Despite my intentions to make 2019 a year devoted to the study of trees, the first few weeks of the year have been dominated by something far more flighty… birds.
Although fascinated by all nature from the very beginning of my childhood, birds were my main interest (obsession) for many years. I would pour over the images in field guides, spend hours gazing out of schoolroom windows, and every year I’d start a fresh notebook for my lists (but rarely finish it). The latter, is a habit that has more or less continued into adult life. There is one list in particular that takes pride of place in my new notebook each January… The Famous Sussex Ornithological Society Bird Race!
Coordinated by the Sussex Ornithological Society (SOS) each year, Bird Race is a friendly competition between the county’s birdwatchers. Teams of two or more take part during the first two weeks in January, attempting to see the highest total species of wild bird in Sussex in 24 hours. The aim is to raise sponsorships/donations to aid the charity’s conservation work, but the status of being unofficially crowned ‘top of the leader board’ is a lure that few birders can resist. The event is naturally just for fun… but deadly serious!
This year, my team The Martletts, consisting of myself, and the four chaps Peter D, Peter P, Hugh and Gary, ventured forth on Friday 11th January. Several reports had already filtered in from around the county over the previous week and a bit, suggesting some fierce competition. The top scorers are well ahead on 107 bird species, seen on 6th January would, we knew, take some beating, but we are an optimistic bunch! Armed with the experiences of the past few years, a pre-race planning meeting (gossip with coffee and cake) and some reconnaissance trips carried out by a couple of the chaps, we set our sights on the magical 100. Entirely possible we thought, after all, the team achieved 101 in my absence in January 2018, so surely an extra pair of eyes and ears would only make the task easier!
We arrived at our rendezvous and starting point, the car park of the Black Rabbit pub in Arundel at 6.40am. Of course, this is January, so the dark night was still complete. Our birdwatching day would have to start out as a bird-listening day! Tawny owl hooting was the first species on our list. Arundel sits on a hillside that flows down to wetlands in the river valley base. Dark woodlands rise to the north of the road, cloaking steep chalk escarpments. These hangers over look a wet landscape of reedbeds, channels and fertile grazing meadows. A section of wetland is fenced off as a nature reserve, but luckily for us, wild birds don’t differentiate between the reeds on one side of the fence and the water on the other. We made our way carefully along a public footpath on a raised bank, by torchlight, to where we thought we would have a good viewpoint, and waited. A single star hung in the still dark sky, a commuter train trailed a caterpillar of lights across the horizon. Tawny owl continued to call. A distant bell tolled the hour, as definition seemed to build across the wetlands layer by layer. A water rail called, roe deer barked, teal whistled softly.
Arundel castle was visible as a dark crenellated block on the hillside, water began to lighten behind the reed banks. Half a dozen Bewick swans leaving their night time roost greeted the morning with soft calls. A gloomy drizzle had descended, obscuring the shadow the the distant hills. Far from ideal weather. After half an hour the rain cleared slightly, and as if in celebration a barn owl floated across the view. By now it was almost light, and the two or three marsh harriers decided it was time to get up, heading out from their roost in the nature reserve over the wider landscape. Flocks of gulls, the call of a kingfisher, indignant quacking of mallard duck, a confiding dunnock in tussocky grass on the path, we had a total of 30 species by 7.50am. Turning back for a final glance as we walked back along the path to the cars rewarded us with a fantastic view of a sparrowhawk in ambush mode, streaking over the reeds.
A short time later peregrine and kestrel added to our raptor count. Swanbourne lake offered up several duck species as expected, including tufted, gadwall and pochard. A mistle thrush made itself known as it guarded a treetop full of mistletoe. A great spotted woodpecker was full of the joys of spring, excavating a hole in a dead trunk.
