Tuesday, 6 December 2016

Double delight in Sussex 5th December 2016

Reports that had come  through over the weekend of an extremely confiding male Desert Wheatear at Normans Bay in  East Sussex and a similarly confiding juvenile Rose coloured Starling at Crawley in West Sussex had me forming a vague plan on Sunday to go and see them both today, Monday. The logistics would work out nicely as I could first drive to the more distant Normans Bay and view the Desert Wheatear and then check out the Rose coloured Starling which was only a short detour from my route back through Sussex to my home in Oxfordshire.

I called my birding buddy Clackers to see if he was up for a jaunt to the far reaches of Sussex and having done the last of his Christmas shopping he advised he was good to go on Monday. The only cloud on our birding horizon was the dreaded M25 which on a Monday morning would be traffic hell especially the notorious congested section around Heathrow. Being a seasoned campaigner on motorways, and with the M25, from my commuting days to Heathrow a specialised subject I knew that to arrive any later than 6.30am at the stretch around Heathrow would result in a long and frustrating delay due to traffic congestion, so it was requisite that we made a pre dawn start from Oxfordshire.

The roads were white with a heavy frost as, at 5am, I negotiated the country lanes around my Cotswold home and even in Witney, which is Clackers home half an hour's drive away and at a lower elevation, the roads were similarly frosted and looking decidedly treacherous at such an early hour.

Soon though we were mixing in with the maelstrom of onrushing commuting cars, white vans and huge lorries hurtling to their unknown destinations along the various motorways that took us ever southwards. The time passed pleasantly enough as we chatted about a Dusky Thrush that had been discovered in Derbyshire yesterday and we made a vague plan to go and see it later in the week.

Dawn grudgingly rose in a blush of pink and orange as we approached Pease Pottage, where the M23 motorway ends, and now I felt truly at home in  my beloved Sussex as I  recognised the distant looming bulk of the South Downs, currently just visible as an ill defined shadow in the low lying mist. We approached the outskirts of Brighton before turning eastwards, which in thirty minutes would bring us to Normans Bay which lies on the Sussex coast between the seaside towns of Eastbourne and Bexhill-on-Sea.

Following the Satnav directions and the instructions from RBA on how to find the Martello Tower at Normans Bay we left the main road and negotiated our way along a narrow road, snaking through flat fields guarded by cold looking watery dykes curtained from the road by a continuous thick line of tall and golden reed stems, as the  sun shone,  low and dazzlingly bright on the horizon and the sky was the clearest, palest blue, the colour of glacier ice.

We passed over a railway crossing then drove along a rough uneven road and there was the Martello Tower on our left at the crest of a shingle bank that rose up from the side of the road then flattened out at the top and dropped down to the beach and seashore beyond. We parked on a grass verge behind two other cars but were not quite sure where to go. I knew, however, from RBA that the Desert Wheatear was to be found some hundred metres west of the Martello Tower which was roughly our current position.

Walking up the shingle bank to the top we found four other birders crouched or stood on the sand on the other side of a wooden groyne that ran parallel with the bank and looking towards us, gesturing that we should walk to our right.  The reason for their concern was that between us was the first winter male Desert Wheatear! How fortunate had we been to select the very spot where the wheatear was? We detoured right so as not to disturb the bird, crossed the wooden groyne and walked back along the sand and shingle to join our fellow birders.The Desert Wheatear was, as so many are that arrive in Britain, totally confiding and came very close, as close as six feet in Clackers case and not much further in mine.

It was a beautiful bird of variable sandy and golden buff plumage, the colours of the beach, with a black face and throat, black wings and tail as it flitted along the wooden groyne in front of us, never still for more than a minute as it avidly sought food. I had heard reports that people in their excitement and anxiety had foolishly allowed themselves to chase after it in an attempt to get photos but by common consent we all stood in one place and quietly awaited its return in front of us, when it would be literally only feet away. It was obvious it had a feeding circuit and our patience was rewarded as it came back to where we were at regular intervals, perching on the groyne, spikes of dead sorrel, various bits of foliage or sticks to give itself a vantage point from which to fly down and seize prey from the sand and shingle.

