Copulating Hairy Pecker!
24th April 1986: We (Martin Garner and myself) could barely contain our excitement, we were eventually on our way after months of planning! Stopping briefly to collect Martin Gilbert (hence forth known as Gilly) and Ian Igglesden (Iggy) for our Wardair flight from Manchester to Toronto. We were in our twenties. Gilly and Iggy were both in their teens (New Generation Birders 1986 style).
We had been planning this trip for quite a while and with whatever information we managed to acquire – most notably Mike Passant from Stockport we planned our agendas.
I remember the flight to North America for two reasons, a: the airline served our in-flight meal and beverages on bone china plates and in, cups and saucers, b: Martin and myself asked and were permitted to look in the cockpit of the plane with the pilot at the controls “can we have a go?” with tongues firmly pressed into cheeks (you wouldn’t even think to ask these days!). When we eventually arrived in Toronto airport and as the plane was taxiing to a stop we looked out of the window and in the daylight a couple of birds were viewable. Gilly said ” bloody hell my first birds in Canada and they’re a snipe and a crow”. I reminded him that they were ticks and the light bulb flickered into life. Anyway, after disembarking we only needed to clear immigration and bins would be unsheathed and primed for spotting…But, there was a problem!
Martin Garner had dual citizenship and this appeared to cause some concern with his former homeland (so to speak) – he had planned to extend his vacation by working a few jobs. We waited in a side room growing more and more impatient as the minutes turned to an hour. Let’s leave him someone muted – the temptation was slowly growing. Soon he emerged with his relevant documentation and we went to hire a car which we would leave in Windsor, Ontario but not before ticking off Niagara Falls and having Red-tailed Hawk and Raccoon in the parking lot (it doesn’t take long before we were using the local lingo). The 200 pairs of Ring-billed Gull nesting on islets within feet of the thundering falls was most impressive.
We drove to Rondeau, an area of old growth Carolinian forest along with extensive coastal wetland and immediately fell into a jet lagged sleep in a compact and cramped hire car. The outside temperature was below freezing and inside the car was kept above that level by the increasing fumes of methane emitting from one or more of the party.
The next morning dawned icy but we were fired up and a Belted Kingfisher rattling away perched close to where we were parked was a good omen for the trip. Rondeau was a fine introduction and eased us all in nicely before stopping off at a bar en route to Pelee. Downstairs was a strip club but as keen as we were our tight budget didn’t stretch to any other extra curricula activities. We pulled in our belts and naively girdled our loins and reluctantly refrained from some of the local ‘wild life’.
The drive to our destination gave us the opportunity to catch up on loads of padders and a Killdeer feeding along a roadside verge deserved a closer look. Leamington near Kingsville is the nerve centre of spring migration on the Great Lakes and the sign which greeted us arriving in the town read ‘Leamington Welcomes Birders’ and as it turned out they did in their droves.
We found a strategically placed campsite at Sturgeon Creek close to the entrance and pitched our two plus two-man tents, wedged in among the plush trailers and even posher Winnebago’s. We had arrived and we wasted no time in hitting the trails and Hillman’s Marsh.
The wood warblers came thick and fast, and during one day we counted c900 Myrtle Warblers which was impressive by anyone’s standards. The dream wood warblers were more than we had expected with the outstanding Blackburnian being particularly impressive. North American vagrants to Britain were eagerly sought out and stunning Hooded and Wilsons Warbler were soon gathered, Blue-winged, Golden-winged, Tennessee, Northern Parula, Yellow, Magnolia, Cape May, Pine, Palm, Black & White and American Redstart fell quickly followed by an impressive day tally of 21 warbler species on 21st.
Golden Swamp Warbler
Early one morning and unexpectedly perched low on a branch in an oily black swamp wood… emerged a… Prothonatory Warbler ! Startled, I couldn’t take it all in, the enigma that lay before my retina was too much! My cornea was peeling layers of lens as they evaporated with the beauty that was beholden. Make it stop my eyes pleaded. I wasn’t use to seeing brightly coloured birds in what was reminiscent of an English woodland. We all had similar experiences with these American wood warblers and memories of that old television documentary about Long Point Bird Observatory and their spring migration came flooding back.
We had only hired the car for a couple of days and a one way trip so after spending the morning birding the trails Martin and myself took the car back to the hire company. That afternoon was the first real warm day we had in Canada and there on in, it was wall to wall sunshine. We both stopped off at Wendy’s diner where we gorged ourselves on triple burger, fries, icy coke followed with a strawberry ice cream for $4.60 as if that wasn’t enough we called into a supermarket and bought a couple of cold chocolate milks and quenched our thirst. Martin got hooked on the stuff.
