When you’re new to birding it can take a while to realise that a lot of English bird names are nonsense. Mute Swans aren’t mute, Black-headed Gulls have brown heads, Common Gulls aren’t common, Marsh Tits live in woodland, Barnacle Geese aren’t made of barnacles etc. One of the more disappointing of these is the excitingly named Purple Sandpiper – if you’ve never seen one you could be forgiven for thinking that they might have feathers the same shade as a Dairy Milk wrapper. In reality, they are grey.
However, as I found out, it is not strictly true that they lack any purple. Purple Sandpipers are actually quite charming and hardy little birds, and they certainly brighten up a winters day birding. These waders are shore specialists, feeding in winter amongst the seaweed-covered rocks of the inter-tidal zone all around Britain’s coasts. They are well camouflaged to hide on the rocky shore and can be tricky to pick out if they don’t move, fortunately, they have a liking for piers and breakwaters and can often be found roosting on them. Although around 13,000 of them winter in Britain, most of these are on northern coasts and they can be somewhat scarce in the South-East – with numbers in Sussex rarely exceeding 40 in recent years.
A well-known local spot that is usually a reliable Purple Sandpiper hang-out is the pier at Newhaven. This isn’t a pier like the one at Brighton, with candy-floss and a Helter-Skelter, it is a rather more functional affair of concrete and metal poles which is mainly utilised by local fishermen. And so I found myself wandering along this pier on a beautiful sunny February day; the sea was calm and gently swelling and some local types were casting out over the rails.
I was walking along staring down at the barnacle-crusted concrete struts of the pier – which is where the sandpipers are usually found – so it wasn’t until I was almost on top of them that I looked up and noticed the birds. Nine Purple Sands were sat out in the open, roosting with bills tucked in, just metres away from the walkway on top of the pier. I’d never seen them on top of the pier before, nor ever so close and unafraid of the people walking by.
I used this opportunity to get the best pictures I could with my small camera, as well as study closely their plumage. They are quite squat, with short orange legs and a short tail, but their bill is reasonably long and slightly decurved with an orange base. They are mostly a dark blackish-grey on the back and wings, with some dark marks down the white flanks, although I did notice they had pale eyelids. Due to both the sunshine and the very close views, I was also able to pick out something I’ve never seen before – a purple sheen or gloss on the scapulars and mantle which was only visible at certain angles as the light hit the feathers. I assume this subtle feature is what gives them their name and so somewhat redeems whoever named them.
Whilst I was on the pier I was able to scan the chalk cliffs below Newhaven Fort, which is on the other side of the Ouse river mouth, using my scope. The cliffs are full of holes and ledges and are attractive to the local feral pigeon population for breeding and roosting, but much better is that there are also Fulmars. These are not an abundant breeding bird in Sussex, largely due to a lack of suitable cliff breeding sites along the coast, but where the chalk and, further east, the sandstone meets the sea Fulmars can be found. I counted twelve of these attractive grey and white petrels sitting on the cliffs – all seemed to be in pairs so hopefully they will all breed.
I then left the pier and pootled off eastwards along the shingle for a wander around the Tide Mills. This is a derelict area of ‘wasteland’ between Newhaven and Seaford which used to be a small village centred around a tidal mill, but is now covered in scrub and rough grassland and some vegetated shingle, so is superb for wildlife.
There were plenty of birds; Stonechats flitted about wagging their tails, Meadow Pipits squeaked in the long grass, Greenfinches twittered overhead, Robins flashed their orange breasts in the sunshine, a flock of several hundred Lapwing rose into the air flashing white and green before settling again on a ploughed field. Several Kestrels hung on blurred wings against the blue sky, then a squadron of about 60 Curlew glided down onto a field with the Lapwings, crying mournfully all the while. Best of all were the singing Skylarks. Having gone all winter with their songs pent-up inside them, these eager birds were making the air shimmer with the liquid ecstasy of their endless, vibrant notes and phrases – all sung from the zenith of the sky.