Graham Rees 1936-2021

A tribute from the Pembrokeshire Bird Group Committee

It is with considerable sadness that the Pembrokeshire Bird Group learned that Graham Rees “Mr Strumble” had passed away. Graham’s name will always be synonymous with “Strumble Head” having spent many years, days and hours patiently observing and recording the remarkable avian passage that occurs there.  His observations of common scoter passing Strumble, for example, provided useful pointers to the timing and numbers of these birds likely to be present in Carmarthen Bay. In a separate account (see below this one), Cliff Benson of Sea Trust Wales, and for many years a close friend of Graham’s, has paid his own personal tribute. Many other Strumblers have also made their own tributes.  

Graham was, among many things, a founder member of the Welsh Ornithological Society (WOS), the Welsh Rarities Advisory Group and a past Chairman of WOS.  He was a recipient of a WOS Lifetime Achievement Award in 2012 in recognition of his outstanding contributions to ornithology in Wales. Between 1981 and 2007 Graham was County Bird Recorder for Pembrokeshire (VC 45) and editor of the Pembrokeshire Bird Report, positions he shared for many years with the late Jack Donovan. Graham was also a long-serving member of the Skomer and Skokholm Islands management committee and was a former British Trust for Ornithology representative for Pembrokeshire.  

Graham receiving his Lifetime Achievement Award from Iolo Williams, WOS President.

Amongst Graham’s other important achievements was the establishment, in 1993, of the Pembrokeshire Bird Group (a section of the Wildlife Trust) and the organisation of two county-wide breeding bird surveys. The first (1984-88) was published in Birds of Pembrokeshire (1994) for which Graham was joint author with Jack Donovan. The second atlas, about 20 years later (2003-07), was published by the Pembrokeshire Bird Group in 2009. For the first atlas Graham produced all the species distribution maps by hand – no digital mapping in those days! During his long stint as Chairman of the Bird Group committee, Graham was actively involved with the organisation and management of the popular annual Pembrokeshire birdwatchers’ conferences and other ornithologically-related events in the county; tasks that he undertook with considerable relish and dexterity.

Graham may not have been an exponent of the dawning digital photography era, but he produced many fine sketches and paintings, illustrating the details of birds he had observed in various parts of the world. Although retiring as County Recorder in 2007, Graham was keen to embrace the computer age and wanted to make sure that county records were accessible for others to see and to use. He was incredibly supportive in the production of an on-line “Pembrokeshire Avifauna” and made major contributions to it – delving into his notebooks and diaries etc to update accounts about species migration patterns and so on. These included analyses of seabird passage records for a number of species observed from his beloved “Strumble”. He also wrote an excellent article about the Strumble story, based on a presentation that he gave at the 2005 Pembrokeshire Bird Conference. For further details here is the link to it.

Graham’s legacy – a lifetime of diligently recording and translating what he saw – will hopefully enthuse and inspire others to do the same.  

Bob Haycock

Chairman, Pembrokeshire Bird Group committee

Graham at Stumble – photo Cliff Benson

A personal Tribute from Cliff Benson

Oh yes, he was Mr Strumble, but he was so much more…

In the several thousands of hours I spent at his side at the lookout I learned something of his past. I think the family moved to Southampton during the war his father working in the Naval Shipyards. As a boy he learned his birding trade cycling around the New Forest, in those days a birders paradise where birds like Red Backed Shrike and Wryneck were then common.

National Service sent him to Catterick where he was soon out and about getting acquainted with the birds of north Yorkshire and then North Africa with the Army, which he seemed to consider to be something of an inconvenience taking him away from the New Forest.

He and other like-minded birders gelled together into what was known as the Portsmouth Group in the 1950’s, true innovators bonded with the desire to thoroughly explore their area and to properly record what they found. And as well as recording the commoner species, they had some great finds (Thanks to Adrian Rogers for reminding me of this paper!)

Nor did he confine himself to the South Coast, pioneering places such as distant extremes, the Scillies and Shetland with the likes of the legendary Ian (DIM) Wallace. All on public transport.

Graham returned to Pembrokeshire in the early 1970’s bringing a wealth of knowledge and experience with him. I met him first at Strumble back in 1979 when I was guiding with Cambrian Bird Holidays. and we introduced him to our newly acquired Optolyth 75×30 draw scope. He spent a little while looking through it, “Nice bit of kit” was his verdict. I think I saw his eyes sparkle!

