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Birding Obituary: Audrey Dixon 13 April 1933 to 10 July 2018

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Old Thursday 12th July 2018, 06:30   #1
Farnboro John
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Birding Obituary: Audrey Dixon 13 April 1933 to 10 July 2018

I wasn’t sure where to put this but Birds and Birding seemed to fit. Hope that’s OK.

Lost my Mum the day before yesterday, to an infection at the end of a long decline through Alzheimer’s disease.

Dementia stopped her birding even through the patio windows of her house maybe 14 years ago, as her mind lost its grip on the present and increasingly on how to do even simple tasks or remember the names to be associated with different collections of coloured feathers, bill shapes, sizes and assorted chirps and warbles. Prior to that she had ranged the length and breadth of Britain and amassed not only a list of some 462 species but also her own blip photographs of many of them. To Mum the use of a telephoto lens was to take blips further away.

Mum’s interest in nature stemmed from being out amongst it, hiking in Teesdale, and on holidays fell-walking in the Lake District, with her local Methodist church youth club. Later in life she returned again and again to Wasdale and the Ravens’ eyrie on the dark crags of Piers Gill is one of my own earliest nature memories. She recorded her sightings of new birds as a tick and date by the extraordinary (in the true sense) paintings in the original Observer’s Book of British Birds and this formed the basis of her list when she returned to regular birding and began twitching later in life.

She also had a short but interesting list of Malaysian birds that was amassed during her then husband’s (my dad’s) overseas tour as Assistant Naval Stores Officer in Singapore with the Admiralty: I was born at the British Military Hospital there in January 1963.

Back in Britain they settled, after a short time in what she never ceased to call “home” – Bishop Auckland in County Durham – in Farnborough, Hampshire. Dad left to marry his latest of many alternative partners and Mum kind of retreated from society while holding down a teaching job in which she thrived, eventually becoming a head of department but never leaving the classroom environment, and raising two young boys alone. Those of you who know me can judge her success, modesty prevents me…

As part of making single-parent family life and working achievable she learned to drive (in the late Sixties not so many women did) and became capable of both long and quick drives, though her judgement could sometimes be interesting: I heard some amazing tales from birders of her passing them on black ice on blind bends going for the Wainfleet, Lincolnshire, Snowy Owl: and remember with a grin being told of the reaction of a friend when tiptoeing over the narrowest bits of the Upper Findhorn when he realised it was Audrey Dixon coming at him the other way.

Holidays became a routine of camping, but after many years of returning to Wasdale we all decided to experiment with Scotland and despite the rain found it was great. Mum wasn’t as quick on the hill as she used to be and my brother and I reckoned she couldn’t make Ben Nevis: so we set off on the scheduled ascent at a fierce pace that killed her enthusiasm within about the first five hundred feet, at which point she released us to go on while she would potter about in the valley with her dog. On top of the mountain these strange black and white sparrow-like things were begging crumbs, so I took a couple of photos (slide film) to ask Mum for an ID later. I forgot to mention them by the time we were back down so when the slides of summer male Snow Bunting came on the screen there was a bit of an outcry…. My first grip on her was before I took up birding!

When I left for university Mum joined the local RSPB group to have somewhere to go and something to do. Up in Manchester I joined the bird club: after a couple of months two letters crossed in the post. Hers said that she’d just been to Stodmarsh with the group and seen Hen Harrier, ha ha: mine said I’d just been up to the Peak District with MUBC and seen Hen Harrier, ha ha – game on!

Competition comes naturally to my entire family so it was not surprising that Mum and I pushed each other to see more and “better” stuff. Although we birded every weekend and increasingly in between, anywhere we could see sky and habitat in fact, twitches started to creep into the routine.

A significant date was 31 December 1983, when we started a day out using gen I’d been given by a Fleet Pond regular, for a Red-breasted Goose with 350 White-fronts in the Avon valley near Blashford. Couldn’t even find the goose flock to start with, so we decided to try Stanpit because there would certainly be birders there who might know more than us – it would be difficult to know less…. We had a Spoonbill fly straight over us (tick) then met two birders anxiously looking for it who responded to our assistance by giving us a precise location for the geese. After a baffled hour of scanning the flock the Red-breasted Goose finally stood up from behind a clump of rushes – tick two! The other bit of gen I’d had at the outset was a first-winter Ring-billed Gull at Radipole Lake, and we had a couple of hours of daylight left, so we had a punt and got it perched on the old Noah’s Ark thing – a three-tick day and a fine way to close the year!