There was no time to waste, this was Bird Race day after all! Before long we had negotiated the rush hour traffic and left the town behind, relocating to farmland in the downs above Burpham. A covey of grey partridge hunkered down in one field, where redwings made roving parties out from the hedge to feed. Another hedge hosted a flock of linnets briefly. A cold wind was blowing hard on ‘the Burgh’ but this didn’t seem to bother the birds of prey. Standing at the gateway at the triangle (local birders will know just where I mean) at the Burgh, gazing across the valley, the distant hill crest appeared to be the equivalent of airport approaches for raptors. Red kites and buzzards were stacked like aircraft, using the updraft from the hillsides for lift.
By lunch time, we have forsaken the downs for the coast, with the salt breeze and perfume of mud, and the calls of redshank. The sea is quiet, shifting mercury grey.
Our counting rate was slowing, with new species becoming harder to find. There were plenty we hadn’t seen, but tides and luck combined to make many seemingly absent.
Quantity may have been lower than desired, but quality remained high. Fishbourne creek near Apuldram Church was an oasis of calm, a spectacle of sparkling water and drifting masses of duck, the lapping of the wavelets of the sea wall punctuated by the whistle of wigeon and teal. Good views of several goldeneye duck here were a personal highlight of the day. Yellowhammer and Jay, but none of the hoped for jack snipe, greenshank, spotted redshank, or Cetti’s warbler
Our final location of the day was to be Pulborough Brooks RSPB reserve. We diverted via Drayton Lakes to look for the reported great white egret but to no avail. We were sitting firmly at 92 species.
The wetlands were bathed in that stunning light peculiar to a January afternoon. Wigeon marched in wildebeest-like herds, lapwing called. The beauty and serenity of the scene demanded we paused, and called on us to quieten, breath, contemplate the day as it drew to a glorious close. Suddenly, the axis of the view shifted, perspective was drawn tight, sky and shimmering water and sun-colours condensed to a pinpoint movement; kingfisher.
The bird alighted on a fence post just in front of Winpenny Hide, proceeding to treat us to an expert showcase of how to catch dragonfly larvae from the chilly water. Sheer delightful beauty. All frozen fingers and aching backs instantly forgotten. We departed from the hide shortly after the kingfisher did, and followed the nature trail, as light began to seep from the remains of the day. Fieldfare, stonechat, bullfinch and coal tit took us a little closer to that 100 species target; close but not quite there. It seemed that this year we would have to settle for a total in the high 90’s but we were determined to tick off just one more bird. That would require waiting until dark. Woodcock are a nocturnal wading bird, instantly recognisable thanks to their cryptic camouflage of every shade of brown, their rounded hunched body shape with sort wings, and a ridiculously long bill. Although present in the UK all year, an influx of birds from northern climes substantially boosts the population over winter months. Roosting in woodland and heathland during the day, using that camouflage expertly for its intended purpose, the birds head out over the trees onto the wet pastures to feed at night. One of the best places locally to see this evening flight happens to be the car park of Pulborough Brooks RSPB reserve. So in the gathering gloom we stood and waited, passing the time with chat about the various sightings and missed of the day. At last a perfect woodcock silhouette rocketed overhead and our day was complete. Final total 97 species.
As I have been writing this blog, birds have been flitting back and forth from the feeders in the garden a few meters from my back door. Great tits and blue tits, greenfinch (one of the species that didn’t put in an appearance on Bird Race day!) and a characterful robin are all taking advantage of the food I put out. They are the perfect distraction from the dark days of winter; topping up the feeders, watching their antics and noting the different species gets me through the greyest and coldest days of the year.
Next weekend (26-28th January 2019) is the biggest weekend in the national birdwatching calendar; I’ll be taking part and you can too! The Big Garden Birdwatch is the biggest garden wildlife survey in the world, and whether you pop out to your local park, get your school involved or join in from your sofa with a mug of tea in hand, you will be making a difference. Find out more on the RSPB’s website: https://www.rspb.org.uk/get-involved/activities/birdwatch/everything-you-need-to-know-about-big-garden-birdwatch/