Monday 24 February 2014

This is getting ridiculous 24th February 2014

Well not really if you like birds and especially rare gulls. I made a third trip to Littlehampton in West Sussex to see the Kumlien's and Glaucous Gulls still residing there, lured by Andy and Mark who had never seen either and the fact I was not doing the driving but would accompany them in Andy's new car. It made sense, as I know Sussex well and having been to Littlehampton twice already knew precisely what to do and where to go when we got there

I had worked out a plan that if all went well at Littlehampton we could then go on to see some other good birds along various parts of the Sussex coast, known to me from when I lived there in what seems a lifetime ago.

Meeting at Andy's in Oxford we drove the short distance to collect Mark and headed off down the A34. We were very lucky as unknown to us the A34 had been closed earlier one junction back from where we joined it due to a crash allegedly caused by the police attempting to collect a dead Badger from the road! Sadly a lorry driver died in the resulting crash. Judging by the number of dead badgers left lying around our county roads one wonders why on earth the police were trying to remove this particular dead badger in the first place.

Arriving in a grey but dry Littlehampton at around 9.30 we followed the same routine as I had done twice before, parking free of charge in a nearby road and walking the short distance to the seafront. It was only on getting to the seafront that we realised how strong the wind actually was. It was almost gale force from the southwest so, as before, we sought sanctuary in a shelter and set up our scopes. The tide had only just turned so the gulls were some way off but within thirty seconds Andy had located the Glaucous Gull and he had his lifer as did Mark. I then found the Kumlien's Gull not too far away and now we had seen both gulls within a few minutes of arriving. 

Glaucous Gull

Kumlien's Gull
We settled back to enjoy looking at them but not before being joined by two other birders one of whom was particularly annoying by trying to impress us in a loud voice reeling off reasons why the Kumlien's Gull was not one but in the process just showing his ignorance. I could not take this for very long so Mark and myself descended onto the beach to get closer, thereby annoying the ignorant birder who thought we should stay in the shelter and wait until the tide came in, as by walking out onto the beach, in his opinion, we would flush the gull. He might have hours to wait but we did not. 

I could see a beachcomber already very close to the Glaucous which true to form was totally unphased by the near proximity of a human being and was sat on the breakwater by the river outflow surrounded by Turnstones, busily feeding. I walked out to the beachcomber  who was getting ever closer to the Glaucous.  I did not want him to flush it and asked him if he would mind backing off while Mark took some photos. Frankly I was expecting some argument but instead found myself talking to a very co-operative, nice man who was most interested in the gull and it's origins. We chatted whilst Mark got on with recording the moment then the Glaucous decided to leisurely fly off over the river and out of sight onto the west beach

By now Andy had joined us on the wet beach as had Neil, an acquaintance from Sussex. We turned our concentration towards the Kumlien's which by now was almost opposite us but still distant on the tideline. Battered by the wind blowing hard and straight into our faces it was not easy looking at it so we retreated back to the shelter. Sanctuary. Thankfully the annnoying birder had departed. Some passers by, as they always do, stopped to chat about the gulls and their minor celebrity. We passed a few minutes in friendly banter and scoped the gulls on the beach which in addition to the Glaucous and Kumlien's included no less than one hundred and six Mediterranean Gulls, stood stoically facing the wind and easily outnumbering the Black headed Gulls. I found a lone Kittiwake amongst the throng. Grey Plover, Turnstones, a few Sanderlings and a single Common Redshank fed along the beach or by the restraining wall at the river outflow .

As the tide slowly came in the gulls gradually came closer following the tide's edge as it advanced up the beach. We walked out again so Mark and Andy could try to take some photos. On the beach the wind whipped around us, sudden gusts pushing at us and trying to topple telescopes. Eyes watered, fingertips numbed.

The Kumlien's Gull flew around with a cockle in its beak which it was attempting to smash and eat every time it landed. It was regularly harried by other gulls and each time would take off just as Andy and Mike got ready to take its photo. Most frustrating. Andy turned around from the wind and sea and there was the Glaucous Gull right behind us stood on the shingle by the river wall. "Bloody hell, it's really close".

Just at the crucial moment a lady allowed her dog, which as per usual was totally uncontrolled, to race at the gull barking but the Glaucous just rose and floated in the wind above it. 

The sea sodden mutt ran off and the Glaucous descended back onto the wall. Why do people do this? She could see what we were doing and what we were looking at. There is miles of beach she could utilise. So why? Totally fearless the gull stood there. We moved closer and closer with no response from the gull. It just carried on seemingly ignoring us. The wind buffeted it and even with its great size it struggled to perch on the wall, using its wings to balance. 

