Monks' House

During the 1950's Eric and Dorothy Ennion ran their own Bird Observatory and Field Centre, Monks' House, at Seahouses in Northumberland. Although part of the official observatory network, it was run as a business and was an entirely private venture. As Eric wrote in The House on the Shore – the book in which he tells the story of Monks' House – “I was ever a firm believer in committees of one, or at most of two: oneself and one's wife”.

monks house

Monks' House attracted a regular band of keen ringers and birdwatchers, as well as providing courses for in­dependent naturalists, artists, and students from colleges and schools. Eric was in his element. The study of migration was very much to the fore in British ornithology at the time and he was at the centre of things, pioneering the trapping of waders and the introduction of mist-nets. Click here to see the arrangements for 1957.

The only drawback was that he had little time to paint. However, he spent count-less hours watching and studying birds in the field and, through ringing thousands of them, gained an exceptional understanding of their structure. This, combined with his reference collection of field sketches – mainly from the 1930's – provided the foundation for Eric's prodigious output in the 1960's and 70's.

monks house

This spring male white-spotted bluethroat – a bird to set the pulse racing on the east coast of Britain, even today – was found in the garden of Shepherd's Cottage at Beadnell dunes on 18 April 1957 and is the subject of an illustration in The House on the Shore. This version probably dates from the early 1970's.

But it is autumn which can see the most spectacular falls of birds on the east coast, when night migrants, setting off in clear conditions from Scandinavia and other areas around the Baltic Sea, meet cloud and rain, and try to make landfall as best they can. One such exceptional movement took place at the beginning of September 1956. Eric Ennion's account of this appeared in the Transactions of the Natural History Society of Northumberland, Durham and Newcastle upon Tyne in June 1957. It is a serious study of what occurred, but still conveys all the excitement of a 'big day'. It has been edited for inclu­sion here. The illustration of how to release a bird from a mist-net was prepared for The House on the Shore.

White-spotted Bluethroat
150 x 185 mm

Releasing a bird from a mist-net (detail)
150 x 185 mm

Click on the image to see the full illustration.

The New Bridge over Monks' House Burn 270 x 220 mm

Drift Migration on the East Coast in Early
September 1956

By E A R Ennion MA , Director, Monks' House Bird Observatory

A heavy fall of drift migrants from the Baltic area, affecting almost the whole of the eastern seaboard of Britain, took place during the first few days of September 1956. This account refers in the main to a fifteen-mile sector of the Northumberland coast from Holy Island in the north to Howick in the south. The meteorological conditions at the time, deduced from synoptic charts published by the Air Ministry, were these:

A series of depressions from the Atlantic, sweeping in round the southern bor­der of a 'high' moving slowly north towards Iceland, were traveling north across France, Britain, the North Sea, the Low Countries and southern Scandi­navia. Meanwhile, away to the east, another 'high', developing north of the Alps, was expanding towards the Baltic until, by 06.00 on August 31st, the two had coalesced to form a wide, clear, almost windless ridge reaching right across mid-Europe to the Black Sea: conditions which must have launched countless autumn migrants on their travels. On September 2nd [a] rain belt stretched com­pletely across the North Sea, but away to the northeast of it the high pressure ridge still held, setting still more migrants on the move. By mid­night the belt had reached Northumberland and, through its mists and squalls, tens if not hundreds of thousands of migrants had come, or were coming, ashore.

Thus from September 1st to 4th – and as far as Northumberland is concerned, especially the wild night of September 2nd/3rd with its east to southeast squalls rising locally to force five and six – one can visualize the long scattered streams of hundreds of thousands of small night migrants, pied flycatchers, redstarts, garden and willow warblers, passing northwestwards obliquely up the North Sea, with individuals and little parties peeling off continually as they came within sight of the coast lights or, after dawn, the coast itself. It was essentially a long-drawn movement from south to north. Migrants were coming in already on 1st Sept-ember at Cley where, as on the Wash “undoubtedly the main passage was on the morning of the 2nd, with a follow-up on the 3rd”. At Gibraltar Point the 2nd also saw the heaviest passage, but not so marked as in Norfolk. At Spurn numbers were almost equal on the 2nd and 3rd. On the Farnes the 3rd was easily the peak day; while on the May, in the Firth of Forth, it was September 4th.

At Monks' House a number of reliable watchers were in residence, including three experienced in the use of mist-nets; and, with the virtual certainty that this movement would develop within hours, a plan to ensure as wide a coverage as possible had been evolved. It proved possible to maintain more or less simult-ane­ous watch at five well separated points – Fenham/Holy Island; Shada/Budle Bay; Inner Farne; Annstead/Beadnell; Craster/Howick – from about 09.00 on September 3rd, three of them in fact being covered from dawn. Nearly a hundred birds of eighteen species were caught, the majority involved in the drift, and on the following day another thirty, including three additional species.

monks house

Locally the weather, almost all day on September 3rd, varied from bad to impossible. So bad was it that the virtual absence of records from further south along the Northumberland coast has been ascribed to the day “looking so hope­less that nobody could have been out!” Yet it was one of the most memorable days known. More bluethroats (about thirty), for example, were ringed at the Bird Observatories during these few days than in any previous year; in fact the total ringed since the BTO Ringing Scheme began in 1946, up to 1955, is only forty-six.

