For twenty five years I faithfully did a WeBS (Wetland Bird Survey) count every month, from September to March, at Chichester Harbour in West Sussex. My sector of the harbour was West Wittering and East Head which was no hardship as it always produced a good variety and numbers of birds in beautiful surroundings. I finally relinquished doing this, not without a great deal of reservation I should add, a couple of years ago feeling it was time to move on. I still miss doing the counts though and in hindsight wish I had not given it up.
With a good weather forecast for Thursday although it was predicted to be very very cold, I decided to revisit my old haunts and renew my acquaintance with West Wittering. Without doubt the main focus in counting here was always the big flock of Dark bellied Brent Geese which would flight in to feed on the grass fields especially reserved for them. The numbers of geese slowly build up from their arrival in October and peak numbers are usually present in the first two months of any given year, so I knew I would be in for a treat. I confess to having a huge sentimental attachment to these brent geese - well, with twenty five years of looking at them this is hardly surprising and it was with much anticipation that I looked forward to seeing them again.
In order to get to my destination without being held up in the endless weekday traffic jams on the Motorways I was obliged to make a very early start from my home at 4.30am. The gauge on the car's dashboard told me the outside temperature was minus 4 degrees and I set off into a cold, clear night shivering until the heater warmed the car's interior. Even at this early hour the volume of traffic on the roads once I was past Oxford was surprisingly large and by the time I joined the Motorway near Winchester it was almost nose to tail. It was a relief to turn off onto the quieter road leading all the way to West Wittering, and arriving in the dark, I parked the car and settled down to sleep awhile until the dawn came.
The tiny village of West Wittering was initially silent as the grave but soon car after car was driving past me and heading up the approach road to the West Wittering Estate barrier which gives access to the fields and beach. Where are all these people going at this time of the day you may ask. Well they are dog walkers, who take their dogs along the miles of sand around East Head. It is quite a procession believe me.
The grey of dawn was now becoming suffused with the palest of pink as the sun slowly came above the horizon and soon would become a burning orange orb sitting low in the clear winter sky. The South Downs, distant across the incoming sea tide, were blurred and indistinct, obscured by a blue haze as if secreted behind the palest of wood smoke. It was going to be a day of fine but cold weather.
I left the enticing warmth of the car and walked through the old churchyard, following the familiar footpath to Snowhill Lane, across a field that separated the churchyard from the perennial eyesore of the caravan site, which has now been revamped with more permanent mobile homes since my last visit, no doubt to secure even more revenue for the avaricious West Wittering Estate, who manage the whole area apart from East Head, which is owned by the National Trust.
West Wittering Church on one side of the field
The unacceptable other side of the field!
It is such a shame, in many ways, that the whole of this formerly unspoilt and beautiful area has to be so inflexibly managed, with signs absolutely everywhere, mainly telling you what you cannot do and a slow creeping suburbanisation, as evidenced by a mania for tidying things up in the form of crude landscaping and erecting yet more signs. Since the major exercise of putting in flood defences was finished in my last year of counting, this also seems to have acted as a stimulus to 'put everything in order' which degrades the very essence of the place, and it seems to have escaped notice that this is the reason people come here in the winter, to enjoy an environment that still hangs on to a semblance of wildness and disorder, no matter how increasingly tenuous that is becoming.
Snowhill Lane leads to Snowhill Marsh managed by Chichester Harbour Conservancy and this particular area is a magnet for birds, mainly ducks and waders, that come to roost and feed here at high tide. Today there was the considerable bonus of a first for here in the form of three Spoonbills, huge and white, each standing on one black leg doing what Spoonbills seem to specialise in doing, sleeping.
