Sunday 28 October 2012

Webbed Feet in West Sussex 27 October 2012

Dark bellied Brent Geese flying in to feed on the fields at West Wittering

The entrance to Chichester Harbour and western end of East Head

For twenty five years now I have done a WeBS (Wetland Bird Survey) count in Chichester Harbour. These co-ordinated counts take place once a month from September to March at high tide and I am lucky enough to have one of the more desirable sectors, namely West Wittering and East Head. This area consists of  fields and foreshore owned by the West Wittering Estate and is open to the public, at a price, and is much used by dog walkers, the general public and in the summer is a nightmare of wall to wall parked cars and people enjoying the beach. In the winter apart from sunny days it is comparatively quiet. This is where the Dark bellied Brent Geese come to feed on the grass at high tide. 

Dark bellied Brent Geese
West Wittering Estate claims to be a conservation Company but is basically as far as I can see a money making operation, charging high prices for entry and littering the whole place with notices telling you what you cannot do. On the seaward end of this is East Head, owned by the National Trust, consisting of a promontory of  dunes in danger of erosion by both the sea and the number of people walking over it and surrounded by a sandy beach  .This area is especially beloved by dog walkers and is the site of a high tide roost of waders although constantly disturbed by the dogs and their often inconsiderate owners. 

East Head dunes, sand and site of the high tide wader roost
The final section is Snowhill Marsh which is a fenced off reserve and is the main roost site for waders and ducks at high tide and provides seclusion from disturbance for all manner of wetland birds. Avocets have attempted to breed here on at least two occasions. I started doing the counts when I lived in Sussex and somehow carried on after moving to Oxfordshire, some seventeen years ago. I usually meet up with a friend of mine John Reaney, a self employed bird artist and we do the count together. 

John Reaney and myself heading round East Head
This will probably be my last season as it is time to hand it over although I will be sad to leave what has become an annual pilgrimage to a beautiful area of Sussex. In fact I did resign a few years ago but had such withdrawal symptoms that I asked to be re-instated and my wish was granted. Apparently no-one had been daft enough to take it on. The main purpose of these counts is to count all wetland birds in co-ordination with all other counters in Chichester Harbour and nationwide to monitor wetland bird populations and to do it at high tide when the birds roost and do not move around. 

Including the birds I regularly count I have seen 138 species of bird here over the years. I have also seen very many changes, some bad and some good. Shelduck which used to be frequent are now rarely seen. Slavonian Grebe and Common Goldeneye have similarly disappeared as have the large numbers of  Dunlin (formerly thousands, now 300 if you are lucky), Golden Plover, (formerly over a thousand, now around 100) as well as a marked decline in Lapwing and Sanderling

Lapwing now declining in numbers

Golden Plover now declining in numbers
Conversely Teal and Greenshank have increased with the latter often overwintering and the Dark bellied Brent Goose flock has maintained its numbers at well over a thousand. Mediterranean Gulls although still not regular are increasingly being seen. Inevitably every so often a really rare or uncommon species turns up to brighten the day. An adult Red breasted Goose was found on a day of unbelievably strong gale force winds. In fact the wind was so strong off the sea that I was blown over and there were hardly any geese on the fields but of those that were present the Red Breasted Goose was one of them and fed unconcernedly on the grassy fields with it's goosey pals. This was undoubtedly the rarest and best find in all the years I have been doing the counts and suitable reward for all the dull and bad weather days when little was around. Every year I used to say to John 

'Wouldn't it be great if a Red breasted Goose turned up in the Brent flock'. 

"Dream on" he would reply. 

Then one day it happened and John was not there! 

At last. A Red breasted Goose at West Wittering
On another even fouler day weather wise I found a Bean Goose in with the Brent Goose flock and Barnacle Geese occasionally turn up in the flock as well. Ruddy Shelduck, Velvet Scoter, Little Auk, Red necked Grebe, Red throated Diver, Hen Harrier, Short eared Owl, Osprey, Grey Phalarope and Twite have all been seen over the years. A flock of Little Stint used to winter on East Head reaching a maximum of fifteen but there are none now. Snow Buntings, often very tame, can be found in the dunes at East Head on occasions but not every year.

