On Sunday last, John and I headed down to Newhaven Tide-mills on the east coast of Sussex; despite it not being a nature reserve it is a decent bit of scrubby, reedy, rough land with a creek and some ruins thrown in. It’s a pretty good site for birds and has a knack of attracting some pretty rare ones every now and again. One of the purposes of this trip was to have a jolly good crack at trying to see a Jack Snipe – a bird which has eluded us again and again and is now near-mythical in our eyes – as it was purportedly a good area for them in winter. Oh, and there was a Serin there too, not that that had anything to do with it.

So, a Serin is a small type of finch with streaky brown and white plumage and the males have a lovely bright yellow blush over their breast and head. They are quite common just over the channel with a range across much of western Europe, however they only occur in Britain irregularly on passage, although occasionally some may breed in the south. I have seen some of these diminutive finches on holiday in Spain as they are quite common in the pine forests there, I’ve never seen one in Britain though so I was quite excited as we approached the area of rotting brick ruins where it has been hanging out for around a month.

There were quite a few other birders and twitchers waiting on the path with scopes and camera lenses trained on the waste ground to the left, we joined the party and learned it had been seen earlier but was currently hiding somewhere. Fortunately it wasn’t too long a wait for it to re-emerge, someone spotted it feeding in a tangle of vegetation and we managed to get really good views as it fed on tiny seeds in the bright winter sunlight. It was a really smart male with a vibrant citrus-yellow streak which curved behind its eye and down its neck where it spread out onto its breast. After getting some good views the bird vanished again into the thick plants so we headed off.

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Despite the yellow it blended well into the dead seed heads.

As we walked along the beach towards the pier many Stonechats were flitting along the pebbles and perching boldly in the sun in the scrub just behind the shingle. We also saw loads of Song Thrushes bobbing about on the turf, perhaps some (or all?) of these were continental birds, we also came across a lovely flock of Greenfinch perched in a bush. When we got to the pier it was low tide and we walked along the length of it checking the mussel-encrusted girders beneath us for Purple Sandpipers, a specialist wader that is often seen on piers, but to no avail. We did have compensation though in several very confiding Turnstones which scurried within inches of our feet and a lone Guillemot at the harbour entrance.

Now we turned our attention to finding a Jack Snipe, so we located a suitable field that had long vegetation and wet bits and walked the length and breadth of it in the hope of putting up one of these twincy waders. There were plenty of Common Snipe (maybe 30 or more) in the field and we checked each one that flew up – they always fly quite early and with a zig-zagging flight and they usually go quite far away before settling again. We also saw a good number of Meadow Pipits and Skylarks, as well as a Reed Bunting and a Stonechat, the field was frozen solid with ice everywhere so I wonder what the snipe were feeding on.

In the end though we saw no Jack Snipe, yet again, despite trying our hardest in what looked a very suitable field, so it looks like we might have to wait for next autumn to get another crack at the darned bird. On the bright side there was a beautiful sunset, and we saw a covey of Red-legged Partridge in a ploughed field and 4 Curlew flew overhead as the sun dipped below Newhaven fort. A great day’s birding in perfect winter weather with a gorgeous first for Britain (for me anyway) in the form of a Serin and once again I was struck by how much bird-life there was around us in such an industrial area and on land that most would see as little more than waste.

(The header photo is of John desperately hunting for a Jack Snipe in a ditch).

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