Monday 4 March 2013

It don't seem a day too long 3rd March 2013

View southwest to Isle of Wight
I have been doing a WeBS (Wetland Bird Survey) count for no less than twenty five years in part of Chichester Harbour, which is in West Sussex. My sector of the harbour covers West Wittering and East Head which is very scenic and a particularly good area for birds as it contains a variety of habitats including sea, sandy beaches, saltmarsh, dunes, marshland and fields. 

Co-ordinated counts are made over high tide, once a month, on a Saturday, from September to March. Undoubtedly the dominant species in my sector are the wintering Dark bellied Brent Geese with the flock reaching in excess of two thousand birds in the peak winter months from November to February. The flock feeds on fields which are specially reserved for them, adjacent to the surfer's car park and the cafe. West Wittering itself is a pretty little village with attractive, old world and therefore desirable high priced houses and a charming little  church whose graveyard is good for Firecrests and warblers in the autumn

West Wittering Church
Apart from the village, all, bar East Head which is owned by the National Trust, is part of The West Wittering Estate which is intensively managed due to the huge numbers of people that visit year round for recreational purposes such as windsurfing, kite flying, dog walking or just wandering about by the sea. In the winter it is tolerable but in summer completely unbearable due to the sheer volume of people and cars visiting this relatively unspoilt part of the Sussex coast. This has resulted in a plethora of signs in and around the whole area, all telling you what you cannot do or issuing dire warnings if you ignore the signs. In my opinion there are far too many, we counted no less than 125 a couple of years ago and undoubtedly there are more now and some are just plain daft and an insult to the intelligence.

Those West Wittering bunnies are so dangerous and devious!
Brent geese over the fields with the cafe in the backgound

The Brent geese become increasingly tame and used to human presence as the winter months progress and can allow close approach towards the end of their stay.  However the dreaded dogs of which there are many, let loose by their owners, will result in the whole flock taking to the skies.This can be really frustrating when you are half way through counting them! Increasingly Black Brants and now hybrids of Black Brant x Dark bellied Brent Goose are found in the flock providing a real test of one's identification skills. 

When I first started counting all those years ago a Black Brant was a major rarity. How things have changed, for now a Black Brant is almost regular each winter but is always nice to find nonetheless, and still gives the same old thrill. Pale bellied Brent Geese are occasionally found in the flock but perversely are, and always have been since I commenced counting, rarer than a Black Brant. The fields also provide a home to a wintering flock of Lapwing which can rise to over three hundred at it's peak and Golden Plover, although these have declined from a regular flock of over a thousand to just a hundred or so now

Adult Black Brant with Dark bellied Brent Geese
The 'goose fields' with Snowhill Marsh and Coastguard cottages in the background

Golden Plover c Hugh Wright
Saturday the 9th February 2013 was my final count as I have, after much soul searching, decided to call it a day. It was not without some sadness that I found myself standing by the Brent goose flock at the end of the count with my good friends Hugh Wright and John Reaney reminiscing, and listening to the constant murmur of the geese as they fed on the grass, unheeding of the poignancy of the occasion. 

As if to make it harder this count had been one of the more memorable ones due to some unusual birds being found. Scanning the sea channel between East Head and Hayling Island at the beginning of the count, there at first seemed to be nothing around but then a large, dark bird floating in on the fast running tide transformed itself into a Great Northern Diver, only the second ever seen on my WeBS counts. 

We moved on to the tip of East Head where Dunlin and Grey Plovers come to roost on the salt marsh.

High tide roosting Dunlin and Grey Plover with a Little Stint in the foreground
c Hugh Wright
I scanned through the large Dunlin flock counting in blocks of ten. A small dark wader moved amongst the Dunlin. What on earth? I looked at it. No, surely it cannot be but it was. A Jack Snipe, large as life, right out in the open. Another unique event in twenty five years of counting. We spent some time watching  as it alternately scuttled about disturbed by the constantly moving Dunlin or  in typical fashion crouched horizontally, trying to remain hidden in the scant vegetation. We got so close to it we could even see it's tiny body moving with it's pulse as it tried to hide from us. But time and tide wait for no one so we had to move on to complete the count at Snowhill Marsh before all the birds moved back out to the harbour to re-commence feeding. 

Snowhill Marsh - the one area where there are no people and the birds are undisturbed!

Jack Snipe and Water Rail habitat at the back of Snowhill Marsh
Here we found two more Jack Snipe, typically hidden in dense, waterlogged cover and an extraordinary flock of fifty Common Snipe, less typically right out in the open in a grassy field beside the marsh. A loud cheewit call heralded the presence of a wintering Spotted Redshank, looking almost silver grey in the dull sunlight and then another joined it. A Ruff, formerly regular here in small numbers but for some years now a rarity, flew over the sea wall. 

Many memories remain of special birds such as the different vagrant geese found in the flock of Brents. One year a Taiga Bean Goose, another year a Barnacle Goose and best of all the Red breasted Goose in 2009.

Pale bellied Brent Goose with Brent flock

Barnacle Goose with Brent flock

Red breasted Goose with Brent flock
The occasional presence of Snow Buntings on East Head was always exciting and welcome as were the Little Auk, Red necked Grebe and three Red throated Divers found on the sea and all on the same day, again in the company of John and Hugh. Recently Sandwich Terns  have begun to winter around here and a  pair of Avocets attempted to breed on Snowhill Marsh one year and still occasionally visit but only passing through on migration

Snow Bunting on East Head

The trio of Red throated Divers c Hugh Wright
An encounter with a Firecrest also comes to mind. A tiny scrap of life flying from some tamarisk bushes by the sea, across a large expanse of open grass, battling into a ferocious head wind to get to a small wooded plantation and passing almost through my legs, it was so low to the ground. A pair of Twite, a great rarity in Sussex, that fed on the saltmarsh for a couple of weeks with a flock of Linnets were memorable. 

A wintering flock of Little Stint reached a maximum of fourteen one winter but then subsequently declined in the following years and have now been absent for at least the last five years. I  could go on but will desist as there are so many memorable moments and encounters to recall. Over the years I amassed a total of 138 species seen on my WeBS counts but it will always be the evocative sight and sound of my beloved Brent Geese that will linger in my memory. They have seen me through the good times and the bad. Farewell West Wittering. I will miss you.

Myself and John heading out to East Head


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