The things we do for birds!


BirdGuides correspondent Graham Gordon has gone to some unusual lengths pursuing a passion for birding. In Part One of a series of three, find out to what extent a dedicated birder is prepared to do any job going in order to fulfil his obsession.

It is now mid-April. As I finally begin to stand up straight again after four months solid bending down in the flower-picking season on St Agnes, Isles of Scilly, I am reminded of an idea that I've been toying with for some time to include in this here 'column' thing of mine: The Things We Do For Birds!

I'm sure I'm not alone in having been gripped so obsessively by birding that I've ended up building a life around my so-called hobby. Some birders of my ken have gone on to become bird tour leaders; some make a living from photography; others write books or magazine articles; some run bird information services. My path has been slightly different. I've decided this month I'm going to record for you some of the crazier employment situations I've found myself in over the past twenty-odd years — mostly endured in the name of watching or travelling to see birds. Perhaps you, too, are of the old school who can relate to some or all of these instances of a life less ordinary? Perhaps, like me, freedom and flexibility to go birding as and when you want to are more important to you than money. As a consequence, you might find yourself having to do the jobs that nobody else wants and in some cases you actually find that you get to enjoy it! 'Old schoolers' will no doubt know of the 'legends' of the 'Shetland lot' of the 1970s. Here's my contribution to the genre...

Alpine Accentor
Alpine Accentor, Spain (Photo: Steve Fletcher)

A few years ago (you probably don't remember) I wrote a piece for these pages about a memorable fortnight on the Isles of Scilly in 1987. The piece ended with me having to hitch 280 miles north overnight Sunday from London to begin my brand-new career in the Civil Service first thing on Monday morning. Despite not having slept for 48 hours — I'd been to Lundy to twitch a Veery after coming off Scilly on Saturday night — I somehow clung on until 4.30 in the afternoon to claim my first hour's 'flexi-credit' while all the other twenty new recruits who'd started that day couldn't wait to be home at the earliest possible opportunity. Hence the exclamation that ended the piece: The Things We Do For Birds! It's taken me nearly four years to develop that theme, but let's pick it up from there, shall we?

At the height of my twitching and listing obsession, Her Majesty's Civil Service was just about the perfect career. With its 25 days paid annual leave, plus up to 18 days 'flexi-holiday' a year, I didn't miss many opportunities for a day off whenever a new bird for me appeared at whichever end of the country. At its zenith, in May 1990, during a fantastic frenzy of twitching madness, I managed to see Pallas's Sandgrouse (Shetland), Ancient Murrelet (Lundy), Alpine Accentor (Isle of Wight) and Tree Swallow (Scilly) all in the space of a week, establishing a sufficiently personal relationship with my boss that I could ring him up at home (or in his local pub) to plead with him for the next day off. One Friday evening at around a quarter to five I was among the last remaining workers in the office (still building up that flexi) when the phone rang to tell me "Great Knot on the Shetlands!" A minute later I had booked the last two places on the British Airways early-morning flight out of Aberdeen next day and was out the office door on my way home to begin preparations.

As well as national twitching, the Civil Service gave me enough holiday to enjoy month-long ventures overseas to Thailand, Israel and Nepal. And then some.... The morning I came back from Nepal, in the depths of a cold, cold British winter, I went up to the boss's desk and asked if I could have this coming Friday and the following Monday off as well. "What for now, you little so-and so! You've just come back from a month's holiday!" "I want to go to Morocco for the weekend," says I. "Go on then, get out of my sight, and don't come back this time..." came the reply. (Twitching Slender-billed Curlew in Morocco was a popular coup for several dozen British birdwatchers in the early 1990s.)

But even all this flexibility didn't entirely satisfy my appetite for more and more birding, greedy little so-and-so that I was. I suppose once my British list got past 400 and I began to venture for holidays abroad, I began to get a touch envious of some of my former university friends who were going off to southeast Asia and Australia for six months off the reel. The desire for some sort of timeless adventure was churning my mind when, one day, I happened to find in the staff circulars in the office (the Civil Service 'rule book', as it were) Code AGI 1701: "an Administrative Officer may be permitted to take up to six months Special Leave Without Pay if, in the opinion of his Higher Executive Officer, his absence is for a cause that will be of benefit to both the Service and the individual upon his return." There were a few other criteria to be satisfied, but in the end I managed to convince them that I was off to take part in an important survey of the threatened wetlands of Australia and southeast Asia, and they agreed to let me go. I spent three months in the forests of Thailand, Malaysia, and Borneo seeing lots of fabulous pittas (including the famous Gurney's Pitta), broadbills, bulbuls, babblers, warblers and yes, I did get to visit the odd marsh or two to have a look at some shorebirds as well.