Without a vehicle to get us around we started to hitch back to Leamington and didn’t need to wait long before a Chevy pulled up and a brusk voice said “jump aboard guys”. Martin had a habitat of jumping into the back seat when we were hitching together so he didn’t have to engage in conversion with the driver. “You guys from Australia” our lift said “erm, no mate, we’re from England” I replied. “Hi my names Dibble and I’m a Hells Angel” as he thrust out a hand bigger than a shovel for me to shake. My default sarcasm nearly kicked in and I was really tempted to say “are you giving the chopper a break today, Officer Dibble” but I could feel Martin screaming a silent “please, don’t say anything!!!” from the back seat and I had to rein it in.
The following day saw a glut of new migrants and no bird was left un-binned, Martin and I took the concession bus en route to the point. I decided to get off sooner we then agreed to meet at the point soon after. As the bus was pulling away 3 Evening Grosbeak were perched on a branch above my head. I turned around just in time to shout “Evening Grossers!” to see Martins doleful eyes widening as he was carried away into the distance. It would take him a good 30 minutes to get back to the stop and when he eventually did they had departed. He did get to see them eventually.
“copulating hairy peckers”
Looking back through my notes and an entry reads “copulating hairy peckers” – now that shouldn’t be an entry in anyone’s note book but it was written down in mine! That morning birds were coming thick and fast and I couldn’t write down my notes fast enough. Watching a pair of Hairy Woodpeckers in the act of amor was scribbled quickly and hence the page title. Shortly after I raised my bins on a passing bird but suddenly a red mist obscured my view and on slowly lifting my optics from my eyes to investigate a buzzing sound I was confronted by a tiny Ruby-throated Hummingbird hovering in front of my face… Frodsham Marsh birding wouldn’t be the same again!
The trolley bus was a brilliant idea on behalf of the park authority and saved valuable time commuting up and down the peninsular. A hop on hop off system.
Point Pelee is renowned for its spring migration positioned on a peninsular just off the 42nd parallel jutting out south into Lake Erie and the first drop off point for the north bound birds.
Although we did well for the regular migrants we didn’t set North America on fire but that wasn’t our intention. We did score a Long-tailed Duck, Ruff, a locally rare Willet at nearby Hillman Marsh was another good find and the only one of the trip, an adult summer Laughing Gull (description required), Iceland Gull, a leucistic Ring-billed Gull at the point wouldn’t normally get a mentioned but it had a superficial similarity to a species we hadn’t considered, a Thayer’s Gull, it was perhaps this odd encounter that set a low burn with Martin’s gull kindle and would surface many years later.
One tactic we used was to blag a few lifts to other areas and Martin’s favourite ploy was to tell a random birder we met that there was a report of an American Avocet (very rare) at Tilden’s Marsh and we were looking for a lift. It worked for a while but they soon clocked onto the scam and we had to find alternative ploys.
The evening of the Ruff sighting was historically notable. There was a bit of commotion in the Sturgeon Creek campground with people having BBQ’s and lashings of beer being passed around. We asked what was ‘going on’ and someone replied that they were having a Halley’s Comet party and a trained telescope pointing skyward revealed a pale glow high in the heavens (it wasn’t a patch on Hale-bopp a few years later).
The birding was everything we had and hadn’t expected it was the generosity of local people who made our visit much the better for. Iggy met a local newspaper reporter Alan Cairns and he relayed our story. It just happened to be that Alan was a birder and he asked if we would be interested in being featured for an article to be published in the Windsor Star. It didn’t need a second before he agreed to the idea. The story told of four young British birders who on a shoe string scraped enough money together to travel three thousand miles across the Atlantic to spend three weeks camping/birding in their backyard.
The main advantage was the coverage the article got and the interest from the ex pat community. The morning following the articles publication the visitor centre was awash with requests from people offering their best wishes and evening meals. Alan and his wife Lahring were very generous (Alan originated from NE England) along with Dougie and Betty Wiggins Betty (was Irish) and Dougie (both pictured) hailed from Keighley, Staffs) and Jim Hulme and Julia Burgess (Jim being a scouser) – they all supplemented our meagre funds and were long-lasting friends beyond our holiday.
