For the love of Birding: Richard Smith

This weeks “For the love of Birding” post comes from a man who is unbelievably dedicated to both his birding and conservation work. Richard Smith is one the finest birders I’ve ever come across and he’s one of Wirral & Cheshire’s most acclaimed birders, not just for managing the superb Dee Estuary Birding Site which is jam packed of the latest birding news, trends in local bird figures, monthly ringed bird reports and birding events along with images by a multitude of local photographers such as Steve Young, Richard Steel, Steve Round and myself. But Richard is also extremely well known for his work with Matt Thomas in motioning the internationally important numbers of “Icelandic” Black-tailed Godwits, record stands at 4,800+, at Gilroy Nature Park and is always on the constant look out for any colour ringed birds. Richard has been a man of great support, resource and publicity over the years which I’m very thankful and it’s always a pleasure to meet either at Gilroy for the Godwit or for the gull roosts at Hoylake. I hope you’re all as captivated and inspired by his post as I was. Enjoy.

When did you start birding?

I’ve been interested in birds all my life although mostly as a casual birdwatcher. I was lucky enough to take early retirement at 50 in 1998 (unthinkable these days) and I was looking for a project to take up some of my spare time. I’d always been fascinated with computers both at work and at home (anybody remember the Sinclair ZX80?) and the Internet/World Wide Web was just starting to take off in a big way so I decided to combine my two main interests by producing the Dee Estuary Birding website which in turn introduced me to the world of birding – and the rest is history.

Who got you into birding?

My Father. He took me over to Hilbre as soon as I could walk! It was taken for granted that the main topic of conversation in our house was always going to be about birds and their conservation. He certainly wasn’t a Birder in the modern sense of the word and the idea of travelling across the country to see a rarity wouldn’t even occur to him but he was an astute observer and had a good ear, he could identify birds on call alone being able to distinguish, for example, the calls of Chiffchaffs and Willow Warblers. But his main joy was just walking along the Dee estuary shore or over to Hilbre just taking in the sight and sounds of the birds. He was also heavily involved in their protection being a founder member of the Dee Estuary Conservation Group and also played a major role in Red Rocks marsh and sand dunes becoming a Reserve.

Why do you go birding, what drives you?

I just love watching birds. My main interests are bird movements and migration, particularly wetland/sea birds. I’m an obsessive counter of birds and probably the only person who regularly counts the gulls on Hoylake shore! My interest in bird movements led me into recording colour-ringed birds – mostly waders and gulls – and that has also become an obsession.

What’s your best birding moment?

I’ve been lucky enough to have had some great birding holidays abroad including visits to the Camargue, California in winter and both Bird and Cousin Islands in the Seychelles, but my best memory is of a visit to Hilbre on September 16th 2010. It was the last time we had a really large passage of Leach’s Petrels and over a period of five days over 1,000 were recorded. It was blowing a gale on the 16th but dry so I decided to walk over to Hilbre, I arrived mid-morning to find the only birders there were two of my friends, Steve Hinde and Matt Thomas. Matt was photographing the birds whilst Steve was doing the counting, I was just marvelling at the sight as the Leach’s Petrels flew past. Steve and Matt had to leave at mid-day and I took over counting duties. Remarkably, I had the island to myself and found a nice sheltered spot. What followed were three of the best hours of my life as these small birds battled their way through the waves past the island, some within just a few feet of me. At first glance they appeared to be struggling but, of course, they are supremely adapted to life in the open ocean using the troughs between the waves as shelter. There wasn’t a time when at least one was in sight and sometimes, looking down the surf breaking on East Hoyle Bank, I could see several at a time through my ‘scope. Between us Steve and I had a total of 172 for the day, plus four Great Skuas, a Long-tailed Skua, 17 Arctic Skuas and a Sabine’s Gull – a fantastic day.

The Future-What do you think the future holds for the world of birding?

We are very lucky in this country to have such strong wildlife legislation in particularly Special Protection Areas and Special Areas of Conservation under European Union legislation – so let’s hope IF we do leave the EU that the government replaces these with equally strong UK law. We are also very lucky to have such strong organisations such as the BTO and RSPB, but despite all this it is difficult not to be a bit pessimistic about what the future holds for our birds and the recently published Birds of Conservation Concern 4 makes for worrying reading. My hope is that birders generally become more involved in conservation which can take many forms – undertaking surveys for the BTO, volunteering at RSPB Reserves, protecting wader roosts with such schemes as the Dee Estuary Voluntary Wardens or just making your garden wildlife friendly. I know many birders are doing just that so that’s cause for optimism on its own.

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