Storm Katie duly arrived overnight although the associated rain had ceased earlier than forecast. In difficult conditions at Birling in 45 minutes we saw just c.30 Common Gulls pass eastwards and a couple of Fulmars offshore over the stormy seas. A text from Matt Eade alerted us to the continued presence of Gordon Beck's American Wigeon at Pulborough RSPB so after a quick look at Newhaven Harbour where not a single Gull was present on the sandblasted beach we headed west. We joined Bob Self and Bernie Forbes in West Mead Hide from where the drake American Wigeon spent most of its time asleep along the bank of the far side of the pool.
Common Gull c.30 E
Pulborough Brooks RSPB
American Wigeon 1 first-summer drake
First-summer drake American Wigeon at Pulborough RSPB
Despite not ideal viewing conditions, on seeing the bird and considering the time of year, we were surprised at how insipid and lacking in contrast its headsides appeared and how little green it showed. We didn't see it flap so speculated this was likely age-related and suggestive of it being a first-summer? An online image search lends support as here's a first-summer drake photographed in February 1997 with an almost identical head-pattern:
First-summer drake American Wigeon, Santa Ana NWR, Texas (Kevin T. Karlson)
By way of contrast, here's an adult drake American Wigeon that I digisicoped with the same camera and scope in Japan in late February 2012:
On driving onto the headland a Moorhen running along the road provided a Beachy tick for me! We were greeted by the Royal Naval Bomb Squad at Birling preparing to explode a bomb on the sandy beach. We joined Al Redman and Kris Gillam who were already seawatching. There was a steady easterly passage with numbers provided by Gannets, Brent, Scoter and Kittiwakes with a pair of Pintail and two Gadwall adding some variety, the first two Arctic Skuas of the Spring, and best of all, three Black-throated Divers quickly called by Kris that virtually flew along the tideline all showing some summer-plumage with two being exquisite - superb! The bomb was exploded causing a louder and larger explosion than anticipated. Bob Edgar arrived from Belle Tout wood where he had seen yesterday's Chiffchaffs and Firecrests but also a Blackcap and more-intriguingly a singing Coal Tit. Unfortunately there was no sign of the latter later although the eight Firecrests were still present.
Red-throated Diver 12 E Black-throated Diver 3 E s/p (c.8.10am)
Gannet 163 E
Brent Goose 149 E
Common Scoter 140 E
Pintail 2 E
Gadwall 2 E Moorhen 1 Arctic Skua 2 E (1 d/p 7.20am, 1 d/p 7.50am)
Common Gull 30 E
Mediterranean Gull 2 E (1 ad, 1 2s)
Black-headed Gull 25 E
Kittiwake 70 E
Auk sp. 2 E
Curlew 4 E
Chiffchaff 2 Firecrest 8
Porpoise sp. 1
Royal Naval Bomb Squad preparing for the controlled explosion
We arrived after the overnight rain had cleared to a few Meadow Pipits heading west and a few flocks of Brent moving east out to sea, a small flock of Curlew west and a single adult Mediterranean Gull was offshore. Bob Edgar joined us having walked the area and seeing a Firecrest in Belle Tout Wood. A walk up the lane produced a Chiffchaff and 2 Firecrests in the copse, an overflying alba Wagtail and a Pied Wagtail on one of the houses. In now sunny and warm conditions a walk of Chat Vale produced a couple of grounded Redwings. There were another two Redwings in the Old Trapping Area and a Goldcrest. A Song Thrush was singing in the Hotel Garden, but the best was saved to last, as Belle Tout Wood played host to at least 8 Firecrests and 4 Chiffchaffs.
