The clouds lay thick in the sky like a heavy woolen blanket, having rained through the night they seemed content to just sit up there, unmoving – despite a freezing north wind attempting to shift them. John and I were at Pulborough Brooks rspb reserve, a favourite local site for us, and moments after stepping out of the car two graceful Swifts sliced through the air above us – the first of the year (apart from all those ones I saw in Spain at Easter!). Walking towards the visitor center we stopped to look at the always busy feeders that hang outside; several House sparrows and Greenfinches were there but I suspect most other birds had been scared off by the clumsy flapping doves and lumbering mallards gorging themselves.

As you step into the reserve from the visitor center there is a lovely view westwards; the hill gently recedes towards the wide, flat expanse of lush wet grassland that makes up the floodplain of the winding river Arun. To the left and south are the Downs; flanked with fresh-leaved woods but balding on the top into their distinctive close-cropped grassland, they stretch from the middle-distance to the far obscured horizon. To the right and north is a low line of wooded hills, sliced in half by the river, on one of them sits the small town of Pulborough contentedly dozing through the centuries in its rural idyll. The target bird of this trip was the ever-elusive Lesser Whitethroat, Pulborough has plenty of scrubby patches and hedgerows that are magnets for breeding warblers and not twenty meters out of the center we were greeted by the noise of irate alarm calls from a dense thicket. With binoculars up I glimpsed a female Blackcap, with another small bird shuffling around next to her that seemed to be the source of the calls. We waited for the bird to re-emerge from the opposite side of the thicket, it duly did and revealed itself to be a gloriously somber-coloured Lesser Whitethroat, the first one I have ever seen, such a shame that it disappeared again before John could find it.

The first hide overlooks a large shallow pool that in winter throngs with waders and ducks and at this time of year is host to breeding Lapwings and hordes of mallards. Swallows were skimming over the pool and the fields, Lapwings were twisting through the air uttering wheezing electrical noises and two pale, speckled Greenshank were trying to feed out of sight of the over-protective Lapwings – without much success. A lone buzzard made the mistake of trying to cross a far field covered in Lapwing, they immediately dive-bombed him relentlessly so that he was forced to fly inches above the ground as fast as he could. Upon exiting the hide we heard the short scratchy songs of Whitethroats close-by, a male was singing very close-to in a hawthorn in response to other males across the field.

On the North side of the reserve we stopped in several hides to check out the flooded fields and scrapes that were brimming with ducks and waders. Shelduck and Shoveler; two boldly marked and brightly coloured ducks were in small numbers, Teal and Wigeon were also dabbling in the shallows; mostly left-overs from winter but some will stay to breed. A treat was three summer-plumaged Dunlin; sporting distinctive black belly patches – an uncommon sight in southern Britain. A small group of Black-tailed Godwits with white lightening patches on their wings were preening, probing and pottering about amongst several smaller Green Sandpipers and a few Greenshank. A lone orange-legged Ruff was a nice spot as well as a Sedge Warbler gathering nest material in a bramble-patch not two meters from the front of the hide. John and I managed to see every hirundine species on this trip – plus the Swifts; a large swarm of fluttering Swallows above one of the pools concealed a few toffee-brown Sand Martins and a couple smart House Martins.

No regrets or disappointments on this trip; I saw a Lesser Whitethroat at long last, caught up on many spring migrants that had so far evaded my eye this year, as well as a few unexpected extras. There is one regret though – I forgot to bring a fork to eat my Spaghetti bolognese with, meaning that I was forced through hunger to attempt to consume it with nothing but my fingers – a messy and difficult business that I eventually gave up on and that I do not recommend anyone try.

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