I came late to driving so for years I depended on Mum for lifts. She wanted to go for everything but could be quite difficult to persuade when it came to it, so the start of most weekends was a massive argument about whether we would go for the latest rarity, even if it was a tick – then we’d go out and have a great day with a new bird. Our first trip to Scilly was October 1984 and a few years later I was probably full of scorn for people going far too early in their birding career – but we certainly did the same! On our first day we saw Eyebrowed Thrush and Olivaceous Warbler and were hooked. Although after that we stayed separately (she B&B, me usually camping on the Garrison) Scilly became a dead cert booking in the birding year and something Mum looked forward to the entire year from as soon as she came off.

In May 1985 we had a foreign birding holiday. Knowing two-fifths of naff-all we opted to go to an area we at least knew our way around from a previous visit albeit not for birding – the Bernese Oberland in Switzerland, basing ourselves in Wengen. We had a great week with good weather – what cloud occurred was off the tops every day except one - and nailed a load of great wildlife: Black and Three-toed Woodpeckers, Snowfinch, Alpine Chough (though that was one thing we knew for sure we’d seen before becoming birders, Mum had a photo of it); Alpine Accentor, Citril Finches in the hotel back garden, and, after a long walk through Nutcracker and Fieldfare-packed pine woods in blazing heat, a pair of Wallcreepers flitting about the cliffs at the mouth of the Grindelwald Gletscherschlucht, watched while happily sinking a very cold Rugenbrau. Down the hill we took a steamer trip on one of the lakes and saw our first Crag Martin, which after about five seconds was chopped by a Peregrine. Fortunately the next steamer stop was below a crag with a huge colony of them! We added Great Reed Warblers, Black Kites and on the train ride back to Lauterbrunnen to get the rack railway, European Dippers along the rivers. Interestingly, because mammals weren’t really on the menu then, we noted and spent quite a lot of time watching Alpine Marmots, Alpine Ibex, and rather more distantly, Chamois. Black Red Squirrels ran about between pine trees everywhere.

Back in Britain Mum made an apparent tactical mistake not going to Scilly in 1985. I got 21 lifers in a fortnight and drew comfortably ahead: over the next fifteen years or so she got every single one of them back, including both Yank cuckoos, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Myrtle Warbler, Bobolink…. We’d had Parula at Hengistbury just before I went so that wasn’t even an issue.

In 1986 we pooled our resources to do five days on Shetland for Black-browed Albatross, Snowy Owl and Red-necked Phalarope, taking the coach to Aberdeen (I swore off coaches forever after that) then flying over and hiring a car in which we slept for the entire visit. We had to do the Hermaness walk through psychotic Bonxies twice because Albert had gone fishing the first time, but otherwise it was a smooth trip: two first summer male King Eiders in the Sumburgh flock were a bonus.

On Scilly in 1987 the weather was mixed and involved a lot of gales. On one particularly wet day Guy Langan and I dipped an Eyebrowed Thrush, then retreated to a café until there was a shout of Swainson’s Thrush, rushed up to Longstone and dipped that too. Cold, wet, two dips to the bad…. Could it get worse? It could: “who found the Swainson’s?” I asked: “That little white-haired old lady, Audrey Dixon” came the reply. Aaargh…..

To be honest ID was not one of Mum’s top skills and she often lacked the confidence to shout stuff, so this was a shock in many ways. Nevertheless it was a gen bird and we saw it in sunshine the next day. She was determined to write it up properly and showed me her draft effort. Nine or ten drafts later I said “send it” and Mum joined the ranks of those with their name against a BB Rarity in the annual report.

As well as birder and by now butterfly, dragonfly and mammal watcher, Mum was rarely without her dog, which to her meant a German Shepherd. They don’t really aid birding but they do provide company and get you out of the house whatever the weather; Mum would generally note something or other on her dog walks. Many of these walks were at Fleet Pond LNR where for some years after her retirement she was a voluntary warden.

