05 Nov Happy Birthday Peter Clarke

Peter Clarke’s 90th

This week Peter Clarke celebrated his 90th birthday. That news, shared on his daughter Penny’s blog, brought back so many memories of my childhood on the Norfolk coast.

Peter was the founder, and warden, of the Holme Bird Observatory and lived in the adjoining house, The Firs. The Observatory was established in a belt of Corsican pine behind the long line of dunes that bordered this exposed North Sea coast. In the lee of the dunes, the reed fringed Broadwater Marsh, increased the attractiveness of the site for wildlife. Growing up on here it was difficult not to be entranced by the variety of birdlife that came and went. Tamarisk and sea buckthorn bushes provided shelter and, on the seaward side, the marsh was studded with samphire, sea aster and sea lavender.  Scattered throughout the dunes were old brick defences from the Second World War.

The location of the reserve, with its bushes providing shelter and food, meant that it was a first stopover for birds on migration. Peter established a Heligoland trap to capture, ring and record species that passed through and over 300 species have now been recorded. I wasn’t old enough to ring birds but I learnt a lot from watching the process.

Peter had the patience and ability to explain to us about wildlife. I remember the Great Grey Shrike’s larder – a bee impaled on a thorn – and seeing a Wryneck for the first time. But perhaps what has stayed with me most is the autumn migration count. We sat on the sea wall watching birds coming in from the north. It is difficult to explain the impact of those moments. Watching the grey line where sea joins sky, aware of the rolling waves below, the smell of salt on the wind, wrapped in duffel coats with thermos of tea to hand. Imperceptibly small flecks in the sky grew closer, took on shapes and colours and then tumbled into the bushes – goldcrests, thrushes, short-eared owls, warblers.

One year I made shell mice out of old whelk shells, with string for tails, and sold them for £1 each. I donated the money raised to the Observatory to buy bird rings. Peter carefully recorded the number of every ring I had donated and the species of bird receiving those rings. I still have the book.

Peter stayed on at the Observatory until his retirement in the 1990s. I had long ago grown up and moved away but have worked in nature conservation ever since and will never forget those early years on the Norfolk coast.

Happy Birthday Peter Clarke and thank you.

Oystercatcher card from a linocut by Melinda Appleby



Header photo of Holme Bird Observatory: Norfolk Ornithologists’ Association