Sunday, 19 November 2017
Tribute to Ricky Fairhead- the best of friends
It is with great sadness that I am writing this post in an affectionate tribute to one of my oldest friends- Ricky Fairhead who sadly and tragically passed away on 15th November this week aged just 53, far too young. I first met Ricky at Art GCE class back at Lowestoft's Denes High School in 1979 and we quickly forged a strong friendship based on our shared interests of rock music and birds. Ricky was just getting into birdwatching and I offered to take him down to the North Denes at Lowestoft to look for Snow Buntings, these were the first birds he saw as a committed birder and was a new species for us both. Other early birds discovered by us included our first Red Kite flying over Benacre wood and a fine male Kentish Plover on Corporation Marsh, Walberswick. Over the 1980's we frequently birded together most weekends first using pedal power and then motorised transport in the form of motorbikes and later cars. The local patch was all important for us and we cut our teeth and learnt the basics of fieldcraft and bird identification whilst regularly patrolling the North Denes and Ness Point at Lowestoft, Fisher Row (Oulton Marshes), Benacre Pits & Broad, Walberswick and Minsmere. In this way, Ricky became a top Suffolk birder, liked, admired and respected by all who met him. He was particularly adept at finding rare birds and his many finds, particularly in Lowestoft, over the years included mega finds 1995 was a memorable year (a "classic year" as Ricky would call it) such as finding a Pine Bunting, an a accidental vagrant from Siberia at Radar Lodge, Corton on 28th October 1995 (he found this together with Robert Wilton), and a particularly intelligent and intuitive thing that Ricky did when he had just heard the Laughing Gull at Minsmere had flown north, was to check Ness Point. He duly found Lowestoft's only Laughing Gull (with Robert Wilton), an accidental visitor from North America, (on the Bird's Eye Factory roof, Ness Point 8th July 1995) I was one of the first people he phoned (no Smart phones then) and I was able to nip down immediately and see it for 10 minutes before it flew off. Ricky has also found many other rarities including Melodious Warbler, Radde's Warbler, Dusky Warblers, Marsh Warblers, Barred Warblers, Pallas' Warblers, Yellow- browed warblers, Wrynecks, Red- backed Shrikes etc. One really intuitive and smart thing that Ricky and Rob Wilton would do would be check news on BirdNet (a rare bird news service for the UK) and see if there had been any influxes of rare birds and if so check suitable habitats in the Lowestoft area. This policy paid off time and time again. Ricky and his exceptional bird identification skills and knowledge was held in such high regard by Suffolk birders, that he was invited and served several terms (1997-1999) on the SORC, Suffolk Ornithological Records Committee, the body of experts that adjudicates on rare bird records sent in by fortunate observers. His contributions and knowledge were so greatly valued that he was invited to stay on the committee but reluctantly declined due to the monthly long journeys he solely undertook, as all the evening meetings were based at Ipswich. In the 1980's Ricky, Robert Wincup and later on in the decade, we were joined by our young protege Robert Wilton (from 1989 onwards) and we all became a close knit quartet of friends frequently birding the patch together. Ricky and I took the young sociable Robert Wil under our wing and with the blessing of his parents, mentored him and he has grown to become one of Suffolk's top birders, all due to Ricky's expert guidance. I shared so many wonderful moments with Ricky over the past 38 years, not least the birding holidays we shared together including the Spanish Pyrenees, Mallorca, the former Yugoslavia (now Southern Montenegro- together with Rob Wincup) Israel X2 (together with Carl Buttle & Ali Riseborough) and Morocco (together with Carl Buttle & Ali R) and finally China in May 1999 (together with Andrew Easton). Great times! The picture of Ricky (below) is taken just south of Larache in Morocco, after he had just expertly found an American Ring- billed Gull, a rare vagrant to that country. We shared many great experiences and hair raising adventures particularly in Morocco! Our most memorable weekend twitching was the weekend 17-18th September when we twitched North Norfolk 3X, Sheringham twice on Saturday for a Great Snipe and Lesser Grey shrike and on the Sunday 18th twitching a very memorable male Siberian Thrush at Burnham Overy Dunes. Perhaps our hardest trip in the UK was our trip together to twitch an Alder Flycatcher at Blakeney Point, North Norfolk on 25 September 2010. The 2 and a half mile walk on sand was hard enough but we we were also buffeted with wind, rain and hail lashing our faces, Ricky typically laughed this off and was, as always, great company making the onerous walk up there actually enjoyable despite all that the weather literally threw at us. When the sun suddenly came out, just as we reached the Plantation, we had good but brief views of the bird. The smile on Ricky's face afterwards said it all. We both really enjoyed that trip, although it was hard work getting there and back. We had worked hard for the bird that day! Ricky wasn't just a top birder, he was an top class all-round naturalist too and he lead the trend for birders diversifying their wildlife interest to include butterflies, dragonflies, reptiles & amphibians and Orchids. I shared this interest too and Ricky spent several summers trail blazing and surveying the local area (together with Robert Wilton) finding and mapping new areas for butterfly and dragonfly species adding greatly to the both the Butterfly & Dragonfly updated Atlas for Suffolk and adding greatly to local conservation. Indeed many of his excellent photos are published in the "Suffolk Dragonflies" book published in 2016 as a result of the Atlas info contributed too by Ricky, Rob Wil and many others. He even found a rare female Common Hawker Dragonfly on