Recollections: Daphne Watson

My early Wash experience is inextricably linked with Clive Minton, though not right at the beginning. I started at Newnham College Cambridge (reading Natural Sciences for Medicine) in October 1960, already with a strong interest in Natural History but with little experience of birds apart from those that nested in our Isle of Wight garden. The Cambridge options were the Natural History Society and the Cambridge Bird Club. It was soon clear that CBC provided reasonably priced coach trips on many Sundays, leaving at about 6 am and transporting birders to wildlife-rich areas, usually on the coast. For me they gave relief from the hothouse academic arena of Cambridge and a way of meeting people with similar interests from both Town and Gown, and I was hooked from the start. Wicken Fen, Cley, Scolt Head, Walberswick, Southwold, Benacre Broad, Hunstanton and many more came within reach.

With a few new-found friends (Jeremy Brock, David Brewer, Richard Wilson, David Pearson and many others later) we could reach species of which I had never even heard.  A key event was a rail trip to Hunstanton one winter morning and a walk out along Hunstanton Pier (now long demolished, as is the railway from King’s Lynn) on a rising spring tide. I remember being overwhelmed with emotion and wonder at the sheer spectacle of the flypast of tens of thousands of Oystercatchers and un-numbered swirls of Dunlin and Knot. Plus good flocks of Common and Velvet Scoter quite close on the sea and rafts of Eider and Long-tailed Ducks, the latter with tails blowing back across their heads in the wind, and the bonus of an unexpected life bird, a Purple Sandpiper dibbling in a gutter on the promenade and wittily renamed a ‘Gutter Snipe’.

With good teachers, the use of my new binoculars (Beck, an East German company, the purchase £42 carefully calculated from an annual grant of £365 pounds to live on) and infectious enthusiasm from friends, I was immersed in the whole new world of birding. At the same time I had come across some ringers, folks who like Clive had started to ring at school. They included Chris Reynolds, Chris Mead, Steve Boddy, David Pearson and the members of the Great Dingle Bird Club at Walberswick. Chris Reynolds took me out to Cambridge Rifle Range where there was scrubland hosting Lesser Whitethroats among many more species. We went for Swifts and hirundines at the then ‘old-fashioned’ Cambridge Sewage Farm and tried for Snipe on Silver Street Meadows, cyclists streaming past as we flushed the Snipe to the nets in the dusk.

From this came a succinct invitation to go to The Wash for a weekend’s ringing, 12-13 August 1961. I recall the card in my pigeonhole (there were multiple daily postal deliveries via the university internal mail). I have it still, somewhere. From memory it read ‘5.30 Y5 Christ’s’, and represents the start of my wader-ringing passion. Taking a place initially allocated to Peter Black I turned up at the Y staircase in Christ’s College that Friday afternoon in 1961 laden with wellies, scruff clothes and sleeping bag and we set off in John Phillips’ van in pouring rain. Ten miles out the van suffered a broken half-shaft and Steve Boddy and I gathered what kit we could carry and set out to hitch-hike. We were lucky, having an immediate lift to Ely, a 40 minute wait for seats to King’s Lynn and another easy lift to Sutton Bridge. Hitching was commonplace and regarded as safe in those days. The Sutton Bridge swing bridge, crossing the River Nene on the Lincs/Norfolk boundary at that time was very like the present one except that the road was single track and the second track carried the railway, both swinging together to let shipping up the river to Wisbech  on the peak of the tide. From there we walked the two mile down the Nene east bank road, the Cambridgeshire side, to Wisbech Sewage Farm and the dilapidated cottage that was our base.  Clive, Pat and Clive’s sister Angela were already putting up nets and we went straight out to join them.

Oddly, I can’t remember meeting Clive before that first Wisbech trip in August 1961 though of course I knew of him. He was not one for twitchy coach trips. He had spent seven years at Cambridge and his last year there was my first (1960−61). Mist netting on the sewage tanks and rocket netting on fields bordering the Wash were by then well established and big teams were needed. Rocket nets are very large and heavy so new recruits were valuable, experienced or not. Pat was there masterminding the catering, with Hugh Boyd and Malcolm Ogilvie (from the Wildfowl Trust) also. To someone with very little ringing experience, the seniority of the team was a bit overwhelming but the warmth of the welcome stays with me.  I proved my mettle by plunging in the dodgy welly-deep effluent to put up and extract from nets. The excitement of the huge range of wader species drove me on. I was cold there in August I remember. My new good quality Icelandic sleeping-bag needed supplementing with a coat. That does not happen these days.

