July and August may be great for entomologists and botanists, but for birders these two months of high summer are an intolerable drag (fortunately I love all wildlife so can diversify in this period). The reasons for this are that many birds go through a post-breeding moult, so stay hidden during this period to avoid being eaten, some birds are still raising young so will also be secretive, vegetation is at its thickest so seeing birds is a tricky business and there is also very little migration in or out of the country (there is some, but more on that later).
However, just because we are in the summer dip doesn’t mean a birder can’t enjoy him (or her) selves; so John and I once more set out on a muggy Sunday afternoon to Pulborough Brooks RSPB reserve. We chose PB due to it having quite a diversity of habitats, including wetland, which means there was a better chance of seeing something good there than in other nearby places. The wetland is especially important as it will, even at this time of year, attract waterbird species such as waders and duck.
Setting out on a birding trip in July does have a different feel to trips at other times of year; there is a much lowered expectation, which is not a bad thing by any means. In July you know that seeing even a Blackcap is pretty good going, this really makes you pay attention to every bird you see and take a lot more joy in the common species than you might do normally.
Life is at such a high-point in summer; the flowers are either setting seed or fruit – revealing their productivity – or massing in great heady gluts of colour and scent in the hedges and fields. Insects too are very much in evidence (less so this year thanks to the rain) with butterflies and dragonflies being particular focal points for the nature-watcher. Food is plentiful, the air is warm, young are safely raised, there is plenty of safe cover and for a short period nature can revel in its own success and life. We humans feel this too, in a way, so one is perfectly happy to wander around the countryside and see very little in terms of birds, it just feels good to be outside, in nature.
The weather was most interesting; the air was heavy, warm and with only a little breeze, yet the sky was a broiling mass of swirling, bubbling dark-grey stratocumulus – threatening rain that never came. Two of our most delightful common birds were singing heartily as we walked along the path from the visitor center; Goldfinch and Greenfinch, two closely related but very different species. One twittered with golden notes that tinkled like pearls in a jar, the other wheezing and clattering its mechanical melody with commendable confidence.
The first hide is usually good for birds, and even when quiet it is nice to just sit and enjoy the vista across the floodplain to the wooded slopes of the South Downs. The shallow pool in front of the hide was mostly commanded by a flock of boisterous Black-Headed Gulls; they fought each other, or bathed, or searched for worms, or slept or flapped around screaming for no reason. Trying to get some sleep in one corner were four or five Lapwing who all stood on one leg completely motionless the whole time we were there. A lone female Mandarin, looking rather out of place, waddled around on the shore while groups of khaki-coloured young Starlings fluttered overhead.
The highlight was when we spotted five small plovers on the far shore; once we had looked through John’s scope it was clear they were juveniles of one of the two ringed plover species. After checking the key features in the bird guide it was clear they were actually Little-ringed Plovers, the scarcer species and a bird I had not seen all year – or indeed for a long time. Result!
The last hide on the trail was also productive, it overlooks the north brooks which at the moment are mostly dry and grown over but still with some water-filled ditches and flooded muddy patches. On an area of crusty churned mud sat a large flock of Lapwing, mostly sleeping, next to this mud patch was a pool of water on which two brown Teal (eclipse or females) dabbled lethargically. Elsewhere a scruffy Chiffchaff foraged in a willow bush, a moorhen called from within dense irises and two Buzzards hung in the moisture-laden air.
Then I spotted a small dark wader prodding about on the edge of the pool, seemingly having appeared from nowhere. Its small size, dark greeny-black wings and mantle, straight bill and clean edges to the white belly gave it away as a Green Sandpiper – my first of the year and one species that is actually moving any distance at this time of year. For one thing that the summer dip is good for is early returning waders from their breeding grounds in the far north. It may be more of a trickle than the river which moves in the autumn but among these early birds can often be found something scarce or even rare and even the ‘common’ species liven up the otherwise static birding scene in Britain during the summer.
Then Panic with a capital ‘P’. All the Lapwings rose up in a chorus of alarm calls, the Teal vanished and the sandpipers scarpered; as the flock shot up into the sky like a cat whose tail had been trodden on John and I searched for the cause of the disruption. Then there it was; on switched-back wings blasting low over the fields and under the Lapwing, a figure of brute force, power personified, speed encapsulated – a Peregrine. It was a juvenile so it had less chance of catching a bird than an adult, yet all the same an impressive sight – its bulk alone the only identification feature you need. It landed briefly on the mud then sauntered back across the fields and up into a tall poplar which is a favoured perch of these feathered stealth bombers.
So don’t let the lack of birdsong (and visible birds for that matter) put you off going in search of them – summer is a time to just enjoy the vitality and vigor of nature and special, even rare, encounters are just as likely as at any other time of year.