Wednesday 15 February 2017

A Sussex Quartet 13th February 2017

At long last. A weather forecast that finally involved sun got me fired up and ready to make another trip to East Sussex and to two familiar former haunts of mine, Cuckmere Haven  and Newhaven Tidemills.

Currently both locations are harbouring some good birds to see, with a Twite and various geese species and sub species at the Cuckmere and a singing male Serin  at Newhaven Tidemills plus Purple Sandpipers on the nearby Newhaven East Pier

I set off from my house at the comparative late hour of 5.30 am and inevitably, being a weekday, the traffic was heavy on the dreaded orbital M25 but fortunately it did not quite come to the usual standstill around Heathrow and I counted myself lucky as I sped onwards to the M23 which would take me to Sussex. The dawn slowly rose, a pink and  orange flush permeating the sky, preceding a huge bright sun rising above the South Downs near Brighton and requiring the donning of my Raybans and the unaccustomed use of the car's sun visor.

The sight of so much sunshine elevated my spirits although the fierce wind buffeting the car would probably make birding a colder than hoped for experience today. Both the Cuckmere and Newhaven Tidemills are exposed locations where there is little to hinder the wind, which from the forecast this morning would already be sweeping over the wide expanse of floodplain, meanders and saltmarsh at the Cuckmere and the shingle and sea in the case of Newhaven Tidemills.

My priority was to see the Twite, now a very scarce winter visitor in Sussex, The last ones I saw in Sussex being two at West Wittering, which I was fortunate to see perched in a bush when doing my monthly WeBS (Wetland Bird Survey) count there  some years ago. 

Dropping down the long steep hill from Seaford to Exceat I turned into the Cuckmere Inn car park just before the bridge over the River Cuckmere and getting my gear together from the car went through the gate at the far end of the car park and followed the muddy footpath southwards, eventually turning left and walking down to the west bank of the river. 

Matt, a birder colleague of mine had kindly given me precise instructions where to go to find the Twite, so I found myself following a narrow path, walking along a raised bank with fields to my right full of geese and the river to my left. I then met another birder coming the other way.

We greeted each other and he recognised me but I spectacularly and embarrassingly failed to register who he was until I realised it was Robert, who I had not seen for some years but whom I had known for many years, when I lived in Sussex before moving to Oxfordshire and with whom I was a member of the Beachy Head Ringing Group, catching and ringing birds there in the late summer and autumn. I had no excuses except my tiredness after a long drive and was suitably mortified.

Having made my abject apologies to Robert, we walked southwards together along the footpath. Off to our right in wide windswept fields the geese were scattered about in groups, feeding. The majority were the usual Canada Geese with a few Greylag Geese amongst them but one group were different. They were Russian White-fronted Geese, twenty nine in all and a nice sight to see with the white blaze around their bills and random black barring on their bellies highlighted by the bright sun.

Russian White-fronted Geese
I found a single Dark bellied Brent Goose amongst the geese too but could find no sign of the four Ridgways's Cackling Canada Geese that were also meant to be somewhere here. There was also a huge roost of large gulls far out on the fields, the white plumage of the gulls shining, almost luminescent, in the sun, but they were hunkered down in a fold in the field out of the strong wind so it was impossible to see much more than their heads which was a shame as a Glaucous Gull had been around here yesterday and maybe was currently amongst them.

As Robert and myself walked along we saw another birder waving to us from some two hundred metres further on. We assumed that this was to alert us to where the Twite was and we made our way there to find we were correct in our assumption but frustratingly we were minutes too late as the Twite, which had been feeding there, had just flown off.

We stood around with the two other birders who were each toting huge lenses but there was little sign of the Twite returning and Robert and myself, getting bored, took the footpath further south but only went a short way, flushing the occasional Rock and Meadow Pipit, before Robert decided to head for home and left me to it. Parting, we made a loose arrangement  that I would drop round to his house in Seaford for a cup of tea and a chat after looking for the Twite. I carried on along the path, leaning into the ever strengthening wind which was now reaching quite a velocity, whipping over the flood plain and meanders. What with the wind blowing relentlessly against me, the low sun shining blindingly bright into my eyes and the footpath becoming intolerably muddy and slippery it was very hard going but I stuck at it.

