Sunday 18 November 2012

WeBS and Webbed Feet in West Sussex 17th November 2012

The 17th November 2012 marked a landmark for me in that I completed twenty five years to the month of WeBS (Wetland Bird Survey) counting. Recording heaven knows how many wetland birds over the years as a counter at West Wittering and East Head, my sector of Chichester Harbour in West Sussex. This was a bitter sweet day as I have with heavy heart notified Chichester Harbour Conservancy that I am resigning  as a counter with effect from March 2013, when the final high tide winter count is made. 

What will I do with my time? I will miss it but it is time to let go. The counts over the years have given me in equal measure joy, despair and all shades in between and were always looked forward to but now a change has come about and I no longer find the same enthusiasm. So I am accepting the inevitable, that it is time to go and let someone else take over. 

Today John Reaney, a bird artist friend who has accompanied me on many of these counts joined me for this anniversary count and I arranged to meet him at Chichester Railway station at 8.30am. As high tide was not till 1335 we would go a birding at various hotspots around West Sussex before making our way to West Wittering. First stop was Amberley Wild Brooks to look for the Common Crane which I saw on Wednesday. It was still there and we made our way down a very soggy and muddy footpath to get relatively close to the crane, viewing it from behind a hedge. It was striding about in some marshy ground, lording it with a herd of Fallow Deer. 

The morning was clearing but was still overcast and now the air was still with expectation after a heavy rain shower. Brightness was coming slowly from the East. A Peregrine passed overhead and flocks of Lapwings took to the air, spilling around in a panic like black and white leaves as they wheeled and turned in tight unison to confuse the falcon. It went into a steep dive anyway, having seen something else that took it's fancy.We lost it in the gloom of distance and the dark oaks of Rackham Woods. A lone Fieldfare chackered its way across the wide open spaces away from Rackham Woods and Reed Buntings, tails flicking in anxiety, fluttered to the top of the hedge to see what was going on. We watched the crane for thirty minutes and then  slogged our way back up the footpath to the car.

 "Seen any Mandarins this year John?" 'Can't say as I have'. "Come on then, I know just the place". 'Where's that?' "Arundel".  We arrived at Swanbourne Lake by Arundel Castle, scene of my triumph on Wednesday. Needless to say not a single Mandarin duck was in sight. We walked along the path beside the wooded environs of the lake looking in the tangled branches growing in and over the water's edge. Nothing. We started back and in the densest tangle of wood and water I could see a white spot in the depths of the branches. I looked closely in the bins. It moved. This disembodied patch of white was part of a Mandarin drake and as it moved further, more of it became apparent until a full frontal vision of his loveliness appeared and on espying us just as rapidly disappeared. John failed to see it. Then, as is often the way, another drake showed itself really well, stood on a branch low over the water accompanied by a female and John got really good views and my credibility was restored. A Marsh Tit flew within a few feet of us, perching and then hanging upside down, vocalising like someone with a stammer who finally gets the word out. Buoyed by these successes I was now lurching towards insufferable birdtour guide. "Fancy seeing the Hooded Merganser?" 'Have we time?'. "Sure, let's go". We walked back to the car with John still looking for a Coal Tit for his year list. We found instead two Tree Creepers and then two Grey Wagtails. Thirty minutes later we were at Pagham North Wall and looking with others at a distant Hooded Merganser. It was, as it always seems to be, fishing, and did not look like it was going to come close as the tide although on the way in was still not high enough to entice it close to the wall. Wigeon whistled and swam about in little groups. 

The drakes surely are one of the most beautiful of ducks.The Brent geese were feeding as per usual in the fields behind the wall with others coming off the sea in chevron formations to join them, calling and maintaining contact with their conversational, nasal, contralto murmurings. I find their constant chatter strangely re-assuring and comforting as no doubt do they. Yep, it's definitely time to give up WeBS counting. 

I looked at the flock almost instinctively and found an adult Black Brant towards the right hand end of the flock. I have counted Brent geese for so long that Black Brant really now jump out at me. It's not just the huge white necklace and white and black flanks but even with their heads down and flanks obscured the much darker upperparts compared to the Dark bellied Brent really stand out. Other birders overheard us discussing it and came over. "Where is it mate?" A long and convoluted verbal exchange about bushes, fence posts, buildings on the horizon and number of geese from one end of the flock or the other then ensued but the random birder could not get onto it.  "Have you got in it your scope" 'Yes' "Can I look through it?" 'Sure'. While he was doing this I found it in his now unattended scope and handed it over to him. Happy birder. 

