John Fortey 1937 - 2010


1937 - 2010

John Fortey, died peacefully on 28th January 2010, after a long battle with cancer.


Spanning more than 60 years, John's unrelenting commitment to 'local patch birding' coupled with his exceptional fieldcraft, culminated in a legacy of quality finds, including the discovery of Britain's first White-tailed Plover & Lesser Scaup. Birding Dawlish Warren almost daily for 17 years, Britain's first mainland Semipalmated Plover was amongst his many memorable finds.

John, his wit, great modesty and kindness will be sorely missed. The world of birding has lost a true legend.
His obituary was published in Devon Birds 63 (1): 43-45 and is repeated below.


John Ernest Fortey was born on November 21 1937 in Kingstanding, a north-westerly suburb in the greater conurbation of Birmingham. 


John's first love was train spotting and he used to cycle with his school friends to several of the railway stations near to his home.  A love of listing was born.  One day, whilst riding to a nearby railway station, there was a flash of iridescent colour across his vision as a Jay swooped past.  It picked up John's imagination with it and led him to an all-absorbing chase that would last for the whole of his life.  From that day forward he was hooked on birds.


Julian (Sam) Langford, one of John's earliest and most enduring friends, recalls first meeting John outside his school in Aston, Birmingham in the summer of 1952.  Discovering a mutual interest in birds they were soon exploring the delights of nearby Sutton Park, a vast expanse of lowland heath and woodland that was a former hunting reserve of King Henry VIII.  In those far off days the primary objective of any birder was to find bird's nests and eggs.  John was an avid note and list maker and his note books from that era are liberally filled with accounts of finding many of the nests and eggs of the bird species that inhabited the park.  John told me that he'd once taken an egg from a nest but became so overcome with guilt that he resolved never to repeat the act again.


By now birding was becoming an over-riding obsession and soon they began widening their compass.  They would think nothing of visiting Sutton Park, then cycling over to Chasewater, formerly Cannock Reservoir, then to Belvide Reservoir and finally over the steep inclines of Cannock Chase to Blithfield Reservoir which they would always walk at least half way round.  A round trip of at least 60 miles, and all that on a short winter's day. 


Records show that John's name first appeared in the West Midland Bird Club's Annual Report in 1954.  His records for that year include: Great Northern Diver and Snow Bunting at Chasewater and a Bittern in Sutton Park.  Not a bad start!


Interestingly, in those days, bird-watching was a pastime that seemed to be the preserve of the middle classes.  When John applied for membership to the bird club he had to stand before a committee whose sole duty was to either accept or bar membership.  For them to accept a young man from a working class background speaks volumes for his prowess as a birder.


At around this time John and Julian and a few other friends had also started ringing (John eventually became a C ringer) and they would haunt Sutton Park during the winter months, netting and ringing birds.  Julian still remembers catching a Hawfinch in the park some 53 years ago.


Years later in the early 1970s after Julian had married and settled down John came to live with them for six months when he was posted by West Midland Gas Board, his employer, to work on conversion to natural gas in the Wellington area of Shropshire.  It was not long before John was revealing the 'tricks' of the trade and he demonstrated how to reverse his gas meter so that it took units off rather than adding them.  All went well for a time until he forgot to reverse the procedure and for the whole of the next week he had to run every gas appliance in the house twenty-four hours a day to show a slight increase in the units consumed.  He said he had never been so warm - it was mid-summer after all.  He regaled this story with fits of merriment which was so contagious that listeners would all collapse with laughter.



John retained his interest in Chasewater and Sutton Park throughout his time in the West Midlands.  Then from 1958, reports from John began to appear frequently in association with Hams Hall Power Station (now Ladywalk Nature Reserve, run in conjunction with the West Midlands Bird Club).  This area, along with nearby Bodymoor Heath (now Kingsbury Water Park), became two of John's key bird-watching sites, where he developed a keen interest in habitat management and conservation to add to his already well-honed identification skills. 



