Due to John suffering an unfortunate foot injury we hadn’t been able to get out birding together for quite some time, but on Thursday John was well enough to drive so with much enthusiasm we hit the road and headed into East Sussex. I am currently attempting to set a personal best record of no less than 200 bird species in this one year and with only four left to go I was hoping this trip would get me at least a few birds closer to my goal. With this in mind we arrived bright and early at Rye harbour nature reserve, about as far east that one can go in Sussex and one of the best birding spots in the county.
Not long after stepping out of the car a Peregrine shot low overhead towards the river, no doubt going to get his breakfast from the flocks of duck and plover on the reserve. In the first hide we looked out on a bitterly cold and exposed lagoon covered in large numbers of duck such as golden-headed Wigeon, colourful Shoveler, stately Pintail and unobtrusive Gadwall. Plovers also huddled on the islands and shorelines in the lagoon, most of them Lapwings but a group of Golden Plover flew in amongst them and we picked out a lone Grey Plover. A male Kestrel was perched on a fence overlooking the masses of duck, he was too small to tackle such prey but no doubt he was keeping a eye out for small rodents or meadow pipits on the grassy shingle.
At the far end of the lagoon I spotted two crows mobbing a large bird of prey, through my bins I could make out that it was a long-winged, long-tailed bird with light brown plumage – and a white rump! With that key feature clinched I knew it was a Hen Harrier, either a female or juvenile, and both John and I had good views as it swiftly glided with speed over the water, across the shingle and disappearing into the distance as it headed inland.
We moved on and stopped to have a look at the beach, as it was low-tide the sandy sea floor had been exposed and we spotted Ringed Plovers, Turnstones and Sanderlings scurrying like beetles across the strandline. At the next hide we searched in vain for the reported Black-necked grebe or the Scaup which had been seen recently. We did however see huge numbers of Wigeon and Gadwall and had ten Little Grebes very close to the hide sleeping and feeding – I always think these tiny birds look just like Russian fur hats or pouffe cushions as they bob about on the water. We also spotted a distant female Red-breasted Merganser which seemed quite grouchy as it was constantly jabbing at nearby ducks with its long bill.
Failing to see anything else of note we headed back towards the car but as we approached the river mouth John noticed a Grey Seal actually swimming in the river fairly close-to, as we were looking we noticed another two seals splashing about in the water close to the first one.
It was midday and we set off for our next destination – Norman’s Bay just outside of Bexhill further west along the coast. We were going there to try and see a very rare bird which had been present on the beach for at least a week already, it had come very far and I had given in to the temptation of seeing it. There was a biting southerly wind coming right off the sea as we trudged along the beach, we passed a martello tower and found an area of scrubby vegetated shingle at the back of the beach – as we were approaching it I saw a small bird flit up from the stones and perch on a plant stem.
It was the bird, it was a Desert Wheatear, a 1st winter male all the way from the middle-east and now trying to survive on a nondescript patch of English coast surrounded by bungalows and mobile homes. We had no idea why it was here but my goodness it was a pretty little thing, it sported a lovely sand-coloured plumage with dark wing-bars and eye mask and an all-black tail with a white rump. It didn’t stop for long though and we had a job just trying to keep up with it as it fluttered along the beach, perching on groynes and grass stems and rummaging in the shingle for insect prey I presume.
We also took the opportunity to scan the sea and managed to get really good views of a large raft of Common Scoter that were hanging about just offshore, although despite trying to spot a Velvet Scoter we drew a blank. The sun was falling ever closer to the horizon and with sunset due for 4pm we hurried on to our final birding destination.
West Rise Marsh is a fairly large area of reed, open water and grazing marsh right in the middle of Eastbourne and is well known as a good birding site in winter, there was also a Long-tailed Duck present on one of the lakes which we were hoping to see. As it happened I managed to spot the female Long-tailed duck within minutes of scanning the lake, it was diving very regularly and for long periods fairly close to where we were observing it, so for the full 3 seconds it was above water we had good views.
We then spent the last half-hour of daylight wandering quite aimlessly across the marshiest bits of the marsh in a desperate attempt to flush a Jack Snipe – a bird we have never seen and currently regard with near-mythical status. Alas although we did flush a Common Snipe its tiny cousin evaded us for the millionth time and we gave up and headed for home. I was quite happy with our excursion, having seen a lifer in the form of an exotic vagrant and a new one for the year with a usually difficult-to-see marine duck, so with my 2016 list now on 198 species I slept well that night.
(Illustration of Long-tailed Ducks by Archibald Thorburn)