At this stage I was still a trainee, without my own rings. Once there was rocket netting it had made sense to form a group for co-ordinated large scale ringing and thus the Wash Wader Ringing Group was formed in 1959 to purchase rings and co-ordinate the field ringing. However the ringing at the sewage farm, waders, shelduck and garden passerines, was done with individually-owned rings, species allocated in rotation. This practice continued for several years at Wisbech and into the 1970s with mist-netted birds elsewhere, especially in Lincolnshire for winter mist-netting on saltings.

It seemed that Mr Bell, the Sewage Farm Manager, ran the gloriously old-time ‘farm’ solely for several field ‘tanks’ full of degraded effluent arranged to be drying out at the time of the autumn wader migration. Patches of ‘mud’ and water made a perfect invertebrate-rich substrate and it was a twitcher’s paradise for rarities as well as attracting large numbers of commoner species. That night (12 August 1961) I had my first waders in the hand: Snipe and Redshank. I went to bed late and was lured down at 6 am to help ring. The overnight total was 35 birds including Ruff and Common Sandpiper and some Moorhens. Garden nets open during the day close to the river caught a regular flow of Linnets, Goldfinches, Starlings, Song Thrushes, Blackbirds and a Reed Warbler. I wonder if you would make the same catches there today.

On the Saturday, August 13th 1961, we went to Holbeach, ordering food for the next week’s rocket netting (which I did not attend) in Sutton Bridge Co-op on the way. On the high tide, the Holbeach Flushing Creek was functioning and full so we lazed in the sun and bird-watched. Another notch in my wader initiation was watching a flock of 12 Whimbrel calling loudly and circling higher and higher, together with a single Bar-tailed Godwit. They became lost to sight but reappeared about 10 minutes later, the flock now 30-strong and eventually disappearing to the north. We speculated that they were testing conditions for migration. Such evidence of visible migration is not seen very often (though I have seen it since on the Wash and more often in NW Australia) and for a raw recruit like myself, the romance of it all was life-changing.

Mist nets were set again for the Saturday night. Overnight we caught, among other species, a Spotted Redshank, a Golden Plover, a Wood Sandpiper, a Black-headed Gull and an albino Dunlin. This generated some misleading talk about a ‘Snowy Stint’. We caught a Tree Sparrow in the garden net. In the morning we packed up and left, had a picnic on the Nene Washes and then rounded up and ringed, in two batches, 40 flightless Mute Swans, another ‘first’ for me.  By 7 pm Steve and I hitched seamlessly back to Cambridge and had time to shower, change, eat some supper and go to tell John Phillips (who had missed the whole weekend sorting out his car) about the trip. He had missed quite a weekend.

Over 1961−62 winter I did some ringing with Chris Reynolds and others and by April 1962 was deemed competent enough to have a ‘C’ permit. I put it to good use at St Catherine’s point, Isle of Wight where, with the arrogance of youth, I ran a ringing demonstration for the Isle of Wight Natural History Society. Interestingly I ran another demo for that esteemed society this August 2019. I continued to ring around Cambridge and have many more stories in my diaries.

My next time on the Wash was 14−21 August 1962. This was my first involvement with rocket nets.  I have a personnel list for that week. Clive and Pat Minton, Tony Cook, John Beer, Malcolm Ogilvie, Mike Elliot and Gillian, Mike Lock, Steve Boddy, Chris Mead, Jeremy Brock, Richard Wilson, David Brewer, Brian Slattery, David Cabot, Susan Taylor, Gordon Handley, Morley Hedley, the Pilscher family and Dick Cornwallis.

My first task, with Jeremy Brock, was a recce from Admiralty Point. The wide variety of species seen augured well for the trip. Small numbers of Greenshank, Redshank,    Whimbrel, Ringed Plover, Dunlin, Black-tailed Godwit and about 100 Curlew around the saltings, loafing gulls on the plough including 40 Great Blackbacks. Also a flock of grey waders on a bare field, including 50 Grey Plover in full summer plumage with 100 Dunlin, 300 Knot, and a few Turnstone. We left in pouring rain for a well-deserved pint in the pub nearest Wisbech cottage, The Wingland. Wednesday 15th morning we recced again, still in pouring rain, this time the one available cleared field at Terrington. My diary notes that the grey wader flock was 10,000 strong. We returned at low tide to set two rocket nets. With high tide at 7 pm we were in position for 5 pm. I was in the twinkling Land Rover getting superb views of the birds, marvelling at bright red Knot and crisply-black-bellied Dunlin. To quote my diary ‘….the birds seemed to go everywhere except near the nets. Each time the flock rose more Knot would go off towards Admiralty Point until we were left with almost entirely Dunlin. The nets were not fired’.  So nothing has really changed that much. Back at Wisbech we set mist nets and then took them down because of pouring rain, so we had a longer night’s sleep.

