For a good few years now, John and I have gone out birding on new-year’s day – it has become a bit of a tradition, but this year was a tad different. We had decided to try for a ‘big-day’; which in birding terms means trying to see as many species as possible in 24 hours. We had previously done this last April and managed a respectable 74 species; we were interested to see if we could match that score in the depths of winter. The rules were slightly different than usual because we allowed ourselves to count species that we had identified by song or call alone.
We headed off in the dark of morning; half an hour before dawn – we had already heard Robins singing; our first species of the day. Our first stop was Warnham local nature reserve as there were bird feeders and a mill pond there; we were hoping to pick up some common species that we might miss later on (such as Coal tit or Greenfinch). Because the reserve was not officially open so early we had to enter via a footpath that ran along side it. The weather was not ideal as it was cold and overcast – birds are much quieter and skulking on dull days and consequently the feeders were bare of birds. We did manage to see 17 species but apart from a Common Gull we did not see anything that we did not catch up on later.
The next location was Pulborough Brooks rspb reserve, which despite walking around it quickly got us some very good species to add to our list. A female Bullfinch, many Pintail, a Ruff, a single Snipe, Fieldfare and a Treecreeper were all highlights that we did not see elsewhere – by now our list was at 45 – and all before noon. We then made our way down past Arundel to a small village called Burpham that was nestled in the South Downs just above the Arun valley. We were hoping to bag a few farmland species and the report of a flock of Bewick’s Swans in the valley sweetened the prospect. The flock of 32 pure-white swans stood out from the wet green fields below us and although distant we could make out the yellow patch upon their bills that identified them – this was a new species for me and one that I had wanted to see for some time. We then walked up onto the Downs which were doing a very convincing act of being windswept and bleak – this less than savoury weather unfortunately kept the birds in the bushes and we failed to see the species we had hoped for. But we did not leave empty handed for we did see three magnificent and huge Red Kites swooping above the fields, also the sight of some Mistle Thrushes (an unpredictable bird) and Stock Doves brought our list up further.
At this point we were content, yet a slight unease was felt in the ranks because we were yet to see a Greenfinch (which had eluded us on our previous big-day) or even a Great-crested Grebe; John admitted that if we failed to see these common birds then we might as well hand in our binoculars to the B.T.O. (British Trust for Ornithology). Hopes were high though for our next stop – Pagham Harbour and despite the strong winds we did get another 15 species – in the north of this large reserve we saw Curlew, Little Grebe, Little Egret, and the multitudinous Redshank. Opposite the visitor center we finally saw a Tufted Duck as well as a Brent goose and some Gadwall, but missed out on a Spotted Redshank that had been seen only a few minutes before we got there but had just flown off! On the southern end of the reserve we thankfully saw a few Greenfinches as well as a marvelous Whimbrel, Grey Plovers and a solitary Sanderling scurrying along the beach.
Our list was now at 67 and we really wanted to make it to seventy – so in a last ditch attempt to see a few more species (and also see a Great-Crested Grebe so that we wouldn’t have to resign from birding) we drove to northwards. We first stopped very briefly at Chichester gravel pits in the hope of anything, and praise the Lord we saw some Great-crested Grebes floating innocently upon the water. It was now getting rather dark and we were getting rather worried; we went back to Arundel and came to our last location – Swanbourne lake, which I had heard was home to some Mandarin ducks. We anxiously scanned the water in the gloom of half-past three, to our delight there were some Pochards asleep on the water and after another scan we located a couple of Mandarins tucked under some overhanging branches. Before we left I heard some high-pitched calls in the bushes next to the lake – after frantically dashing through a bush and straining my ears till they ached John and I glimpsed a small flock of Long-tailed Tits – our final species of the day – rounding our list off at 71. It was about time we went back home and had a nice cup of tea!