Ernie Lucking

Ernie Lucking – a tribute

Suffolk’s birding community is still reeling following the sudden loss of our great friend and WBC member Ernie Lucking.  I knew Ernie since the early 1990s when we used to meet each morning whilst the team were ringing birds at Fagbury Cliff at Trimley.  Ernie walked his little dog, Monty, daily and as he passed our ringing table would stop to have a friendly chat and to see what birds had been trapped that day.

In more recent years, it was always a joy to meet Ernie at Landguard.  Several birders gather at the Obs each morning to log the birds that frequent the point and those seen flying offshore.  As we gaze into the rising sun, it’s always tough work and anything remotely unusual is shouted out.  “Fulmar soouff” in Ernie’s soft London accent always raised a chuckle!  However, Ernie’s “Directionlexia” was rarely spot-on and he often muddled noorf and soouff.  Fellow watchers would be thrown by Ernie enquiring about the identity of a bird flying souff past the green buoy!  “Do you mean the one flying north” you would hear someone say.   Ernie was never fazed and with a wry smile accompanied by a giggle, he would reply "Oh yeah that’s wot I meant".  Ernie was nearly always accompanied by his long-suffering birding companion Dave Langlois.  Ernie, with his impish sense of humour, would never miss a chance to goad Dave, whose hearing is somewhat restricted, especially when the pair was seeking out species such as Grasshopper Warbler.  This would always bring out the mischievous side of Ernie and he would ask Dave "Can't you hear it Dave" bringing the response "You know I bloody well can't" again evoking that giggling smile which we all knew and loved.  During our walks around the reserve, Ernie would always carry a huge fertiliser bag, to collect litter as we went, and he was party to many rare bird finds.

It was a real privilege to accompany him on three amazing WBC tours - to Georgia/Armenia, Kazakhstan and, last year, to north-east India. Ernie had a kind word for everyone and these trips were not without humorous incidents. Tour members will never forget going through customs on the Armenian/Georgian border. On the Armenian side our passports were checked, but on the Georgian side we had to get out of the minibus and then carry our luggage through the customs office where it was checked for contraband.  But where was Ernie?  He was not to be seen.  Had he popped into the loo – no one knew!  We waited but Ernie failed to appear, so the only option was for his travel companions to carry his luggage through and pretend that it belonged to one of us and hope to find Ernie later.  As we re-boarded the bus ready for the off, Ernie appeared.  He had decided, entirely innocently no doubt, to have a wander through no-man’s-land to admire the view - a wander that was of course unauthorised and very much frowned upon by the grim-faced border guards!

Ernie Lucking in India

Eric (D’Weasel) Patrick, Carol Elliott, Ali Risborough and Ernie on the right
Buddhist monastery, Thupsung Dharge Ling, in NE India on April 1st 2019

Another incident that will live long in our memories happened during our 2019 tour of north-east India.  It was a tough, full-on tour as we walked many miles each day along mountain passes and jungle trails.  Ernie was having ankle trouble so hobbled has way round without complaint.  We birdwatched the Sela Pass (a high-altitude mountain pass at an elevation 4,200m) on one of our days and, like me, Ernie suffered altitude sickness, so both of us remained in the minibus without a care about what the others were seeing!

There were lots of key species that we all wanted to see but a real prize was the stunning pheasant-like Blyth’s Tragopan.  It is undoubtedly one of the world’s most beautiful birds, showing vivid colours of crimsons with pale greyish spots, a yellow face and throat and a pale grey lower breast and belly.  For days we searched in vain along jungle trails, but this elusive bird remained hidden in dense undergrowth – somewhere!

After a third day of searching, our tour guide heard its distant far-carrying call.  It was some way off down a steep and heavily-wooded ravine, but we were determined.  Our leader began playing a voice lure and after several minutes we were in no doubt that its call was getting louder. The bird was getting closer, slowly making its way up the slope towards us!  We were told to take up position on the opposite side of the road and remain silent. The idea was that we would coax the bird across the road directly in front of us as it was attracted by the tape.  Its call got louder and louder and the tension mounted amongst our group.  It was now very close but then suddenly it stopped responding.  What was happening?  Was it still coming?

After a minute of extreme anxiety, we heard Ernie’s quiet voice. “What’s that bird standing in the road behind us?”  It was the tragopan and with that we all swung round in unison.  Our sudden movement and burst of excitement was too much for the bird and it immediately flew up the slope and was never seen again. Those who had occupied the front line of our group, but were now at the back, had their views blocked by a mass of human bodies so missed the bird (sorry Will Brame).  But thank you Ernie as several of us were blessed with a great, albeit brief, view, and we owe this amazing sighting to you.

Ernie was loved and respected by everyone who knew him and his infectious smile will never be forgotten.  He will be missed by birdwatchers throughout Suffolk and elsewhere.

Steve Piotrowski

25th May 2020