Saturday 26 January 2019

A Snow Bunting at The Sussex Seaside 23rd January 2019

Today I took a fancy to a day out on the coast of Sussex. Not a hardship in my book as I used to live in Sussex, near Brighton and it would be good to re-visit my old haunts and revive happy times and memories

I did have a specific reason for choosing Sussex as a Snow Bunting had taken up residence on a track running along the top of a shingle beach at a place called Goring Gap, just west of Worthing. By coincidence, just over a year ago in December, I visited nearby Bognor Regis with my birding pal Moth to see a similar lone Snow Bunting, also inhabiting a stretch of identical coastal  shingle  opposite Butlins.

It was bitterly cold today, courtesy of a vigorous and relentless wind blowing from the north. Goring Gap is one of the few places on the West Sussex coast where there is an undeveloped area of grassland and farm fields providing a welcome relief from the endless tacky urban sprawl of buildings stretching along the coast hereabouts.

The Snow Bunting could not, however, have selected a more public and disturbed place to settle but that is what it did and typically for this species, especially when on their own, showed very little concern about the non stop passing of people out for a stroll, joggers, birders even, and an inordinate number of dog walkers, all proceeding up and down the track.  The area, being relatively scenic and with the very popular Sea Lane Café, which is open all winter and summer, situated right by the beach, not unsurprisingly makes this area attractive to a large number of people, even on a bitter winter's day such as this. What it must be like here in the summer I dread to contemplate.

I parked the car on the adjacent road, walked across an open grass area and up a small slope to the track. Nick and Chris, two birding colleagues who live  in Sussex had each kindly given me directions to the bunting's precise location, which on Nick's part told me to find an orange rowing boat hauled up on the shingle and the Snow Bunting was to be found just east of it, feeding along the edges of the busy footpath. Chris had also provided me with a handy map via WhatsApp. So I was all set and proceeded to walk west towards the orange boat, visible about a quarter of a mile ahead. As I walked I realised I could have parked the car much nearer but as I was now on the track there seemed little point in returning for it. I was on a mission to see the Snow Bunting so would brook no further delay!

I walked onwards with a cold looking sea beating a gentle tattoo on the shingle to my left. Desolate looking wooden groynes periodically sectioned the vast stretch of shingle beach, deserted at this time of year apart from a Turnstone and a couple of Herring Gulls.

The shingle beach with wooden groynes
I looked for another landmark that had been mentioned by Nick and found a wooden bench with a wreath attached to it. Apparently this was the Snow Bunting's favoured spot. In fact many of the regularly positioned benches along the mile or so of track had various floral tributes left on them in memory to departed souls, and looking at the demographic of many of those still walking the track and frequenting the cafe, it looked like there would be no shortage of further contenders.

The track running along the top of the beach with the bench
and attached wreath.The Snow Bunting fed on the track just
near the bench
I could see no sign of the Snow Bunting as I neared the favoured location but a couple chatting on the grass behind the track recognised I was a birder, my bins and a camera may have given them a clue, and called out to me that the Snow Bunting was right there, pointing, I thought, to the track. 'It's right in front of you.' 'Really?' I failed to locate it and felt slightly foolish.They kindly came to join me on the track and pointed once more but onto the shingle beyond. I still could not see it. They pointed once more. I looked again and there it was just a few feet away, motionless. Its streaked greyish brown upperparts blended perfectly with the incalculable number of dull multi coloured stones that comprised the shingle beach, rendering it nigh on invisible.

Now I had the bunting in my sight it was all too obvious although if you took your eye away for a moment it could, as if by magic, become invisible once more. After a couple of minutes it stretched its wings and proceeded to run on black legs towards me and the track.

It made a beeline for a patch of grass and proceeded to nibble at the vegetation there, mashing whatever it was eating into a pulp so that bits stuck to its golden yellow bill.

I do like Snow Buntings with their unobtrusive and trusting ways. They shuffle around quietly on pebbly beaches or similar areas bringing a touch of foreign glamour to even the most mundane of surroundings. In flocks, when disturbed, they rise from comparative obscurity on the ground in a flurry of flashing white wing and tail patches, twittering in alarm and becoming instantly recognisable, thence to whirl around in the sky, eddying like errant snowflakes before settling once more, often near to where they arose. Once they have come back to earth they crouch, tense and alert, before one or more relax and hesitantly commence to move, encouraging the others to follow suit. If one is found in its own company then invariably it is pecking at the ground, moving along in a jerky progress of runs and hops, with head bent down as it feeds. Occasionally it will squat quietly on a pebble or small stone, as if in contemplation, its small head with stubby bill and dark eye imparting an aura of innocence as it stands with feathers fluffed against the elements.

Snow Buntings in winter plumage are very attractive, far more so than in their less varied breeding plumage where the male is basically black and white and the female dull greyish brown. In winter they have a plumage of many colours, white, orange, buff, grey and black intermixed in a complicated patterning that perfectly blends them into their typical winter haunts of coastal shingle and stony ground.

The bird I was watching today was a first winter female and remarkably tame even by Snow Bunting standards, showing no sign of concern when I was less than a couple of feet away from it. However if a dog approached along the path, and there were many believe me, the bunting was a lot more watchful and would quickly leave the path and run well out onto the shingle to stand  quietly until dog and owner had passed by. It would then return to the track by means of a series of short crouching runs across the pebbles.

Only once did it fly, when an inconsiderate dog owner allowed her dog to run at the bunting.It flew fast and low across the beach and down to near the shoreline, seeking sanctuary on one of the wooden groynes but it was not long before it returned to the favoured track.

It fed  amongst both the pebbles and the grass edges of the track but showed a marked preference for the latter. Holding its body low to the ground on flexed black legs and feet, it nibbled at various bits of vegetable matter and seeds. I watched it for around forty five minutes, punctuated by regular intervals of explaining to curious passers by what I was doing crouched low beside the track and shingle, pointing out the Snow Bunting's tiny form on the track or shingle and telling them where it had come from and why it was here. The time eventually came when I  was satisfied with my encounter and I left the bunting to its own devices, still attracting a lot of attention from curious members of the public as it scuttled away from them across the track to hide in the shingle.

Walking away from the bunting I noticed a very white looking gull, standing, beyond the road, in a large field with small flashes of muddy water where the soil had become waterlogged from all the recent rain.

Second winter Mediterranean Gull
A closer look revealed it was a Mediterranean Gull, known as a 'Med Gull' to us birders, busily preening its lovely combination of palest grey and white feathers. The black and white chevrons on its outer primaries told me it was in its second winter, if it was an adult they would be pure white, but the rest of its plumage was as it would be with an adult in winter plumage.

Med Gulls, formerly rare, are now a regular sight along the south coast both in winter and in summer and now breed in both Sussex and the neighbouring county of Hampshire. 

The gull using its bill to stimulate the preen gland on its rump 

An extremely beautiful gull, pleasing on the eye in both plumage and form, I watched it going through a vigorous wash and brush up routine. Twisting its head backwards to use its bill to stimulate the preen gland at the base of its rump to secrete the oil which it will smear onto its feathers to maintain their water and weather proofing. Once it was satisfied all was well with its plumage it stood on one leg, content.

A welcome encore to my audience with the Snow Bunting. Sussex does it once more.

1 comment:

  1. Love snow buntings & I much prefer their non-breeding plumage, too! (Though I'd like to see them in breeding plumage at least once!) Btw, it was only just over a year ago at Bognor - Dec 2017.... Time flies!!!!