It was a revelation to us all! Skua Sp. became a thing of the past, the clear bright image obtained through the Optolyth allowed us to see the finer details that helped us to make positive identifications of the different Skuas and other less easy to nail seabirds, massively pushing forwards the esoteric art of sea- watching. And boy did he! Seeing the yellow webbed dangly feet of a Wilson’s Petrel put its identity beyond doubt! Graham’s dedication and robust ID skills (“Let it come round a bit, I am not going to try and put a name to it until I can see it properly”) helped us to add massively to the Strumble list.

By the 1990’s the right conditions would bring birders from all over Wales to our little lookout at Strumble. I used to have to get there before dawn to ensure a space in the shelter for him. By then I had become his main companion on an epic ten-year seven-day week, migrating seabird survey, from late July into October and sometimes beyond 

It was then Graham really upped the ante. He went and got himself a Questar mirror lens scope. Not only that but he mounted it next to his spotting scope on a plate which allowed him to use both on his tripod, locating a bird with the spotting scope and then moving on to the “The big Burner”. I was struggling to keep up with my 60mm Nikon with a 20x to 60x eyepiece.

No way I could afford a Questar at the time but our local camera shop then imported a Russian made version we dubbed the Questarski! I could afford that and even better it had a Barlow-tube that converted everything from a mirror image to normal, unlike the Questar.  With clear and excellent magnification up to and beyond 100 x we were really getting results. Large flocks of highflying black terns at a mile distant were suddenly visible. The little blue-grey protruding feet of a Little Shearwater feeding around a pot buoy…

There was also a camaraderie amongst the “Strumbler’s” that became regulars. Jack Donovan who often cheered up a quiet watch with a snatch of Gilbert and Sullivan, Stuart “Count” Devonald, Peter Tithecott, Trevor Price, Rod Hadfield, Andrew Sinclair, and latterly, Ray Wilkinson and Chris Grayell who illustrated the Pemb’s Bird Report for Graham.  From further afield, Richard, “Ricardo” Davies who seemed capable of spotting birds not far off the Irish Coast! Rich Stonier, man and boy who also picks birds out of the ether, father and son, Pete and Simon Murray. Red and Peggy Liford, Dave, Sid and Mart, the Port Talbot connection, Wendell and the Llanelli gang, Others were before my time such as Nick Lethaby. Last but not least, the man who has picked up the baton and continues to run with it, Adrian Rogers.

So many, too many to name all, such a tribute to the influence of one man and his ability to pull people together in a common goal.

But Graham was not just fixated on Strumble he plodded around surveying the greater majority of the tetrads in preparation for the 1994 book “Birds of Pembrokeshire”, he and the late Jack Donovan being joint authors. Jack and Graham were a great mix as County Recorders, Jack ebullient, massive bird knowledge with a sightly quixotic side. Graham steady, dependable getting the job done. There was hardly an inch of the county he did not know quite intimately. Same for Jack, how many of us could say that?

The internet, blogs and the whole new information highway in some ways relegated the position of County Bird Recorders. Information was out there almost instantly. Like many of us Graham at first found computers intimidating and never really got beyond the basics. It was time for others to take over as recorders, younger more internet savvy types. His health was suffering and his ability to get down to the lookout lessened until in the end he gave up trying, but still wandered around the county enjoying its birds. We shared some amazing times, I would pop round and see him at home, getting kippered by both his and his wife Linda’s smoke! He never gave up the ciggies, “Too late now” he would croak. We would talk of Strumble highlights. The birds, the friends and company, listening to test match special on calm unproductive days… frustration and elation.

So Graham made 84 at close of play, not quite a century but what an amazing innings! He was my Guru and my inspiration… and I could write a book so had better stop now!

