Wild Things columnist Eric Brown suggests chatting with people on wildlife walks to gather information but beware of those toting guns and corpses.

You mostly meet some really nice people when out on wildlife trips. Although there are some exceptions.

First a story of ultimate unselfishness and generosity. I'd gone to look for a wryneck, a rare member of the woodpecker family, on an RSPB nature reserve near Gravesend. Eight other birdwatchers were there with telescopes arranged in a long line and pointing to where the bird had last been seen. An hour passed. Then someone shouted "I've got it." He continued commentating on what it was doing while frustration grew for the rest of us as we could not see it. Soon it was clear the wryneck was visible from only one place among thick weeds and the finder occupied that spot. Then a remarkable thing happened. The spotter retreated from his telescope and invited eight blokes he didn't know to look through it one by one. So we all managed to see the wryneck. What a guy! What a gesture!

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This restored my faith in the friendly nature of birdwatchers after an incident just a few weeks earlier. On the Isle of Sheppey to see a black stork, I arrived to find this enormous bird flying over the road. I looked up and gasped "Oh it's the black stork isn't it." It was statement rather than question but I was startled by the reaction of a birder nearby who snapped: "It bloody well better be," in rather rude fashion. Ah well, takes all sorts.

I'm always happy to chat with people on wildlife walks. You can learn much about nearby wildlife from bird, insect or mammal experts and sometimes even from those who wouldn't know a red admiral from a red-backed shrike.

Like the lady I bumped into walking her dog along a Kent coast path. We exchanged polite conversation about the weather and she asked me what I was looking for through binoculars. I said I'd been seeking snow buntings for an hour. I'm not sure she understood this but suddenly she pointed and said: "What are those funny little white birds over there?" Yes, you've guessed it.

Another lady dog-walker proved just as helpful. On this occasion I was looking for lesser spotted woodpecker in a vast Kent wood when she appeared. I patiently answered the usual question about what I was doing and she admitted she knew nothing about birds but then added that there were several people looking through binoculars "up that path to the left there." Bingo !

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Mind you there are some sinister-looking people around, too. Twice I've been startled by men wielding guns. The first loomed up so silently out of a wood that I didn't notice him until he passed me while performing the neat trick of carrying half a dozen dead rabbits, a deceased pheasant and a broken shotgun across his shoulders. The other was thankfully more distant on a Kent wetland nature reserve. He strode along the main path holding a shotgun in one hand and the lead of a large black dog in the other. What would anyone be doing with a gun in a nature reserve ? I left quickly hoping he wouldn't come across any plump ducks.

Shooting birds seems to be regular and accepted on French so-called nature reserves but thankfully it is rare in England. Long may it remain so.


Sunday, April 7: Crossness Nature Reserve, Belvedere, 9.30am to 12.30. Bird walk on reserve and Thames foreshore guided by Ralph and Brenda Todd. Drive in via gates at Norman Road, Belvedere, from 9.15am. To book email: karen.sutton@thameswater.co.uk

Friday, April 12: Bexley RSPB group indoor meeting: talk by Mick White on local patch birdwatching 7.45pm John Fisher Church Hall, 48 Thanet Road, Bexley. £4 RSPB Member £5 non-member

Sunday, April 14: Bexley RSPB Group coach trip to Whisby Nature reserve, Lincolnshire 7.30am to 7pm approximately. £23. Details and booking : Deborah Howard 07957 776686 or email deborahfrances@aol.com