one of these trips (28 July 2007) at Burgh Castle. He realised, ahead of most others, how important it was to expand his interests to all wildlife, in order to enrich our lives even more. We shared a great love of Orchids too and he was always keen to share his knowledge (he gave me detailed directions and well illustrated maps to pin point the exact location of Violet Helleborines in Groton Wood, near Hadleigh, Suffolk- which I found easily due to his pinpoint directions) and I was delighted to accompany him on Orchid twitches in fairly recent years to see Early Spider Orchids at Samphire Hoo, Lizard Orchids at Devil's Dyke, Newmarket and the rare white form of Southern Marsh Orchids at Market Weston Fen SWT. Ricky and I also enjoyed going to the talk by Simon Harrap at Great Yarmouth Library on 16 April 2013 on Britain's Orchids, we were both glad that our our well thumbed books "Orchids of Britain and Ireland" authored by him, were duly signed. Ricky did exceptionally well to identify and find a rare Pugsley's Marsh Orchid at Carlton Marshes once. During our very last times together, when I recently visited Ricky frequently in Hospital, he was still pioneering wildlife recording by talking about the spread of False Widow Spiders locally, which he'd found recently in both Bradwell and Gorleston. Ricky was kind, caring, enthusiastic and had a great dry sense of humour and was the best friend anyone could have. His kindness and caring nature was often shown. Two examples spring to mind; first when I mentioned the lack of Frogs in my new pond, he very kindly gave me a large old margarine tub full of Frogspawn. The pond in our garden is now blessed with many descendants from that tub! Secondly, when Ricky rang up one time and I casually mentioned I had just discovered a flat tyre on my car and was having great difficulty in removing the wheel nuts (they were too tight!) and low and behold within half an hour, he had arrived at the door with a large cross monkey spanner and within a few minutes he had expertly changed the tyre for me. What a great mate he was. Ricky was also enthusiastic about his hobbies and he loved seeing rare birds but also seeing a wide variety of wildlife. He loved his music too, ZZ Top, Status Quo and Steve Earle I remember were particular favourites and he loved ZZ Top doing the "chicken dance" movements during their "Sharp Dressed Man" song. I also had very happy memories of attending concerts with both Ricky and his younger brother, Ian, seeing such great bands as Status Quo, Deep Purple, Iron Maiden and Kiss. Ricky would often give them the ultimate accolade of "classic!" Ricky was very practical too, being perceptive going on courses to become a potential painter and director when his employment was in jeopardy with the Sanyo factory threatened with closure. Ricky was a diligent and hard worker, after leaving school, having spells working at the Sanyo TV factory (assembling Televisions) in Lowestoft, working for several summers in 1992 & 1993 for English Nature as the Nature reserve warden at Benacre where under his stewardship the rare Little Terns and other wildlife prospered, he even found time find a rare Scarlet Rosefinch (June 6-7 1992) there, too. Ricky then spent many years as a valued employee at Bird's Eye Factory, before his early retirement due to ill health just a few short years ago. It is heartening to know he met his future wife, Debbie there, and both his younger brother, Ian and great friend Robert Wincup worked there too. Ricky also expertly dug out a great wildlife pond at his and Debbie's garden in Bradwell, where they had a multitude of wildlife including breeding Emperor Dragonflies and the occasional visiting Tree Sparrow (now a rare bird locally). I was delighted to be invited to his and Debbie's wedding celebrations in July this year where he cut a particularly dapper figure, he was indeed the "Sharp Dressed Man" Ricky's likeable and funny dry sense of humour was illustrated when we had gone out birding together and occasionally we didn't see anything (which was rare as he was such a sharp observer, he often found good birds on our trips together) he would call it the "worst trip ever" in a jocular manner. In particular I remember this happened after several trips to Minsmere. Although of course we had many great moments there, too. Ricky was also famously unlucky doing seawatching and with his typical sense of humour, he often called it "the worst seawatch ever!" but his luck changed after visiting Australia down under. On 5th September 1999, he shared a magical seawatching trip (off Perth in Western Australia) imaginatively called the Perth pelagic, with then ex-pat Robert Wilton, and they both saw many good seabirds. After he moved to Bradwell, his seawatching luck changed and he saw many good seabirds off both Gorleston Pier and the local sea shelter nearby. Some of the last occasions that I was birding with Ricky (treasured memories), was when I travelled back from Wales after visiting family at Christmas in December 2016 and I had diverted to twitch some Bean Geese at Bradwell, I was particularly pleased to see Ricky at the side of the road with his trusty scope. Almost as soon as I had arrived, Ricky spotted the Beans flying in and we enjoyed good views when they landed. I was also fortunate to see Ricky and Debbie birding this Spring 2017 overlooking Rollesby Broad where we saw both Arctic and Black Terns. Only just a few weeks ago, I heard he was out birding on the Yarmouth South Denes. Ricky was one of those few people that everyone liked, he was a very popular guy and tributes have flooded in from his many friends (both locally and further afield) and his followers on Twitter. The local wildlife/birding scene at both Lowestoft and Great Yarmouth will be much the poorer without him. He enriched my life and it will be all the poorer without him. I miss him greatly. My sincerest condolences and very deepest sympathy go to his wife Debbie, brother Ian, his father and all the rest of his close family and his many, many friends. Rest in peace, Ricky.