She was also proud of her garden and when I was in the Falklands for half of 1987 the blow-up picture of her garden in full spring bloom had wistful Brits with a lot of time still to do wandering into my office just to look at it. That garden used to get a lot of birds, including at various times all three woodpeckers (it’s strange to look at this whole reminiscence and see how many things we took for granted are now scarce or gone), Reed Buntings and Grey Wagtails back when they weren’t so attuned to suburban environments. There were frogs in the pond, Wood Mice lived under the waterfall and fed under the bird table, foxes occasionally slept under the dwarf conifers and peered in through the windows. All these things went down in diaries which I keep meaning to transcribe onto the computer during the long winter evenings.

I can’t go through every twitch or every bird on her list here so a selection will have to do. In addition I’ll just mention one or two blockers she had, starting with Little Whimbrel (that’s what it was when we ticked it); Great Bustards; Philadelphia Vireo; Double-crested Cormorant; Golden-winged Warbler; Red-breasted Nuthatch; Pallas’s Sandgrouse and Ancient Murrelet.

We had a go at seeing Swinhoe’s Petrel, attending the first petrel ringing of the year at Tynemouth, where it had dived into the net twice the previous year, and dipped. Returning home I opted to go back to work while Mum negotiated a week staying with Dad, now again divorced and living alone up Weardale, to attend future sessions until she nailed it. On the Sunday morning at 0700 I was awoken from a deep sleep by the phone and without rising from bed I knew who it was and what they wanted to tell me. I understood her excitement but couldn’t I have had a lie-in? (I got it back on the next session, one of the saves of all time.)

I saw Chimney Swift at St Andrews but she missed it despite being with me (Mike McCarthy also got it but James Andrewes missed it out of our team for the day: it was a fairly rubbish drive back!) When an influx occurred a few years later I took her to Seaton (Devon) without success so we carried on to Rame and clocked the one there, with a bonus Red-flanked Bluetail.

Much the same happened with Cliff Swallow at Spurn, when I got a rubbish distant view courtesy of James who just happened to be there, but she didn’t even get on it. Years afterwards I was heading North with my wife Marion to visit her family when one arrived at Portland and thanks to advances in comms we rang Mum and urged her to give it a shot: she hopped straight in her car and shot down there to stick it on her list. Pretty good effort for an old lady!

Looking back it’s apparent that Mum was already in decline when Marion and I were organising our wedding in 2001: she still birded locally but didn’t often twitch, and she was a bit vague sometimes when we were trying to discuss details of our nuptials. Thereafter, gradually her diary entries tailed off in quantity and quality, and she couldn’t remember simple stuff let alone long lists of birds. Eventually it became apparent that her list had topped out, and I found it totalled 462. I’m not sure if that’s the current number with all the taxonomic shifts since: certainly she could now count Least Tern but she may have done so anyway, being about as tied to BOURC as I am. At one point she was 4th highest woman in Lee’s lists, but that will be long out of date now.

After some years on medication to reduce the speed of her decline, with our assistance to remember to take tablets regularly, us doing much of the dog-walking and with home help for feeding, dressing etc, eventually she went missing twice over a weekend and it was time to move her out of her home in Cove and into nursing care. For the last few years she has been first chair- and then bed-bound, unable to speak but able to listen and with flashes of recognition occasionally in her eyes as I’ve talked to her about the latest birding news: species, places, people, tales of derring-do in cars, on boats and so on.

And that’s very briefly how my Mum went through her birding life: for those who knew her, sadly that’s all folks.

Thanks for reading.

John
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Old Thursday 12th July 2018, 07:19   #2
Jos Stratford
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An enduring memory of the late 80s ... at twitches across the country, bright ginger wafts of hair accompanied by a mother, a unique duo. My sympathies John.
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Old Thursday 12th July 2018, 07:27   #3
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My condolences to you, a beautiful read.
Thank you.
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Old Thursday 12th July 2018, 07:57   #4
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Firstly, sorry for your loss. Secondly, what a fitting Eulogy you've written for her, amazing.

Regards, Phil
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Old Thursday 12th July 2018, 08:17   #5
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I'm very sorry to hear your news John..... but oh my what wonderful memories you have of your life with her.