The three Spoonbills on Snowhill Marsh
A little way apart, a Spotted Redshank was up to its belly in water, energetically dunking its head into the water and probing the invisible bottom with a rapid sideways motion of its head and submerged bill. Teal swam around in tight circles, the amorous males now in the full splendour of courtship plumage, dipping their breasts and raising their tails in display around a totally disinterested female whilst Wigeon cropped the marsh grasses. A Buzzard flapped lazily across the marsh pursued by two irascible Magpies and distracted by the magpie's attentions pitched into a tree far too small for it, so it looked clumsy and unbalanced as the thin twigs gave way below its weight. Satisfied with its discomfiture the magpies moved on and the Buzzard sought a more substantial tree. A Cetti's Warbler, secure in the bottom of the reed tangle felt bold enough to rattle out a high volume stanza.
I walked to the back of the marsh looking for Jack Snipe and startled a Roe Deer into a prancing getaway but the diminutive snipe were proving to be elusive. They were not in their usual place, hiding in the drier patches between the damp tussocks and muddy water. I walked on and a dark brown bird with a long red bill flew from my feet and disappeared rapidly into the base of the brambles at the edge of the marsh. It was a Water Rail. I carried on and started involuntarily as a volley of Common Snipe hurled themselves from the sedges before me. Ten, twenty, thirty in total they took off in small groups. like a salvoe of missiles firing themselves high and distantly into the sky, their calls as harsh sounding as this morning's scraping of frost from the car's windscreen.
Almost at the point of giving up, a smaller snipe rose silently and buoyantly, a whisper of wings against coarse grass, literally at my feet, and flew just a short way before pitching down in a steep descent to become swallowed up once again in the marsh. A Jack Snipe at last, and then another losing its nerve, rose just as diffidently close by.
The world was still waking up as I retreated from the sodden marsh and walked up to the Beach Cafe to view the geese which were now flighting in to feed on the fields.
Brent Geese before being flushed by dog walkers
The Beach Cafe and a ghostly goosewatcher
The geese keep up an endless contralto and conversational dialogue amongst themselves as they feed in a compact flock spread out over the fields.
There are many young in the flock so they must have had a good breeding season last year. They breed in the high Arctic and in good lemming years the predators do not turn their attentions to them so much but in a bad lemming year the geese suffer many casualties. Although outwardly sociable and content the flock is constantly disrupted by petty family squabbles as one goose family gets too near another but soon peace is restored and they go about their endless cropping of the grass.
Adult and juvenile Dark bellied Brent Geese
I watch and listen to the susurrus of noise from the flock, the happy memories of times past here flickering through my mind as I reminisce. Then this pleasant interlude is interrupted as the dreaded dog walker arrives with unrestrained dog and puts up all the geese. There is little point in railing against the dog walkers. They appear completely unaware of the disruption they are causing and if you do make the effort to speak to them they are usually very apologetic. The problem is there are just so many of them.
The geese moved to another field further from the fence where they obviously felt safer and resumed their feeding. I scanned, once, twice, even a third time through them but today there are no rare goose cousins in the flock, such as a Pale bellied Brent from Greenland or a Black Brant from the USA. Usually there is one or the other but not today. A group of Oystercatchers land on the grass, bold, black and white with orange red bills and coral pink legs they look at me nervously and then think better of it and fly off with ringing calls
I walk by the seashore admiring the deserted beach huts looking out towards The Isle of Wight, each now worth a fortune, being well over five figures in value but in reality they are just glorified sheds.
The Beach Huts
Looking towards Hayling Island
Looking towards The Isle of Wight
I walk out onto the dunes that comprise East Head, the expanse of saltmarsh and muddy channels slowly being subsumed by the incoming tide.
East Head Dunes and Saltmarsh
East Head Beach free of dog walkers- but not for long!
Female European Stonechat
A couple of European Stonechats flit along the tidewrack before me eking out a perilous existence and Sanderlings, gleaming white in the sun, twinkle along by the tide's edge but there are few other birds here and no wonder as the beach and dunes resemble a Kennel Club day outing. Dogs are everywhere, running free and usually showing no obedience to their owners exhortations. Three hours have passed and I feel the danger signs of my beginning to get maudlin and sentimental. It is definitely time to leave.