Now that we were minor celebrities the local birders were happy to exchange news and we benefited in passing on our gen to them. As I have mentioned earlier the concession bus would stop at various points along the peninsular and one of our favourites stops was the much-needed coffee hut towards the point and we would hang out there and Martin got invited to an evening out and away from birding and his mates. That evening he turned up the collar on his washed out denim jacket and dusted off his ruby-red slippers for a night out on the tiles in downtown Leamington. He left the camp ground with high expectations… sometime past midnight and my slumber was disturbed by the tent zipper being forcibly opened with a lot of cursing and then clothes being flung about the tent interior and then a torch beam blazing into my face. “You awake, Billy?” he asked ” I am now!” I replied. It was obvious the evening hadn’t gone to plan and after various items of the tents interior were thrown about with an element of annoyance and frustration he settled down for the night. Still in character he selfishly left the torch on and the beam was pointing straight in my eyes! I muttered two short but effective expletives before drifting off to sleep.
Up at first light and we all set off together before we would disperse later in the morning. We all walked through a boggy wooded area within sight of each other where we flushed out a stonking male Kentucky Warbler perched out briefly. A little further and a small brown stripy headed bird appeared in front of me…I turned slowly to the others and caught their attention and mimed a Marcel Marso impression of a Worm-eating Warbler!!! However, the element of surprise for the bird was short-lived with the sound of branches being crushed under three pairs of feet. The bird disappeared but after we were all assembled and a patient wait, it appeared in front of us and big Cheshire (birders) Cat smiles spread across our chops.
No birding holiday is without its adventures but Martin (Gilly) Gilbert had a tendency to get in more scrapes than most. We all agreed to meet up in the evening at Doug’s Cafe – a local eatery where we’d hang out with local birders Alan Wormington or Tom Hince to exchange news of the day.
Gilly had a habitat of birding off piste and it wasn’t a great surprise not to see him sat at the evening diner later that day but by the time we retired for the night there was still no sign of him. We were concerned but we were sure he was alright (that’s what we were telling our selves) before we went to sleep that night. In the early hours there was a little commotion outside our tent but we were too far gone to care or show any interest and went back to sleep. Dawn broke and after wiping the sleep from our eyes we sprang from our tents to wake Iggy up. Looking inside his tent there was Gilly fast asleep. It transpired that the previous day he had walked along the east shore line but was confronted by a breach in the beach and decided to wade through it to reach the marsh beyond. He recalled that he had wandered for several hours along winding trails and lost his bearing and ended up completely lost. He eventually heard voices and went to find some directions to get back for dinner. Unfortunately, he met a group of boozed redneck fisherman who thought by his accent he was an easy target and wanted to do him harm. He made a tactile retreat and got even more lost but continued his birding. In the dark he found a more welcoming group of campers and they gave him a lift back to civilisation and the campsite at 4 am.
As if that wasn’t enough Gilly and myself were offered a day with one of Canada’s top birders Alan Wormington and he would be driving us about in his prized two door MG midget. Gilly had also got the chocolate milk fetish but after the umpteenth car stop he forgot and left his carton of milk on the back seat of the car after carelessly climbing out of the MG he hadn’t notice the carton of milk falling on its side … glug, glug. By the time we got back from birding in the warm Canadian sunshine there was a distinct aroma of sour milk emitting from the car interior – the kind of smell that permeates upholstery and stays for a very, very long time. Alan looked at Gilly and said “You Klutz” we started calling him a klutz for a long time after that.
A couple of evenings later we were joined at Doug’s Cafe by top American birder Jon Dunn. Gilly never fazed by personalities he mithered Jon to buy him a bowl of ice cream. Jon didn’t know how to react to this sudden request so he had no option other than to order a ‘double scoop’, “cheers mate” was the Gilly’s reply.
On another day we found a grounded bat outside the cafe entrance. We told Gilly it might have rabies just as he was about to pick it up…it stopped him in his tracks! Gilly had an odd persona that was uniquely his own and I’ve yet to meet another birder like him. He could frustrate and entertain at the same time (more of his stories here: Martin Gilbert).
The opportunity to witness Spring migration in all its glory was clearly evident day by day. The birding was exceptional and to encounter a flock of 3000 Red-breasted Merganser on one day. On another day thousands of Bonaparte’s Gull moving ahead of an advancing thunderstorm and its electrical storm lasting for 13 hours. Finding recently grounded migrants being so tame you could pick them off the floor after their long journey. We saw 30 types of warbler and a trip list of 200 bird species speaks volumes for Point Pelee National Park.
It was our first foreign bird watching trip and on it we made friends, we fell out, we had loads of laughs but best of all we birded ’til the Cowbirds came home’.
