A tribute to Graham Rees

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. 

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  https://britishbirds.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/article_files/V102/V102_N03/V102_N3_24_28.pdf (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 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

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.

Jack W Donovan MBE 1928-2012

Tribute to Jack W Donovan MBE 1928-2012

It is with great sadness that we announce the death of Jack Donovan MBE, former member, Chairman and Vice President of the Wildlife Trust in West Wales, at the age of 84.

After moving to the county in 1958, Jack joined the ‘West Wales Field Society’ soon afterwards. He became county bird recorder in 1961 and, with Jean (whom he married in 1962), continued to enjoy, watch and record birds for the rest of his life. He was a fierce protector of Pembrokeshire’s unique habitats, helping the West Wales Field Society to purchase Skomer Island, and continued to work tirelessly for conservation on innumerable committees, though he was perhaps particularly devoted to the Mid Pembs Section of the then West Wales Naturalist’s Trust. His enthusiasm never flagged and he was a generous and encouraging mentor to less experienced naturalists.

Jack Donovan, Trevor Theobald and Iolo Williams enjoying a boat trip

As field engineer with MAFF/ADAS he travelled the county, providing invaluable environmental advice to the farming community and acquainting himself with farm ponds, reservoirs and every likely looking birding spot, building up a vast local knowledge which meant he was often in just the right spot to see a rarity or unusual bit of bird behaviour.

In 1985 Jack was awarded the prestigious Idris Davies Memorial Award for outstanding service to Pembrokeshire agriculture (including conservation), and in 1988 Jack and Jean had a wonderful day at Buckingham Palace when he was awarded the MBE for services to conservation and agriculture.

Jack retired in 1989 and his wife Jean soon afterwards, but they both continued to dedicate themselves to pursuing their many interests in natural history. Jack’s support for the Farming and Wildlife Advisory Group was highly valued.

Jack and Jean loved to travel and had many wonderful trips both in the UK and abroad (often in their trusty camper van). Binoculars were always the first thing to be packed.

When Jack could no longer get out and about so much following his stroke, his presence was missed by many fellow birders. How often we fail to appreciate what we have until it’s gone.

When his beloved wife Jean died suddenly in October 2009, Jack was devastated, but he always enjoyed having visitors, especially if they had birding stories to share.

Friends and colleagues have many fond memories of Jack over the years: Prof. Chris Perrins (Edward Grey Institute) recalls that Jack, as Chairman of the Islands Committee for many years, would call Saturday morning meetings to order very promptly on days when Wales were playing Rugby, otherwise meetings could run on well into the afternoon. The same also applied, of course, on days when important cricket matches were being played, cricket being a life-long passion of Jack’s. He umpired many an Island’s cricket match over the years and even donned a habit to umpire for the monks on Caldey Island!

Jack often had an interesting turn of phrase and would hit the nail right on the head with a humorous comment. Blaise Bullimore recalls one occasion on a rough crossing to Skokholm many years ago. “We were going through the overfalls at the south end of Jack Sound when he observed “It’s not the great big waves that worry me – it’s the great big holes in between them!” that always sticks with me and pops into my mind whenever it’s rough on a boat.”

Jack’s irrepressible nature is fondly remembered by Graham Rees as he recalls occasions at Strumble Head… If things were quiet in the lookout building Jack had a propensity to pace back and fore behind seawatchers crouching silently over their telescopes, regaling them with excerpts from Gilbert and Sullivan operettas.

The Countryside Council for Wales summarises Jack’s unique contribution to conservation in this diverse corner of Wales: “The relationship between the public and voluntary sector organisations involved with the environment will never be without its ups and downs, but there is always the recognition that whilst we may not agree on all matters, we do share a common goal. Never has this been more typified than in CCW’s relationship with Jack, who throughout acted as our conscience and critical friend. With his inimitable charm, his incisive wit and uncanny sense of timing, his words made any challenge a pleasure to receive.

We are all indebted to him for his support and contribution to conservation in West Wales over so many years. We are all greatly saddened by his death, and now the environmental world in Wales is just a little duller – one of its special lights has gone out”.

On a personal note, I first met Jack in 1975 at a talk he was giving on behalf of the Trust, in St Davids City Hall. Jack was an endlessly knowledgeable, encouraging, good humoured and witty friend, a consummate naturalist and a true gentleman. Journeys with Jack to and from committee meetings were entertaining, informative and inspirational but never dull. His interest in the Islands and the fortunes of the Trust never waned, even to the last.

