So it's time for another "13 Years Wilde" guest blog and today's fabulous post comes from David McGrath. I first got to know Dave through Twitter and then I went on one of his guided walks at Marton Mere to see the Long Eared Owls that winter there. Since then we have been birding, rock pooling and looking for Hen Harriers in the pouring rain together. Dave is one of the mentors for A Focus on Nature and has a head jam packed with knowledge. He is often kept company on his wildlife adventures by Frank, a very friendly Labrador who I have also met quite a few times.
An email arrived asking if I would be prepared to do a blog about how wild I was (or wasn’t) at the ripe old (sorry) tender young age of 13 - that sounded like a good challenge so I’ve delved deep into the memory banks...It was after all rather a long time ago now, only a couple or three years after the first moon landing, stereo music had to be played on something the size of a small wardrobe and although TV programmes were filmed in colour no-one I knew had a colour telly to watch them in all their technicoloured glory. The world really was a very different place nearly 45 years ago.
For a budding naturalist school was as awful then as it surely still is today – it was all indoors and totally focused on passing exams and going to the best university possible, the ‘wrong’ type of people worked outside and you didn’t want to end up becoming ‘one of those’. The only good thing about school was the playing field which was a long mile walk away and right on the edge of town. I tried to avoid rugby like the plague but the muddy sodden field regularly had redshanks, curlews, and occasionally even golden plovers on it, until 30 or more boys started to kick a ball around of course; cross country wasn’t the devil’s invention many kids find it to be I was quite good at it and there was additional interest as the circuit took us past our uncle’s farm and along the edge of the woods where we could look and listen for any birds while we ran. It was on a cross country run I heard my first willow warbler singing from those woods. In the summer school sports turned to cricket and athletics, both involved a fair bit of standing around giving ample opportunity to take in nature’s sights and sounds.
Every Sunday afternoon the family would visit Nan who lived near the school playing field and she would often take us out down the lanes blackberrying or just walking her dog if it was the wrong time of year for foraging. I can still taste those superb blackberry and apple pies, none have ever been better – not even come close – she had a great knowledge of the countryside or at least knew how to cook everything it provided. For readers born in the 21st Century in the old days a blackberry was a tasty succulent wild fruit not a phone, not that many of you have one of those these days.
The norm back then was playing out with your friends at weekends and holidays, street football in the winter, cricket and tennis in the summer – watch those WINDOWSSSSSS!!!!!!!!!!!! - and for more adventure bike rides out into the nearby countryside or down to the beach for some bird watching, making dens and generally larking about.
There were a couple of other lads in my school year that were interested in nature but my main mates I went adventuring with went to different schools but lived in our street. An ancient pair of binoculars of my Granddad’s served me well as we explored the local woods, fields and ditches. Some of the things we found back then have now all but disappeared, water voles, corn buntings and cuckoos were common but we never saw kingfishers, sparrowhawks and buzzards. With the Observers Book of Birds in my pocket and the old binoculars round my neck I’d cycle round the area listing off what was seen, almost exclusively birds at this time, plants just weren’t interesting apart from somewhere for birds to nest in, mammals other than the water voles, hares and rabbits didn’t seem to exist, we knew the names of a couple of butterflies but the insect world was more or less a total mystery, fish on the other hand were a bit more interesting especially if big enough to catch and I spent quite a lot of time in the holidays sat by polluted farm ponds waiting for a small roach to bite.
There was a wood called the Woodam which was quite special as it had tree sparrows in the hedge down the lane and willow tits in the wood itself which made a change from the house sparrows and blue tits I’d see in the garden every day, it also had blackcaps which I always thought of as rare and unusual at that time, more likely I just wasn’t very good at seeing them or identifying the song. One place we regularly went was down a farm lane we called Ratty Road because every time we cycled down it we’d see a rat run across in front of our bikes – it now leads to a cracking little nature reserve, Lunt Meadows, the speciality there then was greenfinches of all things, they were in the Ladybird Book of Garden Birds but never ventured into anyone we knew’s garden. They apparently only occurred in mature large gardens not small ones kids kicked footballs round in all summer. If we went to the coast we’d often peer through the fence at the docks across what is now Seaforth Nature Reserve, when we a little older (and braver) we’d end up sneaking through the fence, probably flushing everything we wanted a closer look at!