But once you start you can't stop. Or at least I couldn't. I found it very difficult to settle down back in Britain when I got back, such had been the impact of the freedom and birds I had enjoyed in my six months away. What else could I do to get away? Well, I stuck out the desk job for another eighteen months after that, squirrelling away my savings for the day, in September 1992, when I would quit and get out for good. I obtained a 12-month working visa for Australia and decided to set out and see where the wind would blow me, employment-wise. Starting off in Sydney I began — I can hardly believe this now — selling chocolate bars around the offices of the city. I just didn't have the personality for the job. I was still a shy desk clerk, used to dealing anonymously with the public, not having to confront them face-to-face and risk rejection. If this wasn't bad enough I then took a sales job in the lead-up to Christmas selling cuddly toys — dressed up as an elf! With a big sack of baby seals, monkeys, cats and dogs over my shoulder, and a huge furry gorilla under my arm, I had to get on the buses and trains and go round the offices of the city and try to flog as many of these flipping things as I could. Again, I was useless.

All of this was supposed to give me more freedom and spare time to look at birds, but after a month of living in Sydney earning very, very little money, I could take it no more: Sales was not for me. So I answered an advertisement in the newspaper for 'fruit-pickers wanted' by what turned out to be the biggest privately owned orchard in the southern hemisphere, on the New South Wales/Victoria border. Though this was not the Australian outback, it was certainly a bit more 'out there' in terms of getting to see and getting to know a bit more of what you might call 'the real Australia'. The work was hard at times, sometimes depressingly so, the pear trees were mightily tall and gnarly, the ladders were very heavy, but I got better at it over the course of the three months I was there, and at the end, I began to earn some serious money pretty quickly. There was good camaraderie among the pickers there too; but best of all, I got out regularly to have a proper look at some Australian birds, for two hours every evening, and all day Saturday and Sunday.

Galah, Australia (Photo: Derek Moore)

As well as having been a twitcher in the UK, I was very much a committed local patch birder, luckier than some because Whitburn offers the prospect of year-round exciting scarce migrants. It was always an ambition of mine that once I'd got to know the day-to-day changes on my home patch — among the resident birds, the scarce migrants, and even the occasional rare visitors — that I would be able to graft this 'template' onto a patch somewhere else in the world. In Cobram, southeastern Australia, for three months in the southern hemisphere summer of 1992/93 I tentatively began to achieve that ambition (only tentatively, mind you: the best is yet to come). Twitching; listing; birding, call it what you will: the intellectual desire to see, identify, record and move on from a bird is all very well. But I've always felt this even deeper desire to want to watch, to 'connect' with, 'live' with, 'commune' with, birds — again, call it what you will: 'birdwatch', I suppose, is the less-than-hip word post-Bill Oddie's Little Black Bird Book. In Cobram, around the orchard, along the countryside roads, I got to experience again what it was like to go out at the end of a hard day's work, exhausted, and just to engage in the simple beauty of watching birds like Galahs (a big pink parrot!) and Zebra Finches in their native environment: birds I might have otherwise taken for granted if I'd just been 'passing through'. I learnt how much I enjoyed living, working and birding in the exact same location, without having two and a half hours' commute each day as I had with the Civil Service. My patch list was very modest, but the birds I saw there still hold much meaning for me and over the course of three months there were lots of nice little surprises: a pair of Australian Hobbies moving in for a couple of weeks after previously being absent; a Boobook Owl appearing three nights in a row then never again; the sporadic, but always exciting, appearance of a small group of Needle-tailed Swifts low down in the orchard. There were, would you believe, out there in rural Australia, a pair or two of Blackbirds (established introductions) to provide a touch of familiarity each evening. Best of all I discovered a decent patch of eucalypt forest about two miles from our camp and had engaging looks at Rainbow Bee-eater, Restless Flycatcher, Red Kangaroo and the stunning Red-capped Robin, among others.