Thank you so much for telling us.
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Old Thursday 12th July 2018, 12:12   #6
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Sorry to hear this news, John. My condolences. Thanks for sharing the nice write-up.
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Old Thursday 12th July 2018, 12:30   #7
Jos Stratford
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Farnboro John View Post
Mum wasn’t as quick on the hill as she used to be and my brother and I reckoned she couldn’t make Ben Nevis: so we set off on the scheduled ascent at a fierce pace that killed her enthusiasm within about the first five hundred feet
Reminds me of a mountain in middle Norway :)

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Old Thursday 12th July 2018, 12:31   #8
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My deepest condolences to you and your family for your loss John!
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Old Thursday 12th July 2018, 13:06   #9
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So sorry for your loss, John. What an unbelievable recollection of your time with her.
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Old Thursday 12th July 2018, 13:43   #10
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So sorry for your loss but at the same time glad for your shared time together John.
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Old Thursday 12th July 2018, 16:41   #11
Farnboro John
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Reminds me of a mountain in middle Norway :)

Like mother, like son.
You're not wrong - me breaking through the crust at every step and sinking to my thighs (very cold in all the wrong places!) while you danced around on the snow surface like Legolas the elf! But until I look in the mirror each morning my mind still thinks it inhabits the sixteen year old whippet...

Everybody: thank you so much for your sympathy and I am glad you have enjoyed my ramblings.

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Old Thursday 12th July 2018, 16:43   #12
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Hi John. Really sorry for your loss. Your mum sounded like a fantastic lady.

Rich
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Old Thursday 12th July 2018, 20:29   #13
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Sad news John, you and David have my condolences.

I knew and birded with Audrey for a few years late ‘80s early ‘90s when I lived down in Farnborough. So here are a couple of my memories from that time, tough to dig out, at thirty some years deep, but do you know, in spite of the unhappy turn of events taking me back there I’ve enjoyed spending the day dwelling on the distant past. Happy times, good company.

Audrey very much combined a true love and appreciation of the natural world with an unapologetic joy in rarity chasing and while, as John said, ID wasn’t exactly her long suit, (Dunlin, I recall, being a species we often had to sort out for her) I don’t recall that bothering her any, or interfering with her enjoyment; birding was about the joy she got from it rather than the expertise she had in it.

I owe her more than a few ticks for the lifts she gave me, Yellow-throated Vireo being the one that springs to mind, given there’s been none since (have there?). I think John had somehow stolen a march on us and been already, so it was left to Audrey, the mid-fifties white haired divorcee, to bomb down to Cornwall with a car load of college kids. I recall being admonished for lighting my zippo in the back seat on the night drive down in order to gen up on the Vireo from her Nat Geo guide (far fewer books around back then, and no real easy portable access to the internet, so it was quite possible to head off for a bird whose name you’d only just learned and whose appearance was an utter mystery). Thinking back I’d say she had a good deal of patience with us whipper-snappers, but then she had had John for practice so….

I have fond memories of a number of days out (hey, John, trying to find the gravel pits at Fen Drayton back when it was just a pit at the end of a track, pre RSPB & tramway days, Audrey driving, you navigating, the car basically doing one big circuit several times while we tried to figure the right track, and her cheerful announcement of “well, here we are in Fen Drayton again” as we passed through the village for about the fourth time, and you just losing your s***, sorry mate, but it was funny). That was looking for a Blue-winged Teal, which Mark and I in the back seats needed, but John and Audrey didn’t, but she was still happy to generously put the effort in on our behalf.

A less fond memory is of the drive back from St Andrews after that Chimney Swift split the team, with Audrey and me on sitting on the wrong side of the divide as related by John. Same thing nearly happened with the Birsay Pallid Harrier (back when that was a bona fide CMF, not like nowadays) with me and John getting onto it on a low close fly by and Audrey and was it Mike, the fourth member of the team on that trip, looking over the top of it into the fog. Fortunately the sun burned the fog away in time and a fine performance was enjoyed by all, much to Audrey’s relief!

Holidays too, on Scilly and up in Scotland where the attached was taken (June '99?), John photographing a Northern Damselfly on a very pleasant summer trip taking in birds, dragonflies and mammals.

