Were now at the end of this magnificent guest post series and how better to conclude it by a post by no other than Wirral & Cheshire birding legend and my birding hero Allan Conlin. There is so much that I have to thank Allan for as he’s been so genouros in sharing his outstanding birding knowledge with me which I’m deeply grateful for me as its assisted me so much developing my bird identifcation skills and that he’s always giving constant support which always boosts my confidence. What I have to thank Allan for the most is being the first person in the birding community to believe in me, the night after finding my first twichable rare find, 1st winter Grey Phalarope at Seacombe Ferry in January 2015, Allan gave me his number and said that the next time I find something exciting give us a bell. This coming from a person who I’d heard so much about and I admired so much was nothing short than a dream come true. There’s just so much I could say about Allan such as at the age of 14 he had found one of Cheshire’s first Caspian Terns off Hilbre Island, or that when we went out birding together one day at New Brighton we came across a pale phase Juv Long-tailed Skua (lifer for me!), or about his sheer dedication to his patch Leasowe Lighthouse which always throws up multiple scare and rare birds throughout the year. Allan is such an outstanding birder respected by all and is a true inspiration, I hope that you’re as captivated by his post as I was reading it.
When – did you start birding?
I took an interest in all things linked to natural history from about the age of seven. I used to watch the ground breaking underwater films by Jacque Cousteau, which were then screened on Anglian TV; older readers will remember that network. I was fascinated by this underwater world which undoubtedly influenced my educational choices and ultimately my career. I never deviated from the desire to work on or in the world of marine life. I am lucky that I continue to work in this field today. By the age of 8 or 9, however, I was very much interested in birds, particularly sea birds and by the age of 10, I was a fully paid up member of the Young Ornithologist Club (YOC). At thirteen, my parents received the first of several school reports suggesting that if I were to put as much effort into my educational studies as I did bird watching, I would do much better. This was the start of things to come!
Who – Got you into birding?
My father introduced me to birds which started my interest in birdwatching. Every Saturday morning he would take me to either Storeton Woods or Arrowe Park. It was fantastic! I clearly remember seeing my first Coal Tit, Great Spotted Woodpecker and Siskin. My father, to be fair, only had a passing interest in birds and he enjoyed the walk just as much as he did the birds. It wasn’t long before my passion really developed and I took my first trip to Hilbre Island; I am privileged to remain a life member of the Observatory. There, I tried a spot of ringing and I was encouraged by the late John Gittins and Peter Williams. Here my knowledge increased exponentially whilst I also enjoyed the unrivalled beauty of the Islands. After a few years I decided ringing wasn’t really for me. I wanted to develop my birding and identification skills in the field, and so I began to visit places such as Frodsham, Inner Marsh Farm and of course, Leasowe Lighthouse.
Other people who hugely influenced me in my early years of birding include Ted Abraham, John Jones and Colin Twist. The latter two names, both stalwarts at Leasowe Lighthouse, where of course I now spend most of my time.
Why – Do you go birding? What drives you?
Learning, challenge and fresh air. I enjoy continually learning about birds. It fascinates me to learn about the new identification criteria for a given species of bird or to watch the change of distribution patterns. There are numerous examples of this but in my time Yellow browed Warbler, whilst always a thrill to find on Wirral, has gone from being a major local rarity to an expected autumn migrant – fascinating. Or the amazing colonisation of the Wirral by Little Egret. I remember seeing Wirral’s first in May 1989. I enjoy the challenge of birding – looking at weather patterns, predicting a bird’s arrival and then going out and trying to find new birds, particularly migrants. There is so much to consider – wind direction, the time of year, whether it is too sunny, too dull, too much rain or too little rain. For me, it’s great fun testing yourself, testing your knowledge and testing your ability. If none of that ‘clever’ stuff comes off, then at the very least I will have spent a great day outside in the fresh air, generally with some great company finishing off with a bacon butty at the Lighthouse café.
What – is your best birding moment?
Like many of the previous authors for this section, choosing one particular best birding moment is difficult to single out so I’ve narrowed it down to two in particular. If I am lucky, one of my best birding moments happens annually at the Lighthouse when, during April, I will find one of my favourite birds feeding in one of the paddocks – Ring Ouzel. It took me a long time, or what felt like a long time at the age of 15, to see my first. Ever since, I get the same huge buzz from seeing my first of the year as I did when I saw my first ever.