Rainbow Bee-eater
Rainbow Bee-eater, Australia (Photo: Marion)

I probably never should have gone back there for a second season, but I did: two years later, when I was on a second round-the-world adventure and needed the cash. The thing was, between these two visits I'd discovered what I still consider to be the grand-daddy of all possible local patches anywhere in the world: Cape May, USA. I'd first visited Cape May for a three-week birding-only trip in September 1992, just before I left the Civil Service. Arriving at two o'clock in the morning and stepping off the coach from New York to the sound of dozens of warblers zipping overhead, Cape May had an immediate visceral impact on one who'd grown up next to the sea thrilled by the phenomenon of bird migration. The trouble is that to get the best out of a place that is famous for migrating birds (as opposed to resident breeders) one is completely dependent on the weather. Sometimes, as in the case of Eilat, Israel, I've had to go back three times before I've seen the place at its very best. I just happened to hit the weather right in my first 48 hours in Cape May (northwesterly winds following a cold front out of Canada) then all was quiet for another fortnight until the same conditions occurred again. On these days there were large, exciting flights of warblers, Bobolinks, Tree Swallows, raptors, and on the other days there were...none! (or very reduced numbers anyway). I needed to come back and stay longer in Cape May if I was going to match my ambition to witness for myself some of the spectacular flights of birds I had read about: 20,000 Myrtle Warblers in one morning, anyone?

Myrtle Warbler (Photo: Matt Bango)

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Returning to Sydney after my first successful season's fruit-picking (success in that I had survived the gruelling three months' hard work and I had A$2000 in cash in my back pocket), I toyed briefly with the idea of returning to a sales job for the remainder of my six months' working visa. But my heart just wasn't in it. I spent May — one of the classic northern hemisphere migration months — moping around Sydney seeing much the same birds as I had done when I arrived in November and decided I wasn't going to spend the autumn the same way. I quickly changed my ticket, scrapped my Aussie work visa, and booked myself a flight from Los Angeles to Cape May. What I'd learned in that short three-week visit to Cape May the previous September was that not only was it the No. 1 bird migration highway on earth, it was also a well-to-do Victorian seaside resort town with dozens of restaurants, hotels and guesthouses offering lots of prospects for seasonal employment. Several young Englishmen — in fact, some of my old twitching mates — had been living in Cape May for the past three or four summers, working the tourist industry from June to August and birding their socks off throughout the Septembers. This was 'Shetland Birders 1979' brought into the 90s and gone international!

It was one thing getting there, but I was very nervous about looking for a job. I'd been a desk worker for four-and-a-half years and a fruit-picker for three months. What hope did that give me for my chances of finding work in the restaurant industry? I could discount any mention of my experience of two insipid attempts at sales jobs in Sydney. Little did I know then that the industry was crying out for workers, and that you only had to be able to spell your name right to get through the door! Being grateful to take the first thing that came along, I spent four hours one afternoon in a small hamburger stall on the seafront. I wasn't actually serving anything, I was just asked to stand and watch and see how it was done. I was relieved that a dishwashing and kitchen prep job came up the next day in the guesthouse where I was staying, so I didn't have to go back and flip burgers for the summer. And then, after just a week of kitchen work at the Huntington House buffet, I landed a plum job in another restaurant, The Jackson Mountain, clearing and re-setting tables: a job known as 'bussing tables' and I was 'a bus-boy!'

It took me a six-page application form, two interviews, and six months' training for my first job as an Administrative Officer in the Civil Service. To become a bus-boy I shook hands with the floor manager, told him my name, and he said "Here's a T-shirt, start tomorrow." Training consisted of: "There's a cloth, there's a tray, there's the knives and forks, off you go." And that became my job for the next five years! Oh what fun we had! I was working in this extremely busy seaside 'diner' that served sandwiches, salads, desserts and coffees at lunchtime, and changed over to proper dinners in the evening. There was a fully licensed bar. There were two huge TV screens at each end of the bar that showed American sports from opening time at 11am to close at one o'clock in the morning. I saw practically every match of the 1994 World Cup (held in the USA) live on the telly while I was working during that particular summer. I worked with a kitchen of about fifteen Mexican guys (all apparently using the same name and social security number!), a waiting staff of some 30 or 40 young American college girls (wahey!) and at least half-a-dozen very friendly and very down-to-earth young Irish students (male and female) who came over every summer on working holiday visas. Two of my British birding mates, Paul Derbyshire and Lee Amery, worked with me in the same place for several summers; and often other birding pals would come in and sit at the bar in the evening at the end of their shifts in various other eating establishments around town. We worked in 90°F heat in the summer (with air-conditioning); it was fast, furious and sweaty; and I loved every single minute of it. We were paid a minimum wage but we got a share of the waitresses' tips and the money was good.

