How Dave became a swan expert at Martin Mere

Dave Walsh at Martin Mere
Dave Walsh at Martin Mere

For empty nesters Dave and Estelle Walsh it was a choice between ballroom dancing and birdwatching

Birdwatching won and now Dave is a sought after expert on whooper swans and a much valued research volunteer at the Martin Mere Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust.

Whooper swans landing at Martin Mere

Whooper swans landing at Martin Mere

And it all happened quite by chance.

Dave, 73, is one of Martin Mere’s longest serving volunteers.

He said: “When the kids flew the nest, we sat down and decided that we need to do something together. We took up hillwalking and bought binoculars. We started seeing birds and wondering what was what. It was ballroom or birds, and we chose birds.”

The couple soon discovered a shared love of birdwatching. He said: “We started around 1994/5. I was fascinated by the migratory whooper swans. Back then, there were also Bewick’s swans as well.We started noticing that some of the birds were ringed and at the back of the Raines Observatory, there used to be a list up of all the swans that had been seen. I was captivated by how some swans were regular visitors here and at other centres.

Sigrunn's ring

Sigrunn's ring

“We started taking the numbers down and one day we happened to be in the Kingfisher Hide when one of the wardens saw me noting down the numbers and asked me what I did with them .I said ‘nothing really – it’s just a bit of a hobby’ so he asked if I would let him have them. I made a list so they could add it to their data base. From there on it snowballed.”

Today the couple can be seen in uniform at the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust at Burscough, near Ormskirk - but such official attire was not advised at first.

David said: “He was keen that we didn’t have uniform on as he said that people would stop and talk to us and that we wouldn’t be able to do our work – ring-reading and researching. This went on until 2007 when (TV’s) Autumnwatch came here and we were approached by Slimbridge who asked us to help identify swans for their team.

“Back then there were only a couple of us doing it. For a long time it was just my wife and I observing the whoopers.

“On that particular week there were hardly any swans here. But the second week, they started to arrive and we were interviewed by Kate Humble. Then they realised we needed uniforms.”

This time of year is a particularly busy one for Dave: “In the winter, my duty - I don’t call it a job, is to go around the reserve and find the flocks of whooper swans and note down any ring numbers and also ascertain whether that particular bird has a mate. Is the mate ringed? How many cygnets have they brought back? Are they the same pair that were here last year? Is it the same mate?”

Dave said: “My favourite part of the day is from 3pm onwards when most of the swans come back for their feed. It’s the best time for research work as I can see study families and individual pairs and so on.”

He said: “My role is important because the more we know about wildfowl the better we can look after them. The successes of ringing and catching birds means we know where they’re going, what route they’re taking, where they’re stopping off so we know where we can help out if there is a problem on the way. We can tell if the birds are healthy.

“If they started showing up overweight or underweight then we would want to know why. I think it’s very important that we continue this research work because it benefits the birds.I think people would be surprised by how efficient we are at managing wild birds. Humans are potential enemies to them yet we ring and monitor these animals that fly thousands of miles from remote locations in the far north without much issue.”

He continued: “We’ve seen a lot of changes here. We’ve seen the reserve grow bigger. We’ve loved every minute of this. Every year is different.

"I love meeting people and chatting to visitors who show a genuine interest in the migrating swans, especially young people. The number of young people that get involved in it is really impressive. We have a young girl whose parents bought her a decent pair of binoculars and she comes and does ring-reading. I think she must be about six or seven now. She’s not the only one. Lots of other children show a keen interest in the migrations of birds.”

Dave can recognise individual birds and said: “ You get to know pairs so if you see one, you know the other will be near by. We have one in particular that we’re all looking out for. She’s our superswan, a swan named Virginia. We’ve been following her since the year after she was ringed here - that’s over 20 years. We think she’s 26 years old. She hasn’t arrived yet, but it’s early days. Sometimes she doesn’t appear until after Christmas. You’ll be packing up later in the afternoon and she’ll suddenly show up.”

* Sigrunn is another famous visitor who was first ringed in December 2002, Marty and Ainsdale have been other notable visitors. When Sigrunn the swan’s number ring cracked it was replaced and Martin Mere gave the original to Dave as a keepsake.