Personal Tributes from some other regular Strumblers

From the Strumble Head Seawatching Facebook page

Adrian Rogers: My own first contact with Graham was in1998, a massively inexperienced sea watcher from Bedfordshire at that time (not much sea in Beds.!). So, after some homework, Strumble with its shelter sounded like the place to go. On making a call to the Wildlife Trust I was told to contact Graham Rees, which I did. Basic but important helpful info., chair, scope if you have one (I did of sorts); if you intend to stay long, packed lunch & flask. On arrival, completely overwhelmed, & during my week lifers a-plenty & completely in awe of the regulars led by GHR. First rule, shout out & it doesn’t matter if it’s common or you misidentify it, because they all need checking. After that I was hooked &, as many know, relocated as near as I could get to Strumble in 2001. Without doubt though the moment myself & Graham shared together (& is my abiding memory) is on 23rd August 2005 when an adult Sooty Tern that had been flitting around Anglesey & further north decided to pay us two a visit at Strumble for 4 minutes on its way back south; registering a first for the county & a “lifer” for us both. I am sure Graham would be delighted that, given last year’s showing, Strumble is well supported from far & wide by ” Strumblers ” old & new. Long may it continue & keep his legacy to Pembrokeshire & Welsh sea watching still at the forefront of Welsh ornithology.

Anthony Swann: Very sad news about a wonderful man and vastly knowledgeable birder.

Clive Hurford:  Sad news indeed, he made a significant contribution and passed on his considerable knowledge to a lot of people.

John O’Sullivan: For me one of the joys at Strumble is how people have always “shouted it out”, for years Graham to the Fore.

Lyndon Lomax: When I eventually made my final move to Pembrokeshire, I spent many hours at Strumble Head with Graham.  I learned a great deal from him and not just about ‘The Birds of Pembrokeshire’ either. Those of us who spent time with Graham will never forget him, nor his contributions to those around him and to ornithology particularly in Pembrokeshire. A remarkable man who left his mark.

Mervyn Jones: Very sad news indeed Adrian. A fine tribute to a very fine ornithologist and man. When I arrived in 2002, he gave me a warm welcome and taught me so much over the years I watched there. Always the boss and respected among the fellow Strumblers and an original member of the well-known Portsmouth Group before arriving in Pembs. Rip Graham you will be sorely missed but never forgotten.

Red and Peggy Liford: We first met Graham in September 1984 while we were house-hunting further north and decided to visit Strumble on the way as it had such a good reputation for sea-watching.

Graham was extremely interested that we had wanted to start up a wildlife holiday business and that we hoped to find a property in North Pembrokeshire but alas we had to search in “the wastelands of Ceredigion” (Grahams words, not ours!).

Over the years we visited Strumble nearly every year – and not only when there were strong winds or gales.  We always hoped that Graham would be there to share his knowledge and that we would learn a lot from him. 

Calm weather was good too because we would sometimes have Graham to ourselves and we found out that he knew some of the birdwatching haunts we used to visit on the south coast of England, such as Farlington Marshes.

During a really strong blow the lookout would attract lots of sea-watchers and sometimes there was very little room left.  But there was always a place for Graham.  Someone would call that there was a bird on its way and people would speculate as to what it was.  Then everyone went quiet until Graham had seen it well enough to identify it.

After Graham stopped going to Strumble we would send him a postcard from whenever we were on holiday, letting him know where we were and what we’d seen.  We would then receive a letter back from him telling us that he had been to those places many years before.

Strumble will never seem the same again without him.  We will miss him very much.

Richard Davies: Very sad news a great birdwatcher always willing to share his knowledge with anyone willing to listen. I will surely miss him I owe him a great debt. Will think of him this year at stumble and say a little prayer. God bless.

Richard Dobbins: I arrived in North Pembs in the summer of 1984, Graham was my introduction to Seabirds, Strumble and a birding life in Pembs and beyond. Not only was his knowledge the main influence on my birding in Pembs at the time. His birding trips which pre-dated many of us, to Scillies, Israel, South Africa etc. were inspirational to me and have led to my birding work overseas. Graham – you will be missed ….

Stephen Roberts: Very sad, while I only met him a few times in the lookout at Strumble and we spoke on the phone several occasions he was always pleasant and very informative and his work for ornithology in Pembrokeshire and I’m sure further afield was immense, something his family can be immensely proud and the rest of us very grateful.

Wendell Thomas: As a Carms. birder I always considered Graham a true Gentleman and friend. Whenever visiting Strumble or attending the Bird Conference there was always a very warm welcome from Graham. He will be missed by so many people. RIP Mr Rees.