Mid-way along the sinuous river Arun in Sussex there rises a hill, upon this hill is a small town and directly to the south of this town stretches an uninterrupted floodplain blocked only by the South Downs on its journey to the sea. It is to this floodplain that John and I journeyed one Sunday afternoon, it had rained miserably all morning but the clouds had eventually drifted apart to reveal some late-summer sunshine. Our drive took us along the famous Roman road of Stain Street that used to carry soldiers from Londinium to Noviomagus Reginorum (Chichester); it also took us through various topics of conversation including one about leather flying jackets that led John to make a quip about famous fictional airman Biggles (‘Biggles Flies Undone’). But moving on, when we arrived at the RSPB reserve the clouds were re-organising themselves into large and violent-looking bands of dark grey (although admittedly the great frothy columns and wispy tops of these towers-of-the-sky were quite majestic), which gave us cause to quicken our step towards the first hide.
At first glance the view from the hide was unexciting from a birding point of view although it did give a great view across to the Downs, but as (almost) always upon closer inspection the muddy field yielded a few good birds. Firstly there were young Swallows gliding above taller grass at the back – these would be feeding up on insects before they fly to Africa for the first time in their lives. As I scanned the muddy patch in the middle a few tinkling Goldfinches alighted on crests of dried mud, their velvet-red faces and lightning-yellow wing bars always a pleasure to see. Now John has a vital birding skill – he will always continue to scan the land for birds constantly, long after I have given it up as a bad job, today was no exception and sure enough he found a juvenile Wheatear prancing about on the turf, not as strikingly plumaged as an adult male but still a pretty bird and another one on the list of birds heading to that massive hot, diverse continent.
We headed on after waiting for a shower to pass that we had watched steadily and solemnly approach from across the Downs; the next hide faced northwards giving a view of Pulborough and on the fields between us and the town were gatherings of birds. These included a large flock of Canada Geese that proceeded to flap around and make ridiculously loud honks in what I presume was an attempt to be interesting. Directly in front of the hide was a long pool thickly overgrown with tufts of rushes and winding their way between the stems was a family of Moorhens, these ubiquitous birds have a smart look with dashes of white contrasting with their otherwise black plumage and a distinct blood-red forehead. There were three very small chicks that looked more like bits of fluff swept off the floor than birds, these were being tended by one of the adults whilst the other was very busy building (or re-building) a nest tucked in a neat tussock in the middle of the pool – the pair clearly intended to raise another brood before the summer was out.
The next hide was the most interesting and busy of the lot, it looked out over large shallow pools that covered the fields, and these had attracted a vast quantity of ducks and waders. The ducks were especially numerous and a tad difficult to identify as they were all either brown females or brown males in eclipse plumage (the eclipse phase is when the males moult out of their breeding finery into much subdued colours) but we picked out a couple of Shovelers – ducks with enormous spade-shaped bills – a few Mandarins, some tiny Teal and the rest were mallards. Amongst a bunch of Canada Geese was a solitary Barnacle Goose; a smallish and pretty goose that must have been an early migrant from the far north. The waders were more exciting with five sharply patterned Green Sandpipers dabbling in the mud, a single Black-tailed Godwit was feeding in one of the pools, which still had its orangey summer colours and must also have been an early traveller from more northerly climes. Huddled together on a patch of grass on the edge of a large puddle were three Snipe, for those not familiar with these birds they are small, cryptically coloured waders with long brown bills and a tendency to become invisible if you take your eyes off them for even a second (if you can find them in the first place). The best waders though were a family of five Black-winged Stilts that had bred earlier in the year on the coast of Sussex, this is something to cheer about because Stilts are spectacular birds that mostly inhabit the wetlands of Europe and have yet to colonise Britain – as such they are rare and special, being the first few of a potential range expansion. To describe these birds is not difficult as they are so ostentatious with solid black pointy wings, clear ivory-white body, needle-sharp red bill and the most outrageously long and thin legs on any European bird; they look like mimes stuck to the top of red chopsticks.
There was also a wader that is a real birders-bird; unknown to the public, tricky to identify without some experience and quite frankly rather dull to look at. So only a birder would appreciate it, especially as it comes all the way from North America (not by design, it gets lost over the Atlantic from time-to-time), it is called a Pectoral Sandpiper and was a first for me. However despite its rare and unpredictable status which admittedly does quicken the pulse slightly, it just wasn’t as interesting as the Stilts or even the dear little family of Moorhens. And that is what separates a birder and a twitcher – a genuine love of all bird life rather than a feverish list ticker (granted though that most birders including me do get some enjoyment from ticking lists – but that is I think a general human trait).