Thursday 17 December 2020

Dabs for Crabs 15th December 2020

Almost to the day four years ago, on a similar sunny winter's day, myself and my good friend Clackers went to a place called Sovereign Harbour on the further side of Eastbourne in Sussex, to see a Black Guillemot that gave exceptional views, feeding in one of the four marinas, literally a few metres away from where we stood admiring it. Much has passed under the metaphorical bridge since then for both of us and sadly personal circumstances mean that for now Clackers is no longer able to accompany me on birding forays to distant parts.

Well, the proverbial lightening does strike twice and this time, today, I was bound for the same destination though the bird in question was not a Black Guillemot but another almost exclusively maritime bird in the form of an equally confiding Velvet Scoter that has decided the same harbour is also to its liking. Both Black Guillemots and Velvet Scoters are scarce on the south coast of England at this time of year, the guillemot much more so than the scoter and certainly it is highly exceptional for either of them to seek a winter residence in the harbour, which is surrounded by upmarket housing and cafes with expensive yachts and cabin cruisers of various sorts moored to the many pontoons in the marinas.Normally both birds would be on the open sea well away from humanity.

Sovereign Harbour is a multi million pound development commenced in 1993 that consists of four separate harbours or marinas, a retail park and over 3500 houses and apartments of various shapes and sizes.When I lived in Sussex none of this existed and the land it has been built on was known as The Crumbles which was nothing more than a large area of desolate seaside shingle with various small stretches of brackish water and scrub and was a great place to go birding.On various visits I found Snow Buntings, Scaup, even a Red throated Diver on a small pool and rarer birds have been found by others in the distant past such as a Richard's Pipit in 1954. 

It could not last of course and developers finally, after considerable opposition, got their way, planning permission was granted and there is virtually no trace of the place where I and others went birding.

I set off for Sussex in bright sunshine and a brisk southwest wind. I did not know whether the Velvet Scoter was there but took a reasonable gamble it would be, as it was present yesterday and having first been discovered on 9th December is now approaching its second week in the harbour. So my chances of seeing it were good. It is a long but comparatively untroubling drive on  motorways for most of the way to Eastbourne with a stretch of calmer road running east from the outskirts of Brighton, parallel with, in the words of Rudyard Kipling the 'whale backed' South Downs, before turnng south towards Eastbourne and the coast.

Following the satnav's directions I was none too sure if I was heading for the right part of the Sovereign Harbour complex, which if you do not know it can be a daunting prospect to find your way around, but I turned off the main road and followed a sign for 'Free Parking' in the complex.This brought me to a large retail park and I soon found a space to park, at the back of a large gymnasium. I gathered all I required from the car, bins, camera, phone and followed a walkway which brought me down to a harbour. I think it was called the Inner Harbour and where the scoter was but I was far from sure.

There were a number of cafe's looking over the promenade below and the harbour beyond. Most of the establishments were closed but one coffee bar was well populated with customers sitting outside in the sun and looking out onto the small harbour and its complement of hugely expensive yachts and incongruously, the Eastbourne Lifeboat. 

The Velvet Scoter ended up feeding in this part of the marina
and was where it showed very well, catching crabs and starfish

This is the walkway from where we watched
the scoter

I stood on the walkway a little nonplussed. I had been told the scoter could be found roughly where the Black Guillemot had been four years ago and near the lifeboat. I looked out at the small area of open water before me and the various access pontoons beyond and to which the yachts were moored. It was a confusing clutter of boats and pontoons that confronted me and finding a small seaduck in that lot was not going to be easy as there was so much where it could be obscured from view.

Two birders came along the public walkway and I enquired about the scoter and whether I was in the right place. I was told that yes this was where the scoter was usually to be found, in the vicinity of the moored lifeboat. I also learned the scoter had been seen here thirty minutes ago but then was lost to view as it dived under one of the mooring pontoons and couldn't be relocated.

I relaxed a little, now knowing this was the place to be and surely if I waited a while the scoter would show up in its favourite stretch of water by the lifeboat. I walked a short way further west towards where I had seen the Black Guillemot years ago and stood there in the hope the scoter might appear. Ten minutes passed and then a birder waved to me from back down the walkway. He obviously could see the scoter. I walked towards him but in the minute it took me to get there it had dived and nobody could re-find it. So frustrating.

