Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Mark Thomas - My 'NGB years'

I got off the train at Hull, the wind was cutting from the east, I quickly melted in to the crowd of commuters, I had a mission and it was the 10:20 train to Scarborough.
I made the connection; I sat tightly wedged in a corner, giving the best vantage point of everyone else on the train. The conductor came and checked my ticket, he stared at me but didn't say a word then walked away down the train. I was certain someone was going to discover what I was up to.

I should have been 100 miles away and most importantly at school!
There are certain days in your life that are momentous, days that you will never forget, days that make you what you are.

September 13th 1989 was THAT day for me. I had flirted with the Yorkshire East Coast for a few years, plaguing my dad to take me for the occasional day out birding, once in freezing conditions to see Little Auks off Barmston and another with some ‘grown up men’ from Sheffield when we saw a summer plumaged White-billed Diver off Flamborough (I remember the Peregrine directly over-head just as fondly).
However as a young birder these trips were too infrequent and the ‘coast’ was the holy grail, it taunted me when most of my time was spent birding a wood. Don’t get me wrong Anston Stones Wood was my classroom and hunting down Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers was every moment as tense as a September Locustella at Spurn. I learnt the basics and, most importantly, shared in those experiences with a small band of other young birders, we were ‘openly birders’ at school, we suffered the consequences but wore the badge with pride. School reports were full of rather negative comments from teachers, particularly about period 5-6 on a Friday, this coincided with Geography and all 6 birders in the same class together – this became our ‘cobra meeting’, where we planning the weekends birding adventure, in the wood!

So September 13th was the culmination of all of that, this was the biggest day of my birding life. Most of my ‘away from the wood’ activities had been at the hands of other people, today I was in control of my own destiny, and it felt just fabulous!

For several days a fall of epic proportions had been taking place on the coast, I had called Birdline each night, secretly from the upstairs telephone – remember that ? I had tried to quickly write everything down but had to call back to get the finer details, millionaires were being made on this habit!
I didn’t tell anyone, next I rang National Rail Enquiries and got all the train details. The adventure was on, I packed my bins and small spotting scope and set off the next morning in my school uniform. I kept telling myself it was a normal day, like hell! – it was Christmas and all my birthdays in one!

I got off the train at Filey and physically skipped along the cobbles at the bottom of Church Ravine. I headed in to the Country Park and sought out the single tall sycamore next to the housing estate, I then began meeting birders. I was at one, in the community, they didn't want to know where I had come from or what I was doing on a school day! I had reached THE tree, I breathed a massive sigh of relief, almost forgetting why I was even there. My daydream burst back to life with the shout ‘showing top right’, there was the most sought after Greenish Warbler ever! I watched it gleaning insects from the underside of the big sycamore leafs, it was calling, it was the field guide and much, much more. 
I remained with the bird for over an hour and then filtered my way along various hedges, taking in a confiding juvenile Red-backed Shrike. I retraced my steps and reached Church Ravine, here I joined another group of birders and enjoyed a Firecrest, Yellow-browed Warbler and a Wood Warbler all together! This really was my best ever day, thoughts turned to getting home and timing that with the finish of school.

Then suddenly the day took a massive turn for the un-expected, only 9 miles away down the coast birders had just found a Booted Warbler at Bempton. I caught the whispers and excitement. Suddenly a tall young birder offered me a lift to the bird, he was going now. I had come this far! I got in the car, he told me what he was expecting the bird to look like and the fact it was a new bird for him, he even asked if I had seen one before – I replied by saying that I was bunking school!

We pulled up and both jumped out of the car, little things like that made my day – I had finally met birders who were adults but acted just like kids! The bird was showing at about 30ft distance clinging to grass stems in a small hollow (dell) in the car park. It was milky tea colour (check the next cuppa you have!) and was rare, very rare! I had connected with this amazing bird because I had actively taken control of my own life - that was far more educational than anything I could have learnt at school that day. I quickly drew the bird in my notebook, the equivalent of the modern day DSLR! The drawing was poor but it didn't matter, it was my proof. I really could not have been any happier, nor could the other 50 people now present, such a positive scene, birds have the power to do that.
The finale was ‘calling in’ at Flamborough where I added Red-breasted Flycatcher and Barred Warred to the day, place and life list ! Both birds in the same garden opposite the lighthouse.

Time had slipped by and suddenly I panicked I was going to be late home from school, no fear this day was not going to let me down in any aspect, my secret driver (Chris Mills) was going back to Nottingham and was happy to drop me at the bus stop in my village on the outskirts of Sheffield on the way past.
I mentally locked myself in my bedroom at home and wrote up the day in my notebook, then promptly hid it! The next day at school, I was on a high!

At a very local level we had a new approach to birding, it took us ALL beyond the wood, on trips with the local RSPB group to Spurn were we all added Isabelline Shrike and thousands of Goldcrests, to being filmed on a TV programme about birding with the late Yorkshire celeb Michael Clegg, to actually being passionate career conservationists.

I am massively in support of NGB and AFON and encourage everyone to help in any small way.

-Mark Thomas
Mark is a Senior Investigations Officer at the RSPB, setting up protection schemes for rare breeding birds like Bee-eaters and also investigating wildlife crime and catching raptor killers. Away from work, Mark spends most weekends on the Yorkshire coast at his birding and ringing site at Buckton. Mark is fascinated by weather and migration.

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