The Kumlien's right on cue arrived to perch close beside it. Amazing, the two desired gulls were by far the nearest to us and together. Who could ask for more? Even I, sated with two trips worth of these gulls already, got out the camera. They were so close. Too much to resist. We all took far too many images but enjoyed ourselves immensely.

Eventually we were satisfied and walked up the beach, through the funfare tat and back to the car. With time in hand our next birding experience was to be at Shoreham where we hoped to see the other  second winter Glaucous Gull frequenting the Southwick Canal but unfortunately the gates to the quay were locked so access was denied. Never mind, Andy and Mark had already seen their Glaucous so it was not too disappointing. A slow drive eastwards through Brighton and Hove, up along Telscombe Cliffs, through Rottingdean, Newhaven and finally Seaford found us descending into the Cuckmere Valley and the Seven Sisters Country Park.

The attraction here was a Eurasian Spoonbill and three Greater White-fronted Geese. To see them necessitated a walk along the west side of the River Cuckmere. At first the track was dry and firm but progressively became muddier and more waterlogged until at one point we were wading in our walking boots. Not to be deterred however we forged on regardless of the mud and water. Still no sign of the Spoonbill  Various white blobs out in the fields  resolved themselves into Little Egrets, Mute Swans and paper bags. We were well down the track now heading for the mouth of the river. Some Canada Geese were feeding on the grassy fields and three partially hidden brown geese materialised into the three whitefronts. Good, as now at least we had seen something to compensate for the mud that encased our boots and trouser bottoms. We came to a gate, beyond which the track became a swamp and impassable without wellingtons. 

The Seven Sisters Country Park with large flock of gulls sheltering in the field
We stopped and looked down a wet channel to our left. Three white blobs previously invisible  from the track we had walked until we looked down the ditch became two Little Egrets and yes, the elusive Spoonbill. Distant but instantly recognisable, sheltering from the wind in front of a high hawthorn hedge, preening and looking totally at ease. 

The water filled channel with Little Egrets and Spoonbill in far distance
Closer to us a Kingfisher sat sentinel in the edge of a hawthorn looking down on the channel. The blue and orange body plumage set off in sharp relief by the dark twigs of hawthorn. It's enormous bill tilted in readiness towards the water's surface

The trials and tribulations of our periodic submersion of feet in liquid mud became worthwhile. We had seen our two targets and so returned whence we had come, meeting other intrepid walkers heading out for a muddy and wet reunion with mother earth.

The oh so muddy and waterlogged path on west side of the River Ouse
On getting back to the car it was good to get out of the wind. I had promised Andy and Mark the chance of seeing Purple Sandpipers at either Newhaven East Pier or Shoreham Harbour and now the moment of truth approached. "Let's hope they are there" I quietly said to myself. Confidence belying my inner uncertainty. Newhaven was close by and on our way back west so we stopped there, parking at the Tidemills and walked out onto the shingle beach and along to the East Pier. It was really blowing now,  a constant almost gale force wind straight in off the sea. Waves were crashing up and over  Newhaven West Pier and it's iconic lighthouse  where for ten years or so I  sea-watched in all seasons and weathers. The pier juts out for a quarter of a mile into the sea but is closed now for Health and Safety reasons despite having been open to the public since Victorian times. I honestly wonder about this country sometimes. Surely  there are better things to worry about

Newhaven West Pier and lighthouse viewed from the East Pier
No such restrictions currently exist on the shorter East Pier although some jobsworth will surely attempt its closure sooner or later. The East Pier has, since I can remember, provided a home for wintering Purple Sandpipers on its concrete supports. The birds feed  on the weed that grows on the submerged parts and is then exposed as the tide retreats.

Today I feared the worst as I  thought the birds would feel far too exposed in the wind but should have realised that Purple Sandpipers are made of sterner stuff. Walking along the pier and halfway out the distinctive twittering of a Purple Sandpiper came to me. 

Newhaven East Pier looking inland
We walked still further out and individual birds showed themselves below us on the concrete supports. Portly, with engaging personalities they remind you of stout little gentlemen sleeping it off after a good lunch as their rotund bodies while away the time until the tide recedes. 

There must have been ten in all, possibly more, sheltering from the ferocious wind behind blocks of concrete

Note the upper first winter bird's orange tarsi, feet and basal third of the bill.
The wing coverts are also more obviously fringed white whereas the lower
adult bird has dull greenish yellow tarsi, feet and basal third to the bill and
grey fringes to the wing coverts

It was exhilarating in the wind, surrounded by the sea with just a narrow strip of concrete leading to land and listening to the sandpipers conversational twittering echoing from the concrete supports below us.

A good day and now even the sun was shining as if in a blessing

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