I stood for a while and then off to my right I briefly saw the scoter, exactly where it had been seen many times before, adjacent to the lifeboat. By now there were half a dozen fellow birders standing with me.I alerted them to the scoter's presence by the lifeboat and all of us duly walked along until we were opposite the lifeboat. Nothing!

Two or three Cormorants surfaced and doubts set in. Surely I had not been mistaken but there was no sign of the scoter. I looked further right to the last channel of water between two pontoons that lay by a public walkway running under some housing. There was the scoter. It had worked its way as far right as it could go and was now diving and feeding close to the walkway.

I rapidly made my way to where a small bridge carried me over the water and gave me access to the walkway and nearer the scoter. There were a fair number of people strolling about, many curious about us birders and what we were looking at but I managed to keep calm and dodged my way through them remembering to maintain a respectable distance as is required these days.

I got to my desired point but was frustrated again as I could not see the scoter.Where was it now? Another birder joined me and as we looked at the water he said 'There it is!' and a dark form surfaced close to one of the pontoons. At last. It was still here and had not done its usual vanishing act but now it proceeded to swim under one of the pontoons and the moored boats heading for an area of open water beyond and near to one of the lock gates giving access to the sea.

The question was would it swim all the way under the pontoon and emerge the other side or do its disappearing act once more. I walked to where I thought it might surface and a short but tense wait ultimately confirmed my suspicions as the scoter surfaced with a crab in its bill, right in front of me.

Structurally Velvet Scoters are slighty larger than their more numerous cousin the Common Scoter and possess a bulky body, large head, thick neck and a long broad bill which does not make them the most aesthetically attractive of ducks. Judging by its plumage it was a first winter bird, probably a female as its belly was white with many tiny dark spots. Otherwise its  plumage was a dusky dark brown relieved by two pure white wing bars formed by all white secondaries on each of its wings. A white oval smudge behind its eye and a larger off white patch at the base of its bill were the only marks on the overall brown of its head. 

Its bill was large and used to good effect to catch and dismember the crustaceans, mainly crabs and starfish, it kept diving for. In the space of twenty minutes it caught at least four crabs and two small starfish all of which it consumed, grasping them in its mandibles and swallowing them whole in some cases.The edges of its lower mandible were serrated,  akin to a saw, presumably the better to secure its victim.

For twenty minutes the scoter fished in front of us. A gala performance on the sunlit water, a reprise of the Black Guillemot experience that also fished in exactly this spot four years ago, both birds, then and now coming very close and showing no concern about our presence and that of curious passers by who stopped to enquire what it was..

The crabs and starfish were mainly small enough to swallow whole but those that were not were dismembered and swallowed in pieces. Each time the scoter dived it surfaced with either a crab or starfish so the feeding must be very good here. 

The occasional Herring Gull would try to mug the scoter of its catch when it surfaced but the scoter was too quick and would crash dive with its prey and frustrate the opportunistic gull. I never saw the scoter once surface without a crab or starfish and the plentiful supply of crustaceans must surely be one of the factors persuading it to remain here.

This was the closest view I have ever had of a Velvet Scoter as my encounters have been of them swimming distantly on the sea or flying past on a seawatch in April, so this was an opportunity definitely not to be missed.

Sometimes the scoter floated into the reflection from a yellow block of apartments overlooking the harbour which created a pleasant and unusual image.

Velvet Scoters do not breed in Britain but breed in wooded tundra from Scandinavia eastwards to west of the Yenisey Basin in northern Russia. Around 2500 winter offshore around the coast of Britain, most being found on the east coast of Scotland, the northeast coast of England and off Norfolk. A small number of Velvet Scoters winter off the Sussex coast with between twenty and fifty birds recorded between December to February in Rye Bay which is not that much further east beyond Eastbourne. This individual in Sovereign Harbour may well come from there. Other smaller gatherings have been seen further west in Sussex and this is not the first time one has been found in Sovereign Harbour but it is a very rare occurrence. In Sussex others have been found in Chichester Harbour and Brighton Marina and a very few also have been found inland on reservoirs. I even saw one in Oxfordshire on my local Farmoor Reservoir in December 2013.

