About two-thirds of the way through the year I realised that I could actually be in with a chance of seeing 200 species of bird in Britain this year, being by that point around 160-ish. That would be a personal best for me and a highlight in my birding ‘career’ so ever since that rather late-in-the-day realisation I have been trying, sometimes desperately, to see birds which I have yet to catch up on in this 12-month period of time. Last Sunday morning I was on 198 species, so John and I set off that afternoon to try and see the last two.
We decided to go to West-Dean Woods, just north of Chichester on the southern slope of the Downs; it is a renowned site for Hawfinch and we had a reliable tip-off for a Little Owl roosting tree in the area as well. Getting there about 1pm we stopped first at the supposed Little Owl tree which was in fact an old Larch in the middle of a horse field right next to a farm. We ended up staring at the tree through our binoculars for quite a few minutes with absolutely no result – the tree was quite plainly empty of all bird life. However, we decided to try it from a different angle and so we walked around the road to view the other side of the tree – within no time at all John informed me that he could see the Owl.
I genuinely thought he was pulling my leg at first as all I could see was an empty tree, but after a few moments of giving me very specific directions to the exact branch that the owl was sitting on, I too spotted the Little Owl. It was motionless and very well hidden underneath a canopy of dead needles, it sat close to the trunk and happened to be almost the same colour as the bark, it was also a lot smaller than I had been anticipating. The little predator had chestnut-brown plumage covered in creamy specks and splodges, he also sported very prominent white eyebrows above each large black eye which made him look rather peeved.
We spent a few minutes having a good look at the owl (species 199), which by the way was only my second ever sighting of this species in my life, before heading up the road a short distance to the wood. Hawfinches are very rare and very difficult to see, they are gorgeous creatures though with huge, powerful bills capable of cracking open a cherry stone; John and I had actually been to West-dean woods before to see them a few years ago and been somewhat successful – in that we did see a Hawfinch but it was a rather distant silhouette.
So, we then spent the next couple of hours walking through the very dark, murky woodland with low grey-cloud overhead without seeing a single Hawfinch. We did see a couple of Marsh Tits, a Treecreeper, Goldcrests, a flock of Lesser Redpolls and a Kestrel but despite standing at a likely vantage point for quite some time (freezing in the process) we drew a very disappointing blank on our target bird. It was now getting steadily darker (and it wasn’t very light to begin with) as the afternoon crept on and we realised we had a choice of either staying here until dark in the vain hope of seeing a Hawfinch, or we head for plan B with the chance of not making it by nightfall.
We went with plan B, which in case you were wondering happened to be a flock of 13 European White-fronted Geese at Amberley wildbrooks – a twenty-minute drive over the downs – which may or may not have been there, and even if they were they may not have been visible in the gloom. It was our only hope – considering it would have been very difficult to get out birding again in what was left of the year – so we drove over to Amberley with eyes on the dimly-lit sky.
We managed to arrive at a viewpoint over the brooks with just enough light to see the fields below us, through my binoculars I could see just empty fields, then ‘hang-on’ as I spotted a large flock of Canada Geese. John set up the ‘scope and with nervous excitement I peered through it at the scarcely-lit flock of geese; after a few moments of scanning and checking for ID features I confidently called it – the white-fronted geese were there mixed in with the feral Canada geese and I had finally and with little time to spare seen my 200th species of bird for 2016. John and I then spent a few minutes enjoying the birds and counting all 13 of them before triumphantly heading to the local Indian restaurant for a slap-up meal!