In 2005, Graham was presented with the Pembrokeshire Bird Group’s annual award for services to ornithology.
The late Stuart Devonald, fellow birdwatcher, school teacher, and occasional poet, wrote this tribute for the occasion.
The ‘ancient hostelry’ was the Hotel Mariners in Haverfordwest, where Graham and fellow birdwatchers spent many an evening discussing birds and other things, and where the Bird Group Annual Dinners were held.
There's a second World War shelter, in our County to the north
There's the foaming white Atlantic against the cliffs below,
In the Autumn you will find them there, keen birders is what I mean
Crouched low over telescopes to see what can be seen.
They sit there many hours and oft stare at empty seas
They vary much in ages, and in birding expertise.
They come from near, they come from far, of the action to get a piece
And chief amongst these figures is one called Graham Rees.
"Which one is he," awe-struck newcomers often ask,
He's the bearded one with Leica and the largest coffee flask.
Such is his dedication, that although he now may grumble
He's put this headland on the map; the one that they call Strumble.
And so it is in Autumn gales,
It's the premier sea-watch point in Wales
Some travel even through half the night
To get there just before it's light.
The tardy and the lie-abed,
Get there when it's often said
The best has gone.
And oft so crowded is the shack,
They are condemned to the very back.
Passers-by come in and stare
And wonder what they're doing there
You can almost hear them think, Are they sane,
To sit staring at the open main;
They say they're birdwatching, but that can't be right
There's not a single bird in sight.
And when the talk is of Arctics, Bonxies and Poms with spoons
They shy away from the set of loons.
"l say," says one , "they must be barmy
Perhaps it's some sort of secret Welsh army."
"Don't be silly' , says another with sigh;
Perhaps it's what they call an Eisteddfodau."
With much muttering and shaking of heads
They wend their way homewards and to their beds.
Bonxie, twelve o'clock and not far out,
From somewhere inside comes the shout
This will cause the cynics to smile,
Not far out, can mean many a mile
And twelve o'clock as you will see,
Can be from ten o'clock to half-past three.
"There goes another Sooty', "Are you sure?" is the mumble,
They turn as one and ask the man they all call Mr Strumble.
"What was it Graham," comes the plea,
"That's just flown low across the sea?"
The lesser mortals sit and wait with bated breath,
Is it to be confirmation or the chilling kiss of death.
"Surely not another Sooty', comes the answer that they fear
"Did you not see, it's a Balearic Shear."
Graham has spoken and only the brave will contradict
Note books are revised and most cross out what they've ticked.
We are gathered here this evening in this ancient hostelry
To acknowledge his achievements in Ornithology
His contribution is enormous, in that there is no doubt
But ask those who do not know him well and they will surely shout
"Graham Rees?" You can hear their brain cells tumble
"Isn't he the bearded one who oft resides at Strumble".
But we who would claim to know him well
Know that there is so much more to tell,
When he's not sitting and staring at the ocean
His is the driving force that has set in motion
Tetrad surveys no less, so that it may come to pass
In the fullness of time we have a new Atlas
A new avifauna of our County, and of course
It's bound to be a tour-de-force.
As chief editor of the Bird Report
He often can be heard to retort,
"Information Technology, that doesn't make me tick
What's wrong with scissors and my old Pritt Stick";
And we who spend hours cutting and pasting
Wonder at the time we're wasting
But he will insist that we must strive
To produce hard copies for the archive.
But it's that second World War shelter in our County to the north,
Where I began this tale, and now must cease,
It will forever be remembered
As the haunt of Graham Rees.
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.
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.
Chairman, Pembrokeshire Bird Group committee
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.
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 comradery 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
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.
The 1984-88 map of greenfinches breeding in Pembrokeshire showed that greenfinches occupied 55% of tetrads in the county. The 2003-07 map indicated an increase to 78% of tetrads. Since then, the story is all downhill, as shown here by the results of the Breeding Bird Survey.
The increase between the two atlases may have been fuelled by the increase in feeding birds in gardens leading to better winter survival. However, that same phenomenon may have led to the subsequent decrease as a parasite called Trichomonas gallinae transferred from pigeons, birds of prey, and domestic chickens and turkeys to smaller birds such as finches. The resulting disease, Trichomonosis, spreads rapidly via food and water contaminated by infected individuals – so garden feeders, water for drinking and bathing, anywhere that birds congregate is a potential problem.
