities.
The Sunday trips led by Ian Worden are usually to nature reserves run by the RSPB, local Wildlife Trusts or the WWT, and occasionally to private reserves such as Paxton Pits, near to Huntingdon. Staffordshire is well located to travel routes in several directions, so a three-hour journey time allows the group to take in reserves in Yorkshire, Cumbria, Norfolk and Wales, ensuring there is plenty of diversity in the programme over each nine-month period.
Ian and Anne plan the year’s itinerary a year or so in advance as the group’s events calendar is published every September. They try to include favourite reserves such as Yorkshire Wildlife Trust’s Potteric Carr, as well as places they haven’t visited as a group before, gaining recommendations from other members, from places they’ve visited themselves and from publications such as the RSPB’s newsletter, Natures Home. Generally, Ian and Anne go on a recce before booking the group into a reserve. Ian explains, ‘Even if a reserve has been personally recommended, we find it invaluable to go and see it before including it on the programme. This knowledge gives us confidence that the facilities that we need will be there and that there is good bird watching to be done.’ Hides, for example, are important – the group goes out whatever the weather and, if it’s raining, the hide provides much needed shelter. Another plus point for some members is a good cafe serving a hot lunch. ‘Given the length of the day and that we often don’t get home till mid-evening, many members like to eat at lunchtime so they don’t need to prepare food later on,’ Ian adds. Another practical point is that at smaller reserves, there may only be room for one coach so it’s essential to make an advance booking.
Between 35 and 45 members regularly attend the Sunday trips, and Ian uses Robin Hood Coaches from Rudyard in Staffordshire as the company provides a good reliable service and will pick up from points throughout the Potteries. Arrival at the reserve is around 10.30am and there is a breakfast stop – often at a motorway service station – enroute. The group spends six hours or so at the reserve, returning home for mid-evening, so 12-hour days are not uncommon. Sometimes they set off even earlier – especially when visiting the WWT reserve at Martin Mere Wetland Centre, where they combine the normal bird spotting trip with the annual Bird Fair, or to RSPB Titchwell Marsh on the Norfolk coast. The length of the day is one reason the coach trips are so well supported, because the combined journey and visit time is usually too much for an individual to consider.
During the journey, Ian will give a brief introduction about the reserve they are visiting and welcome any new members. He says that there is often a ‘meet and greet’ from the warden or resident expert when they arrive who will mention any special information or birds to be seen. Members then tend to split up and go round the reserve at their own pace, meeting up to share information about birds and wildlife, and where to see them. Ian admits, ‘We also use phones – on quiet mode naturally – to let other members know if we see something out of the ordinary.’ Everyone is very happy to share their knowledge with each other, and to help and guide any beginners so that everyone sees as big a variety as possible.
Whilst on the journey home, a list is passed round to get an accurate record of what’s been seen. Ian then gives a summary with a total bird count and reminds the group of the date and venue for the next trip.
Ian singles out the RSPB Ynys-hir reserve, between Machynlleth and Aberystwyth on the Welsh coast, as his favourite place because of the variety of habitat and because an interesting selection of birds such as ospreys, goldcrests and willow warblers can be spotted. He also likes to visit Leighton Moss in Lancashire, the largest reed bed in north west England and home to breeding bitterns, bearded tits and marsh harriers, and RSPB Titchwell Marsh because it has good viewing places and excellent facilities as well as many birds such as avocets, bar-tailed godwit and oystercatchers to spot. Highlights of the current programme include visits to RSPB Fairburn Ings in West Yorkshire, WWT Slimbridge in Gloucestershire and RSPB Newport Wetlands.
Ian and four other members of the group have also joined an overseas trip organised and led by birding and photography expert Ashley Groves, through his company Experience Nature Tours. Ashley spoke to the North Staff Local Group at one of the monthly evening meetings and this inspired Ian and others to sign up for one of Ashley’s two-week trips to The Gambia in early 2015. Ian says, ‘The number and variety of the birds present was amazing. One of the most memorable sights was that of a martial eagle that had just caught a monitor lizard and was feeding on the same in a tree at the side of the road. Whilst returning from a cruise on The Gambia River, near Tendaba camp, we suddenly found ourselves in the midst of two pods of dolphin swimming in the sunset. These were just two of the many wonders that can be found in this quiet part of West Africa.
Retired engineer and media technician Peter Durnall volunteers as a warden for Staffordshire County Council Countryside Services, working in the reserves and country parks around the Staffordshire Moorlands, checking facilities for visitors and conditions for birds and wildlife at each location. He also uses his expertise with a camera to photograph and film birds and wildlife, and one of his films, Wild North Staffordshire, has won an international award. Peter co-ordinates the monthly ‘Boots and Bins’ walks for the group, and leads some of the walks, especially around Leek.
Bins and boots
The monthly Tuesday trips run by Peter Durnall have the catchy name of ‘Bins and Boots’ – bins being the popular term for binoculars. Although co-ordinated by Peter, there are a variety of leaders for each walk, depending on location.
Generally around 10 to 20 members go on the Tuesday trips, which are generally timed to last between two and three hours, and people travel by car to the reserves and country parks within a 20-mile radius of Newcastle Under Lyme. In the 2015/2016 programme, visits include Apedale Country Park and Sandbach Flashes.
