So here we go again! It’s 07:50 on the morning of the 1st of January 2018 and John and I are standing at Selsey bill in West Sussex trying to spot our first birds of the day out on the rolling waves of the channel. The weather is already looking bad as we are buffeted by a gale and the first flecks of rain hit the lenses of our telescopes. We’re here, rather than tucked up in bed, because we are taking part in the Sussex Ornithological Society’s annual New Year bird race, which takes place during the first two weeks of January. The aim is to see as many different species of wild bird in Sussex as possible during a single day (limited to about eight hours of light this time of year) and we had chosen, as last year, to run our race on New Year’s Day. Even though the weather was pants, again.
We haven’t previously been very successful with seeing sea-birds on bird races, hence why we decided to start at Selsey. It was a good move overall as, with some pointers from other sea-watchers who were present, we added good birds to our list that we saw nowhere else; including Red-throated Diver, Common Scoter, Shag, Guillemot, Gannet and Mediterranean Gull. We were on a tight schedule and I only allowed half an hour here, so we then jumped in the car and dashed off to nearby Church Norton – an area of Pagham harbour that overlooks the mudflats and the sea.
There was a brief lull in the rain whilst we were here, although a flash of not-very-distant lightning was slightly troubling as we were standing in the open with metal tripods next to us. It was quite a successful stop and we left with our list at 36 species, including some great birds we didn’t see elsewhere such as Red-breasted Merganser, Whimbrel, Bar-tailed Godwit, Turnstone and Grey Plover. As we left the rain had gotten into its stride again and from this point on it didn’t stop for even a minute until about 2pm.
Heading inland, we made a flying visit to the RSPB visitor centre at the ferry pool, where we saw a handful of common species on the feeders there and also managed to see a wonderful flock of Golden Plover passing overhead – a species that can be tricky to catch up with, and indeed we saw none anywhere else. We then rushed through the country lanes to get around to the east side of Pagham harbour where we stopped for half an hour at the north wall.
The tide was right up against the sea wall by this point, meaning that there wasn’t much out in the harbour that was very close and a lot of the birds had retreated to feed in the flooded fields to the north. One of these flooded fields was quite literally heaving with birds; mostly Canada Geese and Black-tailed Godwits but we also saw some Gadwall, Snipe and John managed to spot two Spotted Redshank – a brilliant bird to get on the race list. A few Reed Buntings also flew onto the top of some bushes nearby and although I thought I heard a Cetti’s Warbler briefly sing from some bushes, John didn’t hear it and we had to leave it off. Our list was up to 56 species by this point.
A quick stop outside Chichester at a place called Ivy Lake was a waste of time as the lake was empty of our target bird – Pochard, and there was nothing else of note either beside a pair of Great-crested Grebe that were displaying with bundles of weed in their bills. Fortunately, I spotted a flock of Pochard floating on a roadside lake as we whizzed past on the A27 and we were able to make an emergency stop in a lay-by that wasn’t far down the road and walk back to the lake – we also saw our first Buzzard and Shoveler of the day there too.
Our next stop was another quick one at Swanbourne lake in Arundel, which is a dead-cert site for Mandarin duck. It didn’t let us down, thank-goodness, as we saw a group of male Mandarins sitting under a bush on the shore – there were some Common Gulls there too which was a good tick.
We were both hungry and the rain was due to stop soon (it didn’t), so when we reached our next stop – an area of farmland up on the South Downs called the Burgh – we sat in the now quite damp car and had our sandwiches before setting off once more into the rain. This is a good bird-rich site and is a must for any serious bird race in West Sussex, it really delivered the goods on this occasion as we bagged a further 15 species in about an hours walk. The rain did actually ease up and finally cleared away for good – leaving clear blue skies as we returned to the car. On the walk we had managed to see both partridge species, all of the thrush species, Skylark, Kestrel, Red Kite, Meadow Pipit, Bullfinch, Stock Dove and a heard-only Raven. Our list had now risen to 81 species – just three more to beat last year’s score!
On our way to Pulborough Brooks RSPB reserve (our final destination), we dashed into Waltham brooks to pay a visit to the sewage treatment works there – an odd site at first glance but an almost guaranteed spot for Chiffchaff in winter. It was weirdly quiet when we arrived and it didn’t look like there were any birds about at all – but after a short wait several Chiffchaffs did reveal themselves in the bushes, although it seemed there weren’t as many as last year.
It was later than intended when we got to Pulborough brooks, and although the clouds had cleared the light was going rapidly, so we had to rush around the trails and see what we could before the night thwarted us. Fortunately, we saw quite a few very common birds that had eluded us so far, it would have been embarrassing to have missed out Nuthatch, Coal Tit, Greylag Geese, Stonechat, Treecreeper and Grey Heron (we only saw two of the latter all day)!
As the huge, full yellow orb that is the hunter’s moon rose through the branches into the darkening sky, we wandered out onto the heath behind the car park in the hope of securing some last minute birds. The sky was still light but the trees and earth were blackening, then there was a movement through the canopy and a small, dark, winged-thing shot across the sky and vanished – the rounded wings gave it away as a Woodcock! Shortly after we both heard the far-carrying, wavering calls of several Tawny Owls as they hooted from the woods across the valley – our final species of the day.
It was a little tiring, and the weather was rather uncomfortable, but it was still a lot of fun and quite an exciting way to start the year, there are perhaps some improvements to the schedule that could be incorporated for next year though. But of course, the final score! So, were we mighty pleased when I added it all up and revealed that we had recorded a total of 93 species! Our best ever, a whole ten better than last year and really not that far off from the magical 100! I doubt we’ll win the race, but a score like that puts us in a pretty good position nonetheless – bring on 2018!