A quick stop at another favourite bakers, I know them all round here, this one being in nearby East Wittering, where I purchase the biggest Belgian Bun you have ever seen. Then it is off to Chichester Marina to view another flock of Dark bellied Brent Geese and here, amongst them I find a Black Brant. These used to be a great rarity when I first started counting brent geese. I can remember my excitement on finding one in the flock at West Wittering years ago but now they are seen, usually singly, every winter, in various parts of southern Britain. Nonetheless it is a good bird to see although strangely I do not experience the same sense of attachment to this flock of geese that I do to the flock at West Wittering. Perhaps it is the unfamiliar surroundings.
For the afternoon I have decided on the very different habitat of West Dean Woods which are usually untroubled by dogs and often I do not see another soul there. The woods form part of a 6400 acre estate that lies along the Sussex South Downs and was inherited by one Edward James from his father in 1912. A far sighted gentleman, the younger Mr James gifted most of the estate to a foundation named after him in 1964 and on his death the estate carried on and today is much as it was in 1964. King Edward the seventh used to come shooting here with the great and the good and these pheasant and partridge shoots, as well as deer stalking, still carry on to this day as a valuable commercial enterprise. Footpaths and bridleways criss-cross the estate and there are two nature reserves incorporated into the estate. All in all it is a wonderful place to visit, get gently lost in and best of all it is one of the easier places I know to find that most elusive of finches, the Hawfinch.
I crossed the always busy Chichester, heading north and wound my way down the deserted wooded lanes through the estate to park the car by Stapleash Farm. The Little Owl was, as ever, maintaining a vigil in its lone dead tree. I wandered slowly uphill following the track as it wound its way higher to an open grassy area called Monkton Farm from where you can look across a valley to the trees on the other side where Hawfinches come to perch at the very tops of the trees. Of all the finches Hawfinches seem to do this almost without fail which is quite handy as it makes them easy, if it is ever thus, to see them.
I walked up the track, passing game cover crops out of which flew many Chaffinches and Woodpigeons, then just before it opened out onto the grass of Monkton Farm the track went through a small wooded area of trees with ivy growing up them.
The track to Monkton Farm
Here I came across Bob and a friend who were stalking something with their cameras. They had found two Firecrests assiduously searching the ivy. Such wonderfully attractive birds, they are to my mind easily one of the most beautiful of our native species, their bright green upperparts and intricate white and black face pattern topped off by that flame orange or red crest is just incredible. They were untroubled by our presence and continued feeding and letting us get a good look at their beauty. Eventually they flew further away and were lost to sight so we moved on to Monkton Farm and the hope of Hawfinches.
Bob and his friend did not have a scope so were at a considerable disadvantage as any Hawfinches seen from here are best viewed through a scope due to the distance involved. Not to worry if any did show up they could look through mine. We stood looking over the valley and chatted for a while.
West Dean Woods
Then Bob saw eight large finches flying over us and settling in the trees at the top of the ridge on the other side of the valley. I zoomed up the magnification on the scope and there in all their butch glory were eight Hawfinches. This was especially pleasing for Bob's colleague as he had never seen them before. They sat, as they do, high in the trees for a long time, before flying off. A period of quiet descended on us and then another four Hawfinches arrived. Twelve Hawfinches! No one could ask for more than that. The sun was now declining, casting a golden glow on the dead beech leaves and turning them into the colour of cornflakes. It was also getting ever colder so we headed down the track and back to our cars.
On getting back we were greeted by the sight of half a dozen birders standing around in the road looking up at the tree tops obviously also searching for Hawfinches, and we discovered that several were feeding in a game cover crop behind the trees and occasionally becoming visible when they flew, as they always do, up to the very top of the tallest tree. We waited and soon a single bird briefly appeared. Then after a wait another, and then no less than four flew to a tree. Single Hawfinches would regularly fly up from the ground and by following a sunken track below the gamecrop we got several really good views of Hawfinches in the treetops above us. We could even hear their ticking calls as they flew. How many there were it was impossible to say and as always the views of this enigmatic finch were tantalisingly brief. A few Chaffinches flew up into the trees with them and finally a single Brambling, their northern cousin, joined them. My day in Sussex was complete.