This is a previously unpublished extract from Rob Hume's ornithological autobiography, "Life With Birds" (ISBN 0 7153 2181 1). It was edited down for the published version, for reasons of space. We are extremely grateful to Rob and his publishers, David & Charles, for allowing us to present this fascinating material.
From the RSPB I found a contact for the West Midland Bird Club and joined. It was and probably still is the largest of the many bird clubs that cover Britain and Ireland, in terms of membership, and it also covered a large area: the old counties of Warwickshire, Worcestershire and Staffordshire. The West Midlands, as a county, came later. From autumn to spring, the Club produced a cyclostyled bulletin, several pages of A4 stapled together, edited by the Secretary, Alan Richards. It came in a neat brown envelope that I could usually identify before I opened it, and I remember the smell of the ink, barely dry, the feel of it. It was very important to ‘belong’ to a club like this, to be part of something, eventually to see a contribution being made to the Club's bulletins and reports.
As well as the bulletins came a free annual report: the early ones had an oval hole in the cover to reveal a black and white photograph inside, later they became plain covered and stapled and then had a photograph on the front and grew to a sizeable publication with a spine. I used to count how many times my initials appeared against records in the systematic list: more than 80 in some years, competing well with some of the well-known names in Club circles. It seems silly now.
Attending the Club's field outings did not appeal, being always a loner, in that sense, and in any case it was not easy for me to get to the starting points. But after a while we did get to some of the indoor meetings: Dad, who drove me, and myself. It was a mad dash after Dad got home from a long day's work and sometimes we would park the car and run to the Art Gallery in Birmingham city centre where the meetings were held. There was the smell of Dad's suit, aftershave and the leather seats of the Ford Consul, a heady mix, as we drove in to the city, frustrated by traffic delays and anxious about where we might park.
It was a long while, though, before I became more formally involved with the Club. For a while I was on the Research Committee, which met in a room above a Birmingham pub. On one occasion someone half-jokingly suggested that perhaps we might change the name of the committee, so that we need not have to do any research … Talbot Clay chaired it and there were people such as Alan Richards, Tony Blake, Arthur Jacobs, Fred Dale and Graham Harrison involved. Once a year we would have a bite to eat then all go off to count the city centre starling roost, returning an hour or so later to compare results. The West Midland Bird Club did do some good and useful research, and had a history of co-operative surveys such as the Breeding Bird Atlas, which helped organisers of the nationwide BTO atlas to sort out their techniques. Years before, the Chairman, C A (Tony) Norris had conducted a pioneer survey of corncrakes in Britain. Other members of the committee, such as Frank Gribble, were strongly involved with volunteer research work conducted by the BTO.
Occasionally I attended committee meetings of the Staffordshire branch, with Frank Gribble and Bevan Craddock, but generally had little to do with this branch of the WMBC, one that, in many ways, was ahead of the rest of the Club in its conservation activities with Frank and Bevan firmly grasping that role. Bird clubs generally were naturally more interested in seeing and recording birds than conserving habitats.
This lightweight committee work led to a more onerous task, however: I became involved in editing the Annual Report. John Lord had done it for many years; Brian Dean, Alan's brother who later gave up birdwatching, took it on but needed an assistant as the job grew and grew. Far more people were submitting records and some, such as Dave Smallshire, ‘the Belvide man’, were sending in stacks of excellent material, so the Report itself became much larger and analysing the reports was a much bigger job. I helped out with Brian and later as part of a small team with Graham Harrison as report editor. Piles of paper record slips arranged species by species came in a shoe box, needing to be put into some sort of sensible annual review, a paragraph or two of dense narrative and lists of dated records for each species, with tables where numbers permitted. I did this for a few years, even while spending most of the year living away in Wales, but inevitably my move to Bedfordshire reduced my involvement in West Midland affairs. Sadly, I had to opt out of being part of the team that later wrote a substantial book, The Birds of the West Midlands, being unable to afford the time to do it properly.
The West Midland Bird Club, though, was forging ahead, with a fine ‘county avifauna’ (the local bird book) of a modern style, before most counties could boast anything to compare with it. This gave me an insight into the workings of a big bird club, at a time when it was taking on a more important role in the organisation of birdwatching locally (with permit schemes for several sites, club hides and so on), in translating the needs of national surveys, principally BTO-organised, into local support and in regional conservation issues.
The Club went from strength to strength in subsequent years and remains a major influence in midland England and sometimes beyond. It was still run by a small group of busy people when John Ridley, sometimes its treasurer, said “you need to book an appointment to see Alan Richards these days” — Alan was Secretary, bulletin editor, indoor meetings organiser, spokesman, publicity person and several other things rolled into one. Many clubs must have been the same: without a handful of willing people, they would have collapsed. But the willing people may eventually have become unwilling and such duties certainly affected the main reason behind it all, the enjoyment of a bit of birdwatching. Eric Clare took on a new role, running a telephone ‘hotline’ for club members. This was early in the era of birdlines and news services and was a simple extension of the informal phone calls around friends that created an effective network of information on what had been seen, when and where. But I think Eric soon began to feel the pressure and had to limit the time when the hotline was available, simply to get a bit of private time and an hour or two to use his own phone.
Now the Club, like many others, has its own website and its reports, if sometimes a little tardy, remain among the best in the country. It has a new logo, a grey heron with a ruddy duck semi-hidden in the design: for many years it had used a ruddy duck, which I had originally drawn, for the job.
Text © Rob Hume, 2005. Reproduced by kind permission of Rob Hume, and David & Charles.
Watch out for another exclusive, unpublished extract from the draft of Life With Birds, coming soon!