So it is a bit of a tradition for John and I to go out birding on New Year’s day, partly because it gives us an entire day out for once, but also to get our year off to a great start. This year, for the first time, we decided to join in with the Sussex Ornithological Society’s annual bird race; this takes place in the first 2 weeks of the year and essentially involves teams heading out to see/hear as many species as they can in 24 hours whilst raising sponsorship money which goes to the SOS to use for bird conservation in the county.
We had to make the most of the scant daylight available so we set off about 45 minutes before sunrise, our first species of the new year already audible as Robins and Blackbirds warbled their flute-like notes in the dark. We arrived at our first stop of the day – Pulborough Brooks – at sunrise and spent a good two and a half hours there in which we managed to see 50 species, a pretty good start. Doing a bird race like this makes you really pay attention to the commoner species as every one counts towards your final score – it’s not often I get excited about seeing a feral pigeon!
The highlights at Pulborough included a Peregrine that flew low over the south brooks before perching in a distant tree – no doubt thinking about breakfast as it looked over the fields full of Wigeon and Teal. We also saw masses of Bullfinch all over the reserve, one of my absolute favourite birds, their presence was often revealed by their distinct mournful whistling call or the flash of their retreating white rump. It was also nice to see all the thrush species in one field (bar the Ring Ouzel obviously), especially as it included the only Mistle Thrush we saw all day. We also had a really close view of a Treecreeper as it shuffled up a birch tree in front of us, then later in the car park as we were leaving we managed to hear the distinctive call of a Nuthatch.
We then headed over the river Arun and south to Waltham Brooks, a Sussex Wildlife Trust reserve, with the intent of seeing a long-staying Great Grey Shrike. Alas, despite having a good walk around we found no shrike, but it wasn’t a wasted trip as we added another 4 species to the list, including a Snipe that flew up and the rather incredible sight of 30+ Chiffchaffs (the only ones of the day) swarming around the sewage works there.
Heading further south we made a flying visit to a viewpoint at Amberley which overlooks the wildbrooks there; we easily found the 13 White-fronted Geese on the fields below which have been present over a month and also spotted a very uncomfortable-looking pair of mating foxes standing motionless and locked together in the middle of the field with a flock of crows staring at them. Hilarious.
John and I then drove up onto the south downs just above the village of Burpham to walk around a well-known area of farmland that is very good for raptors and farmland birds of all sorts. From up here we could look down on the valley of the Arun and with the aid of John’s ‘scope managed to locate and identify a group of 5 Bewick’s Swans feeding in a distant field. Our circular walk was well worth it as we added no less than 8 species to the list including an incongruous Grey Wagtail on a manure heap, a Red Kite, some Reed Buntings in a hedge, Skylarks, a field containing around a thousand Common Gulls and a splendid covey of Grey Partridge which we heard calling just before they flew up over the hedge and landed in some long grass – nearly missed them!
Yet another quick stop was at Swanbourne lake in Arundel; a reliable spot for Mandarin duck and Pochards. The lake actually yielded plenty of Gadwall and Tufted Duck as well as a single male Mandarin which took a bit of finding, but we found zero Pochard – much to our chagrin. Then on our way to Pagham Harbour we made a short visit to Ivy Lake outside of Chichester, there was supposed to be a long-staying Scaup and a Long-tailed duck here and indeed we quickly spotted the Long-tail which was a very smart looking male – as well as a good flock of Pochard – huzzah! But despite a good bit of scanning we failed to locate the Scaup and had to hurry on to Pagham.
The weather was getting wetter (there had been on-and-off showers all day) with a rather nasty torrential downpour as we walked out onto the north wall at Pagham harbour. Yet we didn’t give in and managed to bag another bunch of species which included a Brent Goose, a very miserable-looking Grey Plover, the ever-present Redshanks and a flock of Golden Plover which scurried high over the harbour, little more than grey silhouettes against a grey sky. As a side-note we also spotted a Snipe which we spent a good few minutes scratching our heads over; it possessed features which suggested it may have been our old nemesis the Jack Snipe, but what with light being noticeable by its near-absence, the steady rain and the ‘scope fogging up we failed to clinch the ID before it slunk off into the reeds.
A rapid visit to Sidlesham Ferry pool on our way to Church Norton gave us a pair of Stonechats in a bramble bush and a distant Little Grebe that frustratingly vanished for what felt like ages before finally re-appearing so that John could see it. It was now getting proper dark as the sun had actually set (not that you could tell due to the clouds) so as we walked out onto the shingle at Church Norton we were really straining our eyes to see the birds out on the harbour.
All the same, we managed to make out the black and white forms of Oystercatchers standing among a very large flock of tiny scurrying Dunlin – among which were a few larger Knot probing the mud. In a last minute attempt to see a few more species we scrunched our way over the shingle beach to see if we could make out anything on the sea itself. Without getting into too much detail the sea was empty, apart from a group of Great-crested grebes- a species we had already seen that day, which meant that our final species of the bird race were the little Turnstones that we could just see on the shingle below us.
Having counted up the birds I had ticked off throughout the day we were very pleased to have seen no-less than 83 different species – a personal best for us, even beating an attempt we had made in April. I don’t expect we will win the race with our tally but hopefully we won’t be last either.