Least Sandpiper
Least Sandpiper, United States (Photo: Kit Day)

And the birding? The extraordinary thing about Cape May from the working birder's point of view was that when there was a flight of warblers (as opposed to the falls we have here) it was always first thing in the morning. Ninety percent of the birds that visit Cape May appear in the first three or four hours of light and then move quickly on. Dawn was always an exciting time, whether we'd cycled the three miles from town to Higbee Beach at the northwest corner of the peninsula (regarded as the premier watchpoint in Cape May) or whether we'd just rolled out of bed and sat watching from our back porch. On good days dozens, sometimes hundreds, occasionally thousands, of birds would be on the move soon after first light. If the winds were right, the small songbirds would be replaced by birds of prey from about 9 o'clock onwards as the key visual spectacle (this mostly in September). At the height of summer, in July and August, we could always get up and cycle to the Cape May Meadows to see what the shorebird passage had in store that day: occasional early-morning movements of several hundred Lesser Yellowlegs, Least Sandpipers or Short-billed Dowitchers, or close looks at Semipalmated, Western and Stilt Sandpipers were our rewards. Very, very rarely did any of us have to start work by eleven o'clock, and often, it might be four, five, or even six in the afternoon before the evening shift commenced. Granted you might have to work until midnight and might not get to bed or to sleep before 3am. But that still give you enough time to catch up with two hours' sleep before you had to be up again to go birding! It was a heady, magical brew, and it was little wonder that a core set of us British birders went back to Cape May summer after summer throughout the 1990s.

Ovenbird, United States (Photo: Kit Day)

Eventually I plucked up the courage to take a job waiting tables — a move that was later to triple my income. First though I had to endure a summer of dishwashing in order to get my foot in the door at Elaine's Dinner Theatre and Haunted Mansion Restaurant, the place with the best tips, where my friend Andre Robinson had already been working for two summers. The idea was that I'd get away from the kitchen and get out on to the restaurant floor as soon as possible, but I ended up getting stuck at the dishwashing machine for almost nine months. Now was the time to remind myself I was only here for the birds, and if this was what I had to do to survive, well so be it. It was the middle of June the first night I went in to wash dishes. There were 225 customers that night. By the end of the week the figure had risen to 300; by the end of the month it was 400; in mid-July the number of customers coming to dine at the Haunted Mansion peaked at 450 and remained there until the end of the first week of September. This was 1997 and the height of the dot-com boom. America was experiencing one of the grandest eras of personal affluence in history and the numbers of people visiting Cape May with disposable income reflected that fact. Four hundred and fifty guests eating three-course meals spelled roughly the same number of dinner plates, side plates, starter plates, cups and saucers. It amounted to nine hundred knives, forks and spoons, and God knows how many soup bowls, pasta dishes, teapots, milk jugs, never mind the pots, pans, sauté dishes (mostly burnt), potato trays (ditto) and all the various other accoutrements that go to make the modern-day restaurant kitchen: all handled and washed by...me. Fair enough, there were usually two other guys there to help most nights and we did use an enormous industrial-strength dishwashing machine to facilitate our task, but still: the plates had to be scraped, the baskets loaded, the machine emptied at the other end, the crockery loaded, the wash area hosed down, the floor mopped. Many a night I didn't get done until after midnight: just, in fact, as the bar, where all my mates had been ensconced for two hours, was closing.

The things we do for birds.

Just for the record, I do remember seeing Brown Creeper, Common Nighthawk, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker and White-throated Sparrow at various times out the back door of the kitchen during the odd five-minute break, and they certainly helped keep the spirits up, but you can be sure I kept nagging at the management to ask them when it would be my turn to don a fancy tuxedo and dicky bow tie and get out there on the floor. Finally on New Year's Eve — one of the biggest nights of the year — I was sent home from the dishwasher at 7.20pm and told to be back in ten minutes with a change of clothes ready to wait tables. One of the waitresses had called in sick at the last minute. I managed to get my black trousers on in the front seat of a friend's car as we dashed through a red traffic light back towards the restaurant. Thrown in at the deep end!

How do I describe this Haunted Mansion restaurant to you? Let's take a room about half the size of a five-a-side football pitch and fill it with about 35 tables, enough to seat 110 people at one go. Granted some of these tables-for-four (known in the trade as 'four tops') will have to abut on to each other such that complete strangers will end up practically sitting on each other's laps, but that doesn't matter, we're all friends here. Granted the young couple sat at a 'two top' out on their first date might end up having to pass the food to the six people seated behind them because even though the waiter has a waist like a pipe-cleaner he still can't fit in the 'gap' between the two tables, but that doesn't matter either. Now let's fill the outer rim of the room with assorted 'furniture' (suits of armour, stuffed mummies, a large animatronic skeleton in an electric chair in one corner and a similar beast sat at an organ in another) and remember to leave room for a small stage for the magician's act in a third corner. Now let's turn all the lights down as low as we can, start the music (Monster Mash or Werewolves of London, for example) and start bringing the guests in, shall we?

