David's passion for wildlife has drawn him gradually Eastwards, gravitating closer and closer to the beautiful landscapes of Minsmere nature reserve. It's no surprise he volunteered to spend more time here! Here's why...

I have been a member of the RSPB most of my life. My first visit to RSPB Minsmere was in the late 1970s. I drove all the way from Leicestershire in the hope of seeing an Avocet and can still remember the thrill of my first sighting. What a beautiful bird – well worth the three hundred-mile round trip. I made increasingly regular trips to the reserve since that first visit. It's a magical place.

A fascination with birds began in early childhood, when I studiously copied the illustrations in the 1953 edition of my Ladybird Nature Book of British Birds and their Nests. Learning to draw eventually led to a career as an architect and my present preoccupation with painting. Hence, I owe a great deal to my early interest in ornithology.


British Birds and their Nests by Brian Vesey-Fitzgerald

My wife and I have steadily moved homes eastwards over the last two decades, drawn in part by the lure of Minsmere. We now live just seven miles from the reserve making frequent visits possible. It was my wife who suggested I might like to become a volunteer, given my interest in birds and love of Minsmere, and it was one of the best decisions of my life.  

I have now been a volunteer at RSPB Minsmere for over six years – initially covering the Visitor Centre reception and more recently the optics sales in the shop. On first starting reception duties, I was immediately struck by the communal feel of Minsmere. Here were friendly, like-minded people, all interested in the natural world, determined to share their knowledge and passion with those around them, and I was immediately made to feel welcome.

One of the joys of being on reception is meeting the wide variety of people drawn to Minsmere. They range from expert birders to beginners, from first-time visitors to hardy regulars, and range in age from from babes in arms to nonagenarians.

Besides providing a friendly welcome, something for which Minsmere is rightly proud, the knack of being on reception is to gauge quickly what visitors are seeking and to speed them on their way. One elderly regular used to appear at the same time every week, not to see the wildlife, but to have a cup of tea and a cheese scone in the café. On the rare occasions the scones ran out she was mortified. Others, having driven many miles just to see a rare bird want to know the best place to catch sight of perhaps a visiting Wryneck (2014), Collared Pratincole (2014) or Purple Swamphen (2016).

The Purple Swamphen in the 'Pool of Dispair'. Photo credit Philip Tyler

Many first-time vistors to the reserve hope to see the signature species that have helped to make RSPB Minsmere a significant place in the world of ornithology – Bittern, Marsh Harrier and Bearded Tit. On being successful in seeing one or more of these special birds, they return to the Visitor Centre glowing with excitement. One lady was so thrilled at seeing her first Bittern, having been directed to Island Mere Hide, she ran over to reception, put her arms round me, gave me kiss and said 'Thank you - I've seen your Bittern!' Likewise, children who have been pond-dipping, perhaps for the first time, return squealing with excitement at what they have dicovered beneath the murky water. Their enthusiasm is infectious.

Bittern. Photo credit John Chapman

Part of the satisfaction derived from being a reception volunteer is sharing the excitement and pleasure visitors gain from seeing and discovering more about the natural world. Several people have remarked that a day spent at Minsmere is theraputic. By looking into the lives of the other living beings who share this part of the planet with us, they are taken away from their normal, insular and often stressful lives. In addition, I have found the times spent at Minsmere to be an education. I have learnt so much from the enthusiastic and expert staff and from the hundreds of people who visit the site. 

Moving from reception to optics sales, I soon realised that a different approach was required when  engaging with visitors. Here the objective is to assess what a potential customer really needs when contemplating buying a telescope or pair of binoculars and to establish a budget. Irrespective of knowledge or experience, what most customers enjoy is the opportunity to test the wide range of equipment on display. There is no substitute for holding a pair of binoculars in the hand, feeling their weight, testing for clarity and brightness of image, then making comparisons with similar optics. Is it worth paying twice as much for something that doesn't appear to be twice as good?

Helping a customer to find an affordable piece of equipment that meets their brief, is immensely satisfying.

My most unusual customer so far was Moz, the lost monster who called by unexpectedly one day when he became separated from his family (see:The Missing Monster by Alex Pilling, 17.08.18) - https://community.rspb.org.uk/placestovisit/minsmere/b/minsmere-blog/posts/the-missing-monster-by-alex-pilling

He helped set up and clean all the telescopes, testing each one before setting off for the café. Needless-to-say, he didn't buy any optics because he had no means to pay.

Moz with 'scope-skills

An over-riding pleasure drawn from being a volunteer is to witness the ebb and flow of the changing seasons and with it the ebb and flow of visitors. There are extremely busy periods, for instance when BBC Springwatch was based at Minsmere (2014-16), then very quiet days in cold mid-winter when few visitors appear. Every day is different. Every season brings with it a different atmosphere, and different visitors with different bird populations.

At the end of a volunteer shift, after a busy afternoon, I like to stroll over to North Hide, past friendly rabbits and the occasional retreating Muntjac Deer, and spend an hour or so looking across the Scrape at all the chattering birds readying themselves for the night to come. Within the space of a five-minute walk I replace the human environment of the Visitor Centre with the natural environment. It is always a rewarding experience.

Muntjac in the grass. Photo credit Ben Andrew (rspb-images.com)

On my most recent visit, I was treated to the aerial acrobatics of numerous Lapwings, swooping so close to the hide that I could hear the swooshing of their wingbeats just a few metres away. Swimming below the Lapwings, a quartet of Shovelers greeted each other with vigorous head-bobbing and a solitary Greylag waddled ceremoniously along the bank, unaware of my gaze. On the horizon, a male Marsh Harrier headed towards his nest at Island Mere, whilst hundreds of gulls noisily settled their differences over territory and food.

Lapwing. Photo credit Graham Goodall (rspb-images.com)

This special time spent looking across the north end of the Scrape gives me a 'private view' of the private lives of the birds. It makes my day feel complete. It makes me feel glad to be alive and is just one of the many pleasures derived from being a volunteer at RSPB Minsmere.

If you're interested in volunteering, please get in touch through our email address: Minsmere@rspb.org.uk - there are lots of roles to choose from