I remarked to Clackers that it must have remarkable eyesight as it would fly from its perch to seize prey it saw from quite some distance away. We stood on the cold beach, the sand and pebbles illuminated by a morning sun which cast forth a beautiful soft light, serving to enhance the wheatear's beauty. Never more than half a dozen of us, we birders stood quietly whilst the vast expanse of beach and the uneven wooden groyne stretched away from us into a blue distance and the sea was like molten steel in the bright rays of the sun.

Beach and Birders

We watched the wheatear's comings and goings for around ninety minutes. Dick Gilmore a former sea watching colleague from Seaford had also arrived and we renewed our acquaintance not having seen each other for a couple of years. It was good to see him although nothing much had really changed. We moaned and groaned about getting older,  indulged in some birding  gossip and reminiscences and eventually Dick departed. We followed shortly after, just as the wheatear flew along the groyne before us then doubled back around in a swooping flight along the beach

Desert Wheatears breed across North Africa from Morocco to the Middle East and then across central Asia to Mongolia and northern China and in the case of the western birds normally spend the winter in the Sahara and Sahel regions from Mauritania east to Ethiopia and Somalia. They are a rare but increasing vagrant to Britain with most birds arriving in the south or southeast of Britain. Up to 2015 a total of 135 have been recorded in Britain, mainly in the period mid October to early December. Many of the birds that do arrive here are first winter birds but adults of both sexes have occurred and exceptionally individuals will spend the winter here even, as has happened a few years ago, as far north as Aberdeenshire in northeast Scotland.

I will not go into detail about our abortive trip to Bexhill looking for a cafe after watching the Desert Wheatear, suffice to say Bexhill looked decidedly ordinary today, the epitomy of a run down seaside town but possibly I am being a little unkind as any seaside town out of season takes on a neglected air but Bexhill was certainly not looking at its best. I pointed out the celebrated Art Deco Grade 1 Listed De La Warr Pavilion to Clackers but by then he had dismissed Bexhill. We drove on without stopping, out of Bexhill and retraced our way from whence we had come,  turning again at the outskirts of Brighton onto the A23 and headed the twenty or so miles north to Crawley.  Following the Satnav we turned off at Pease Pottage and followed the directions to a leafy and reasonably attractive area called Broadfield.

I had detailed directions on my RBA app as to where the Rose coloured Starling was to be found. So specific they even gave the name of the road and number of the house where the starling was usually to be seen, perched in adjacent trees and bushes.

We drew up in Beachy Road, parked the car and stood looking across the road to a house with a number 10 on its wall and with two trees to the left, one bare and one a conifer. Several Common Starlings were sitting in the branches of the bare tree singing or just messing about but there was no sign of the Rose coloured Starling. 

Common Starling
Earlier reports had said it was easy to see and shortly after, as Keith meandered further down the road, the Rose coloured Starling flew into the bare tree. It was a juvenile and its plumage was mainly pale greyish brown but some of its wing coverts and some other feathers had been replaced by adult glossy blue black feathers. I also noted its distinctive orange yellow bill. I called to Clackers who returned just in time to see it fly off 

Rose coloured Starling-juvenile
You can see the moulted adult feathers coming through on the wings and tail
We walked in the direction it flew and found some nearby Oaks full of Common Starlings but there was no sign of the Rose coloured Starling.  'Come on Clackers I think it best to just go back to where we started and stake out that tree. Its bound to come back'

And shortly after it did and Clackers saw it well and I got some photos and we were very pleased with ourselves. It was not yet 1130 am and we had seen both the birds we had risen so early and driven so far to see.

The Rose coloured Starling spent quite some time in the bare tree preening and then dropped down into an adjacent back garden hidden by a fence where it was obvious there was food put out for the birds. Every so often it would fly back up into the tree again. A lady who lived nearby approached us asking about the starling and told us that she still had not seen it. We described what it looked like and suggested she wait with us and she would probably see it. This she did and just as she was about to lose interest the starling flew up into the tree and she became quite animated at seeing it. Clackers loaned her his bins and she saw it even better and became even more pleased with life. 

The starling eventually flew up into the top of the conifer where it sat in a sunny secluded spot and once more indulged in some vigorous preening. It was time to leave. We bade farewell to the lady resident, all of us feeling good about sharing a mutually pleasant experience on a sunny, beautiful day.

The drive home at midday was a doddle and we were back in Witney by three that afternoon.

No comments:

Post a Comment