The holidays meant work and my younger brother and I would be sent to the farm (we weren’t allowed to stay at home and get under mum’s feet unless the weather was really bad). Haymaking, baling straw or picking spuds were the usual jobs but it got us out in the fields where there were numerous lapwings and skylarks. We used to lie in the fields pick a skylark and take bets on whose would come down to land first.
One of my birding friends had a brother a little older than we were and if he felt so inclined he’d offer to take us further afield than we could comfortably get on our bikes…on the train! We’d cycle to the station and then get the train to the dunes a few stops to the north, it was like another world! My regular local coastal patch was right at the southern end of the dune system but the dunes were tiny by comparison to the dunes here.
Once past the weird dune heath, which was like the Trough of Bowland we had picnic days out to without the mountains, the pinewoods and sandhills felt almost as alien as the jungles and deserts of Africa. Here were squirrels, red ones of course there were very few greys in the area then, and really exotic birds like great spotted woodpeckers, even magpies could be found here – the gamekeepers had no truck with them at all around the farm consequently they were as rare as hen’s teeth. With luck on the right day a lizard would be seen, I know now that they weren’t sand lizards just because they were spotted on a sandy path. It would be at least another 10 years before I would see my first proper sand lizard.
I’m not sure if I was 13 or 14 but it was around that time he took us even further on the train as part of a YOC (Young Ornithologists Club) trip to a really special place, Leighton Moss RSPB reserve. I’d never been anywhere remotely like before in my life! There was even a comfortable hide from which to look across the lake and reedbeds, not like standing on a cold beach so cold that my fingers once froze to my binoculars, this was sheer luxury - - actually it was little more than a glorified garden shed if my memory is correct, now it’s like someone’s sitting room with huge panoramic windows to look through. I can’t remember much of the birds I saw other than my first ever long tailed tits and to this day I still smile when I walk under the very same tree.
Another fabulous place we went on the train was Delamere Forest in Cheshire, a really long way away. Again I can’t remember much of the visit and don’t think I’ve ever been back since! But I do remember waiting for the train home to arrive and watching the swallows and house martins nesting on the eaves of the station building on the opposite side of the track. It’s funny how certain things stick in your mind and others don’t; I’m sure we saw much more exciting birds that day and they both nested in good numbers around our farm buildings so they were already very familiar but somehow that’s all I remember of the trip.
I had another birding mentor too. The young lad who worked in a sweet shop near school was a birdwatcher, he’d have probably been about 10 years older than me and had a camera and not just a bog standard Brownie Box camera but proper one with a long lens, a serious luxury in those days. He had been allowed to build a tower in the local woods overlooking the heronry (Ince Woods Fin, is the heronry still there do you know?) and would show anyone who came in the shop grainy black and white photos of ugly young herons. They were brill!!! The photos might have been rubbish by today’s standards but bear in mind this was something no-one at that time ever got to see, herons tend to nest at the top of tall trees so all you can see from the ground is the bottom of the nest and there were hardly any wildlife documentaries and the few there were concentrated on the African savannahs not British wildlife. He also had photos of the pink footed geese flocks. How on earth had he got those, the geese flocks were so flighty you couldn’t get within a mile of them? It was when we asked that question he offered to take us out over the mosses on our bikes to look for them.
I’ve looked on google earth to see what that location looks like today but I can’t find it – must be somewhere near Ormskirk I think) We waded through ditches and crawled across ploughed fields on our bellies getting filthy dirty and soaking wet in the process but we did get close enough to be able to get decent views of the geese and he got his photographs. Another excellent birding site he took us to was Haskayne Cutting, a disused railway line and now another excellent little nature reserve!
I suppose it was he that fired our imagination for bird and wildlife photography – not that I’m any good at it – but when I could afford a Kodak Pocket Instamatic I’d carry it everywhere trying to get that wildlife shot – the camera was absolutely useless for anything other than snapshots of your friends or a holiday landscape but that never seemed to put me off. The magicube flash however was a fantastic fuse for ‘hydrogen bombs’ when coupled with our train set/Scalextric transformer…hmmm maybe I should have been a physicist rather than an ecologist???
The annual family summer holidays through my early teenage years took us to much farther flung places like Anglesey, Cornwall, the Lake District and the Norfolk Broads all of which offered new and exciting wildlife-ing opportunities even to the point of helping decide which university I would eventually attend – UEA for the birding and fishing at least as much as the degree, if not more!
The rest they say is history…
Dave McGrath - Now fifty something years old.