"Come on John time's up, we need to get the tide at West Wittering." A lunchtime WeBs count is very late as they are usually much earlier in the morning. I was dreading the anticipated hordes of dog walkers and sundry disturbance that would be at West Wittering but we were pleasantly surprised to find hardly any people there when we arrived. The tide was now coming in fast and by the looks of it was going to be a really high one. The fields were a mass of Dark bellied Brent. In fact there were 2200 of them, exceptionally numerous for this time of year. "There must be a Black Brant in this lot John" but there wasn't. What there was however was something much rarer in West Wittering Brent goose annals. An adult Pale bellied Brent Goose. Underwhelmed? Not us. A Chris Packham frisson of thigh rubbing and suggestive leering almost ensued as I salivated over this beauty.  Believe it or not these are rarer in the Brent flock at West Wittering than a Black Brant.  

Pale bellied Brent Goose
If only the Red breasted Goose had joined them from nearby Farlington my fantasy count would be complete but it was not to be. Some Golden Plover joined the geese on the fields along with a scattering of Lapwing and Oystercatchers. The East Head wader roost was a mass of Dunlin, Ringed and Grey Plover, constantly flying further up the shore as the tide rose. The Dunlins even started swimming to shore as if they could not believe the water was getting so high on their normal roost area. Eventually the waders were driven so far up the shore by the high tide they were mixing with the Skylarks feeding on the saltings. Their constant agitated chatter sounding  like distantly escaping steam. John was just about to complete his count of Ringed Plover when a jogger oblivious to us and the birds put them all up. Start again. Thanks. Really helpful and considerate.  

Then off to Snowhill Marsh for the final part of the count. The sea defence work has now finally finished so all is now peace and quiet here and the birds have returned. Walking to the hide, what I initially thought was a large brown dog shot out of the brambles. No dog this but a Roe Deer. It was confused and startled and even more so when a Little Egret took umbrage to it's presence and set about it, chasing it off into the surrounding trees. One of the more bizarre sights to go into my memories of WeBS counts here. A good selection of waders and ducks fed in the shallow water or rested in the juncus. One patch of juncus caught my eye and as I looked a long red bill poked out of it and was followed by a brown head, grey breast and barred flanks. A Water Rail.  Black tailed Godwits did their jack hammer impressions as they fed in the shallows and five Little Egrets, taking alarm, flew off like wind blown washing. Many Common Redshank roost on the marsh and as we counted them one appeared frosted around the face and body. A closer look. It was a Spotted Redshank and then we found another. This species wintering here is a recent and welcome phenomenon. An even paler wader fast asleep was a Common Greenshank, yet another species that has recently begun wintering here. So the count came to an end. Back down the lane past the Coastguard cottages, now affordable only for millionaires, to the car. A flock, yes a flock of Goldcrests flitted and flickered through the sallows, endlessly active but there was no Firecrest with them. 

"Come on John let's have another look at the Hoodie. The tide's well in so if it performs as usual it will be close in to the sea wall and we will get stunning views." 


We arrived back at Pagham North Wall and found a group of birders not looking at anything apart from a sea devoid of a Hooded Merganser. Our WeBS count entails a walk of around five kilometres, much of it over sand or mud. Our feet were telling us enough is enough, so we sought the sanctuary of a bench away from the crowd and surveyed the tide filled harbour. 

"Oh thank the Lord, that's better, my feet are killing me". 

"Me too"

"No sign of the merganser. Let's just sit here and contemplate for a while and then go back to the car" 

"Fine by me." 

We sat, quite content surveying the flat calm water and groups of Wigeon. A small duck came with rapid wing beats in from the sea. It was dark above with a prominent white belly. 

"Here it is". 

"What is?"

"The merganser". 

It landed not fifteen feet away from us. 

"Bloody hell. Look at that". 

"I am, I am!" 

The merganser then put on a show right in front of us. Snorkelling after small fish in the shallow water and diving properly in the deeper water, fishing, heedless of us or anyone else. 

We admired it for a long time before it slowly worked it's way out from the wall with the receding tide and fussing Wigeon. It was now very gloomy and an idle rain spot heralded the forecast showers. 

"Hungry John?" 


We had not eaten all day. There is a traditional bakers called Endicotts tucked away on a depressing housing estate in nearby Selsey ( 'Selsey - twinned with Atlantis' as some wag had proclaimed via a sign on the town roundabout). Endicotts is our guilty secretThe pasties, cheese straws, pies and cakes are to die for and if you eat too much of it you probably will but to indulge just once a month is a just and honourable reward for our WeBS toils. 

We entered the hallowed doors. John eyed a chicken and mushroom pie. In fact he eyed two. I went for a pasty and throwing caution to the winds followed up with a Belgian Bun. The young girl behind the counter chatted to us, relaxed, laughing and giggling. I asked her 

"Why are they called Belgian Buns?" 

"Cos' they are the shape of Belgium"

Of course they are.

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