Greenfinches are still widespread in Pembrokeshire, but are thin on the ground. Breeding records seem particularly scarce. The map above shows where greenfinches have been recorded in April-July 2011-2020 according to records in BirdTrack. The black squares indicate that the observer recorded definite evidence of breeding – nests, birds carrying food, recently fledged youngsters (being fed), for example.
The easiest way to do this, is for everyone to note where they see greenfinches in April, May, June and July, and add those records to BirdTrack. In BirdTrack you can pinpoint a location on a map or aerial photo. Then when entering details, click on the ‘highest breeding evidence’ box and select the appropriate code. Many thanks to the observers who are already collecting this information.
Greenfinches usually produce a second brood, so there is plenty of ‘season’ left for finding them.
If you really don’t want to use BirdTrack, then there is the WWBIC recording scheme either on-line or via their app (part of iRecord) where you’ll have to state in the comments field what you have seen. If all else fails, you can email me, but remember to include the site name, the site grid reference, and the breeding code.
The map will be updated in early July, though records not submitted through BirdTrack may take longer to incorporate so there will be another update later in the year.
2008 – Single at Fishguard outer breakwater from 5 Nov – 29 Dec, With two on 6 Nov and three on 23 Dec. Singles on Ramsey 12 Nov. and on Skomer 24 & 31 Oct.
2009 – On the outer breakwater at Fishguard Harbour, three on 1- 28 Jan with two here on 21 Feb. singles on 1 Mar and 17 Oct until the end of the year. Singles at Strumble Head 11 Oct, on Skomer 9 Nov and Ramsey on 11 Nov and three on Foel Drygarn on 25 Dec.
2010 – In the early part of year single birds on Fishguard Outer Breakwater 2nd Jan, at St. David’s Head 13th Apr and on Ramsey 21st Apr – 3rd May. In autumn: up to four on Dale Airfield between 4th & 31st Oct. with three at St. David’s Head on 14th Oct, up to two birds on Fishguard Outer Breakwater from 6th Oct until the end of the year. Singles at Pen Anglas 9th to 30th Oct, and on St Davids Head 7th Nov. On Skomer single birds on 1st & 9th Oct then two on 12th & 21st Oct and finally one on 1st Nov
2011 – In the early part of the year two at Traeth Llyfyn on 22nd Jan. In autumn a single on Dale Airfield 29th Sept to 1st Oct then another on 24th Nov. Fishguard Outer Breakwater had up to three birds between 10th Oct to 11th Dec. Singles on St. David’s Head on 25th Oct, 10th Nov, 12th Dec with two on 9th Dec and one at St. Govan’s Head on 17th Oct. Ramsey Island singles on 20th & 27th Apr and four on 12th Dec. Photo below by C. Hurford.
2012 – In the early part of the year birds seen at St. David’s Head on from 8th to 13th Jan with a different individual on 25th Feb. Freshwater West had two on 16th Jan & one at Castle Martin on 19th Feb. Two on Fishguard Outer Breakwater in March, one of which was ringed by members of the Teifi Ringing Group on 11th, then two different birds on Fishguard Inner Breakwater on 22nd March & a single at Strumble Head on 1st April.
At the latter part of the year a single at St. David’s Head 22nd Oct, two at Strumble Head on 29th of same month & one at Castle Martin on same date. In November: singles at Broomhill Burrows on 6th, St.David’s Head on 8th, while on Fishguard Outer Breakwater various numbers recorded, max 5 on 20th.
2013 – All records were: seven seen on Foel Cwm Cerwyn on 12th Jan, in November, 12 on the Fishguard Outer Breakwater 15th, three at Whitesands on 7th, four at Newgale on 27th and singles at Freshwater West on 22nd & Broad Haven (S) on 28th. Another single was at St.David’s Head on 24th Oct.
2014 – All records were: single birds at Newgale 10th Jan, Strumble Head 20th to 21st Oct at least, Pencarnan 27th to 31st Oct, Marloes Mere 24th Nov (photo opposite by DJ Astins) and at Foel Feddau in the Preselis on 31st Dec, with six at the same site the day before. Skokholm had single birds on 6th Oct and 19th to 21st Oct, the second being trapped & ringed (race later confirmed as P.n.nivalis – Welsh rarities report 2020). The island then had two flyover records of single birds on 24th Oct & 3rd Nov.
