Sunday, 20 September 2015

Sussex by the Sea 17th September 2015

Today, at last, was the longed for autumn day of steady sunshine and almost cloudless sky that could not fail but invigorate me as I rose to check my work emails. Thankfully nothing urgent  required immediate attention so my thoughts turned to birds. This was too good a day and too good an opportunity to remain indoors. 

A Grey Phalarope and a Pectoral Sandpiper had for the last few days been showing themselves well in West Sussex at a place called Sidlesham Ferry Pool  which is separated from Pagham Harbour by a very busy road that leads to the dubious delights of the nearby seaside town of Selsey. Sidlesham and the adjacent Pagham Harbour comprise one of my former haunts from the time I lived in Sussex and it took no time at all to convince myself that this would make a really good day out - revisiting familiar land and seascapes, reviving long forgotten happy memories and watching two infrequently seen birds.

A metaphorical cloud however loomed on my horizon of birding serendipity when I rang the local garage to ask when my car, which they had serviced the day before and which I was expecting to be delivered to my house at nine, failed to appear. 'Sorry it will not be available until eleven ' I was told. Aaaargh! my plan was cast into temporary disarray. However inspiration came to me as I realised my wife, who had just left for London on business and would not be back until six in the evening had her car sitting outside. She would not mind if I borrowed it, I was certain, so I was now back on track.  

Just as I was going out of the door I thought of my birding buddy Clackers. Some company would be nice on the two hour drive to Sussex and Clackers is always great company. I called him on my mobile. 'Clackers, fancy a trip to the seaside?' A somewhat drowsy Clackers responded in the affirmative with the proviso that he had to be back by five. 'No problem.'  'OK count me in' he replied. At ten I collected Clackers from Witney and away we went down the long and so familiar A34, joining the M3 and then M27 Motorways heading south and some two hours later we arrived at Sidlesham Ferry Pool.

Parking the car in a nearby layby we took our lives in our hands crossing the very busy road to reach the narrow path that runs beside the Ferry Pool. It is such a shame that so good a birding location is in such close proximity, literally feet, to the road and subject to the constant disturbance and hazard of passing traffic which comes alarmingly close to the narrow path. However there is nothing that can be done but just to get on with it.

Sidlesham Ferry Pool and the dangerously narrow path
On making it to the path we immediately saw in the distance the Pectoral Sandpiper feeding along the water's edge but which promptly and unsportingly then wandered behind some reeds rendering itself invisible from the path. Not the kind of views one wants after two hours of driving. The Grey Phalarope was initially nowhere to be seen but suddenly it arrived with a flurry of grey and white wings from the far end of the pool  to settle within a few metres of us and proceeded to bob and spin as it fed on minute invertebrates on the water's surface. It was so very close and an absolute delight to watch. Still mainly in its juvenile plumage, showing a buff suffused white head, neck and breast and brown wings with only the scapulars on its wings moulted into the pale grey of  first winter plumage. Constantly in motion, it busily swam and waded about just below us, completely oblivious to its admiring audience of birders and camera toting paperazzi.

We scanned the Ferry Pool and found other waders present. All, apart from the energetic phalarope and invisible sandpiper were lazing, immobile or idly preening in the sun, creating a picture of harmony and tranquility, in direct contrast to the endless sound of close passing vehicles at our backs. Fifty or so bottle green Lapwings, at peace in the sun, stood hunched on a sheltered grassy bank whilst others stood statuesque in the shallow waters at the middle of the pool, their forms mirrored in the sun glittering water. Three Dunlin were asleep by the shore and a rather dishevelled Avocet sat under the lee of an earthen bank by the water's edge. Black tailed Godwits, now in their grey brown winter garb formed their own flock in the middle of the pool, discreetly apart from the Lapwings. A Green Sandpiper with constantly bouncing body fed along the shoreline and another inveterate 'body bobber,' a Common Sandpiper, teetered uncertainly further along the edge of the pool. An  explosive cheeewitt, startling in its unexpectedness and volume came to us from overhead as a Spotted Redshank flew in from Pagham Harbour, crossing the road to land amongst the Lapwing  flock in the middle of the pool.

Clackers got talking to another birder who told us that a Wryneck had been found at nearby Church Norton and was giving great views to one and all. This year seems to be a very good one for Wrynecks as, although they no longer breed in Britain, north easterly winds have drifted many over the North Sea to Britain as they migrate south from mainland Europe and Scandinavia. Oxfordshire alone has had at least three this autumn and many more have been found at widely scattered locations across England. 

We decided to go and have a look for the Wryneck as Church Norton is just five minutes drive by car from Sidlesham Ferry Pool. In no time we were proceeding down the narrow lane which leads to the car park at Church Norton.

I took one look at the state of the car park and wished I hadn't bothered coming. The surface since my last visit had been covered in some sort of sandy material which with the rain of last night had turned into a glutinous orange mud reminiscent of a World War One battlefield. There was no escaping the cloying mud and in no time at all our boots were covered in the horrible stuff.

However there was a Wryneck to try and see, so endeavouring to ignore the liberal coating of orange mud now persistently adhering to our footwear and spattered on our trousers we took the track down to Pagham Lagoon and turning right along the shore set off on a good hearted yomp across the wide expanse of shingle towards The Severals, an area of reed fringed pools about a mile west along the shingle. 

There was no shortage of directions to the Wryneck as returning birders kindly gave us detailed instructions as to where to go and how to approach the area it was frequenting. It seemed everyone was getting great views despite this species notorious fickleness and shy habits. Our mood of optimism increased exponentially.