The second greatest moment for me occurred in 2010 however, it has it’s beginnings in 1981 during a childhood stay in hospital, at the age of nine. ‘Auntie Jean’, a neighbour of my grandmother, gave me a bird book with a message written in it. ‘To a very brave little boy’. I remember thinking at the time ‘I’m not brave, I have no choice’ but tightly tucked into my hospital bed I read the book avidly until I came across a photograph that stopped me in my tracks. A photograph of a Light mantled Sooty Albatross. I had never seen a more stunning looking bird with its subtle hues of browns and greys and of course those incredible white eyelids. I decided I had to see one the minute I left hospital. That was until I looked at their distribution and realised they only lived in the southern oceans and Antarctica – my nine year old heart sank. Devastated and with nothing to alleviate my disappointment, I closed the book, the matron switched off my overhanging bed lamp and I went to sleep dreaming of the bird I would never see. However I never lost hope of seeing my dream bird from ‘Auntie’ Jean’s book of birds.
Thirty years later, in 2010, I was lucky enough to visit Antarctica. There were so many new species for me to see. It was a truly incredible experience, however, whilst I was ticking off various petrels, penguins and albatrosses ,one species eluded me. One bird was always at the forefront of my mind and I couldn’t pretend it wasn’t. Despite all the other fantastic birds, wildlife and icebergs I was seeing, I would be disappointed if I didn’t see the one bird I had waited many years to see. Then, after 11 days at sea, my 30 year wait was over as a shout went up from the stern. “Light mantled Sooty Albatross at two o’clock!!” I didn’t need my scope and to be honest, nor my binoculars, as the bird flew the full length of the starboard side of the ship’s hull. It then doubled back for another fly by before disappearing over the ocean waves never to be seen again. We never saw another during the rest of the trip! My thirty year wait was over. Although I never shared the significance of this bird with my travelling companions it was great to be able to share the moment with the Wirral team who were with me at the time – a great privilege and a truly memorable moment that I shall never forget.
The Future – What do you think the World of birding holds for the future?
It is hard not to feel a little saddened when you see what human beings are doing to the world. One of the biggest threat to birds, in my view, is the threat to habitat and green space. We, as a species are intelligent; we are generally healthier and living longer; there are more of us doing so. This is no bad thing of course. But it is a fact that the world as a whole is over populated and I see the issue worsening. The pressure on infrastructure, housing, intensive farming activity and the search for more exotic ways of sourcing energy invariably means bad news for our outside spaces and their associated birds. Sadly I see a time when birds will only thrive in designated reserves such as Burton Mere Wetland and Martin Mere as an oasis of space surrounded by housing developments, wind farms or solar power fields. As fantastic as these places are it would be a sad day if that happens.
However there is hope! It is clear to me that there is a surge of new birders and conservationists coming through who are passionate about the natural world. A quick trawl of the internet and Twitter and you will find any number of enthused young people all willing to do what they can in an effort to have their voices heard. The nature of modern day communication and social media means the latest generation are able to do this in a more structured, cohesive and effective way, a way my generation never could have and I have no doubt they will succeed in their efforts. The new generation need to continue to lobby future governments to put a greater importance on the environment than they do on the economy and fiscal growth. Of course this sounds a bit like utopia but we do need to redress the balance and quickly.
As has been mentioned previously I think technology will continue to play a big part in birding. I know people reading this paragraph will think I’m still stuck in the dark ages but I am still impressed by mobile communication. When I think back to the days of using the phone box to call bird line at an eye watering cost in order to find out what birds you were missing seems incredible. Mobile phones have revolutionised ‘local patching’ and it is rare these days that a good patch bird is not multi observed as a result of immediate mobilisation thanks to instant mobile news – fantastic.
I think those birders that keep copious notes and field sketches is commendable and maintains a much loved tradition and art form. However as a way of recording and describing a bird, photographs (which do sometimes lie) are very much the future and it’s becoming much easier for most birders to have a light weight, super zooming bridge camera that allow at least a record shot to be captured; an invaluable tool for modern day birding.
In an age where games consuls such as play stations, X-boxes and Nintendo reign supreme it takes someone of supreme strength of character to go against the grain and take on a hobby that by many is seen as nerdy or geeky. It was nerdy when I was at school so I can only imagine how much harder it must be these days for a budding naturalist. Their efforts should be applauded.
What I see Elliot and his peers achieving today, is for me, truly inspirational and gives me hope that the future will be a bright one and one filled with birds.