Snow Bunting on East Head
My sector has a large wintering flock of Dark bellied Brent Geese which allow progressively close approach as the months wear on and they get used to human presence, although dogs will put them up immediately. Today there were over fifteen hundred geese on the fields but they appear to  have had an appalling breeding season and only fourteen juveniles were present in the entire flock. It's not unusual for Brent Geese to have bad breeding years. I think on average it is only one in five years they manage to raise a lot of young. Apparently it depends on the Lemming population in Siberia. If there are a lot of Lemmings then predators such as Pomarine Skuas, Arctic Foxes and Snowy Owls concentrate on the Lemmings. If the Lemmings have a bad year then the Brent Goose goslings provide a suitable alternative! There was however the bonus of an adult Black Brant in amongst them today. Always nice to see and often now there is one present in the flock but not quite so early in the year as this one. 

Adult Black Brant with Dark bellied Brent Geese
A family party of Dark bellied Brent Geese. Two adults with three young.
Judging by the almost complete failure of any of the flock to raise young
they did exceptionally well to raise three young.
Just to the left of the young Brent is a hybrid Black Brant x Dark bellied Brent Goose.
You can just see the white flanks and dark back
Scoping through the flock we also came across one, possibly two hybrid Black Brant  x Dark bellied Brent. The day was marked by a biting and very strong northerly wind. There was no hiding place and the wind whipped across the sea making our eyes water and scopes shake. Counting birds here should be a joy but the place is also inundated with dog walkers who like to walk their dogs by the seashore and can make life a nuisance. They may love their precious pooches but a muddy dog jumping up at one or sticking its nose in your groin can get tedious. 

It's no use their owner saying  "He's quite friendly, he won't hurt you". 

I also never understand why their owners feel unconcerned and un-embarrassed about their obvious lack of control over their dog and the assumption that having been assaulted by their dog you will not be at all put out. I am not scared of dogs or their owners but just do not care for those, both owner and dog, that appear to be out of control.

Anyway, enough of that and back to the birding. Four Swallows and two House Martins sought shelter from the wind to feed in the lee of the dunes but they looked tired and the swallows eventually landed on the sand to rest. Not a good sign. They better hurry or it will be too late. A steady passage of Starlings, Skylarks and Chaffinches headed north into the wind, low across the sea and small flocks of Woodpigeons did the same. Out on the saltings of East Head, Skylarks and Linnets fed whilst Grey Plover, Dunlin and a couple of Knot came into the high tide roost. We spent some time scoping the flock of Brent Geese as from experience it is only after going through the flock several times that you can be sure there is 'nothing good' in there. 

Today, all round, was not one of the better days as apart from the geese there were relatively few birds to count. Snowhill Marsh which usually holds big numbers of roosting waders, ducks and often wintering Spotted Redshank and Jack Snipe is currently being badly disrupted by sea defence work and today the numbers of waders and ducks was as a consequence well down on normal. The totals for the marsh were as follows: Common Teal 174; Wigeon 8; Black tailed Godwit 15; Curlew 19; Common Greenshank 1; Common Redshank 35; Lapwing 4; Little Egret 4; Grey Heron 1; Cormorant 1 and a couple of ChiffChaffs in the hedgerow behind the marsh..

I wonder what next month will turn up? Probably nothing exceptional but that is the charm of birding. You just never know and if you are not there you never will


  1. Just starting to enjoy your rant at thoughtless Dog Owners but you eased off. They seem to think clearing up dog crap gives them enough "brownie" points to let their dogs run riot in the countryside.
    I wonder, do you think my two brick solution (dog knacker crushing) might just catch on?