Jack’s passing marks the end of an era for many birders, naturalists and conservationists throughout Pembrokeshire and West Wales, but I’m sure those who knew him will always remember Jack with a smile and great fondness. He will be much missed. God bless you Jack, and thank you!

Trevor Theobald

Stuart Devonald 1933-2013

We were deeply saddened to learn this month of the loss of one of our great friends, Pembrokeshire volunteer and birder of many decades, Stuart Devonald.

With the passing of Stuart Devonald, Pembrokeshire has lost an observer with more years of field time than any other, all of which he put to effective use accumulating the longest list of bird species seen in the county.

Stuart Devonald at St Ishamels

He had happy memories of growing up at St Ishmaels where his boyhood wanderings nurtured his growing interest in the natural world. He remembered Corncrakes calling in the fields and becoming exposed at harvest time, of days spent at the Gann without seeing another person, just lots of Wigeon and his first Spoonbill and tracking Rook flight lines to discover the only colony in the district, at Anchor Hoeten.

He counted himself lucky to have Tommy Warren Davies as his mentor during his formative days. Little surprise then that Stuart’s interests encompassed all aspects of natural history, botany and birds predominating and that he became committed to conservation through what has become The Wildlife Trust of South and West Wales. He served the Trust in many ways, becoming a long serving member of the management committee for the islands of Skokholm and Skomer, a leading light of the mid-Pembrokeshire Section and the Pembrokeshire Bird Group and one of the editorial team for the Pembrokeshire Bird Reports.

It is not generally known that in the mid 1960’s Stuart was among the group of pioneers that began seawatching at Strumble Head, before it became established as the foremost locality in Wales for this form of birding. He joined in again in the 1980’s to help establish this pre-eminence.

In birding circles Stuart was regarded as being “lucky”. If a rare bird turned up he seemed effortlessly able to connect with it but that was really because he spent a lot of time in the field alertly examining all he saw. Finding the first White-winged Black Tern for the county and the only Spanish Sparrow yet recorded pleased him no end.

Stuart was an easy going and likeable man with a fine sense of humour, indeed seemed to relish events even when it seemed the joke was on him. Walking out along the Gann seawall one day he encountered a bird tour who were agonising over a group of waders out on the mud. The leader asked Stuart what he made of them, to which he replied “they are Knots”. When the leader conveyed this to his clients one asked “why are they Knots?”, so he pointed to Stuart and replied “because the great panjandrum said so”.

A frequent activity at Strumble Head is counting and logging groups of migrating Scoters. This is not always easy as they do not always string out in neat formations but often bunch together. With several observers involved, the perceived totals can vary by one or two and around this event a conspiracy developed. Being a Headmaster of a school, it was considered that Stuart should be good at counting, so the other observers would wait until he announced his count and then all pitch in with a number that was slightly less. On the back of this charade he became known as “Count Devonald” and it was some time before those involved let on to the joke. As those who knew him would expect he took it all with good humour and appeared to revel in the appellation.

Ever friendly and pleased to meet others, Stuart was generous in sharing his knowledge, not just about natural history but about literature, poetry and classical music, all of which his interest encompassed. He was also devilishly good at generating puns which could bring merriment at the most unexpected moments.

Stuart will be greatly missed by all who knew him.

Graham Rees

Strumble Head – the story to 2005

In the beginning

The heath-clad headland of Strumble Head is situated at the north-west tip of the Pen Caer peninsula, some five miles west of Goodwick, in Pembrokeshire. Thus it is positioned at the southern end of the Irish Sea, where it flows into the Atlantic through St. George’s Channel.

The first bird record unearthed for Strumble, concerns the second known occurrence of a Fulmar in Pembrokeshire. It was recorded by Bertram Lloyd and Charles Oldham, on the 2nd of May 1930, the previous county record being at Tenby in 1890.

The Fulmar is familiar to us today, so it is easy to forget just how rare it was here in the past. Messrs Lloyd and Oldham did not visit Strumble to look for such a rarity, seeing it was a bonus. They came as part of their study which traced the feeding flights of Manx Shearwaters all the way down the coast from Aberystwyth to the islands of Skokholm and Skomer. Considering the period, this was no mean achievement, involving trains, horse-drawn vehicles and a lot of walking. Bear in mind too, that any optical aids they may have used would have been nowhere near as effective as those available now.

