Tuesday, 6 September 2016

Sussex, Rain and Wrynecks 5th September 2016

In the last few days a number of Wrynecks have been seen in Sussex and I formed a plan to go and see one of them which was at a place called Shooters Bottom which is a small area of gorse and scrub right on the cliff edge near to Beachy Head and is well known for attracting migrants. This particular Wryneck was reported as being relatively easy to see, for a Wryneck that is, compared to the others in Sussex.

I planned to leave at 4am this Monday morning in order to minimise the chance of getting caught up in the rush hour jams on the M25 round London Heathrow Airport which is a notorious bottleneck these days at any time after 6am.

I put my head out of the door at the appointed hour to be met by steady rain. In my haste last night to get everything ready I had crucially neglected to check the weather forecast. I was now in a quandary. Should I go back to bed or press on? I turned on the radio to get a weather report and the perennially cheery presenter advised that the rain would pass around eight in the morning. This was good news as it would take me about four hours to get to Beachy Head, meaning I would arrive just as the rain ceased.

For now however I had the dubious pleasure of driving through the hell of rain soaked motorways and flying spray from fast moving vehicles, all the way to Sussex. Not only that but I had a new car to contend with. Yes the Black Audi is no more. I am bereft, as after 377,000 miles, a lifetime or so it seems of birding and non birding adventures together and an attachment that only comes with years of familiarity the gear box has given up and will be too costly to replace. The familiar dials and idiosyncracies that I have got used to over the years have been replaced by a newer, glitzier model, offering unfamiliar instruments and strange high technology gizmos courtesy of Audi and their Vorsprung durch Technik schtick and it will be some while before me and my new four wheeled birding accomplice will establish, if ever, a similar relationship. 

Let's move on. A drive of sheer purgatory in the rain and dark was finally terminated as I parked in the unsurprisingly deserted car park adjacent to Shooters Bottom. It was hard to tell if the dawn had really come up as the low cloud shrouded the cliffs and downland for as far as you could see both to the east and west, casting a malignant gloom across the land. It was also still raining steadily, thus confounding the forecast. I sighed and put my head back on the seat as there was nothing to do but wait and see if the rain would finally cease.

My eyes closed and in a half dream ephemeral ghosts swam before my eyes bringing memories of a time long ago when I lived in Sussex, was never happier studying stonechats along this whole expanse of clifftop downland  and thought I would never leave Sussex.  Images of hunting for stonechat's nests on sunny days in gorse brakes ablaze with yellow colour, blue skies, green seas and soft breezes all came hauntingly, whisperingly through the haze of a half sleep and a great melancholy enveloped me.  Where had it all gone? Those years that seemed so golden?  As if being in some beguiling state of suspended time I did not want to leave the reassuring comfort of those happy memories swirling inside my head. I felt I was home. But it could not, would not last. Life is not like that, time and circumstances move on, as have I and opening my eyes to reality, I looked out at the present rather than the past and noticed the rain was now reduced to a steady drizzle.

There was nothing to do but get out and look for the Wryneck, which if it was still here would doubtless be sheltering under the gorse or hiding in deep cover. I knew the precise area where it had been seen yesterday and walked to the spot and of course found nothing. I walked the short rides of Shooters Bottom that ran up to the cliff edge and walked back down them. I walked the paths and tracks that crossed the rides but there was no sign of the Wryneck and who could blame it. There were other birds about, mostly migrants seeking shelter from the rain in the gorse, especially Common Whitethroats which were present in good numbers. One seemed particularly tame and allowed me to approach it closely.This was unusual and I assumed it was reluctant to leave cover because of the rain but as I got closer and ever closer I could see that it was blind in one eye and could not see me. I wondered how long it would survive with such a disability. 

Partially blind Common Whitethroat
Willow Warblers and Common Chiffchaffs flicked around, low down in the scrub and a sodden Sedge Warbler perched in a dripping hawthorn bush to preen the rain from its bedraggled feathers. A Whinchat was a nice find and almost brought a smile from me as did a female European Stonechat instantly bringing back more long forgotten memories. A flock of nine Ringed Plovers came flying fast from inland, rocketed over my head in tight formation and out over the cliff into the opaque whiteness beyond. Migrants surely?