There was an interruption to John's birding activities between 1964 and 1972 owing to marriage commitments.  Many of John's birding friends were quite amazed by this turn of events.  John, as all his friends knew, had committed his entire life to birding so could there really be room for anything else? John was both a very private and unassuming person; he talked so little about himself.  But, by his own account he doesn't seem to have been one of nature's natural husbands! On one of the few occasions that he actually mentioned his wife, and this account maybe somewhat apocryphal, he confessed that on their honeymoon he'd chosen a spot overlooking a good migration area near the sea.  Almost inevitably, his new bride got so infuriated with him constantly watching birds through the caravan window that she snatched his binoculars from his grasp and threw them over the cliff!



After his divorce it was not long though before John started birding again although not with the same application.  He did still occasionally take his dog for a walk around Chasewater during these 'gap years'.  One such walk coincided with the presence of a Least Sandpiper in August 1971, found by his later close friend Rob Hume (now the long time editor of the RSPB Birds Magazine), but John didn't see the bird as he did not know that such a newsworthy species was present! Of course, there was no grapevine in those days.



Alan Dean remembers meeting John at around this time in the early 70s.  He turned up at Blithfield one day and he was a fresh face to most of the Blithfield regulars at that time.  The exception, of course, was Eric Clare, who had been around longer than any of those present and already knew of John and of his birding prowess, from earlier years.  This introduction sealed a friendship that lasted throughout the whole of John's life.  John Ridley, one of those friends, recalls John being one of the first birdwatchers to have a pair of the then technically advanced Zeiss Dialyts.  Shortly after he purchased them he managed to get them covered in mud and decided to clean them in a bucket of soapy water.  Unfortunately, they weren't as waterproof as John thought....  I don't think a pair of binoculars has ever been wrecked so quickly! This incident was quite typical of John.  He was quite cavalier in his treatment of his (and other people's) optics.  Many's the time I've seen him look through someone else's binoculars and exclaim to the unfortunate recipient that his prisms were out of alignment.  He then went about rectifying the supposed fault by tapping the offending piece of equipment vigorously onto a hard surface.  After several attempts and much studied gazing through the by now mortified owner's prized possession, he would declare the once offending piece of equipment fit for use.  Not many binoculars survived his optical clinics.



John soon teamed up closely with Eric Phillips, one of the Blithfield regulars and the West Midlands' first genuine twitcher, and soon the initials 'JEF and EGP' could be found liberally spread through the WMBC Annual Reports of the 1970s and 1980s. 


Between 1972 and 1991 John, Eric and Betty Green (Eric's partner) started going on their annual holidays to the Scillies, sometimes accompanied by friends such as David Smallshire and Jeff Hazel.  The first ten visits were spent on St Agnes where they stayed in the Little House adjacent to the famed Parsonage - and which in reality was a barn - where they were charged by the owner the princely sum of 50 pence a night.  Eric recounts that the farmer had to turn the cow out for the fortnight when they arrived.  The next decade was spent on St Mary's until their holiday on the island was deemed too expensive.


This period in John's life was particularly fruitful.  In 1975 John, Eric and Betty found a White-tailed Plover at Packington Gravel Pits whilst John was centrally involved in confirming the identity of a Lesser Scaup at Chasewater in 1987.  Both these were firsts for Great Britain.  Probably the best find which gave John the greatest pleasure came in 1979, when he found a superb male Two-barred Crossbill on Cannock Chase.  It remained from December 1979 right through to April 1980 and was enjoyed by many observers from all over the country during its extended stay. 



By now John was one of the leading lights of a close knit group of birders; indeed several of his friends either were or had served as members of that august body the British Birds Rarities Committee.  Alan Dean, a former member, recalls that John was as sharp as a tack and one of the very best birders with whom he'd had the pleasure of birding.   John also befriended several of the regular birders who frequented Bodymoor Heath, these include: Steve Haynes, Alan Keatley, Brian Hill and my wife and me.  John's superb field-craft and identification skills were an inspiration to us all and resulted in a friendship that lasted over his lifetime.