I’m sorry she’s gone John, even if really she’d been kind of gone a while. Thinking back the last time I saw her would have been October 2001, at yours and Marion’s wedding. Rest assured she’s remembered with fondness here.
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Old Thursday 12th July 2018, 21:27   #14
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To have had such interesting parents.

Sympathies John




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Old Friday 13th July 2018, 00:01   #15
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John

Sorry for your loss. Not sure why but the sight of your mum at many a twitch way back when always brightened my day! Maybe it was just because it made our daft hobby seem just a bit more normal.

Deepest condolences

Paul
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Old Friday 13th July 2018, 04:42   #16
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A great eulogy! I'm sure mum would be proud. Condolences but so many wonderful memories, John.
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Old Friday 13th July 2018, 15:46   #17
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Audrey very much combined a true love and appreciation of the natural world with an unapologetic joy in rarity chasing and while, as John said, ID wasn’t exactly her long suit, (Dunlin, I recall, being a species we often had to sort out for her) I don’t recall that bothering her any, or interfering with her enjoyment; birding was about the joy she got from it rather than the expertise she had in it.

I owe her more than a few ticks for the lifts she gave me, Yellow-throated Vireo being the one that springs to mind, given there’s been none since (have there?). I think John had somehow stolen a march on us and been already, so it was left to Audrey, the mid-fifties white haired divorcee, to bomb down to Cornwall with a car load of college kids. I recall being admonished for lighting my zippo in the back seat on the night drive down in order to gen up on the Vireo from her Nat Geo guide (far fewer books around back then, and no real easy portable access to the internet, so it was quite possible to head off for a bird whose name you’d only just learned and whose appearance was an utter mystery). Thinking back I’d say she had a good deal of patience with us whipper-snappers, but then she had had John for practice so….

I’m sorry she’s gone John, even if really she’d been kind of gone a while. Thinking back the last time I saw her would have been October 2001, at yours and Marion’s wedding. Rest assured she’s remembered with fondness here.
My word, you've provoked a couple of memories there....

On ID expertise, absence thereof, Guy Langan once suggested that Woodpigeons should be renamed "what's thats" so that Mum could be right occasionally.

As for the Yellow-throated Vireo, well that was plain weird. I went to visit friends in North London for a Dungeons and Dragons evening, I generally stayed overnight and went back to the office in the morning. No problem, did this on average about once a fortnight. This particular evening I arrived and a cold finger ran down my back: I said I had to ring Birdline and could I borrow the phone to do so: first bird on, Yellow-throated Vireo and goodbye D&D session. I rang Mum - some sort of appointment for the morrow - then Clare, who unusually was free, it was her day off that week.

I spent the evening getting home from Mill Hill, grabbed a couple of hours sleep and away we went to the Kenidjack Valley, where I couldn't initially spot the bird, and was not helped by Cheshire Gary's explanation that it was in the Japanese Knotweed, which I couldn't recognise - I'm a birder not a botanist! Then it showed well and panic over.

I'd forgotten the Fen Drayton incident. What a hoot (in retrospect....)

Thank you so much for your stories. And thanks also to the latest contributors for all the sympathy being shown - it means a lot.

John
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Old Sunday 15th July 2018, 03:23   #18
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A wonderful eulogy. Condolences John.

Brings back good memories of my Mum driving me to see the Berry Head Gyrfalcon and the Portscatho Least Sandpiper around the same time.

Cheers
Mike
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Old Sunday 15th July 2018, 15:52   #19
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Deepest sympathies, John.

I'm sure our paths must have crossed as I was going for everything in the 80s. Unlike yours, my Mum was never an avid birder - plants were her thing. But her knowledge of nature inspired mine. She died on the 9th. Fortunately still sharp as a tack, but body unwilling.

Anyhoo - don't want to hijack your lovely thread re your mum - as others have said: a great eulogy. Thanks for sharing.

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Old Sunday 15th July 2018, 18:40   #20
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I very much regret that, not being heavily into twitching and leaving Hampshire in the early 1970s, I never met your Mum but your moving eulogy somehow made me feel like I had. I know just how tough it is to see someone you love be slowly and cruelly taken away, memory by memory, by Alzheimer’s so you have my heartfelt sympathy and condolences.
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