Saturday 10 April 2021

Little Bunting Compensation 9th April 2021

Mark(P) and myself made a plan last night to go to Sussex today and try to see the Mockingbird that had transferred overnight from Exmouth in Devon to Pulborough Brooks in West Sussex. I had seen the 'Mocker' in Exmouth (see pics below) but Mark had not come with me so it would have been a new bird for him.

Northern Mockingbird

Unfortunately when we checked Birdguides en route the next morning the Mockingbird (and how very appropriate was its name given the circumstances) could not be found at Pulborough and had obviously moved on to a destination unknown. Fortunately Mark is equivocal about twitching so was not overly concerned about missing this mega. We learned however that the long staying White throated Sparrow, after a considerable absence of being reported, had been seen again at Barcombe in East Sussex this very morning. Without further ado we headed for Barcombe, planning to catch up with the sparrow in the morning and then in the afternoon go and see a very obliging Little Bunting that was to be found at Warnham in West Sussex, where it had been since the 11th March. 

Inevitably it did not quite work out as we planned.

Arriving in Barcombe, after a pleasant drive through haunts familiar to me from when I lived in the area many years ago, we finally found a parking place in the cramped but picturesque village of Barcombe and made our way to the set of allotments and hedge where the sparrow had been seen earlier in the morning. About ten or so birders were standing around not doing much, a sure sign that the bird was not on view. Never mind, we could wait and see what, if anything transpired, but currently no one seemed to know what to do or where to look. Half an hour later a birder came up a slope from some other allotments further down  and in passing told us the sparrow was showing well, down near some blackthorn bushes beyond the allotments.

Cue a mass, barely controlled, exodus of birders to the allotments and bushes to find that the sparrow had just flown.There is nothing worse but we felt sure it would be seen again sooner rather than later. Oh how wrong can you be! We stood expectantly, trusting it would re-appear. I spotted Simon an old friend from my Sussex days who lives in Barcombe and he joined me and we caught up a bit as one always does. It was good to see him after all the years that have passed and memories of long sunny days and also many more cold bleak ones, on Seaford breakwater seawatching, came flooding back.Simon had seen the sparrow frequently over the past weeks and told us it would show eventually in the bushes but it didn't. An hour passed very slowly and the number of expectant birders increased as it always does when it becomes a waiting game.

Then the bird showed briefly at the bottom of the bank where a stream runs through a tangle of trees, bushes and fallen branches and we all rushed there but were a fraction too late and the transatlantic tormentor was gone. More milling around.The other Mark (R), who I go twitching with, arrived from his home in Bedfordshire and I appraised him of the not very optimistic situation. However both of us agreed we were grateful to be out on a very pleasant day of sunshine and warm weather. 

I enjoyed revisiting a favourite part of Sussex and standing in the pleasant sunshine. Sussex was a picture, as it always is at this time of year, with primroses in the hedgerows and on banksides, daffodils brightening many a garden and birds singing.

Another long period of doing and seeing nothing brought us to one thirty pm. I had reached my limit of endurance. we had been here since ten. For no particular reason I felt thoroughly out of sorts today but could not think why. All I knew was I had lost the will to persist and just wanted to move on. This was doubtless brought on by tiredness, as sleep does not come easily in these unsettling times. We left Mark(R) to it and after some welcome refreshment from the village stores headed for Warnham. On the way Mark(P) checked Birdguides to find the sparrow had showed itself fifteen minutes after we left. A sigh. A groan. I am old enough to be philosophical about such a thing, it has happened before and will again. That is birding. It  happens to everyone.We vowed to return next week to try our luck again.Somehow this made us feel less troubled about missing out.

A run up the A23 and then a short stretch west to near Horsham, brought us to the pleasant little local reserve that is Warnham Nature Reserve, owned by Horsham District Council and located. right by a busy road. We parked the car in a very full car park and made for the Bullfinch Hide, which thankfully was the first one on the track we followed. This was where the Little Bunting could be seen when it came in to feed .The hide is more a blind than a traditional hide as it hasn't a back wall and is open to the track but it screens you from the birds in front of it, allowing you to peer out at a small pond and then some mixed deciduous  trees and scrub with a couple of feeders hung from poles. The blind was fully occupied when we got there, and I recognised a number of birders from Barcombe who had also failed to see the sparrow in the morning. Thankfully it was still possible to see perfectly adequately through the viewing holes despite 'the crowd'.

Predictably there was no sign of the bunting but we had learned that it came in at intervals to feed and when it did could give close and exceptional views. Frankly I did not know what to expect but fellow birders told us it would eventually appear and with patience we would see it well.

Mark, only ever having seen one before, and then for milliseconds was naturally very keen for it to arrive but we had to wait a bit, and after a few false alarms with Reed Buntings being misidentified by one or two fellow birders, the Little Bunting duly put in a brief and distant appearance in some blackthorn blossom. Mark managed a photo and was happy with the result but I really wanted better. 

The Little Bunting promptly disappeared and we resumed our wait, encouraged by locals that it would come much closer. Twenty minutes later it re-appeared high in a tree but still distant and I could hear and see the bunting singing. Sadly I was the only one to see it before it again flew off. Again we were urged to be patient. We were told this is what it did all the time and on the next visit it would appear much closer and on the ground in front of the hide, if we were lucky. Fifteen more minutes passed with just a male Siskin to enliven matters and a couple of Bank Voles doing a 'now you see me, now you don't' routine close to the hide.

Then a small flicker of movement came in the bright green emerging leaves of the hazel just behind the pond. A small, streaked brown bird had landed in the lower branches. It then flew down to nibble the seed. 'That's it!' someone said. I looked and found myself watching a Reed Bunting. Initially disappointed I noticed that a smaller, superficially similar looking bird was a few feet behind. The Little Bunting! 

Distinctly smaller and slightly less boldly marked on its upperbody, the grey, brown and buff streaking merged perfectly with the dry, disturbed, cracked earth, pebbles and twigs it had landed on. 

Its underparts were white, boldly streaked black but the conclusive identification came by looking at its head pattern, where each side of its head was rich chestnut edged with black, encompassing a beady eye surrounded by a ring of pale buff and each side of its crown sported a black lateral stripe.

Coming as we are into the breeding season its plumage was richer and more pronounced than would be the case earlier in the year although it still had some waty to go before it was in its full breeding finery.It really was a treat to see and we were indeed lucky, as the bunting fed not more than ten feet from us, picking up seeds, rolling them in its beak to break the shell, while warily looking around. 

It gave the impression it was about to flee at any moment but in fact remained for at least ten minutes before flying up to perch in the hazel tree. It seemed about to descend once again but came into conflict with a Siskin, which chased it around the tree at high speed.The chase broke off and one bird settled back in the hazel and the other disappeared. I wanted it to be the Little Bunting in the hazel but of course it was the Siskin.

We had nonetheless done exceptionally well and on being told it would probably be another hour before the Little Bunting returned, went for a coffee at the cafe and then headed for home. The day had been a partial success but we have unfinished  business with the White throated Sprarrow, so watch this space. No promises mind!