2015 – A single birds on the Preseli’s at Foel Feddau on 17th Jan and another at St. David’s Head on 31st Oct were the only mainland records. On the islands, one on Ramsey on 10th Mar (photo right by L. Morgan) and one on Skomer on 7th Oct, a different bird was seen the following day.
2016 – All records were: a male Fishguard Harbour on outer breakwater 25th Oct-13th Nov, when feathers were found due to it being predated, a female also present 11th -13th Nov. On Skokholm a single on 11th Nov and on Skomer singles on 20th Oct & 7th Nov.
2017 – All records: 1 st w male on Skomer on 3rd Nov, three at St. David’s Head on 8th Nov and two on the Outer breakwater Fishguard Harbour on 16th Nov
2018 – Singles unless stated: at Porthgain on 7th Jan (photo below by B. Haycock), three at St. David’s Head 7th Mar, near Fishguard Fort on 31st Oct, male on Skomer 4th Nov and Outer Breakwater Fishguard Harbour on 8th Nov
2019 – Four on Dale Airfield 26 Oct, increasing to six 1 Nov with four there the following day, photo below by E. Davies. Five at Marloes Mere 27 Oct and singles at Gann 14 Oct, Skokholm 21 & 24 Oct and 4, 7-8, 10, 17 & 29 Nov and Skomer 3 & 11 Nov
2020 – All records were of singles: Fishguard Outer breakwater 30 Oct, Skokholm 4, 6 & 9 – 11 Nov, Strumble Head 24 Nov, Pwll Deri 27 Nov and at Llanrhian 6 Dec.66 Individuals of the race nivalis accepted by WBRC include: one trapped on the outer breakwater, Fishguard 11 Mar 2012 (per RD) and a female trapped and ringed on Skokholm 19 Oct 2014 (RB).
Records extracted from the Pembrokeshire Bird Reports
(2) 2013 – A cold weather influx was then evident in the period from 1 March to 7 April, with a single bird noted at Skokholm on 12th, 15th & 17th, at Coedcanlas on 16th March and site maxima of four birds at Castlemartin Corse on 1 March and at Teifi Marshes on 6 April.
(3) 2018 – Reported from at least 14 1km square locations
Scolopax rusticola – CYFFYLOG – Winter visitor and passage migrant.
Woodcock are probably one of the most common waders in the county during the winter, according to work done by Paddy Jenks with the Pembrokeshire and Teifi Ringing Groups. However, they are rarely seen, let alone counted, because of their secretive and generally nocturnal habits.
Paddy and his team ringed a total of 1653 woodcock between November 2008 and March 2019. 107 of these individuals were recaptured or recovered. The recaptures show that many individuals have a very high site fidelity. The ringers often found birds within a hundred metres of where they had been caught either the same winter, or in previous winters.
The recoveries outside of the UK show that many individuals wintering in Pembrokeshire originate in Russia. In Europe, it is illegal to shoot during the breeding season, so most of the recoveries from closer to home are probably birds on autumn migration, though some could have bred in these areas.
The ringing groups hope to continue with the project into the future with the aim of collecting as large a sample size as possible, so that any future changes can be discerned.
All individuals reported were: an adult in Fishguard Harbour 1 – 9 Jan, presumed same returning bird 8 Sept & 4 Dec.
Adults at the Gann 6 Jan, 15 Sept, 18 & 24 Oct and a 2CY 4 Dec.
Counts from Llys-y-fran Res gull roost: five adults and 3CY 4 Jan, two adults and 3CY on 17 Jan, five adults & 3CY on 2 Feb and four adults on 23 Feb. An adult on 15 Aug. Six adults 15 Nov, four adults & 1CY on 25 Nov, three adults & 3CY on 29 Nov, five adults & 3CY on 6 Dec.
An adult at Nevern Est 20 July, 1 & 23 Aug, 25 Sept & 31 Oct – quite probably the Fishguard individual. 1CY there on 1 Sept, had been ringed as a nestling in Switzerland.
Elsewhere an adult at Broad Haven (N) 20 Sept.
Records extracted from the Pembrokeshire Bird Reports
2020 – All records were: 2CY Teifi Est 4 – 6 Jan, 1CY St. Davids Head 16 Nov, 1CY Skokholm 18 & 20 Nov, 1CY Llysy fran Res 29 Nov, 1CY Marloes Mere 13 Dec and a 1CY Monkstone Point, Tenby 14 Dec, quite possibly all those in Nov – Dec relate to the same wandering bird.