Newhaven: a small town on the Sussex coast, at the mouth of the river Ouse, known for being a port as well as its 156 year-old fort, has a few industrial estates, including a waste incineration plant. John and I went birding in this unlikely looking place on Sunday, the weather was pretty unlikely too with 40mph winds roaring in off the foaming sea. We arrived at an area of manky-looking wasteland called Tide Mills, this is actually a derelict village abandoned in 1939 which was centered around the eponymous tide-mill, the remnants of which are only some crumbling walls and the old mill pond. The whole area has now largely been reclaimed by nature and dog poo, with the mix of farmland, scrub, grassland, open water and shingle making this an unexpected wildlife haven.
What with the wind and large numbers of dog walkers and crazy surfers milling around the birds were in short supply, not that we didn’t see anything. A solitary Redshank was on the shore of the mill pond piping away, a bouncing flock of 10 Greenfinch alighted on a bramble patch (a sadly irregular sight these days) and four Curlew powered bravely out to sea, heading right into the wind. This sort of rough, stoney, scrubby land is exactly the sort of place you would expect to see Stonechats; and see them we did. A male and a female sat, as every Stonechat ever is, on top of twigs despite the wind – the male was fresh and bright in his spring colours with a bold white collar and ruddy breast.
We had two target species for the day; the first was Purple Sandpiper and we now turned onto the pier in search of it. This is not a bird that you will just casually bump into whilst walking around a reserve; it can only be seen in winter on rocky coasts, but to be sure of seeing one you really have to go very specifically to a pier or breakwater. Purple Sandpipers really do love man-made structures such as these, they poke about on the great lumps of concrete which break up the waves, searching among the barnacles and mussels for morsels of food. These dumpy, short-billed sandpipers really are a dull shade of purple all over; they also have orange at the base of their bill and orange legs. We managed to see two of these coastal specialties looking rather unhappy about the frankly ridiculous wind as they waddled along the mussel-encrusted struts with a couple of more cheerful-looking Turnstones (these bright little things always look upbeat).
It was now time to search for the main draw of this trip; the one and only Black Redstart Phoenicurus ochruros, sooty cousin of the woodland-dwelling Common Redstart. Newhaven is known for hosting one or two of these attractive birds throughout the year (they are suspected to breed) and a male had recently been reported from the area – both John and I were desperate to see one (for my UK list!). The favoured place of this little passerine was the edge of an industrial estate (they’re keen on urbanity) so we scanned the area until my eyes felt like mush but without even a hint of its little red tail.
John thought that a fenced-in area of muddy, rutted, rubbish-strewn land looked promising but we decided to move on for the moment. A little later we came back the same way and resolutely decided not to leave until we’d seen a Black Redstart. After a few minutes I was full of doom and failure proclaiming that we were never going to see one – at which point John quietly stated that he could see it. I thought he was joking so I ignored him, until I noticed he was looking at a small bird hopping around on that bit of awful waste-ground John had thought so promising earlier.
With my bins firmly clamped to my eye-sockets I could plainly see the robin-like perky body, the glowing orange tail and vent, the coal-dust grey plumage, the pitch-black face and the flashing-white wing patches that together made up a splendid male Black Redstart. The bird fluttered and hopped around the water-logged ground, occasionally poking at things or perching on bits of old brick – it was glorious.
We left Newhaven very satisfied at having seen both Purple Sandpiper and Black Redstart, along with a nice supporting cast of Green woodpecker, Snipe, Teal, Linnet, Kestrels, Oystercatcher and 2 Water Rail squeals (not seen though). All the birds today had been closely associated with man-made structures; the pier, the derelict village, the industrial estate and even an area of reed-bed that had been planted a decade ago to compensate for a construction project. It just shows natures adaptability, how it can make the best of our seemingly destructive actions and colonise even the least-wild of places – in fact I’m not sure ‘The Wild’ is even a separate place; everywhere has some wild in it, despite our best attempts.