Having visited the outside of his house twice I met a man today who was a little tidier in his appearance than his front garden and windows suggested he might be. A recent haircut and neat beard gave him a distinguished look.
He was quick to make clear that he had no wish to get involved with records committees and the 'politics' that come with them, despite being a Parish Councillor.
I took my time and shared my first experience of Great Grey Shrike, a wintering bird at Normanton, South Yorkshire, with him before asking when he first saw the pair of shrikes together. "Back in April or May, one bird had wintered and was joined by another"
We moved off the subject and he kept moving around the small transport and 20th century memorabilia museum in which he volunteers. I remained patient and asked how he had first realised they were breeding.
"I watched their behaviour, nest building, although it took a while to locate the nest"
"Their nest was built high up in a big tree"
What kind of tree? I enquired.
"A Sycamore" came the brief reply.
For over an hour he was happy to relate tales of past endeavours and naturalists met or worked with (Ennion, Tunnicliffe, Fisher et al). Every time I drew the conversation back to the shrikes the detail dried up. I sensed an unease, a nervousness, whenever I re-raised the subject.
Had he recovered any material from the nest?
"Yes, food pellets and a piece of eggshell"
The nest site had been kept secret "to protect it from visitors and a local man who shoots everything in sight" (17 herons and an unspecified number of Goosander this year allegedly).
He had "seen four of the five birds bathing in the South Tyne near a ford in the river"
A coach trip arrived and I was nearing the end of my time. The $64000 dollar question, could I have a piece of the eggshell "for DNA analysis" he replied as his eyes lit up almost as if he had been expecting the question. "It's already happening, I have a friend in the Midlands who is carrying out DNA tests. It might not even be from the shrikes but the colour & texture of the eggshell are very similar to Red-backed Shrike eggs that I have seen."
"Could I have a copy of the report when you get it?" I asked
"Yes although it might be some time yet before it comes back" he replied.
So no further forward, just a few almost random pieces of information. There are no photographs as he made no attempt to take any. He has sketches. No specific dates just vague references to months and weeks. A DNA test on some eggshell, that may have come from the alleged nest or may not, carried out by an unspecified 'friend' in the Midlands.
I went to Alston knowing it was unlikely that I would come away with definitive proof either way but I wanted to understand more about the underlying paradoxes. Why would a man intent on shunning publicity and avoiding the 'politics' of records committees put himself in the firing line by handing the story to a newspaper? Why would someone who has kept the secret of a a first breeding record for our small islands to protect the birds choose a country newspaper read predominantly by the sparrowhawk hating, shotgun owning, good country folk of Northumberland to break the news?
He is a poet, with a poet's imagination, he may have seen a Great Grey Shrike, he may have seen two. I have a theory that might resolve the paradoxes. A chance conversation, with perhaps elements of a fisherman's 'it was this big' about it, with an old newspaper friend may have resulted in the publication of the story. Perhaps the old friend at the Courant got wind that binocular clad hordes had descended on a small golf course high on the moors and rang his local friend to find out what was going on. I believe that something of this nature occurred rather than a deliberate news release by our man. The story has snowballed taken on a life of it's own beyond the circle of friends and village walls of his isolated home. Backtracking isn't easy, it takes a lack of ego, one has to be able to deal with hurt pride, that can be hard when pride is perhaps all you have. Somewhere in this there are some facts, I'm not sure what they are nor am I sure that they are not interwoven into the fabric of a fiction.