The leader for the day will usually have visited the park or reserve prior to the visit and, as with the full-day trips, new members are always welcome and there are two or three powerful ‘bins’ that they can borrow, if required. ‘The spares also come in useful if a regular member forgets to bring their own along,’ says Geoff Sales, who leads some of the Tuesday morning walks and car-sharing outings (see panel below). Typically walks start at 10am and are over by 12.30pm, allowing plenty of time to see a good selection of birds. Once everyone has arrived and is booted up, the leader for the morning introduces the reserve, giving a little of its history and an overview of bird species that might be seen – these will vary according to the season. Guiding the walk, often taking in more isolated parts of the park, the leader points out the best spots to see birds and other wildlife, and makes sure all members are able to see each species. The walks are leisurely, allowing for everyone to cope with the varied terrain, which usually includes steps, slopes and muddy and potentially slippery footpaths, but there’s plenty of time for chatting as well. Members bring drinks or snacks to eat enroute if they need to, but also sandwiches for an informal picnic-style lunch at the end of the walk – weather permitting, of course! As the walk finishes, the leader will remind members of upcoming dates including evening meetings, the next Sunday trip as well as the next Tuesday meeting.
Geoff has been a member of the RSPB North Staffs Local Group for around eight years, and since retiring from his work as a laboratory technician at Keele University and a therapist specialising in complementary medicine, he’s had more time to dedicate to the group. He acts as leader of some of the Tuesday morning walks and the car-sharing trips. He has also become Group Leader of the North Staffs Local Group in the last year, which means he has additional responsibilities for the smooth running of the group such as arranging the evening meetings and being the point of contact for the RSPB head and regional offices, as well as organising committee meetings and AGMs, and answering emails from the public including those about injured birds. He is also arranging a county-wide birders’ conference to run in March 2016.
Geoff organises the car-sharing trips, which take place every six weeks or so on a mix of weekdays and weekends, allowing members who do not have their own transport to visit reserves that may be 30 or 40 miles away. There are usually up to four cars, the cost of petrol is shared between passengers and a good spirit of comradery is engendered by the fact of sharing transport. Typical locations are Carsington Reservoir in the Derbyshire Peak District, Venus Pool in Shropshire and Belvide Reservoir near Brewood, Stafford. Lunch is either in the on-site café or people bring their own sandwiches. Like the Tuesday morning field trips, the car-sharing trips are ideal for people new to bird watching, and being closer to home are less intensive than the Sunday coach trips.
Val goes bird watching
Val was delighted to be invited by Geoff Sales to go along on one of the Tuesday ‘Bins and Boots’ field trips, and she choose the October visit to Deep Hayes Country Park, near Leek in the Staffordshire Moorlands.
‘This was the first time I had joined a bird watching group and also my first visit to Deep Hayes Country Park, and I thoroughly enjoyed the experience, being made to feel very welcome by the 15-strong group. Peter Durnall was leader for the morning and his expert knowledge of the park meant we learnt a little of its history and how it originated as a reservoir for the nearby Potteries as well as seeing some unusual birds. At the outset, we headed to an isolated part of the park where redwings and fieldfare were feasting on autumnal berries. The two-mile walk was at a leisurely pace, and there was plenty of time to halt to admire the birds and to discover other wildlife such as an extensive badger set, or to take in the magnificent autumnal colours. We also visited a hide and saw nuthatches, coal tits and dunnocks feeding whilst elsewhere there were migrant wigeon and teal swimming on the pools around the park. The highpoint was spotting the brilliant blue flash of a kingfisher, and following it as it perched in bushes on the far side of one of the lakes and dove for small fish. I was lucky to be lent a pair of powerful bins, and I was amazed at the detail that could be seen! The morning was a lovely way to enjoy the rich variety of nature, and I look forward to repeating the experience in the not too distant future. Many thanks to Peter and the other members of the group.’
The RSPB was formed in 1889 to counter the cruel trade in plumes for women’s hats, a fashion responsible for the destruction of many thousands of egrets, birds of paradise and other species. Concern earlier in the century about the wholesale destruction of great crested grebes and kittiwakes for their plumage led to such early legislation as the Sea Birds Preservation Act of 1869 and the Wild Birds Protection Act of 1880, but the continued wearing of ever more exotic plumes triggered further action.
Initially, the society consisted entirely of women who were moved by the plight of young birds left to starve in the nest after their parents had been shot for their plumes. The rules of the society were simple – members discouraged the wanton destruction of birds and interested themselves in their protection, and Lady-Members refrained from wearing the feathers of any bird not killed for the purposes of food, the ostrich excepted.
Some of the society’s staunchest supporters were the very kind of people who might have been expected to wear the plumes such as the Duchess of Portland, the society’s first President, and the Ranee of Sarawak. Leading ornithologist of the era Professor Alfred Newton lent his support and the cause gained widespread publicity and popularity, leading to a rapid growth in the society’s membership and a widening of its aims.
Today, the RSPB has a broad mission as a campaigning charity working to save threatened birds and wildlife, the special places they depend on and the environment that supports them. Its practical
land management and cutting edge policy work is supported by sound science and more than a million members, including the world’s largest wildlife club for young people.