Birding in winter can be very rewarding, there’s usually lots of fab birds to see. The trade-off is that pretty much every time you go out you will have to put up with the generally awful and unpredictable British weather. I often repeat the old mantra that ‘There’s no such thing as bad weather, just inappropriate clothing,’ however, I will admit that there are occasions when the weather is so abysmal that no amount of gore-tex can stop you wishing you were back in bed. The forecast for the day that John and I were going birding on the Pevensey Levels was predicting just this sort of horrid weather.
Some days, however, you just have to grit your teeth and bear it, or you’ll end up never leaving the house for all of January. So it was that we started the day in Eastbourne, covered in as much water-proof material as possible in anticipation of continuous torrential rain. Of course, this being Britain, the weather never pays any attention to the forecast and it merely drizzled a couple of times in the whole day and was otherwise dry. We weren’t complaining though!
Anyway, onto the birds. We had decided to head eastwards to the Pevensey levels and its environs partly because there were some lovely birds hanging about, and partly because it was somewhere we had never been before. It was hardly surprising that we had never been birding at Sovereign harbour in Eastbourne as it wasn’t exactly one’s idea of a wildlife haven. It was a pretty standard marina sort-of-thing with lots of sailing boats sitting in the quiet waters of rectangular docks, surrounded by copious squeezed-in flats. But, amongst all this was a wee Scottish (I’m guessing that’s where it’s from, could be from anywhere) visitor, a small auk by the name of Black Guillemot, or Tystie.
I’ve seen Tysties before in Scotland, when they were in their very smart breeding plumage. This was the first I’d seen in its winter coat and the first outside Scotland, in fact, they are rather rare in Sussex with just a small handful of records this century. It was a close-run thing though, we very nearly missed it completely. We had spent some time wandering around one side of the harbour without success, so we were about to head over to the opposite side when I casually thought I would check that white floating thing that was probably a plastic bottle. It wasn’t.
We then had about a good half-hour of superb close-range views of this, Britain’s most northerly-breeding auk species, as it serenely floated about one of the wharfs. After a time, it decided to stop loafing about aimlessly and try to catch some brunch. It was while it dived and swam about that we had our closest views, with it surfacing within 10 metres of us at one point. Unlike the clean black-and-white winter plumage of common Guillemots, the Tystie changes into a randomly mottled garb of mostly white flecked with black. It does still retain its distinctive bright blood-red legs and mouth.
After enjoying this rare sight we decided to head to the very close-by West Rise marsh, which we have actually visited before in previous winters. This is known as a good winter spot for Water Pipits and Jack Snipe, and it also has a lake that attracts a diverse range of duck species and gulls. Indeed, we found the lake was host to Shoveler, Tufted duck, Mallard, Wigeon, Teal and Pochard amongst a lot of Coots. As we walked (or rather waded, as it was exceptionally moist underfoot) around the marsh we also saw some Reed Buntings, Stonechats, Meadow Pipits and a large number of Common Snipe that flew up in front of us.
Having failed to find a Water Pipit or Jack Snipe, although we did spot a wintering Chiffchaff which was nice, we decided to carry on to the Pevensey Levels. This huge area of very flat grazing marsh, divided up by numerous drainage ditches, was once a natural tidal bay but was gradually converted to (relatively) dry land for farming centuries ago. The levels are now a SSSI and there is a NNR owned by Natural England and another owned by the Sussex Wildlife Trust. We had come in the hope of seeing Hen Harriers that have been reported from the area in recent weeks, as well as for the various other birds that use the fields.
We started off by pootling along a track that led away from the road and out over the levels. The fields to our left were full of sedges and quite flooded, there was a lot of Mute Swans on them but little else. To our right was a farm and as well as a Kestrel in a tree there was a massive flock of Fieldfare on the adjoining field (appropriately), there must have been a couple hundred at least. A little further on I saw a white blob on a distant bank which turned out to be a Great White Egret, a scarce but regular bird that looks like a heron has been dipped in white paint – but its big orange bill and slender form give it away.
The track was just as flooded as the fields, as well as very muddy so it was tricky to pass at some points, our persistence paid off though when I spotted a bird of prey perched on a distant bush. This blurry smudge of a bird turned into a female-type Marsh Harrier through the scope, its golden head glowing from afar even in the dull light. And that was not all, a pan to the left discovered a pair of muscular-looking Peregrines perched up on a section of fence – the size difference between them suggested that it was a male and female. Most raptors hate dull and damp weather and will often sit through it barely moving for hours on end, so are easily missed.
We then ended the day by standing on a roadside for over an hour getting cold. But not without purpose – we were hoping to see one of the Hen Harriers coming into roost and/or an owl of some description. We did see another Marsh Harrier quartering the marsh for a while, and more Kestrels than you could shake a stick at, but not a peep from our intended quarry.
The day did end quite nicely though all the same. As we were waiting a vast flock of Lapwing, possibly numbering several thousand, could be seen in the distance, towards the setting sun. They seemed to be murmurating just like Starlings, which is what we initially thought they were. They kept breaking up into small squadrons, then coalescing again into a mass of dark bodies, the shape of the flock constantly changing like an amoeba. Eventually they all split into smaller flocks and gradually trickled overhead in rough V-shapes, paddling the air with their big rounded wings, a superb sight.