Wednesday 24 April 2013

A Spring day in West Sussex 23rd April 2013

Well a beautiful day dawned and reports of a Long eared Owl, highly visible and close to the path behind Pagham Harbour Visiting Centre in West Sussex had me heading south just after 8.30am on a glorious spring morning. A reported Bonelli's Warbler species, it could be either Western or Eastern, was also apparently still hanging around very close by at Church Norton so it looked, potentially, like a good day was in prospect. 

I decided on going for the warbler first and duly arrived at Church Norton car park which, unsurprisingly was crammed full of cars and made my way to the Hide behind the Churchyard where the warbler was best looked for. There were some familiar faces amongst the gathering of around thirty birders there but an air of resignation and stoicism greeted me as the warbler had not been seen since 8.30, over two hours ago. It had been a long wait for some. To add to my personal angst there was reportedly no sign of the owl either so now it was not looking so good. However the weather was  magnificent and undeterred I settled in for a wait. 

Standing in the Spring sunshine was such a novelty and pleasure after all the privations of the months before, so I made the most of it. Blackcaps and Chaffinches flitted around in the hedgeline opposite us and an invisible Lesser Whitethroat rattled away deep in the just flowering blackthorn to my left. Another hour passed and slowly the other birders, dispirited, melted away leaving just a few of us maintaining a vigil. A couple of Willow Warblers set the pulses racing for a moment whilst a pair of Blackcaps provided some entertainment by repeatedly dropping down from the fence line into the grass and then up again. It was whilst looking at these that I noticed beyond them, a scrum of birders walking fast and purposefully back down the track from the car park to the harbour. Something was up. The warbler had been located. I left my position, standing on the grass behind the hide and followed the wet path between the bushes and the saltmarsh to where the car park track joined the edge of the harbour. Everyone was looking up into the tall trees skirting the car park track. The Bonelli's had just been seen here, literally seconds ago but had been chased off by a ChiffChaff and disappeared. It had been heard to give a 'hoowee'  call which was diagnostic of Western Bonelli's Warbler but frustratingly it was now out of sight. We milled around, looking upwards, hopeful but uncertain and then went back and fore between the hide and the track entrance searching the trees and bushes. It must be here somewhere but the vegetation was so dense it could easily hide away and not be seen. The warbler called again off to our right, deep in the vegetation but we could not locate, let alone see it.  

Back to the Hide but no sign there. Back to the track entrance. Nothing there either. Back to the Hide again to find the remaining birders are now watching it! We all crammed into the restricted space between the edge of the Hide and the Blackthorn hedge and it could be seen flitting about in the adjacent Sallows about forty metres away to our left. This from earlier reports was it's favoured location. The views were brief but confirmed it's identity. It was amongst some Willow Warblers and frequenting the leaves and twigs of the Sallows.  Then it has gone. It looks like it has moved back through the trees and bushes towards the track. We all trudge round there. No sign. More indecision and we wait. It calls again between the track and the Hide. Back to the Hide. It's showing again! The same place as before! 

Now on it's own with no Willow Warblers to confuse the issue it feeds in and around a small willow, golden with fat, furry catkins. The Bonelli's appears paler, smaller and slimmer than a Willow Warbler or ChiffChaff and very white underneath with an open facial expression and pale brown upperparts. I can just about see the greenish tinge on the wings. Constantly moving and forever restless it zips up, down and around amongst the leaves and branches, disappearing and re-appearing. Flying out to catch flies it's silvery white underside shines in the sun. Other birders join us, one even temporarily abandoning his small child to get a glimpse of this waif.

We cram in again and get really good and extended views of the warbler. An enormous camera lens creeps over my right shoulder. I don't mind. Everyone is very solicitous about everyone else getting good views. Conscientious due to the limited space I watch the warbler for twenty minutes and then relinquish my space to the photographer. The  temporarily abandoned toddler is retrieved by her father. No harm done and all is right with the world. Some of the assembled crowd disperses happy with a successful twitch whilst other latecomers wait for their view of the warbler.

All smiles now from birders who have seen the Bonelli's
Relaxed, I now sit on a bench and look out at blue sea on a full tide in the harbour. The sun warming my face. I am actually hot. With the owl having disappeared I decided to visit the baker to end all bakers, Enticotts at East Beach, Selsey. Cheap, cheerful, very popular and friendly. It is still as good as ever. 

Hunger satisfied I  took the option of going to Pulborough Brooks RSPB reserve to try and photo the Nightingales. Only a comparatively short drive east from Selsey, I had forgotten how popular such reserves are with the public. The feeling one gets is that this is very much a focal point for people with a casual interest in birds rather than the determined sometimes frenetic quest of the likes of me to see as many good birds as possible. Nothing wrong in that but I confess to not feeling at ease in such places. The car park was full to overflowing. So many people with expensive equipment but wearing totally inappropriate clothing such as white hats and shirts, visible for miles and talking in very loud voices. But this is their domain not mine. Where is the beige and green clothing and subdued whispers of us skulkers? I eventually find an area free of disturbance on the reserve, a quiet corner off the main path with a gate at the bottom of a short track.

As I watch a brown bird drops down onto the path from the Bramble hedge, just in front of the gate. Robin? No, a rusty chestnut tail and rump, greyish underparts and a slightly larger build tell a different story. It looks at me quizzically, almost knowingly, then hops further out before deciding to retreat back into cover.

A Nightingale. It disappears back into the Brambles and tangle of vegetation by the gate and a burst of glorious, exotic song explodes from the same spot seconds later. Ripe and full throated. The sound of the steamy swamps and hot, humid jungle of tropical Africa. Impossibly rich, the full fat cream of birdsong comes to me. Incongruous in our cloud shrouded land but in the exceptional shining sunlight of this Spring day it appears totally appropriate.  It is not a dream. It is here and so are at least another four singing males scattered around the reserve. I stand quietly by the hedge and the Nightingale re-appears. It sings a short burst again and hops around on the grass. 

Half an hour passes and remarkably no-one comes along the main path to join me. Beyond the bushes and the gate a young mother, invisible behind the hedgerow has arrived with two troublesome toddlers and is shouting at  one of her misbehaving small kids but I am in my own zone of tranquility and peace. She is not far away just the other side of the hedge but could be at the other end of the world. The Nightingale sings again. It too seemingly immune to the commotion. Serenading the woods with long, drawn out, poignant notes then an exquisite contralto warble. I am back in Africa. and the boundless tropical landscapes of that continent flood my memory.The magic is broken as a couple come along the path. They do not speak or stop to listen  but carry on. I do not want to tell them about the Nightingale.This is my moment.