The sun was glorious and warm, shining into our eyes and reflecting from the myriad  weathered white stones, shingle and dead shells crunching under our feet as we progressed across the pebbled waste. 

The sea was an indescribable deep blue reflecting the colour of the sky above it as we continued onwards for about a mile and came to a large area of gorse. We could see a group of birders sitting on a wooden groyne, lunching and at ease. 

Obviously they had seen the Wryneck and were now content. We took a lower grass path that was easier to walk along than the unstable stones and pebbles. I could see two photographers looking intently at the other side of the large gorse clump we were approaching.They waved at us to  stop and indicated to go around the top of the gorse clump which we duly did and joined them lower down on the other side.

It was just as well we adhered to their signalled directions as if we had continued on the lower path we would have flushed the Wryneck. In short time we were directed to the Wryneck which was sitting in the sun, immobile and completely at ease. As far as birds do such things it was taking an obvious break and enjoying the sun in its sheltered corner. We were close to it now, in the company of the two photographers, only some fifteen metres away. I looked at it through my scope and absorbing the sight of its wonderful, barred and variegated plumage I relaxed and enjoyed thirty or so minutes of Wryneck heaven  as I watched it at first just sitting, and then stirring itself, stretching first one wing and then another, showing its flight feathers barred black and brown, before it  set about feeding on its favourite food, ants. So close was it that I could see its brown eye and its thin brown tongue flicking in and out of its stout, pointed bill to capture the ants. It was favouring a small bank of  short, rabbit grazed grass and stony bare areas close to the deeper cover of longer grass and scrubby gorse. 

Looking through a telescope the outside wider world retreats and you enter another smaller compressed world of just a few metres around the bird. Like disappearing into an Alice in Wonderland rabbit hole fantasy, my world now consisted of a Wryneck, some  Oxe Eye Daisies shining white with  sundials of yellow in the midst of their petals, a stony, bare patch of earth and short green grass. Nothing more, nothing less. I joined if you like the Wryneck's confined, intimate and immediate surrounds. We were in harmonious accord and the rest of the world held its breath and faded to nought for this brief liason

As always its plumage thrills with the subtle beauty and variety it exhibits. Nothing too showy, garish or colourful. Not for the Wryneck startling reds, yellows or blues but a subdued, distinguished harmony of ash grey, dark browns, white and buff, all barred and suffused into an amalgam  of the most intricate and understated beauty of camouflage. 

Despite our close proximity it showed little alarm, only occasionally tensing and raising its head on extended neck as something troubled it but then it would relax again and shuffle along the ground burrowing into the longer grass in search of ants, almost at times disappearing before moving out into more open areas. These were easily the best views I have ever had of a Wryneck and I was loathe to leave but Clackers had to be back in Witney by five so we were always up against the clock. Time was running out. The Wryneck scuttled once more into the longer grass and was virtually invisible. I signalled to Clackers that we should go before it popped out again to give more eye watering views which would make it harder to leave. I could have stayed all day watching it as such opportunities are rarer than the Wryneck itself. 

Some years ago when I was part of the Beachy Head Ringing Group in East Sussex we caught a Wryneck and whilst holding it in my hand it proceeded to live up to its name by slowly rotating its head and neck and hissing like a serpent. For an initial few seconds it was quite un-nerving as all those subliminated primeval fears that lurk  below our veneer of civilisation briefly surfaced, before I regained control of my senses and reality. It was obviously an anti predator mechanism and nearly worked! Incidentally Kingfishers in the hand can, from personal experience, enact precisely the same behaviour without the hissing but emitting a strong smell of fish!.

We took the long walk back over the stones and shingle in our stride, returning to the quagmire horror of orange ooze that was the Church Norton car park. There was no escape from the cloying gunge but we stopped on the road outside the car park and did our best to relieve our footwear of some of the orange clag but it was generally a futile effort.  'Oh well Clackers at least we have the treat to come of Enticotts, bakers supreme of Selsey'. 'Lead on dear boy. Lead on.'  I drove my wife's car, now sporting a natty undercoat of orange mud to Selsey and we stocked up on all things involving cake, pastries and calories.

Enrticotts Bakers at Selsey East Beach
For a finale we made another stop at Sidlesham Ferry Pool on our way back to the main road at Chichester to see if we could get a better view of the Pectoral Sandpiper. We had two chances, slim or none. Parking as before in the same layby we ran a second gauntlet of crossing the busy road. There was one other birder on the path overlooking the pool, looking I assumed at the Grey Phalarope still endlessly active and in the same place as we had left it earlier. The birder called to me, 'It's here'. 'Thanks, I know but I am looking for the Pectoral Sandpiper not the phalarope'. 'No you misunderstand me they are both right here, literally just below us.' And he was right. The Pectoral Sandpiper, pristine in a plumage of brown and buff and legs of dull straw yellow was wandering along feeding amongst green spikes of aquatic vegetation. Looking down on it from the path I admired its intricate plumage of dark brown upperparts with rusty buff feather margins and two creamy white lines forming an inverted V on its back, set off by white underparts and a finely streaked head and breast. The sandpiper and the phalarope were often so close together that they precluded any crisis about which bird to look at and enjoy most. 

The Pectoral Sandpiper stopped feeding and commenced to  preen vigorously. The Grey Phalarope, a constant of non stop motion swam to and fro, dipping its bill to the water's surface picking up minute items of sustenance. 

It was time to go and so with one last look at them, an impromptu three hours of birding came to an end and we departed Sussex for distant Oxfordshire. I think, maybe it will not be long before I return, possibly permanently as I was never happier than when I lived in Sussex. We will see.

Many thanks to Andrew Madgwick for allowing me to use his excellent photos to illustrate this blog

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