After the successful Birdrace at College Lake BBOWT on Saturday we checked Badger's pager and found that the Hume's Leaf Warbler was still gracing Horseshoe Plantation which is near Beachy Head in East Sussex. Not only was this tempting enough but there was also the perennial Ring Billed Gull at Gosport and a Red Breasted Goose, associating with Brent Geese, was frequenting Farlington Marshes by the M27 in Hampshire. Both of these would be on our route to East Sussex. Three excellent birds in one day would be a good day out.
We arranged to meet at 7am on Sunday morning. That evening Badger called to advise the weather was going to be awful at the beginning of the morning with heavy rain and flooding but it would clear later. He suggested we put back our departure until 8am. No problem there as an extra hour in bed is most welcome. That night I checked the weather reports online and could see that it was predicted the rain front would leave the southern counties around 10am to be followed by very strong 47mph winds which again would ease after 3pm. Now predictions are all well and good but as we all know prediction and reality do not always coincide, especially concerning weather. However you have to put your faith in something and Michael Fish has retired (remember the hurricane of 1987?) so I trusted the weather forecast for once. If we left at 8am we would arrive on the south coast around two hours later which in theory would work out well, with the rain by then predicted to be moving north and all we would have to contend with would be the high winds. I also checked the tide tables for Sunday, as from experience I knew Brent Geese came in from the harbour when the tide covered the exposed mud. High tide was around 1130. So we would also be on schedule for seeing the geese come in from the sea to feed in the fields at Farlington. This would easily be our best chance of seeing the Red breasted Goose. We ditched any idea of trying for the Ring billed Gull so as to maximise our chances of seeing the goose and warbler. Anyway Gosport is enough to depress anyone on a fine day let alone one of rain and wind.
We duly headed off down the A34 in heavy rain and low cloud. Dai rang to say Farmoor had too much water! There were floods on the entry roads. I stopped at the Chievely services for a hot chocolate and then got lost trying to regain the A34. These services must surely have some of the most confusing access roads in the country. We eventually got ourselves pointed south again after going back under the M4, retracing our route from the Motorway and normal service was resumed. The rain and cloud continued unabated as we headed south. Approaching the M3 we were heartened to see bright clear sky on the horizon and the trailing edge of the rain front definitely coming our way. Eventually we were in the clear with just a grey gloom but no rain, and arrived at Farlington on schedule and headed out for the marsh at around 10am. The accompanying roar of traffic from the adjacent M27 was deafening but was soon eclipsed by the roar of wind in our ears as a fearsome westerly gale howled into our faces across the marshes and fields and over the sea wall. Any bush by the track out to the sea wall, no matter how insubstantial, was looked upon longingly as a potential wind break and we did the best we could to stand up and hold our scopes steady in the wind. It was not easy!
The Brent Geese, as predicted, had commenced to flight into the fields in small numbers from the encroaching tide, tacking masterfully in the westerly gale, but there was no sign of the Red breasted Goose. We scoped the forty or so Brent already on the fields and found a Black Brant amongst them. A definite bonus. A large flock of Canada Geese were further off in the fields keeping very much to themselves. I stationed myself by a bush along the track offering its services as a partial windbreak, Badger inserted himself into a bramble patch and we waited. Small parties of Brent came flighting in and the flock in the fields slowly grew in size but still no sign of the much desired Red breasted Goose. A lone goose came winging in from the east, swinging agilely in the wind. Bins up and there was our prize, the Red breasted Goose. It joined the Brent Geese and immediately commenced feeding on the grass. We were the only birders present and both of us spent the next hour enjoying watching the goose.
It really is a beautiful creature, so exotic looking in amongst the comparatively dowdy Brent Geese. I cannot say time drifted by. It positively howled by in a constant buffeting from the wind. I zipped up every bit of my clothing as there was no hiding place from the wind. We stuck it out until noon and the wind was still gale force. However we had expected and planned for this and duly headed back for the car and with some relief gained the sanctuary of the Black Audi.
The plan now was to drive east for fifty miles to Beachy Head during which time we estimated, as per my online consultation of the weather systems last night, the wind would start abating and make it somewhat easier to discern a tiny warbler in amongst the storm tossed trees and wind blown leaves of Horseshoe Plantation. We made it to our destination at 1330 and I was just about to put a vast amount of money into the pay and display machine to fund the extortionate parking fee when a birder came from the wood and called out to me. "Don't do that" 'Sorry?' "You don't need to pay. I have a parking ticket that only expires in another two hours. I am going now. I have seen the warbler so you may as well use the time on my ticket". What a nice man and yet again what timing, if I may be so bold.
We got our stuff together and ventured into the tiny wood. It has a track through the middle and it really is tiny but being the only wood on a stretch of open coastal downland attracts all sorts of excellent birds. When I lived in Sussex I personally saw Red breasted Flycatcher, Yellow-browed Warbler, Pallas's Warbler and a host of other less uncommon birds such as Firecrest and Pied Flycatcher in the wood. I even saw my first Hume's Leaf Warbler here. My study area for stonechats, all those years ago and foundation for a book much later, was on the chalk grassland behind and to the east of the wood. We walked to the eastern end of the wood which was sheltered from the westerly wind. Goldcrests flitted amongst the branches and twigs of the trees overhead giving their shrill, thin contact calls. Just near the end of the wood we heard another much more distinctive call and there was the Hume's Leaf Warbler flitting around very actively in the foliage and bare twigs of an Ash tree. I had planned to get some photos but it was a nightmare even getting it into the lens. The constantly moving trees caused havoc with the auto focus and the vagrant mite just never stayed still apart from one brief episode of preening.
St Vitus had nothing on this will o' the wisp. Eventually I decided to just relax and watch it, getting some really good views as it fed on tiny invertebrates which it acrobatically seized from leaves and twigs. The views got even better when it descended quite low at the sheltered end of the wood. After our initial success there was a period of absence but then it was relocated at the western end of the wood, again in the company of Goldcrests. Another absence as it was lost to view.
The light was gently fading now and we would regularly lose it in the foliage but its distinctive call would allow us to relocate it but it rarely came down low, remaining in the upper levels of the trees. Towards the end of the day with the light going fast all the Goldcrests seemed to gravitate to the eastern end of the wood. I ventured a hypothesis that this was because it was lighter here than in the wood and they could still see to search for food. A ChiffChaff caused a stir, as in profile it looked like our star bird but as it came closer we could make out it's colour and plumage pattern. We lowered our binoculars. I followed what I thought were two Goldcrests but one of them was the Hume's and it now gave some really excellent views as it fed low down in the bare branches. Overall it looked like a washed out version of a Yellow-browed Warbler, not nearly so bright, with dull green upperparts and dirty white underparts. The yellowish wing bar and supercilium were much more indistinct than on it's brighter plumaged relative. Then it was gone, suddenly flying deeper into the darkening wood.
The Goldcrests built up to around a dozen, quiet now but feeding with a purpose in the oncoming dusk, silhouetted against the last of the light as they hung acrobatically from small twigs and flitted along branches. Two Blackcaps 'tack tacked' away in some brambles and two very late Swallows hurtled west. Then Badger crowned an already fulfilled day by locating a Firecrest amongst the Goldcrests. It came closer and closer and then was gone. Darkness was almost upon us as we walked back through the wood for the final time and headed back to Oxford.