The footpath along the west side of the River Cuckmere
Looking North
I got my reward after a further five hundred metres, when, looking down from the top of the bank along which the narrow path ran I noticed on the west side and thus sheltered from the worst of the wind, a single small bird nibbling at seeding plants on the muddy margin of the ditch below me. A yellowish coloured bill, caramel brown face and breast, boldly streaked upperparts and a deeply forked tail told me all I needed to know. This was no Linnet. I had re-found the Twite.

It was very confiding and I took some photos as quickly as possible and watched it hopping about in the dead stalks on the mud. It looked settled but after five minutes flew up for no apparent reason and was carried away by the ferocious wind which was now almost gale force. I followed it as it swung back towards me into the wind, a tiny, bounding, black speck high in the sky before it was carried up and away by the wind into the glare of the sun and I lost sight of it.

I walked right to the end of the path, where it met the beach, to see if it had come down further on but there was no more sign of it. I retraced my steps, passing a group of Barnacle Geese, the four Ridgway's Cackling Canada Geese and some hybrid geese standing by the edge of the river on the opposite bank before rejoining the other birders at the original spot where they had first seen the Twite and told them of my good fortune. The Twite had still not returned to this its favourite location, so after a short rest I again walked southwards just in case, but the Twite had not come back to where I had re-found it either and after a couple of hours I gave up. I do not think it was seen again that day.

I walked back to the car, thankful to get out of the wind which was blowing ever harder and drove to Robert's house and spent an hour chatting and catching up on news and commiserating with Robert's partner Sarah, who was under the weather with a flu virus.

Then, revived by a welcome cup of tea it was time to say farewell and get back out into the wide world of birding.

My next destination was Newhaven Tidemills, just a few miles west along the coast. Although the main focus of birder's attentions here, at the moment, is the long staying male Serin, I had another bird in mind. Purple Sandpiper. They roost on Newhaven East Pier at high tide and I had timed it just about right as high tide was but thirty minutes away.

I parked the car, walked across the railway crossing and followed the concrete track past the ruined flint walls of what was formerly The Tidemills but is now a bit of a wasteland, just about maintaining an aura of history and better times but only just. When the sun is not shining here  the whole area  can be a very desolate and depressing place, more industrial than recreational and with a neglected, uncared for atmosphere. It's a shame really as with some imagination, investment, conservation effort and control of dog walkers it could be turned into a very pleasant location to walk around and enjoy. It will never happen though and so another opportunity is lost.

I passed a trio of birders standing by a ruined flint wall, optimistically waiting for the Serin to make an appearance but so far it had not been seen and sometimes you can wait for hours and still meet with no success.

I pressed on towards the sea, crossing the shingle towards the pier. The sea was wild, huge swelling, booming waves coming onto the beach with great force and breaking in a welter of white foam on the stony shore.

Walking out onto the exposed pier, the wind became ever more fierce, churning the sea below the pier supports and buffeting me endlessly with its force. I walked to the end of the pier with no sign of any Purple Sandpipers and alone, I stood and looked out to sea, feeling the power of the elements all around me. I looked across at the longer West Pier with its iconic lighthouse on the other side of the harbour and my mind drifted back to those heady days when I lived in Sussex and seawatched from under the lighthouse every day I could in the months of April and May, recalling the joys of seeing migrating skuas and terns, waders and ducks, auks and divers.

Newhaven East Pier looking back to the beach
But this was no good. I had not yet found any Purple Sandpipers. Reverie and sentimentality are all well and good at the appropriate time, but this was not it, so I reluctantly pulled my senses together and returned a little way down the pier to find that there were now three Purple Sandpipers perched on the golden yellow lichen that encrusts the stone top of the pier. I guess the sandpipers must have been sheltering below the top of the pier as I passed along above them and that is why I missed them. They seemed untroubled by the wind blowing across the pier and stoically hunkered down in the sunshine to await the turning of the tide. Well two of them did, the third thought better of it and sought shelter below the pier on one of the supports, where it was less windswept.

Purple Sandpipers are attractive birds with an engaging personality. They are invariably confiding and their portly form presents a benign and appealing aspect to our human eyes. When at rest they have a distinctive neckless profile giving them a front heavy appearance. Their shape can however change markedly depending on their attitude, showing a steep forehead and no neck at rest and at other times affecting a much slimmer profile when feeding on the green weed growing on the rocks and pier supports or when uneasy about something. 

