Nostalgie de la Boue

One hot day follows another in this suddenly golden land, from which we sometimes see distant clouds but rain remains absent from the forecast.

The soil cracks, the streams shrink, the lawn-mowers are thankfully silent and at Pett Pools the receding water reveals a slim silver sliver of mud to which a meagre selection of passing waders is attracted: Avocet, Black-tailed Godwit, Common Sandpiper, Lapwing, Little Ringed Plover, Little Stint.

It wasn’t always like this. No, in recent years the level has held, the mud submerged and the waders went on their way. But from 1975 to 2000 the Pett Pools Project gave them cause to pause.

Every mid-July, a team of SOS volunteers operated a pump with which water from the “Roadside Pool” (which soon became the “Wader Pool”) was transferred to the pool behind – the “Back Pool”, to leave a broadening muddy margin upon which a variety and number of waders now inconceivable would feed. Hopes were pinned on the reassuring chug of the pump borne on the night wind but it was hired only for the initial draining, after which we were at the mercy of the elements. Hopes could be blasted by an early downpour while a prolonged dry spell, albeit mitigated by returning some water from the back pool, would reduce the feeding area to cracked mud, revived by no amount of subsequent rain.

Southern Water Authority staff electro-fished the shallows to rescue floundering Carp (the whole project had been inspired by such an initiative.

There followed a season of hypnotic hours bearing witness to the season’s turn, with waders tugged back & forth by the tide’s lunar drag while birdwatchers remained suspended between twin gravities of birding and domestic responsibility, like players on poker machines, waiting for that one last bit of luck…

Apart from flocks of commoner (but not that common) birds, some rarities were WW Tern, Sandpipers: Pectoral (where, + Temminck’s Stint in 1995, that Joan Medlock told me of the availability of the house where we have lived ever since), Baird’s (where, in 1989, Bob G told me of Kitty French’s suicide), White-rumped, Least (we were in Australia for that one and only heard about it later by letter (no email then)).

Was the early morning better because of lack of disturbance – maybe something that had flown in overnight? Or was high tide the deciding factor, whatever the time of day? Or evening, when birds flew in to roost and the still air echoed to the piping of…well, sandpipers…..

If daylight allowed on return from summer holidays in foreign parts – Pett Pools was the first stop, for birds, for bird news (no mobiles then, no internet).

By October, summer showers and equinoctial storms had refilled the pool, leaving huddled Dunlin hopping between last marginal lumps of rain-wet mud, a huddled tern perched on the depth indicator, a late warbler working its way through the wind-tossed reed.

A report was produced each year.

All this was years ago before Canada Geese, before Ruddy Ducks, before Birdline, when the Pannel Valley was still growing potatoes and there were jetskis on Castle Water. When you saw WW Terns once a year and Sparrowhawks twice. There were Tree Sparrows then but Little Egrets had not yet been invented.

It was Before Barry Yates and the first year was Before Cliff Dean.

Every year, we saw so many wader species, in such a variety of plumages, at such close range, that we were all experts, more or less. Yet when a Stint turned up this week, we really had to think and discuss which it was because we’re now out of practice.

Here’s a roll-call of people from that era. Some are still with us, others not, and I’m sure I’ve missed some: John Ashbee, Cliff Barwood, Kevin Blackman, Pat & Mary Bonham, Trevor Buttle, Alf Davies, Mick Erends, Bernard & Diana Flack, John Gale, John Goodman, Andrew Grace, Stan Grant, Bob Greenhalf, Ralph Harbord, Robin Harris, Geoffrey Harrison, Ted Kennard, Phil Luffingham, Dave Pankhurst, Pete Rouse, Steve Rumsey, Alf & Iris Simpson, Tim Thomas, John Trowell, John Willsher, Malcolm Wilmshurst. On the marsh and beach: Laurie Cooke, William Dunlop, Babbo Osborne.

8 Responses to “Nostalgie de la Boue”

  1. Tom Hyde Says:

    I recall the SOS information point that was manned on a rota with the “hardware” stored at Bernard and Diana Flack’s bungalow. So often it was like a mini bird club with generous exchange of hard won knowledge. I wish that I had the foresight to retain all my copies of the annual report. It would be nice to “thumb through” the Pett Pools Project next winter. Memories flood back of nightime pump watching duty!

    • Hi Tom! I missed you from the roll-call! I believe that information A-board is still around – perhaps at Rye Harbour. As you say, the Pools Project was an information hub at a time before the internet when birders just used to circulate to promising places on spec, but that gradually changed as they began to want a guaranteed outcome. I certainly have some or all of those old reports but I’m not 100% sure where!

      • Robin Harris Says:

        Two others I recall being involved were Ted (Kennard?) – the Gasman – who seemed able to lay his hands on anything from a pair of gloves to a whiteboard – and Malcolm Wimshurst, who had a weekend place along the ‘track’ behind the then-shop.
        When we moved back to Mountfield I gave the ‘A’ board, which my Dad made and Stan (Grant, I think) did the sign-writing needed, to Barry for the Reserve .

      • Ah, thank-you Robin, I just couldn’t bring back those names. Bob G has since reminded me of Cliff Barwood, who is still in Military Road. Can you recall other members of the SOS pump team? There were some who came all the way over from the Far West and I can picture them but as usual the names escape me.

      • BTW, I suspect the A board has now been repurposed to entice visitors into the Gooders Hide for SWT Guide In A Hide events.

  2. mick erends Says:

    woww Cliff, l thought you may have remembered me also about with many here at the time , mainly with my old mate Dave Pankhurst now sadly passed on

  3. mick erends Says:

    I was also there Cliff, usually with my old friend Dave Pankhurst who sadly has passed away

    • Hi Mick! Yes, I remembered Dave but forgot you (and others, but there were a lot and it was a long time ago). I will however restore your name to the Roll of Honour!

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