Friday, 7 February 2020

Remembering the Bird Pub

For two years in the late 1990’s (when I was in my late 20’s) I lived in Poole, in Dorset, on the south coast of England, having moved there from Manchester. Although I was working as a nurse in the local hospital, my real reason for moving to Poole was so that I could do as much birding as possible in a part of the country which I knew had some great birding hotspots and lots of birders.

One evening a week, for almost the whole time I lived there, I headed down to the Blue Boar pub in the town centre, to meet up with a group of other birdwatchers to talk about birds - what birds they’d seen that week, what rarities might be around, what trips they had planned, tricky questions about bird ID, bird-ringing, conservation etc. etc. Numbers varied although it was hardly ever less than about ten people, and sometimes much more. To a non-birder it probably sounds really geeky and a bit boring but to me it was something I looked forward to every week. It was the first time in my life that I had had friends who were interested in birds - and I don’t mean just vaguely interested, in a ‘feed the birds, know what a Chaffinch is’ kind of way. These were SERIOUS birders, some of them with  British lists more than twice as long as mine was at the time, and who spent nearly all their spare time birding. The group was very varied and included RSPB employees (as you might expect), a teacher, a golf-course groundskeeper, a trading standards officer, a bank manager who was also an extremely talented bird artist, a hospital microbiologist with a world bird list approaching 5000 (it’s over 8000 now I believe), the co-founder and CEO of a now global cosmetics chain based in Poole (30 seconds on Google should tell you who this was) and several young birders who, like me, had relocated to Poole specifically for the birding. Some of the other people  (unlike me) might actually have passed as 'cool' to a casual observer in the street. I finally knew that if I was weird and a bit boring, it wasn't because I was a birder (😏).

Quite a few of us were fairly committed twitchers/listers (i.e. birders who chase around the place following reports of rare birds to add them to their lists) and some of them even had special bird-pagers (cutting edge technology at the time) to alert them immediately when a rare bird was found anywhere nearby. For those without pagers (e.g. me) there was Birdline Southwest (which I discovered you could listen to for about 10 seconds, free, on a pay-phone before it cut off - enough to get the headlines and decide whether it was worth putting some money in). I became skilled at cadging lifts with those twitchers that had cars and managed to add 58 species to my British list in 1997. I also regularly ventured along the coast to Weymouth and Portland for potential lifers, and I would frequently bump into others from the Poole bird pub group while I was there.

However, many people in the group were very committed to encouraging local birding in and around Poole Harbour. We had an annual competition, the Poole Harbour Birding League (or something like that) in which you got points for each species you saw in the area. Scarcer birds got more points and you got bonuses for lifers and for rarities you found yourself. A ‘telephone-loop’ ensured that all local bird news got to everyone who wanted to know - if you found a rarity or interesting bird you phoned the people on either side of you on the loop and told them. They then passed the news on to the next person in the chain until everyone knew about it. Within a few years of me leaving, this was superseded by mobile phones and the internet, but it worked well at the time.

Although we birded the whole of Poole Harbour (a large natural inlet made out of many bays and islands), there was one particular area, Lytchett Bay, which we had a special interest in and members of the group used to go there frequently to record all the birds, including roosting waders and many other species of wetland birds. It was all privately owned and we had to go along the side of a sewage farm to get to the water’s edge, and then record what we had seen in a notebook, which was kept in a water-proof box hidden behind a garden wall (the owners were friendly). In 2013, after years of faithful work documenting its importance by local birders, the area became an RSPB reserve (RSPB Lytchett Fields), and is now acknowledged as one of the most important wetland sites in Dorset, but at the time it seemed like a secret site that no-one else knew or cared about.

As well as the weekly pub meet-up there were occasionally other social events such as quizzes, guest speakers, bird races (teams have 24 hours to see as many bird species as possible in a certain geographical area) and trips further afield (the Isles of Scilly (a major rarity hotspot every October) and a three-day mini-cruise to northern Spain (literally thousands of shearwaters, petrels and other seabirds in the Bay of Biscay) being two that I particularly remember).

Since then, I have been lucky enough to be able to travel all over the world working for and with birds and I have made many more friends who are as nuts about birds as I am, but I've never found anything quite like that group in the pub in Poole. I've heard that the weekly bird-pubs don't happen any more in Poole. Several of the people involved are still there, working hard for the protection of the harbour's birds and habitats, while others have moved away (at least one has had an even more globe-trotting life than me, working as a guide for a specialist bird-tour company). 

I would really love to be able to do something similar in Middlesbrough, where I live now. However I think maybe that particular time and place (which I was able to dip into for a brief period) was something unique, partly because of the people who were there and the very special part of the country we were in. Having said that, Teesside and the areas around (Hartlepool Headland, the North Yorkshire moors and coast for example) are also amazing for birding and there are hundreds of birders here, so if any of you are out there reading this and want to try and replicate something like the Poole Bird Pub (or are already doing it), give me a bell and save me a seat. Mine's pint of IPA.

Thank you Terrry, Shaun, Mark, James, Steve, Ian, Ewan, Nick, Nick and Jackie, Nigel, Roger, Robin, Mike, Chris, the other Ian, Stan,  Andy, Tony and many more whose names I've forgotten, for taking a shy, rather awkward and inexperienced birder under your collective wings and letting me be part of your cool birding group.