There are no guaranteed methods to find a Wryneck. You can walk about in the hope of flushing it or stand and wait, often for hours in the hope it will pop out of the grasses and scrub that it loves to haunt.

I opted for the stand and wait but after thirty minutes of getting progressively more wet and dispirited I gave up. Just to make sure I walked the rides again and the paths but the result was negative. Thoroughly miserable I retreated to the car, defeated by the weather, tired and disconsolate. The rain had increased again and the fields around were shrouded even more by the clinging cloud. It was all thoroughly depressing.

So what to do now? I did have a vague plan and that was to go to Church Norton in West Sussex where one of the other Sussex Wrynecks had been reported. Currently I was in East Sussex and it would take me about an hour to get to Church Norton. Would the rain abate in that hour? I was not optimistic. I could only hope and set off back into the maelstrom of the rush hour traffic along the Sussex coastal roads. The rain lashed down on the windscreen and near Littlehampton I pulled over to a roadside cafe for a cup of tea and to check my emails. I sat and stared out at the passing traffic feeling suddenly very tired, listless, all energy, mental and physical, spent.

I pulled the car out onto the wet road and headed for Chichester. Turning onto the Chichester by-pass the windscreen wipers started squeaking. The rain had stopped and the sky was lightening from the west. My spirits lightened too and optimism became an option once more.

I called Ads, a Sussex birding pal who lives  nearby at the appropriately named Birdham to see if he was about and we could meet up, as it had been a while, but there was no reply just voicemail. Five minutes later he called back and unfortunately he was working all day but I got instructions as to where to go to see the Wryneck at Church Norton. It was to be found by The Severals,  some densely fringed reedy pools about a quarter of a mile west from the car park and adjacent to the extensive tract of stony shingle, gorse and bramble scrub that separated them from the seashore.

But before I headed for the small car park at Church Norton I needed some sustenance. It was now approaching ten in the morning and I had been up six hours already without anything to sustain me apart from a banana and a cup of tea. For me there was only one place to go around here and that was the estimable Enticotts, bakers supreme and to be found in a small unprepossessing shop in a similar unremarkable parade of shops near to the East Beach at Selsey. Cakes, pastries, iced buns, filled rolls and many other forbidden delights were stacked in their salivating desirability on groaning shelves  I had my usual pasty and a hunk of bread pudding, rationalising that I could run off the calory overload in the gym the next day and certainly, struggling over the shingle at Church Norton would burn off more than a few calories. I promptly decided on that basis to add two cheese straws to my order.

I made my way out from the car park to the expanse of stones, shells, gorse and bramble, weeds and grasses that comprises this particular part of the south coast. Completely exposed to the sea everything is wind blasted here and consequently low to the ground. I was the only person present at this time and called Ads to check just exactly where I should look for the Wryneck.  Half an hour later and it was not looking good. There was no sign of the Wryneck. Another two birders had arrived in the meantime, presumably with the same intent and after another twenty minutes of fruitless searching and staring at nothing my emotions were beginning to embark on a reprise  of how I had felt at Beachy Head earlier this morning

I saw the other two birders looking intently at a particular area of gorse and scrub which indicated they had seen something, possibly the Wryneck. I walked over and joined them and was told that yes they had just seen the Wryneck perched on a low bramble bush but it had flown down and disappeared into the grass, weeds and stones and was no longer visible.

We waited another half an hour but saw little. A few Common Whitethroats flitted around some bramble clumps and two Green Sandpipers made a commotion of calling on some distant pools but otherwise it was very quiet. I stared disconsolately inland at the long rank grass beyond the stones and scrub and idly watched a Magpie drop into the grass whereupon a small greyish brown bird no bigger than a starling, but slimmer and with a longish tail flew up in alarm and flew towards us and landed on the shingle, briefly shuffling about before merging into the thick grass. Not the greatest of views but enough. It was the Wryneck.