The first guests, a family of four, are led to their table in virtual pitch-black darkness while five or six waiters dressed elegantly in tuxedo shirts stand smartly and attentively by the door waiting to make their first move (belying the fact they've just been dashing around like idiots for the past 45 minutes trying to set up and get the room ready). The waiter whose table it is sidles away from his companions and begins to read out the menu (yes, it is a verbal menu, and despite the darkness we are expected to reel off our list of food items and take orders for a three-course meal with barely the brightness of a quarter-full moon). The order is taken, the waiter nods politely, and hastens to the kitchen. By the time he returns with two soups and two salads less than three minutes later, all hell has broken loose. Somehow we have to fit the 110 people into that tiny black room and feed them their three-course meals in the space of one and a half hours, while at the same time their attentions are occupied by the show of guest comedians and magicians and ghostly apparitions that are going on all around them. By the time our waiter has dropped off his first course he already has another two tables of four seated and his colleagues have had a 'twelve top', an 'eight top', 'two five tops', a 'three', a 'four', and four 'twos' seated at almost exactly the same time. Mayhem breaks out among the waiters in the rush to get their orders into the kitchen and to squeeze in and out of the doors as their friends push past them with trays loaded with, let's say, four steaks and a soup. It is practically impossible to retain any true sense of decorum and still meet the target of serving all those 110 people in the allotted one and a half hours while the show goes on — soup gets spilled, a tray of drinks goes down — yet when we have done with the first lot, we boot 'em out, clean up after them, re-set the tables, and then do the whole damn thing all over again. And then we do it a third time! Three shows in one night! Seven nights a week!

Meanwhile in an adjacent room to the Haunted Mansion, sharing the same tiny bar that links the two rooms, 180 people stand (there are only four barstools) awaiting their seating and their show in the Dinner Theatre that is part of the same restaurant. At 7.30, roughly halfway through our second seating in the Haunted Mansion, the orders from the Dinner Theatre will be hitting the kitchen at almost exactly the same time. That's 290 people waiting to be fed all at once.

Great Crested Flycatcher
Great Crested Flycatcher, United States (Photo: Kit Day)

How we kept all that up night after night for five or six summers, I don't really know. At its height there were six British birders working there, either in the kitchen or on the floor, all at the same time, so we had a laugh and the tensions that occurred (the stress level was absurd) were usually quickly sorted out, the birding connection inevitably maintaining the bond we all felt working together. Accidents inevitably occurred. I remember once sharing a table of 26 people with a young Irish girl who dropped an entire tray of 26 drink orders (Strawberry Dacquiris, Pina Coladas, G & Ts, Whiskey and Cokes) right in the middle of the bar floor, right where the 180 people were standing waiting to be seated in the Dinner Theatre. As for myself, at one point Andre and I had learned how to carry two fully loaded trays of soups and salads into the Mansion at the same time, balancing one on top of the other; but one day I let it all go. As I was lowering five bowls of soup and fourteen salads down onto the tray stand, the top tray slid off the bottom one and the whole lot clattered to the floor. We were so pushed for time I just had to shove the pile into a corner with a foot and I ended up serving the entire three-course meal for twenty people with this steaming pile of clam chowder and lettuce leaves next to the table. Strangely, we very rarely had any complaints. Mind you, what with the Mansion's novelty eventually wearing off and the decline of the dollar, I hear now, ten years later, that they are struggling to get more than two hundred people a night there in the summer. It's just possible we only managed to do the ridiculous numbers we did because of the sheer enthusiasm and energy of the British birders who ended up working there, fuelled by their gratitude at being in Cape May for the birds. I don't think many other people would have been daft enough to do what we did, or as inspired. I must admit that I don't think any of us who experienced what we did while we were in Cape May will ever be quite the same again. It was always going to be a very hard act to follow, in each of our lives. But we've all had to move on. Some of my mates have ended up going back to college, earning degrees, and are now working in conservation. What I've ended up doing myself post-Cape May to follow my passion for birds will be the subject of my next piece for BirdGuides.

Written by: Graham Gordon