The Portland Association spoke to Martin Cade, the longtime Warden of the Portland Bird Observatory and Field Centre, which has been based in Portand’s Old Lower Lighthouse since 1961.
This is my 31st year working at the Bird Observatory. I’d been visiting regularly since my teenage years when I first became interested in birdwatching. After a spell doing contract work for the RSPB a job became available at the Bird Observatory as assistant warden, and I’ve been here ever since!
My interest developed for reasons that have always been a mystery to me: my family had always been interested in wildlife but not in a really serious way so it’s always rather puzzled me as to why I suddenly borrowed a pair of binoculars and a bird book and started cycling off into the countryside looking at birds in an increasing serious way. I don’t recollect any single cue for this and although I fairly soon acquired like-minded friends the initial venturing out was very much solitary exploration – quite strange really!
It’s nice meeting and chatting to the regular folk who watch this area but if I’m out birding in a non-professional way it’s often a solitary thing – rather like the way I started out – and I quite like that. There is a lot of talking to visitors that goes with my job so maybe I like to get away from that when I’m birding on my own. These days birdwatching is a huge interest – the numbers involved are far higher than when I started out 45 years ago – so there’s maybe not the kindred spirit feel to meeting the occasional like-minded soul that there was back then.
I have a reputation for saying it exactly how as it is on the blog: if the weather’s rubbish or the birding is poor I say so and sometimes folk might get the impression I’m in a miserable mood about things but that’s actually pretty well never the case – you do get rubbish days but I’m perfectly happy taking the rough with the smooth.
We’re very fortunate indeed that due to a generous bequest by the founder of the Bird Observatory, Miss Helen Brotherton, we do have ‘fall-back’ funds in the bank so the current difficulties with Covid-19 aren’t quite so bad for us as they are for other similar charitable organisations. We’ve also got a strong base of supporters who pay a membership subscription so we do have a small income from that even if our core income from providing accommodation has completely dried up for the time being.
My favourite view on Portland has to be the view from our patio here at the Bird Observatory – a great vista that encompasses a huge swathe of the sea, the Bill lighthouse and our grounds that are so good for migrant birds.
There have been plenty of great highlights over the years; one of the best was stumbling across a North American bird – a Northern Waterthrush – creeping about in the Bird Observatory garden after it had been blown across the Atlantic in a storm. Amazing that something that small – it’s just a Robin-sized bird – could survive that journey!
I don’t have any particular favourites birds – they pretty well all appeal to me and I don’t try to study one in any more detail than I would any of them. Still, I guess I have to be a little down-beat about the birds these days – there really are far fewer of so many species now than there were thirty years ago (and the guys who were here thirty years before that say the same – in those early days of the Observatory in the 1950s there were many fewer people looking, and they had considerably less knowledge than we do now, but they were tapping into far more migrating birds.
You can find daily updates of latest bird sightings on the Observatory website. And you can find out how to become a member of the Portland Bird Observatory and Field Centre here. The Observatory offers accommodation with shared facilities for up to 24 guests in the lighthouse and adjacent annexe, and 4 in the adjoining self-contained lighthouse-keepers cottage. More details here.