Between 1965 and 1975, David Saunders and a few friends, conducted a series of seawatches at Strumble which were revealing. This was the pioneering era. They detected classic seabirds like Sooty and Balearic Shearwater and Leach’s Petrel, species which previously had been associated in Pembrokeshire only with the offshore islands. They established that it was worthwhile seawatching from the mainland.

The 8th of September 1974 was memorable. They counted 45 Arctic Skuas passing in three hours, which was a momentous observation. Just how momentous, can be judged by the fact that, from 1953 up to the time of this record, the average total for the whole of Pembrokeshire was just 10 per annum. In three hours, they had turned upon its head, the perception of the Arctic Skua’s status in the county. This set a precedent for reappraisals of the status of other species during following years.

Stuart Devonald was one of this early group and whereas the others went their separate ways, he continued to visit Strumble for many years to come. Jack Donovan independently seawatched at Strumble from 1973 and was the first to identify Pomarine Skua and Grey Phalarope there. He also added a new species to the county list, when he saw two Pink-footed Geese fly by. Jack also visited Strumble for many more years.

During my earliest years at Strumble, I seldom met other seawatchers but as time passed the locality gained in popularity. Most of those I met then were casual visitors but some have become much more, becoming good company and friends. The consequence of all this attention was the emergence of Strumble Head as the most outstanding seawatching site in Wales. Establishing this though, has taken a great deal of dedication and fortitude.

Seawatching from exposed headlands imposes some physical limitations. It is difficult to keep optical equipment dry when it rains or salt spray occurs and wind chill can be numbing, if you are exposed for too long.

The buildings

During the Saunders era, his group had access to Ynys Michael, so sometimes sat in the lee of the lighthouse wall. Friendly lighthouse keepers even supplied them with an old car seat and treated them to occasional cups of tea.

This access disappeared in 1980 when the light was automated, so an alternative had to be found if sustained seawatching was to be achieved. Eyes fell upon the derelict World War Two building situated near the edge of the cliffs.

Local people of a past generation have told me that the building once housed a searchlight battery. It was linked to either a radar installation or a hydrophone listening station and to a naval gun, which were sighted on Garn Fawr, the hill immediately to the south of Strumble Head. The plan was apparently, that working in unison any U–boat surfacing offshore at night to recharge its batteries, would be detected by the radar/hydrophones, illuminated by the searchlights and shelled by the gun. Further research suggests something entirely different, it was one of two identical buildings crammed with equipment used to develop air-to-sea radar systems which played a large part in winning the battle against U-boats.

Entering that building for the first time, to check its potential for sheltered seawatching, I was assailed by the reek of sheep. Sheep roamed the headland in those days. Whether they belonged to the owner of the land, Graham Lewis of Tresinwen, or he rented out the grazing, I know not but he used to check on their wellbeing by riding his horse around the area. That is how I met him and secured permission to use the building. I wrote earlier that seawatching at Strumble took dedication and fortitude, it certainly took a strong stomach to endure the reek of that building for prolonged periods.

Eventually the sheep disappeared. A stint with a shovel and a yard broom, soon cleared out the spoil and wind and rain freshened the atmosphere within. For a while this made sitting inside more pleasant but it did not last for long. Tourists visiting the headland began using the building as a lavatory, so it acquired a different stink. During wet weather periods, rain flushed it out but in prolonged dry spells it became very “ripe”.

In 1987 the ownership of the headland changed hands. It had been purchased by the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park Authority (PCNPA). This seemed like good news, the area would be safe from unsuitable development. However, alarm set in when it transpired that the PCNPA intended demolishing the building, because they considered it to be an eyesore.

I wrote to the PCNPA requesting that they reconsider their intentions, because the building had a valuable part to play in the study of migrating seabirds and for observing other sea life, like cetaceans, seals, Sunfish and Basking Sharks. This petition was supported by the Dyfed Wildlife Trust and the Nature Conservancy Council. To their eternal credit, the PCNPA reconsidered the situation and decided to preserve the building. Because it would be accessible to the public, they surveyed the structure and planned how to make it safe.  

It was gratifying to be consulted about the plans and refreshing that their attitude was, if the place is to be preserved for watching from, what can we do to facilitate this? Three suggestions were made: to brick up the windows on the landward side, so that the interior would be less draughty; to incorporate the plinths below the front windows into a continuous ledge, which would eliminate the gaps between which had hitherto collected litter and would also be useful to stand tripods on; construct a concrete apron on the seaward side, so that watchers could sit outside in favourable weather. The PCNPA achieved all this, also removing the partition walls of the diesel generator room and the office which created more space in the main room. They filled in the conduit channels through which electrical cables previously ran, so achieving a level floor. They also constructed wood slatted benches and a concrete table in the back room, suitable for picnicking. Finally they fixed information boards to the internal end walls, illustrating which birds were most likely to be seen and portraying other forms of sea life, like cetaceans and sharks.

