Saturday 15 June 2013

Full Circle 15th June 2013

American Golden Plover

On 14th March 1985 I was living in the beautiful village of  Ditchling which lies in the shadow of the South Downs in Sussex. Together with Guen, my then fiancee whom I married in Zimbabwe two years later, we had just moved into a tiny cottage and I was enthusiastically embracing the wide range of birding opportunities now almost literally on my doorstep. So very different to our former home in Surrey.

News via a friend came of a female Little Crake that had taken up residence in the Cuckmere Valley near to Beachy Head. Birding was less frenetic in those days and it was only after it had been in residence a week or so that we thought it would be fun to go and see it. So we did. It was not far and one cold early morning we went to see the Little Crake. It was so tame you could walk up to it and if so inclined even feed it worms. It was frequenting a damp ditch and often you had to move out of it's way when it left the ditch so confiding was it's nature. There were only a few people looking at it and not one person taking photographs. The digital age was yet to come. The Little Crake was the first real rarity I had seen and I suppose sowed the seed that matured into my current enthusiasm to see rare birds.

Guen and I got married, the years rolled by, we had a daughter and my birding still remained local, focusing on studying stonechats at Beachy Head, ringing birds with the Beachy Head Ringing Group and doing a WeBS count at West Wittering, all in Sussex. I was never happier but eventually after ten years my work took us away from Ditchling and Sussex and we settled in Kingham in Oxfordshire. This was a big shock for me as the birding was not nearly so good  and it was only after settling in Kingham we realised how happy we had been in Ditchling. Nineteen years later and we are still here in Kingham but I have now semi-retired and we are thinking of moving in the not too distant future.

Back to the present, and today I decided to re-visit the Cuckmere to look at what was reportedly a very confiding and photogenic American Golden Plover found by a Sussex seawatching acquaintance of mine, Matt Eade, who I have shared many a long hour with on Seaford breakwater looking for Pomarine Skuas. Leaving Kingham it was overcast and dull and it was only on the approaches to Brighton that the sun came out and my spirits lifted. I collected my good friend and bird artist John Reaney from his home in Brighton and we were soon at the Cuckmere, parking in The Golden Galleon pub car park, crossing Exceat Bridge and walking for a lonely mile down the side of the River Ouse to the beach, to hopefully see the plover which was frequenting a pool by the river mouth.

I have not been back to the Cuckmere for many years and memories kept tugging at me. It was a strange complicated mixture of optimism and some sadness that the memories brought. Almost like opening a window on a past that I had deliberately tried to ignore. Now surrounded by the familiar, remembered stimulation of sun and sea bringing that incomparable light that can only be engendered by sunlight reflected from the sea, and the Downs in all their Spring green verdure, and the memory of that long ago encounter on the Cuckmere, I was almost overwhelmed by my emotions and a strange sense of longing. Echoes of the past.

The wide Cuckmere Valley is a beautiful place, thankfully forming part of the coast between Seaford and Eastbourne which will never be despoiled by the ghastly developments and haphazard building that has tainted the majority of the Sussex coastline. The River Ouse runs through the middle of the valley and it is planned to allow the sea to breach the defences and the whole area to become saltmarsh again. Not without opposition I should add. Immediately on the east side of the Cuckmere are the famous white cliffs called the Seven Sisters whilst the west side clifftop is the location of the well known coastguard cottages, famous from their appearance in countless calendar images, films and television programmes. 

East side of the Cuckmere Valley
Coastguard cottages with Seven Sisters in the background
We strolled along in the sun  by the river and found our way to the end but at first there was no sign of the plover. It must be here as a birder we met in the car park told us it was showing really well. We wandered around slightly confused until I saw a familiar face kneeling with a camera and pointing it at a plover standing ridiculously close to him. The familiar figure was Nick Hallam, another Oxfordshire birder and as it transpired down here on a short holiday with his wife. 

I said to John. 'There it is'. 

'Where?' he enquired. '

 I pointed.

Right there'.

It was so close to the path that John was looking way too far beyond it. 

We walked up to the plover and it just stood calmly surveying us from a muddy bank in a small and shallow pool. It could be no more than fifteen feet away from us. 

We both admired it and I took it's picture. I chatted to Nick and his wife and they eventually left us. We were the only birders there for a while but then a few others arrived and the plover maybe became a little nervous and decided it was now too close for comfort, so retreated just a little further out and towards the back of the pool but always remained relatively close and still showed little undue concern towards it's small band of admirers. 

It's reason for favouring the pool soon became apparent as it hauled out large flatworms from the mud on a regular basis, removing mud and sand from them before swallowing them whole

Indeed the amount of worms it ate while we watched it was truly prodigious and it interspersed the bouts of feeding with preening and even squatted down on the ground to rest at one point. Maybe the sheer weight of worms it had eaten weighed it down!

We watched it for around an hour. It appeared much more elegant and streamlined in build than our more familiar Eurasian Golden Plover, with a noticeably long neck and finer bill. The wings extended beyond the tail and it was altogether more delicate with markedly longer tibia. Although mid June it was not in full summer plumage but seemed to be in transition from winter to summer plumage, moulting, with large black blotches showing on the breast and flanks and showing evidence of the wide white supercilium and distinctive white neck patch. The golden and black spangled summer plumage was partially coming through on the mantle and scapulars and also evident on the crown of it's head. We watched it for around an hour and finally left it still patrolling it's chosen pool and no doubt delighting those birders that followed us later to admire it.

The same emotions and the same situation  with a rare bird in beautiful surroundings replicated but separated by 28 years. I would love to complete the circle and return permanently. Will it happen? Who knows? Life may still have some twists and turns in store before I will know but for this day at least I felt very much at home in the Cuckmere and in Sussex. It was good to be back.

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