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Published in Bird Watching Magazine, August 2013
Like A Kid In A Sweet Shop
It’s a sunny, but windy, day at East Yorkshire’s birding hotspot of Flamborough Head. A small crowd has gathered outside a row of cottages near the tip of the headland in the hopes of seeing an Iberian Chiffchaff that has been reported in the gardens there, a rare migrant which looks to the untrained eye much like its far more common cousin.
That news of this rarity got out is due to the area’s newest patch-watcher – author, tour leader and all round pioneer of the trickier aspects of bird identification, Martin Garner, who had moved to the area from Sheffield just weeks before I met him in late April.
“I’m like a kid in a sweet shop really,” says Martin of his recent relocation, beaming the infectious grin he has whenever talking about ornithological matters. “As a patch it’s a bit hard to work -I know I won’t get any sympathy! But I do a loop walk in the morning with the dog, that includes a pool that had a Citrine Wagtail last year, a Blue-headed Wagtail on it this year – and Alpine Swift flew past there this year. Then I do Holme’s Gut which I had Osprey and Ring Ouzel in two days ago. North Marsh, which had a Baikal Teal on a couple of weeks ago, is also part of it.”
Originally from Cheshire, but having lived in various locations during his life including Canada and Northern Ireland, Martin can clearly remember the events that sparked off his interest in birds.
“It started when I was about ten or eleven, we’d just come back from Canada as a family,” he says. “I’d seen wildlife before in Canada, things like Moose and bears and stuff, but it was a Swallow that was nesting near our house that grabbed me.
“I watched it collecting mud off the road to build its nest, and I was very fortunate that I got close to it, and you could see all the colours on it, and then it flew up and it was building this nest. I was trying to work out – how is it building something, this tiny animal? It’s building something and it’s going to put some eggs in it, and then it’s going to migrate a long way, and it was mesmerising.
“I asked my dad, ‘what do you call someone who’s a birdwatcher’? And he said ‘an ornithologist’. And I thought, ‘I’m going to be one of those when I grow up’. It took me about 40 years before I thought I might be able to call myself one!”
Martin spent his teenage years patch-watching at Frodsham Marsh in Cheshire, where his early finds included Long-billed Dowitcher and Pectoral Sandpiper. It was one experience in particular that he can pinpoint as setting off his particular interest in bird identification, when another Pectoral Sandpiper had been found at Frodsham.
“I didn’t get down there until mid-afternoon, and most people had wandered off” he says. “I located the bird, and I was like ‘Oh, this doesn’t look like a Pectoral Sandpiper, it’s a bit strange’, but it must be because people I really respect had said it was. Somebody else joined me and I said to them: ‘Why isn’t this a Sharp-tailed Sandpiper? I mean I know they’re really, really rare, and I know it seems ridiculous, but why isn’t it?’”.
Well-known birder Tim Cleeves turned up on site, and between them they worked out that it was indeed the scarcer species they were seeing.
“We put the word out, and 400 people came the next morning. And what it did was it made me have the confidence to have my own integrity, not to be bolshy or anything, but to say if you genuinely think that’s not right, to question.
“Sorting that bird out with Tim really made me realise it’s OK to ask questions. Even if your questions are wrong, you’ll learn better.”
Martin is perhaps best known for his work helping birders get to grips with identification conundrums previously thought of as difficult, or even impossible. In particular his work with gull identification has led to much of our understanding of Yellow-legged and Caspian Gulls.
“I think the Caspian Gull issue was really exciting to be part of,” he says. “I did it with (bird artist) Dave Quinn, we had worked some stuff out, which was opening new doors. And we took the bold step of trying to say ‘look at these things differently; look at structure, moult and wing tip patterns’. And I still meet people today, who I hold in high esteem, who say to me, ‘that really changed the way I think’.
Many birders may say they don’t ‘do’ gulls, but Martin says they should be more keen to get to grips with them.
“The great thing about gulls is they’re accessible. Right slap bang in the middle of the country, in the West Midlands, you can see all kinds of birds. You can see Iceland Gulls from Greenland, you can see Glaucous Gulls from the Siberian islands, you can see Caspian Gulls from the Ukraine, and you can see Yellow-legged Gulls from the Mediterranean. How cool is that?”
Martin has authored a book, Frontiers in Birding, in which he and other birders explore many of these kind of issues, including such thorny ID problems as female Green-winged Teal, Stejneger’s Scoter, Yelkouan Shearwater and Black-eared Kite, to name just a few. His ‘Birding Frontiers’ blog also continues this work, and has recently opened out to be a multi-author platform for a number of like-minded birders from around the world.
An illustration of Martin’s persistence and knowledge is the identification of the Iberian Chiffchaff, which happens to be present on the day I visit Flamborough Head. Co-found with fellow Flamborough birder Gaynor Chapman, it was the first ever non-singing bird of this species identified in the UK, with Martin clinching the ID on its finch-like call and brighter plumage.
Martin’s experience and reputation has led to him being voted in as one of the ‘Rare Men’ on the panel of the British Birds Rarities Committee. When asked what tip he’d give those sending records in for acceptance, he answers emphatically.
“Be honest. Because all the rarities committee birders are bird-finders themselves, they know how it works. They know it really well. So when somebody is blagging, or exaggerating, copying out of Collins, making up how confident they were, you can spot it a mile.”
Martin says there’s still many birding frontiers to be tackled, and future plans include his involvement at the first ever Migration Festival at East Yorkshire’s other migrant hotspot, Spurn Point. A weekend of events will encourage us to get more involved with seawatching and visible migration.
“I think it’s the best migration place in Britain to be honest,” he says. “We could get 15,000 Swallows in that morning, or we could 20,000 Meadow Pipits. We could get sea birds; we could get all four skuas. You’ll have a good day whatever. We think it’s time to open that up a bit. Even if we had no rarities we would have an amazing time.”
Before we part I ask Martin to sum up his birding philosophy.
“I never want to lose the engagement and enjoyment I got out of the first Swallow, it’s as simple as that,” he says. “So one of my things this year was seeing these two little Goldcrests at my feet, and just watching them thinking – they are amazing.”
Joining the small crowd outside the cottages, I finally get a glimpse of the Iberian Chiffchaff, a shade brighter than a Common Chiffchaff, but so easy to overlook. A rare bird from across the sea, with a story and its own identity, that teaches us to all take a leaf out of Martin’s book: Keep looking, keep learning, and above all, never stop asking questions.