When all this work had been completed and the walls painted, the PCNPA held a grand official opening of the facility, engaging Bill Oddie to do the honours, who dubbed it the “Hilton of seawatching stations”.

The PCNPA has looked after the building by conducting annual structural surveys, they have installed new roof beams, resurfaced the roof and every couple of years repainted the walls. They have also upgraded the information boards, making them more durable and conveying more information.

The “Lookout”, as the building has become known, has become worth its weight in gold to seawatchers. The shelter provided, and the configuration of its structure, means long watches can be conducted in weather which would be too much to bear for long if sat out on the headland. It is little wonder that it has become the focal point for those that consider themselves “Strumblers”.

Sea-watchers

The building became pivotal to many who noted the interesting published records of birds seen. So for a period in the first half of the 1980’s, when the weather looked favourable for seeing good movements of seabirds, the building became overwhelmed by visiting watchers. On two notable occasions turning up at dawn was too late to gain a place inside, the building had become full of people while it was still dark. At such times many had to sit outside to leeward of the building. A total of a hundred and twenty watchers assembled on one occasion, most travelling from across the length of South Wales but some from Bristol and Swindon. The Lookout can still become crowded but not to the same degree as in those early days.

Generally, the regular watchers have maintained a friendly attitude to visiting birdwatchers. They have been encouraged to join in, to contribute by calling out when they see something. Now it’s all very well calling out a sighting but how do you get the other watchers on to it? The clock system is used, that is straight out to sea at right angles to the building is 12 o’clock, so birds to the right can be at 1 or 2 o’clock and to the left at 10 or 11 o’clock. This gives an approximate bearing, just leaving the problem of distance. Various terms are used, like “close in”, “midway”, “far out” and “along the tide race”, confusingly the regulars saying this even when the race is not running and therefore not visible.

The system has been enshrined in verse by Pembrokeshire’s Ornithological Bard, Stuart Devonald:

Bonxie, 12 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 12 o’clock, as you will see
Can be from 10 o’clock to half past three.

So it’s not a perfect system but generally works well.

It took a long time watching from that headland before it dawned on me that the birds I was seeing were coming from widespread places. From the north come birds like Great and Arctic Skuas out of Scotland and Iceland, from the north-east Pomarine Skuas out of Russia, from the east Black Terns and Little Gulls from northern Europe, from the south-east Mediterranean Gulls out of Belgium and France, from the south Balearic and Cory’s Shearwaters, from the south-west occasional rarities like Little Shearwater and Soft-plumaged Petrel, from the west Roseate Terns from Ireland and from the north-west Sabine’s Gulls from the Canadian muskeg as well as Great Shearwaters on their way to breeding grounds in the South Atlantic and Sooty Shearwaters travelling to sub Antarctic places. 

What also became apparent was that the variety and volume of birds seen was weather dependent. The weather pattern that all seawatchers crave is a southerly gale blowing for a day or two, with the wind going round to between west and north before abating. Birds pushed into the Irish Sea from the South-west Approaches by the southerlies are able to regain sea room when the wind veers and pass close in to Strumble Head, sometimes in a day long procession involving a great variety of species and thousands of birds.

It was this weather pattern that resulted in the setting of some record totals on the 3rd September 1983. Over 100 Storm Petrels, 103 Arctic Skuas, 198 Bonxies and 397 Sooty Shearwaters were logged, all against a backdrop of a dawn to dusk procession of at least 40,000 Manx Shearwaters. This was not just a day of statistics but of sheer gripping spectacle.

A similar weather system occurred on the 1st September 1985 resulting in a similar but not quite so lavish, a spectacle. This time there were 72 Arctic Skuas, 70 Bonxies and 230 Sooty Shearwaters but not a single petrel in sight.  

However, what a contrary lot we birdwatchers are, for amid all these riches we speculated, what happens if the longed for weather system occurs later in the season? We were to find out.

For instance on the 24th October 1984, there was a day long movement of mixed Razorbills and Guillemots totalling some 35,000 birds. This figure was arrived at by making sample 10 minute counts every hour and extrapolating the results over the duration of the watch. Putting it like that hardly reflects the aura of urgency that long lines of birds rapidly beating their way out to sea conveyed. It was exciting and compulsive viewing.