Like all good times they have to come to an eventual end. Me, Gilly and Iggy caught a Greyhound bus to take us to Toronto airport. We were all very envious of Martin who would be working his way through the summer in Canada and then joining Jim and Julia on a road trip across country to Martin’s former childhood home in Vancouver. I remember when he eventually got home to Frodsham a couple of months later he had acquired a mid Atlantic accent and it “kinda” comes out every now and then.
Travelling back from Manchester airport I was wistfully glazing out of the car window and passing the huge industrial complex of I.C.I works at Weston Point a flock of screaming Common Swifts chased each other overhead. Spring had reached Cheshire. On arriving at my house there was no one at home and I had forgotten to take my door keys with me but the kitchen window was ajar so I climbed through it before climbing into bed and falling into a jet lagged sleep.
Images: Alan Cairns (image 2), Ian Igglesden (images 3-6, 8 & 10-16,21-25 ), Martin Garner (images 1, 17-20, 26-27). Bill Morton (Painting, notebook sketches).
Jim & Julia’s tale
We were just at the start of the spring migration in 1986 in southwestern Ontario, Canada. The pussy willows were swelling with buds, cold rain brought forth greening, insects were emerging… and the birds were coming through on the way to their northern summer habitats. We live in Kingsville, the most southern town on mainland Canada, so we get an extraordinary amount of migratory animals as it’s a convergence of major migratory routes. Birds, of course, but Monarch butterflies and dragonflies too. Nearby Point Pelee National Park can be seen from our front yard – and it’s a place we’ve visited innumerable times over the decades.
So that day in Spring ’86 – we woke up and read the newspaper – and there it was. The article which would introduce us to a bunch of fellows that we’d still be connected with 30 years later. It was a big article: a collection of youthful avid twitchers – bird watchers we were informed – had travelled from the Northwest of England and were camping rough. They had enough for their fare and meagre accommodations, but were still exposed to the elements and by the look and sound of it, could benefit from some indoor warmth, a hot bath or shower, laundry facilities, a bed and some home cooked food.
Jim and I had been married 10 years previous – this marked a dozen years since his immigration to Canada from Liverpool. He felt empathy for these lads – he’d been their age and travelled on holidays to Canada himself, perhaps with a bit more luxury – and an older sister who had landed years before and offered family hospitality. These lads had no one. Just their leaky tent, the cold rain and the quest for bird sighting. ‘Let’s go down to the Point and rescue them’, Jim said. So we did.
We thought they’d be found if we went to the main visitor centre, show the naturalists the newspaper article and ask if they had seen them in the park, if there was a hot birding spot that day – we’d eventually find them. What we found on entry into the Visitor Centre were the lads – with a queue of well-meaning locals booking them for this BBQ, this dinner, this sightseeing. Eavesdropping we overheard ‘Tuesday for a BBQ? Yes, that sounds lovely’. We wondered if our hospitality was going to be either needed or preferred. When we got to the front of the queue, we invited them back to our place – we had lots of extra room we told ‘em. I think Jim’s Scouse accent was that extra bit of ‘back home’ that the lads took a chance on and agreed. So we had guests and we had fun.
When it came time for their Canadian adventure to end and to fly home, we helped get folks to where they needed to go. By then, though, one of them, Martin Garner, had decided to stay on and extend his holiday indefinitely. He was from Frodsham, where one of our best mates lived. Martin was in a unique position. He was Canadian. His parents had emigrated many years before and he had spent some early and formative years in Canada, where his family took their citizenship but eventually repatriated to the U.K. He didn’t need a visa – he could stay as long as he wanted. So he said ‘tara’ to his mates and decided he’d head back to the campground. We felt awkward dropping him off there – with no clear plans, no sure thing. We turned around, headed back to find him walking down the road – we thought forlornly. ‘Get in the car’ we said. When we got back home, we made some plans. Did he want to work? Did he want to just bird? Travel?
Work it was – eventually at the Tropicana Restaurant which had a very busy summer patio business and a steady clientele. Waiting tables came naturally, as did the charm. There were many times when grabbing laundry – work black pants and white shirt ‘uniform’ I’d find telephone numbers scribbled on bits of paper placemats, cheque stubs. He did well with his tips – saved up a bit of cash. And he had fun. I found out funny little secrets – how he loved pumpkin pie – something that in 1986 England was quite exotic. Canned pumpkin – the primary ingredient for said pies – would be a gift that we would bring to him when we visited ‘over the pond’. And a strange liking for rusks and custardy banana? jarred pureed baby food. True comfort food – he loved those little jars, and we indulged him. We had a blast with him at our place – and he whipped my garden into shape, having great skill from his working on nearby farms in Cheshire.