Time moved on and John gave up work to look after his ailing parents.  During this time he started to visit RSPB Sandwell where Alicia and I had become regular visitors.  Soon he was racking up the bird and plant list and was becoming hooked on moth trapping during regular nocturnal sessions in Sandwell Valley, Sutton Park and our garden in Handsworth Wood. 


John recalls that his days in the Sandwell valley were responsible for some of his happiest memories.  The RSPB staff led by Tony Whitehead and ably assisted by Angelina Jones always made it their chief priority to make John feel at home.  How this friendship survived John's ambitious habitat creation schemes on or near the reserve is a testament to the warden's forgiving nature and the esteem in which he was held.  John was always tinkering with the landscape trying to make things better for wildlife, and in the course of things - his life list!



In 1990 we left to live in Teignmouth and, after the recent death of both of his parents, John's life was at a crossroads.  He toyed with the idea of moving to Norfolk a (better class of birds, but too cold in winter) or Portland where one of his distant relatives was domiciled.  In the end he settled for Devon and in October 1993 John moved into a house that we found for him in the very next street.


John spent much of his first year familiarising himself with the local birding spots along the Exe and the Teign before committing the remainder of his life to full time birding and providing records for the log at Dawlish Warrren NNR.  He also joined and was a great supporter of the Devon Bird-watching & Preservation Society and for a period, in conjunction with me, wrote a section of the Systematic List for the Devon Birds Annual Report.  He also served between 2000 and 2004 on the Devon Birds Records Committee.


Naturally for a birder of John's capability it wasn't long before good finds began to adorn the pages of his log book.  Two Broad-billed Sandpipers - 2000 & 2004, Baird's Sandpiper - 2000,  White-rumped Sandpiper - 1998, Buff-breasted Sandpiper - 2006, three Rosy Starlings -2002,03,04, Semi-palmated Plover 1997 - 2nd for Britain and first for mainland Britain.  John found this bird and was confident of its identity but never got close enough views to confirm it.  Finally, the problem was resolved when his friend Kevin Rylands managed to identify it by the call.  The roll call continues with : Short-toed Lark - 2005, Crane - 2007, several Surf Scoters plus several Yellow-browed Warblers, Barred Warblers, Hoopoes, Wrynecks; indeed the litany of important bird sightings that are accorded to John are too great to enumerate, but suffice it to say that it is unlikely that the site will ever again be consistently graced by an observer of such outstanding ability.  Talking with John one night, he reckoned that he must have made around 5,000 visits to the Warren since moving to Devon! Now that's what you call dedication!


Interestingly, John was also present during the three separate sightings of the putative Elegant Tern at Dawlish Warren - 2002.  Though it is always unwise to predict the outcome of any of the BBRC committees’ deliberations, it seems likely that the third sighting of the tern which was found by John, may in time become another first for Great Britain.  To find one British first is every birder's dream, to find two is beyond realistic comprehension but to find three is surely to be admitted to the pantheon of great British birders! We await the committee's decision with interest, the last person to find three 'firsts'  on the mainland was probably George Montagu in the early 19th Century!


In addition to his birding skills John was also recognised as being an excellent general natural historian and artist.  Days in the field with John were never boring as he always found something of interest to show you and could identify confidently most of the flora and fauna that he encountered on his excursions.


John was diagnosed in 2005 with cancer and over the subsequent years fought the condition bravely continuing his daily jaunts to Dawlish Warren whenever his worsening condition permitted him.  My final happy memory is of him sitting in his chair to which he had become more or less confined watching the birds coming to his garden bird feeders whilst painting for me a picture of a red squirrel which I shall treasure for the rest of my life.


John was a shy and very private man but someone who was very loyal and supportive to those lucky enough to be considered friends.  When John died on January 28 2010 a dark shadow crossed our lives - we shall miss him.


Bob Normand



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