Those auks were at it again when a repeat weather system occurred on the 17th October 1991. This was a day when a variety of wildfowl also passed, most notably a total of 94 White-fronted Geese. There were also Skuas, including four Long-tailed but additionally an impressive 97 Pomarines. By the following day the north-west wind had only gone round as far as north and had not moderated. Birds continued to stream by, including Pomarine Skuas, a total of 130 by the end of the day. 227 Pomarines in two days was an event that has yet to be rivalled.

Seawatchers gathered in curiosity in mid November 1987 when the same kind of weather system arrived. What effect would the lateness of the date have?

Well, the auks streamed past again, there were a few shearwaters and Skuas and an impressive passage of Kittiwakes, which were accompanied by 76 Little Gulls. A few wildfowl were seen, including Scaup and Brent Geese and flying in line astern of a drake Common Scoter were four drake Surf Scoters, perhaps fresh from America.

The SW going NW weather pattern occurred on many occasions during the 1980’s but rarely in the 1990’s, it remains to be seen what the future brings in this respect.

It would be an error of judgement if attendance at Strumble Head was confined to only the weather that produces lots of birds. Birds have to migrate whatever the weather and interesting things can be seen under all kinds of conditions.

Sabine’s Gulls have for many years been associated with SW gales pushing them up into the Irish Sea from the Western Approaches. Yet in more recent years it has been gales from the north, blowing down the west coast of Scotland and through the length of the Irish Sea, which have pushed them close in to Strumble Head. These conditions have also been favourable for seeing Leach’s Petrels, sometimes in fair numbers, like 122 logged on the 16th September 2001.

If there is one thing that seawatchers here on the west coast dislike, it is east winds. There is no way that these will laterally drift birds travelling down the Irish Sea into Cardigan Bay and hence past Strumble Head, like the westerlies do. However there are some redeeming features. If the wind goes to the south-east in late August or early September, impressive numbers of Common, Arctic and Black Terns fly in from the north-west. They seem to prefer travelling into the wind, perhaps it aids aerial stability.

The most spectacular of these events occurred on the 31st August this year (2005), when over 800 Common or arctic and an unprecedented 530 Black Terns passed. When they approached the shore the C & A’s randomly turned east or west but party after party of the Black Terns bunched and climbed almost vertically, to disappear into the low clouds. If they then continued to travel into the wind, they would have passed over Pembrokeshire completely undetected from the ground.  

Strong winds from due east have produced interesting movements of skuas, like the 40 Bonxies that passed in just two hours on the 29th September 1991. The most likely explanation for this occurrence seemed to be that the birds used the airflow to make a rapid passage overland from the North Sea. The logic of this appeared to be confirmed when over 200 Arctic Skuas passed in the autumn of 2003 which was dominated by strong east winds.   

Seawatching in calm weather can also have its moments. Cliff Benson and I were experiencing a day at the beginning of August 1999 when it was so calm the surface of the sea was like a mirror. Not expecting to see a great deal, we were content with watching the Porpoises and attendant Gannets. It was baking hot in the sunshine that day but we were sitting comfortably in shade. Perspiring and uncomfortable looking visitors that passed through from time to time, assured us it was a glorious day. We were not convinced and stayed put. The thought of lugging our gear up the slope to a car that no doubt felt like the inside of an oven reinforced our indolence.

Sometime after lunch a tern was noticed at the 2 o’clock position, flying towards us. It was making very slow progress, a characteristic of Black Tern. If this is what it turned out to be, it would be the first of the autumn but when it reached the 12 o’clock position it was revealed as a White-winged Black Tern, a national rarity and just the 6th record for Pembrokeshire.

One day in September 1997 a light southerly wind was hardly rippling the surface of the sea. It seemed that only muggins considered it worth visiting Strumble in these conditions. The inner tide race was showing, which takes the form of a series of whirlpools, or plates as they are also called. Dip-feeding across these were three first year gulls of three different sizes. The largest was a Common Gull, the middle sized one a Black-headed and the smallest a Bonaparte’s Gull from the North Americas. This national rarity was only the second to be recorded in Pembrokeshire, the previous one being shot at Solva in 1888.    

To show that these were not just events of Strumble past, on the 23rd August this year, Adrian Rogers and I were sitting in a light southerly wind gathering valuable negative evidence, in other words by ten o’clock we had seen only two Common Scoters and four Sandwich Terns, when out of the blue, angling inshore, appeared an adult Sooty Tern. This was not only a national rarity but a first for Pembrokeshire.