Purple Sandpipers
The two Purple Sandpipers on the top of the pier, currently fluffed up and at rest were rounded and plump, squatting or standing on short orange legs. A picture of contentment. One tucked its bill into its scapulars and roosted on one leg in typical wader fashion whilst the other, kept a gentle eye on me, occasionally closing its eye to reveal white eyelids in sleep but never closing its eye for more than seconds.

I spent twenty minutes with the sandpipers, as more and more birders arrived on the pier. Whether it was the welcome return of a sunny day that brought them out or the attraction of the nearby Serin, there seemed to be a lot more birders than usual. 

I retreated back to the Tidemills. fighting my way into a wind that was now blowing full and straight into my face, making my eyes water. I turned with relief onto the concrete track leading back down to the ruins, scattered gale ravaged bushes and broken down walls of The Tidemills and found that the Serin was now viewable, singing from an Elder bush some twenty metres in from the concrete track. What amazing good fortune and in conjunction with the same two birders cum photographers I had encountered at The Cuckmere, we used one of the flint walls as cover to get reasonably close to the Serin, peering at it through a large hole in the wall as it sat amongst the myriad bare twigs of the Elder, its bright lemon yellow breast and face gleaming in the sunshine and standing out like a tiny shining jewel of yellow in a fretwork of pale brown and green grey Elder twigs and branches.

Male Serin 

The Serin was a compact little bird with a stubby conical bill and beady black eyes in a round head as it sat singing, perched low down on the edge of the bush in the lee of the wind. Its upperparts were streaked grey brown and its head was a combination of yellow and green. Its chest and breast were pure citrus yellow and the rest of the underparts were white with some dark streaking on its flanks. A very pleasing bird to see so well, especially when considering I had such difficulty to see it on previous occasions. A real stroke of good fortune which I and the other birders present made the most of.

The hope of the other birders cum photographers, was that it would perch on top of the flint wall but the strong wind precluded this and the Serin wisely stuck to its sheltered bush. It flew around us on a number of occasions, displaying a vivid yellow rump but was not willing to pose on the wall, preferring to retreat to and sit in its favourite bush and sing or make occasional sorties down onto the weedy ground to feed.

Two other birders greeted me. I knew them. They were  Jim and Jeremy, two fellow Oxonbirders also visiting for the day. We chatted and waited for another opportunity to photo the currently absent Serin, which duly obliged by flying back and settling in its usual bush. Once the Serin had flown off yet again, I bade Jim and Jeremy farewell as I had one other destination to go to and one other bird to see. This was the Rose coloured Starling at Broadfield near Crawley in West Sussex, a forty minute drive away but on my route home. Jim and Jeremy having seen the starling in the morning were heading off to see the Twite. I wished them luck, as judging from my experience this morning, they would certainly need it.

Forty minutes later I arrived at Beachy Road in Broadfield and parked by the familiar tree that was and still is the starling's tree of choice. It was already there perched high in the branches but soon dropped lower to sit on another branch and go to sleep or perch on one leg and quietly sing. It is now virtually in full summer plumage, not the bright pink it will be next year when fully adult but a duller pink with a brown caste and glossy black flight feathers and tail, and a markedly, spiky black feathered crest at the back of its head. 

Second calendar year male Rose coloured Starling
I was all alone as I stood watching it for twenty minutes while it never moved from the centre of the tree until it suddenly flew off. Another hour passed but it did not come back which was unusual. Common Starlings came and went but there was just no sign of the Rose coloured Starling. Then three starlings flew over the surrounding roof tops, blown by the wind, before wheeling in unison. I looked closely and the third member of this trio was the Rose coloured Starling. It left its two companions and briefly landed on an adjacent rooftop but a noisy motorbike scared it back into flight and that was the last I  saw of it.

I waited another half an hour but it was obvious that the Common Starlings  were preparing to head for their roost, perching in groups at the tops of large trees or wheeling in formation in the sky before flying off northwards with some purpose  and presumably the Rose coloured Starling went with them.

Well, it had been quite a day and with nothing to eat or drink all day apart from a cup of tea I headed for Pease Pottage Services for a Latte and a sandwich to keep body and soul together on the drive home.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Ewan
    Good to see you in Sussex. I'm fairly sure the Cackling Geese are of the Ridgway's (minima) subspecies rather than Richardson's, almost certainly escapes but interesting never the less. Really enjoyed the Serin a bit of a bogey bird for me.