Normally migration would not take place under such wretched weather condi­tions – for both bird and birdwatcher – but once started (over the Baltic area in clear skies on the previous evening), it has to go on, the most fortunate birds making a landfall, the less fortunate being lost at sea.

By mid-afternoon immigration appeared to have ceased; indeed, with some slight amelioration in the weather, at least half the migrants had moved on. By the morning of the 4th (while passage reached its peak sixty miles further north at the May) the far fewer arrivals in the Farnes/Monks' House area probably represented mainly redirected passage south along the coast. Even so, on the morning of the 4th, there were “still many pied flycatchers and redstarts” at Fenwick and about seventy pied flycatchers and three hundred redstarts still present on Holy Island. On Inner Farne “fewer birds than yesterday but still plenty” suggests that arrival had continued overnight.

As regards counts, the whinchat's habit of sallying from a low but conspicuous perch may have made it appear unduly numerous in relation to other species: nevertheless practically every prominent dock or thistle in late corn crops near the coast held a whinchat (or a pied flycatcher), as many as forty sometimes being in sight at once. Pied flycatchers, wheatears and willow warblers (feeding largely on flying insects) again may have seemed relatively more numerous than skulking redstarts and garden warblers – and especially bluethroats. But the trapping figures are revealing: on September 3rd and 4th, twenty-five redstarts and fourteen garden warblers were ringed by Monks' House Bird Observatory – more than the total number trapped on autumn passage during the previous five years.

Monks' House ringing totals for migrants on September 2nd, 3rd and 4th were: Wryneck 0, 2, 0; Wheatear 6, 1, 1; 'Northern' Wheatear 1, 0, 0; Whinchat 3, 2, 0; Redstart 4, 20, 5; Bluethroat 0, 1, 0; Garden Warbler 8, 12, 2; Barred Warbler 0, 3, 0; Whitethroat 30, 1, 0; Lesser Whitethroat 0, 1, 0; Willow Warbler 6, 6, 0; Spotted Flycatcher 3, 0, 0; Pied Flycatcher 3, 27, 3; Red-backed Shrike 1, 2, 0; Crossbill 0, 0, 3.

The Countryman's Log – Eric's fortnightly articles in the magazine Farm and Country – gave him the opportunity to chronicle events of more general inter­est. The following extract appeared there in December 1958.

A New Bridge

By E A R Ennion

A small burn runs through the garden on its way out over the beach to the sea. For part of its course it is confined in a covered channel between stone-built walls roofed over with great stone slabs, which carry all the traffic from the road to the house doors. For the rest it is open. The northern bank is higher and, at some time in the past, it had been more skillfully reinforced with rough stone walling than has the lower, casually-contrived southern bank. The burn as it runs through the garden divides a small lawn: you cross from one part to the other by what was – until very recently – a rickety and rather precarious wooden bridge.

Between the lawn and the capping-stones of the bank wall on the north side lie two flowerbeds, one on either side of the bridge. On the opposite side a few small but gnarled old poplars stand in a crescent between the burn and the farther lawn. Tattered and reft by sea winds they burst forth hopefully from their aged grey stems anew each year; trees of character that I would be loath to see replaced by pink almonds or flowering cherries, even supposing such suburban upstarts would survive there. The intervening space between the poplars and the burn, a low-lying damp and shaded quarter-moon, tries its best to achieve a compromise between rock and water garden, for such was my wife's intention. She is the presiding genius.

But it is not all beer and skittles. Once in a while a conspiracy of low barometer, high spring tide and northeast gale sends the seas rolling up the mouth of the burn at high water; through the culvert and over the low south bank, leaving wrack and spume and all manner of jetsam in their wake – and not even the toughest of primulas are over fond of salt. Or it may be, swollen by days of heavy rain, the burn overflows in spate and sweeps half the soil from the beds alongside it out to sea. And half the plants, of course, go too.

monks house

I fancy it was a heap of old stones left over from the conversion of [a] cottage that gave the mistress of the garden the idea of rebuilding the south bank of the burn and restoring the bridge, not in wood but in stone. We consulted the builder. He had a mason who could do it at odd times and the estimate was not as high as we expected. He would look round for another load or two of suitable old stone for the wall; what really bothered him were the slabs for the bridge.

Certainly it was a problem. Even supposing he could have found one, the span was too great for a single stone: it would have been far too heavy for his masons to manhandle and the job obviously wasn't big enough to warrant sending for a crane! Paving slabs, on the other hand, were too small – at least four, with three intermediate piers would be required and we were afraid that, in times of flood, this might have impeded the flow of water down the burn. Moreover, it would have looked, at best, a clumsy expedient; and the mason also had an eye for what was seemly in such cases. “We'll bide a bit” he said. So there matters rested for the next few days.

Then – out of the blue apparently – three fine flat slabs appeared upon the scene, old, weather-worn, of the right dimensions and obviously the very ones we needed. Supporting piers, just two instead of three, were built up and the slabs coaxed expertly into place. Whereupon the mason confided and “hoped I wouldn't mind”: they were “a few old tombstones” he'd “happened to find”. “Splendid”, said I, and wondered where, but let it go at that. There are matters it is wiser not to pursue.

The photograph of Monks' House is taken from a "Real Photo Series" postcard

Text and all other images © The Estate of E A R Ennion

Introductory text © Bob Walthew