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THE vol­un­teers are Mar­tin Mere’s wings. Across the Wild­fowl and Wet­lands Trust there are 1,000 – and with­out them the char­ity’s grand am­bi­tions would never be met.

One of their cur­rent long­est serv­ing vol­un­teers is Dave Walsh, 73.

He has been help­ing out at Mar­tin Mere near Bus­cough for over 20 years.

Dave and his wife Estelle, 73, took up an in­ter­est in birds when their chil­dren flew the nest.

Fas­ci­nated by mi­gra­tory birds, Dave would note their move­ments, be­com­ing a vi­tal as­set to the re­serve.

Now a whooper swan re­search vol­un­teer, Dave has de­voted much of his time help­ing to mon­i­tor the wel­fare of thou­sands of birds that spend the win­ter there.

Here Dave shares what he’s learned over the years.

WE started here around 1994/5. My wife and I be­gan com­ing here, af­ter our chil­dren grew up and left the fam­ily home, to take up bird watch­ing.

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.

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 data­base. From there on it snow­balled. 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 – ringread­ing and re­search­ing.

This went on un­til 2007 when the BBC’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.

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? 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 study fam­i­lies and in­di­vid­ual pairs and so on.

You get to know cer­tain birds. You get to know pairs so if you see one, you know the other will be nearby.

We have one swan 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.

At the time of writ­ing she hasn’t ar­rived but days.

Some­times she doesn’t ap­pear un­til af­ter Christ­mas. It’s not un­usual.

Vir­ginia has also been seen at Wel­ney, the WWT site near Wis­bech. She was caught and ringed as an adult so we don’t know her ex­act age. She’s quite a star.

She turns up un­ex­pect­edly. You’ll be pack­ing up late in the af­ter­noon and she’ll sud­denly show up. You think: ‘where the heck have you been?’

Si­grunn is an­other fa­mous vis­i­tor who was first ringed in De­cem­ber 2002. His ring cracked in 2010 so they re­placed it and let me keep the old one.

An­other favourite was a bird called Marty. He was one of the rea­sons that I got into this. I’d seen him at WWT Caerlave­rock in Dum­friesshire where he was ringed.

He had a part­ner called Mer­ry­town who had been ringed at Mar­tine Mere.

I re­mem­ber see­ing him here in 1997 and the fol­low­ing year I vis­ited Caerlave­rock and lo and be­hold, he came out of the it’s early wa­ter. They knew him well.

A week later I saw him at Mar­tin Mere.

When they first started ring­ing birds here, he was one of the few birds they could recog­nise with­out a ring.

He was a big bird with a dis­tinc­tive look. You couldn’t miss him. He flew into a py­lon and died in Ice­land so that was very sad.

I think he would have prob­a­bly been in his early 20s.

He was quite an age when we started notic­ing him.

There was a swan called Ains­dale that we adopted. Quite a few peo­ple adopted her. She was one of those birds that you could guar­an­tee you’d see.

There used to be a cou­ple from York­shire that only came

Vol­un­teer Dave Walsh has seen and learned so much dur­ing his 20 years at Mar­tin Mere

Dave re­calls Kane Brides as a school­boy – now on the staff and seen on an Arc­tic trip

Vir­ginia the swan is a reg­u­lar vis­i­tor

Chil­dren keep­ing a log – just like Dave!

School­child­ren out­side the cen­tre back in 1984

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