The summer flew by – he connected with local Christians in the de Colores movement – arriving at just past sunrise one morning of a local retreat to greet them with song and celebration. He made friends in many circles – local naturalists, co-workers and fit right in. We had an offer from our good friends in Victoria British Columbia to come west and visit them – and likewise with friends outside Edmonton. ‘Wanna join us?’ Martin gave his notice at Tropicana, we loaded the car with all his gear and ours and headed out. We chose a western route through the States first, with plans on sharing the driving. Crossing at Detroit, we agreed to share the driving – plodding on through the night during the ‘boring bits’, allowing others not on driving duty to sleep until their next shift. Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota… somewhere in Montana we heard ’stop the car!’ – there was nothing in sight – a barren piece of prairie we thought. “Pie billed grebe’ was the cry – I couldn’t even see the little wetland, let alone a bird. We got out, the sighting equipment came out – and there it was, a lone bird out on a distant little bit of water in a depression in the land. The ‘stop the car!’ cry came often, and not at the most convenient times. A good analogy for life in general. Stop. There’s something you need to notice, I know you had this plan, this deadline – but there’s something you need to see…
In Saskatchewan, with a dangerous level of sleep deprivation we handed over the steering wheel to Martin, who was similarly suffering. We barely avoided a collision as his head started nodding, causing the car to dangerously waver. I think he thought he was back in Britain, because he sure wasn’t on the ‘right’ side of the road. His stint of driving lasted 20 minutes.
Got to Edmonton Alberta – or more precisely, Spruce Grove, a town just west of it, and stopped with fellow Liverpudlians Grace & Colin. In those pre-internet days, I’m not sure how all birders connected, but there were definitely tribal drums involved. Instantly Martin discovered – somehow – that there was a nocturnal species walk that he decided to participate in at a local woods. We were downstairs, in a comfy rec room playing cards when Colin heard the back door inch open, obviously Martin trying not to disturb us so late, as it was past midnight. Colin shushed us and mockingly called up quietly imitating his version of an owl ‘ Hoo – Hoot…” “It’s me, Martin,” came the reply, thinking he was just answering the question.
Not sure the night time adventure had yielded any result, but the next day’s request for a good birding destination definitely paid off. ‘I’d like to be dropped off at the tip’, he asked. I had already been schooled in what an Englishman’s meaning of ‘tip’ was – what we’d call a landfill or garbage dump. When you said ‘go to the tip’ near our house, it usually meant the tip of the southernmost part of mainland Canada – the tip of Point Pelee. I’d never heard of anyone wanting to specifically spend the better part of a day at a garbage dump. Which you could smell half a mile away. When we came back to collect him at the appointed rendezvous spot, there he was in all his smelly glory. California gulls, glaucous gulls; he’d managed to tick quite a few off his list. I just remember I needed to launder his clothes. There was no way we were travelling with that in an enclosed vehicle.
We headed west again – to Vancouver and over to Victoria on Vancouver Island. Martin re-connected with a pal of his parent’s from his youth on the lower mainland in B.C., and we had a great visit with friends. Bob and Elaine shared Martin’s deep faith and Bob had recently earned his hovercraft license, commissioned as was to pilot the large craft to and from the World’s Fair site in Vancouver from the Island and the port in Washington State. What a great summer we had – filled with adventure, Martin re-discovering his Canadian roots and making new friends.
It was another scenic route back across the continent to Ontario, and soon enough time to head back to the U.K. It wasn’t until his wedding that we were able to re-connect face to face with him and his family – this time with our little son Elliott in tow. Martin’s path was becoming clear – the natural world would always have some dominion on him, and the cares of the world would also drive his passion. His caring heart has always been his finest quality – and his sense of humour, and his willingness to ‘have a go’.
What a delight that he would have a life and children with which to share these gifts – we aren’t all that lucky. I’m not sure that when you’re diagnosed with what unfailingly is deemed a terminal illness – isn’t all life a terminal thing? – that you arrive at a conclusion that you’re lucky.
And Martin: you’ve been incredibly lucky. A jammy git, as Jim would say. Lucky to have found someone beautiful and talented who like you, wanted a family. To have a healthy, lovely talented family. To have travelled and shared your hope and gifts and to see many parts of the natural world – to be published, to be adored and mentor others, to inspire, to have a laugh and seize the days. Every day.
Julia Burgess and Jim Hulme
Dedicated to both Martin Gilbert & Martin Garner.