Thursday 16th morning rise was 04:30. I should say that in those days we were not allowed breakfast or a drink before leaving. Plates, cups, cutlery, cornflakes and milk, gas stoves, water and coffee were taken with us, together with wrapped sliced bread and sandwich fillings for later. Breakfast was taken once the nets were sorted and markers in position. We went back to yesterday’s Terrington net set, where we eventually fired at 08:30 on mainly Dunlin catching 153 birds including 11 Turnstone, two Knot, a Grey Plover and a Curlew Sandpiper. This was my first field wader catch and my first sight of a rocket net fire. Processing finished at 11.30 and we returned to Wisbech for a cooked lunch. Over the next two days this pattern of setting rocket nets in the afternoon in preparation for catching on potentially morning and afternoon tides on the following day continued and my diary-keeping fades from exhaustion.

On the morning of 17th August nets were set near Admiralty Point and Chris Mead and I were sent out in a shower to look for birds further away. Clive called this ‘oojakapivvying’ but the name was too cumbersome to really stick. While were out we stopped to talk to a shepherd who was near a sheep-weighing machine. Chris stepped on and the needle went to maximum, banging on the stop at 300 lbs. As we chatted the rain stopped and almost immediately we heard the bang of the rockets firing. The shepherd had a tractor and trailer so we jumped in, shepherd as curious as we were, and went to the catch in grand chariot style picking up Jeremy Brock on the way. I have the totals for that catch, 193 Redshank, 176 Dunlin, 28 Turnstone, 1 Bar-tailed Godwit, 4 Knot, 3 Curlew Sandpipers plus the first-ever Moscow-ringed Dunlin for the UK and a Stavanger-ringed Dunlin among the 17 retraps. We would still be pretty pleased with a catch like that today.

The morning of the 18th saw the nets fired in a potato field at Holbeach. One centre rocket fired erratically, ploughing through the net, so the catch was 90ish Dunlin and a lot of damage needing mending. This was my first introduction to that chore also.

On the 19th morning we fired both nets together for the first time, in a pea field at Dawsmere. This was another disappointment with the rockets dragging their ramps out of the ground and changing a potential 2,000 Dunlin/mixed catch to around 50 Dunlin, fortunately with no casualties. We spent the afternoon back at Wisbech Sewage Farm after Shelduck. Holding mostly juveniles, Redshank, Ruff, Ringed Plover, Dunlin, Common, Wood and Green Sandpipers, Little Stints, together with a smattering of more unusual species, the tanks were perfect for mist-netting at night, not deep but quite sticky underfoot. During the day there were baby Shelduck to catch in the wetter tanks. Stripped to old plimsolls, shorts or swimmers and t-shirts  we carried a 60′, coarse, two-shelf wader net between hand-held bamboo poles and walked out from the bank towards a Shelduck family with the net taut between us. The youngsters dived as we came close and we dropped the net so that the lowest shelf string was low in the water. We could fish out one or more each time. We didn’t speculate about the bacteriology of the soupy green ‘water’ but it stopped the ducklings seeing the net and didn’t seem to do us any harm.  We caught around 40. Most had rings and wing tags on already from previous occasions. Overnight and towards dawn mist netting continued with a catch including the usual Ruff, Snipe, Redshank, Spotted Redshank, Greenshank, Common and Wood Sandpipers.

Monday 20th August nets were at Dawsmere but the poor recces were confirmed and we did not fire. Evening tides were moving in to darkness so we spent an afternoon catching 26 Mute Swans at Welney. Gordon and Hedley were there to catch waders and very disdainful of such activities but the rest of us found it fun. We looked for a Sand Martin roost where we were told there were huge numbers by day, but were unsuccessful. Nets were reset at Terrington for the next day.

Tuesday 21st looked promising until a USAF Super Sabre (so I was told) swept across our field at 100 ft on three successive runs, driving away the biggest flock of the week, maybe 20,000 grey waders, leaving us with a few Turnstone that we half-heartedly moved around until 90 minutes after the tide. Once again, little has changed in terms of frustrations but the flocks are smaller. Back in the Wisbech garden we caught a scruffy brown finch and failed to identify it. It eventually died in the hand and was identified by the British Museum as a female Indigo Finch, an escaped cage bird (always thought likely but confirmed by the pattern of the feather wear).

‘Bird of the week’ was said to be a very rare Little Egret seen at Holbeach on the ‘Oystercatcher field’ by some but not refound. There were also Garganey around but I did not see one. The total rocket net catch for the week was 1,371 new birds and 55 retraps including seven overseas Dunlin. We seemed dogged by bad luck and some were disappointed but to me it was all new and fascinating.

Daphne Watson


Cover photo: l-r Pat Minton, Clive Minton, Daphne Watson, taken some time after 1987.