Rye Harbour Nature Reserve is one of the best birding sites in all Sussex; a generous mix of vegetated shingle, saline lagoons, reedbed, shrub, rough pasture, freshwater lakes and a wee bit of saltmarsh. This variety of sensitively managed habitat attracts scores of birds in both number and diversity at all times of year, John and I visited only last October (read here) and had a day list of 60 species. It was very nice to see the reserve at quite a different time of year, a much warmer time too! Rye may be good in winter for waders and wildfowl, however the cacophony of exuberant life on show in spring trumps all else for me – the final figure of 70 species on this trip helps my point!
The weather was most intriguing last Saturday, it was very warm but the sky was clouded over with altostratus, altocumulus and the like, there was a gentle south-easterly coming in off the sea which was warm too and every horizon was hazy and grey. This haze produced a peculiar effect on the sea (which was, unusually, flat as a pane of glass with barely a ripple) by blurring the distant boundary with it and the atmosphere; the sky was grey, the sea was reflecting the grey, both were flat and so merged imperceptibly into each other – this made the boats on the sea look quite odd.
As it was rather a long day (about 6 and a half hours) and there is no way I can hold anyone’s attention over all 70 species, especially if I go through every step of the walk, I am simply going to go through the best species of the day, in chronological order of course.
Avocet – I counted 55 individuals of this stunning wader (the Audrey Hepburn of birds), many of which were nesting on the shingle islands in the lagoon visible from the first hide. The numbers were impressive, in Sussex I only usually see groups of maximum 10-15 at other sites. The nesting Avocets were taking advantage of the aggressive Terns and gulls nesting on the same islands for protection against predators – mostly in the form of both black-backed gulls.
Ringed Plover – The first I had seen all year, this is a very prettily-marked bird that is always fun to watch as they scurry around, ‘peeeping’ all the time, raising their wings as a signal to other plovers and somehow vanishing from sight when they freeze among the pebbles. At first we saw only one, which was exciting, then another, then another, then a pair, then through the ‘scope I counted a flock of 43 chilling out on a muddy patch of the lagoon! This group was likely to be migrating birds heading further north, separate from the others that were obviously nesting at Rye.
Wheatear – the first ‘white-arse’ of the year is always thrilling, John had spotted a pair on a grassy patch out of the first hide – the female was preening in a relaxed fashion whilst the male frolicked about on the turf seeming to feed but jumping about and flicking his tail all the time – he later had a scrap with another male so hormones must have been running high.
Little Tern – This is one of only three breeding locations in the county for this ever charming and attractive tern. I counted 18 but I’m sure there were more as there was a constant traffic of terns from the sea to the reserve and back again. These terns were quite a treat for me as I have only seen a handful before, they made quite a screechy racket as they flew around, bouncing along on thin swift-like wings that seemed too long for their tiny bodies.
Common and Sandwich Terns – There was a large colony of both species spread across various lagoon islands, they clustered together, separated into species with great clumps of the large Sandwich terns nesting inches from each other with their crests erect and beaks pointed tot he sky. I managed to count 114 Common Terns (there were too many Sandwich to count) some of which were on islands very close to one of the hides so excellent views were had of this delicate bird as they sat tight on nests or gracefully flew in with beaks full of shining fish.
Mediterranean Gulls – The terns shared their nesting islands with hordes of Black-headed Gulls (many with fluffy brown chicks) and hiding amongst all the brown hoods of the common species were heads of real jet-black, like nuggets of gold in a sieve full of silt. The black heads had blood-red beaks attached and below a bright white body with still redder legs underneath; there were only 18 of these scarcer Med gulls but in breeding plumage they are a delight to behold.
Marsh Harrier – Cruising artfully over the reedbeds at Castle Water was a pair of these long-winged predators; the male showing off his distinctive grey, black and ruddy-brown plumage and the female looking menacing in deep-dark brown with flecks of gold on the arms and head.
Reed & Sedge Warbler – Usually quite tricky to see, though easy enough to hear their charismatic songs that are so evocative of hot summer days in a dense reedbed, yet John and I managed great views of both species. The sedges were singing all over the place but we only saw one that decided to serenade us from the top of a dense bramble-patch not more than a few metres away. The Reed showed well from the hide at Castle Water, performing acrobatics as he balanced his tiny body between the reed stems in a patch just in front of the hide.
Cuckoo – Not actually the last bird of the day, we saw one briefly earlier, however the best view was as we were heading back to the car as the sun burnt close to the far-off hills. We had managed to locate the same individual earlier in a distant willow tree as he belted out his famous two-note tune; we could just see it through the ‘scope, swaying his long tail around and fluttering from branch to branch. But later John saw him as he flew right in front of us and landed in a small willow not far from the path. He repeated his phrase on and off as he blustered around in the tree, showing very poor balancing skills as he hopped around the branches, losing his footing on several occasions. We were transfixed by this near-mythical bird, we could not have asked for a better view, we could see every detail of his plumage – the white spots under the tail, the barring on his breast and the yellow eye-ring. He eventually flew off south, with shallow wing-beats back to the tree we had seen him in earlier. I doubt I will forget this encounter – a bird that has become a symbol, a legend, an indelible piece of our culture and more recently a warning of the consequences of our actions as the Cuckoo begins to fade from this world.