In birding you can only anticipate the birds you are going to see so much – for example if you go birding in a woodland you have a good idea of the range of species you will see there. You may not see ALL of those species and you may see ones you didn’t predict, but broadly speaking you know what to expect and what not to expect from a certain habitat. Other than that bird-watching is totally unpredictable. Last Sunday John and I went out with a few target species in mind (well, four) and we ended the day having seen none of them. BUT, we did see other good species instead, which is what makes birding such an interesting hobby (he said through gritted teeth).
We arrived at Cuckmere Haven with the hope that we might see a Glaucous Gull which has been mixed in with the large gull-roost in the valley for a few weeks. We also held hopes for a solitary Twite (a small brown finch, rare in Sussex) that had been seen there the last few days. As we approached the spot that the Twite had previously been seen at, we saw a couple of Rock Pipits and a Skylark feeding on a patch of salt-marsh adjacent to the path. Also on the marsh was a wader that I called as a Whimbrel but John argued was a Curlew, it was a scruffy a-typical specimen so the ID was not clear-cut; to me it had the structure, head-shape and head pattern of a Whimbrel. John claimed its bill was the wrong shape and its head markings weren’t clear enough to be that species. I gave in to John’s opinion eventually, only for other birders to later confirm its identification online as a Whimbrel. Make of that what you will.
We then walked further down the valley to take a look at the huge gull-roost through John’s brand-new telescope, which is a cute little thing that has a good image for its size. The flock was largely made up of Great Black-backed Gulls, with accompanying Common, Black-headed, Lesser Black-backed and Herring gulls of various ages. But not a sniff of a white-winger. To make up for it though there was a very obliging group of 21 White-fronted Geese not far from the gulls, these are rather nice, and rather scarce, geese which I have only seen a handful of times before so it was good to get a decent view.
As we walked further down the valley I scanned the GCSE school-trip staple that is the meanders (basically a very long pond) and spotted a pale bird sitting low on the water with its head under the surface. I had an idea what it was which was confirmed when it reared back its smooth head, revealing a dagger-like bill tilted slightly upwards – it was a Red-throated Diver. John and I had seen a load of these last year on Shetland in their breeding plumage (gorgeous) but we’d never seen one in Sussex before, plus to get a close view of one on the water rather than a fast-moving shape out to sea was brilliant. We watched it for a while before moving on – however a few minutes later the Diver flapped past us down the valley and out to sea – proving that we could easily have missed it completely.
It was extraordinarily muddy on the path, the right word would be ‘claggy’ as it clumped onto the bottom of our wellies like chewing-gum, making them twice as heavy. We met a couple of other birders who said the Twite had been seen that morning but had sodded off over the river never to be seen again. It didn’t look promising so after taking a look at some passing Ravens, a flock of Lapwings and masses of Wigeon feeding on the floodplain, we headed back to the car. It was only a little brown bird anyway, I mean, who would get disappointed about not seeing a tiny smudgy brown thing like that? Not me, that’s for sure.
We then made the short drive over to Eastbourne to take a walk around West-rise Marsh in the hope of seeing some Water Pipits and maybe, just maybe, a Jack Snipe. I’ll make this brief as it is a painful memory. So, we then spent around an hour trudging across water-logged fields, during which we almost became permanent features of the marsh when we walked across a patch of dredged silt that LOOKED solid and firm. It was actually a quick-mud zone of death (see header image). We had to spend around quarter of an hour struggling like Mammoths in a tar-pit to free our wellingtons from the very thick and incredibly sticky mud before the Neanderthals came and speared us to death. We got out, very tired and very relieved that no-one had seen us.
Suffice to say, despite other birders having seen Jack Snipe at this location in the past week, we saw absolute zilch. The best we got was 3 Common Snipe and a passing Kingfisher (which John missed) for our troubles (which were great). No Water Pipits either, just a large flock of mocking Meadow Pipits. To cheer us up a bit though we did get some good views of the long-staying Long-tailed Duck on the lake, which is the second time we’ve seen this bird, but still nice all the same.
So now I give up, Jack Snipe are a made-up species invented by other birders to keep us busy while they see all the good stuff. John’s never seen one, I’ve never seen one, not for lack of trying either and after yet another field-trudging session resulting in nothing, I am giving up on trying to see this bird. There’s more to birding than Jack Snipe after all.