Now we waited knowing exactly where it was and sure enough it flew up once again and perched on an isolated bush for a minute or two before once again descending to the ground, hopping about for a a few seconds and then slipping into the grass again.

We waited in the expectation it would fly up as before but after an hour there was no still sign of it. Chris, a Sussex birding veteran arrived and we chatted as we waited. Forty five minutes later and still there was nothing to show for it. Chris walked closer to where he thought it might be but keeping well clear so as not to flush it. Even so we could still not see it.  It must be there although doubts now crept in. Surely I would have seen it if it flew off? Chris moved closer and then closer still but nothing moved. Convinced it must have given us the slip and we had missed its departure Chris turned to walk away and just as he did the Wryneck flew up from the shingle to perch not far off in one of the stunted trees. It appeared to come  from  a relatively open stretch of ground but neither of us had been able to see it. Testament perhaps to its wonderfully cryptic plumage and its capacity to conceal itself in the tiniest bit of cover.

We walked to the tree and the Wryneck perched for some minutes on a low branch. Just a silhouette as the dark interior removed much of its plumage details.

It flew once again, back to where it had been feeding on the ground and promptly disappeared. We walked back and I found it briefly, on the ground feeding on ants in the shingle and grasses before, frustratingly, it seemed to magically disappear once again.

Chris and I were joined by another birder/photographer to whom I pointed out where the Wryneck was last seen.  He had a monocular or something akin to that with which he could see thermal images and putting this to his eye, looked at the spot I had indicated was where the Wryneck was last seen and said he could see a red image which must be the bird. Really? Sceptical I looked through my bins and there, just discernible in the long grass was the Wryneck. All you could see of it was its grey head and neck straining upwards in full alert, watching us. For fully five minutes it remained motionless before flying once again and as before, disappearing into the grass and bramble.

Chris left us and together with the other birder I followed the Wryneck which flew up at our approach and perched fully in the open on a sprig of gorse and at last we had our opportunity to admire at comparative length its wonderful plumage, a mixture of mottled and variegated greys, buff and browns, intricately patterned with darker bars and vermiculations.

Virtually any birder you speak to has the Wryneck high on their list of birds that must be seen  and here at last, plain to see was this most enigmatic of birds, a close cousin of woodpeckers with its wonderfully intricate plumage, the upperparts looking a bit like tree bark with a prominent dark brown stripe running from the back of its head and broadening down the back. Formerly they used to be common breeders in southern Britain but are now extinct as a breeding bird and the only real chance to see them here is on their autumn migration when migrants regularly arrive on our shores

The Wryneck sat on its gorse sprig for well over five minutes just looking around. Wrynecks will often do this when disturbed or even when they are not. After a spell of grubbing around on the ground they like to sit up and survey the land about. Maybe it is to check there are no hidden dangers at ground level. Who really knows, but what I do know is that this habit can be used to great advantage by birders.

We stood quietly and the Wryneck eventually flew but instead of the expected disappearance into the grass it flew to a large bramble clump, perching on a spray of bramble and sat there for ten or so minutes, having the occasional preen. It looked an absolute picture sat amongst the ripening blackberries. Finally it flew once more and this time dropped into the grass and was gone from our sight.

That was my day almost complete and I headed for the car with one quick detour in mind before heading for home. Nearby Thorney Island, also on the coast and just a few minutes off my route home  usually has an Osprey taking up temporary residence on its way south at this time of year. I parked the car and crossed the road to the gate where I could look over to the area where the Ospreys like to perch on the fence posts. I found one, then two, then three. I watched them for a few minutes and then checking the time headed off for home. 

All three Ospreys together
It was early afternoon and reluctant though I was to depart, by leaving now I would miss the rush hour traffic and return to Oxfordshire having snatched success from the jaws of defeat. This morning's inauspicious start seemed only a distant fading memory.

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