The scoter finally had its fill of crustaceans and swam back under the pontoon and emerged  the other side near the lifeboat. Here it went to sleep, no doubt digesting its meal.I left it at this point and departed Sovereign Marina but not for home.

I was back in  Sussex, my home for ten years before moving to Oxfordshire and where I was immensely happy. The sun was shining and I felt good.While watching the scoter I got talking to a local birder who told me of a Black Redstart at Seaford, a seaside town half an hour west of Eastbourne and very well known to me. I had a mind to go back, for old time's sake and knowing I was also in with a very good chance of seeing a Black Redstart.

Half an hour's driving duly delivered me to Splash Point at Seaford, a breakwater  under the towering white cliffs of Seaford Head and where, in the now distant past I had spent a huge number of hours seawatching. The beating of the waves on the shingle shore, the strong southwest wind coming in off a sea running with white crested waves, glittering in the sealight, the long promenade and multi coloured beach huts prompted endless memories of my times here. They came  thick and fast, an almost overwhelming avalanche of conflicting emotions that caught me unprepared for their benign assault. It was of course  no more than a longing to go back to when times were normal and our natural desire to cling to something, even if it is only memories, that would bring re-assurance and a feeling of stability. 

I settled to finding the Black Redstart, checking the likely looking buildings and hedges at the back of the seafront but there was no sign.

Someone who recognised what I was about came over to where I stood and told me they had seen it just before I arrived perched on a wooden fence that marked the bottom of a small seaside garden but had lost sight of it. 

The seaside garden and fence favoured by the
Black Redstart
The wind was blowing strong from the sea so I reasoned it would find a sheltered spot and after some twenty minutes I found it, a silhouette caught out of the corner of my eye, perched on the fence, hidden to a greater extent by a sea salt blasted, evergreen hedge that provided the required shelter from the wind.

It sat quietly for a few minutes, regarding me with a robin like cuteness and then flicked downwards from the fence. It did not return to the fence as I hoped it would and for the next twenty minutes was gone and then suddenly it was back on the same fence, before again performing its disappearing act. 

Its next appearance was on a nearby garage roof and then it was gone once more. I  stood my ground near the fence as, bizarrely the sound of bagpipes came on the wind from way up on Seaford Head. The wild sound intoxicating, heroic even over the roaring of wind and sea . Who was the mystery piper and why was he on Seaford Head? I will never know as the Black Redstart  returned to the fence which was obviously its favoured perch and my concentration returned to the matter in hand. I finally left it perched on a sunlit fence post, sheltered from the wind by a tamarisk and looking content, the brown tones in its grey plumage accentuated by the sunlight and its orange tail aquiver.

Black Redstart

I walked back along the promenade to where my car was parked by the Martello Tower that serves as the local museum these days. Away across the bay to the west  I could see Newhaven Lighthouse, stood at the very end of the long west pier, built in Victorian times and where for year after year I sat and seawatched in April and May. Just me, the sea, the sky and the birds. Memories of those happy days lightened my soul as I once more found myself walking by the sea, bringing back something I had forgotten, an echo that provided substance, a buffer of familiarity to ward off the great uncertainty that pervades the land at the moment. This sense of permanence and the familiar temporarily deceived me into thinking that all was normal but in my heart I knew it was not. Perhaps next year when the days lengthen and the ducks, divers, terns and skuas commence their annual movement up the Channel I will return. It is said that once having moved on in mind and body you should never go back but the spell is strong  and maybe next year it will be alright again with the world and I will come to sit on Splash Point breakwater and feel at ease. May it be so.


On Christmas Day the Velvet Scoter was picked up uninjured but exhausted outside a shop on the Waterfront in Sovereign Harbour and taken into care by East Sussex WRAS (East Sussex Wildlife Rescue and Ambulance Service) After some TLC and making a full recovery it was released onto Eastbourne Beach on 11th January 2021 and flew strongly out to sea..

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