Seawatching at Strumble Head has a larger dimension than seabirds. There are interesting passages of waders sometimes. For instance the majority of Knots recorded in Pembrokeshire in recent years were not on the estuaries but logged passing Strumble Head. Ringing recoveries have shown that Knots migrate out of the North Americas and cross to this side of the Atlantic before travelling on to Africa. Those that are seen at Strumble have probably recently departed from west coast staging areas like the Dee Estuary and they probably do not stop again until they reach the Bay of Biscay or further.

Other waders frequently seen passing are Dunlin, Oystercatcher, Bar-tailed Godwit and Whimbrel, all of which are probably non-stop within the county. Sometimes these movements occur suddenly and are quickly over. For instance, in an afternoon period of about an hour and a half on the 5th August 1998 several large groups of Whimbrels went by, totalling 370 birds. Nowhere else in Pembrokeshire have totals of this order been seen at this season, most large concentrations having been recorded in spring.

Common Scoter

Many other species are seen visibly migrating, among them the Common Scoter, the seawatcher’s best friend, for in periods when nothing much else is passing they can usually be relied on to put in an appearance. Besides being something to look ,at their habit of bunching up then stringing out means they can be difficult to count, leading to a fair amount of banter among the watchers when numbers are compared.

The total numbers involved far surpasses the small Icelandic and British breeding populations, so the majority are undoubtedly from the Finnish-Russian region. Few Common Scoters have been ringed so recoveries are rare but one ringed in Finland in October was recovered in the Irish Sea in December and another rescued from the Sea Empress oiling disaster, cleaned up and released in March of the following year, was recovered in Russia in July two years later.      

The population dynamics of this species are complex, resulting in them passing Strumble over the prolonged period of June to November. Adult males join females on the breeding grounds but normally play no part in bringing up young, instead having mated drift back to winter quarters. When the females fledge their young they travel in company to their winter area, passing here in late October and early November.

So far so good but it is more complicated than that. Common Scoters do not breed until they are two or three years old, so there are always non breeders of both sexes moving around, hence young females being seen passing during the breeding season. Overlying our understanding of this scenario is the realisation that Scoters migrate at night as well as by day and interpretation of what we see becomes more complicated. So far there seems to be little correlation between movements in North Wales and in our area, although it probably occurs to some degree. Instead could it be that most that we see passing Strumble have migrated at night at height overland from the North Sea, dropping down to sea level with the coming of daylight? This may be why the majority passing Strumble are seen in the early mornings. It seems there is much still to learn about the Common Scoter—–the seawatcher’s best friend.

Non-seabirds

In the 1980’s there were very large passages of Chaffinches and Starlings but fewer pass now. Swallows and House Martins continue to pass in undiminished numbers and Skylarks, pipits and winter thrushes in variable volume.

A few raptors have been recorded migrating in off the sea and because they are only occasional add a bit of spice for the watchers. Honey Buzzards, Hen and Marsh Harriers have been recorded, also Ospreys have been occurring with increasing frequency in recent years. Deciding whether falcons seen are migrating is problematical. Surely Kestrels which are sighted far out to sea which steadily fly ashore are migrating but when it comes to Merlins and Peregrines it is far from certain, for both will sally out over the water to hunt passage birds. Indeed, the Peregrines make a habit of it, taking prey ranging from small passerines through terns and waders to Kittiwakes and even Razorbills and Guillemots. Two years ago a Peregrine took advantage of a strong passage of Leach’s Petrels to bag at least four in less than two hours.  

Grounded night migrants are also a feature of Strumble Head, be it in the adjacent fields or the scrub filled valleys immediately east and west, both forming lead lines to the gardens at Tresinwen. Rare birds encountered have included Pembrokeshire’s 1st Dusky Warbler, 1st Hume’s Leaf Warbler, 1st Pallid Swift and 1st Alpine Accentor, as well as scarce birds like Rose-coloured Starling, Serin, Red-breasted Flycatcher, Ortolan Bunting and Short-toed Lark.

Truly Strumble Head has much to offer to those prepared to put some time and effort in, so if you have not tried it why not give it a go? Be warned though, you might just become hooked on watching migrating birds, maybe in detecting the various cetaceans that occur or become fascinated by tropical Sunfish and there is always the danger of succumbing to the magic of the total Strumble Head experience.      

Graham Rees. Pembrokeshire County Bird Recorder 1981-2007

Talk given to Pembrokeshire Birdwatchers’ Conference 2005