Red-throated Diver 3 E
Great Crested Grebe 1 W
Brent Geese 230 E
Canada Goose 1
Common Scoter 10 E
Common Buzzard 5
Mediterranean Gull 1 adult
Curlew 10 W
Pied Wagtail 1
alba Wagtail 1 N
Meadow Pipit c.6
Song Thrush h
Carrion Crow 1 in off
Brent Geese passing Birling Gap
Firecrest in Belle Tout Wood
The increasing numbers of Firecrests seen on passage at Beachy over the years is generally assumed to correlate to the increasing breeding population in Sussex since first being confirmed in the 1970's. However, a glance at the Migration Atlas reveals how little is known about Firecrest migration, and it is not even known whether British breeding birds leave Britain in the Winter, so some of the birds seen on passage in the southeast UK in late March might be on their way elsewhere. That's hinted at by a Firecrest ringed at Kessingland on the 26th March 2008 that was controlled 457km ENE on Heligoland just a fortnight later.
Whilst driving down the Cuckmere valley around 1,000 Black-headed Gulls were seen and there was an adult Mediterranean Gull flying amongst them. On arriving at a cold and breezy Birling there was a first-summer Mediterranean Gull amongst Black-headed Gulls in the newly ploughed field where a couple of Pied Wagtails were also present. A short seawatch proved deadly although a Grey Heron arrived in off the sea. The first-summer Mediterranean Gull was replaced by a white-ringed adult Mediterranean Gull. Walking the lane revealed the Song Thrush and 2 Black Redstarts were still present and a Chiffchaff flew past us with it or another then heard in song in the copse at the top of the lane. A walk of the Belle Tout loop proved very quiet apart from a few Meadow Pipits having arrived on territory. We saw Ron at Belle Tout wood who had seen no more migrants than ourselves.
Red-throated Diver 1 E
Grey Heron 1 in off sea
Gannet 3 E
Common Scoter 1 W
Common Buzzard 2 Mediterranean Gull 3
Pied Wagtail 2
Stonechat 5 Black Redstart 2 Chiffchaff 1-2
First-summer Mediterranean Gull at Birling
Grey Heron arriving in off the sea at Birling
Adult Mediterranean Gull at Birling
Song Thrush at Birling Being brown and buff nothing looks at odds with it being a British Song Thrush
Meadow Pipit back on territory at Birling
the first parachuting display of the Spring was seen today
A later than usual start but we still arrived early enough to feel the coldness of the northeasterly wind. Even worse, our arrival coincided with the start of the annual 'Endurance' fiasco. Lack of car parking, incompetent marshalling and Belle Tout wood being rendered the overflow toilet are annual treats the average visitor to the South Downs National Park has to endure whilst this crowd are seemingly allowed complete freedom to behave how they wish - good to see the National Trust weren't making them welcome this year by excluding their vehicles from their property. A quick look out to sea revealed the presence of a tight flock of 27 Black-headed Gulls sat on the sea but no sign of any passage. Despite the disturbance two Black Redstarts were seen up the lane, a Song Thrush was feeding on one of the lawns and a single alba Wagtail flew over. The Belle Tout loop proved extremely quiet and not a single bird was seen in the Old Trapping Area.
Black Redstart 2
Stonechat 5 alba Wagtail 1N
Song Thrush 1
A quiet walk along the South Downs Way - in a National Park
the grassland has the status of a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty... or car park for a commercial event
path recently reopened having been closed due to footpath soil erosion
the farmer was recently telling us that he now receives a subsidy to leave a wide verge to encourage wild flowers, insects and ground nesting species such as Skylark and Corn Bunting - just as well one side of the track is fenced then!
Parking on grass verges tolerated for some - the number of portable toilets has to be set in the context of the number of punters attending (>'000) but clearly the nearby wood is considered to provide adequate facility
Clearer conditions today but still hazy out to sea and there was a chilly northeasterly breeze. A Black Redstart that greeted our arrival in the car park was a good start. We had seen little whilst looking out to sea but Bob Edgar's timing was impeccable as he arrived just as JFC picked out a superb flock of Avocets passing offshore. With nothing else seen passing Bob soon headed off up the lane where he almost immediately flushed an Owl that he kindly quickly called us for but it unfortunately evaded our combined best efforts to relocate it. The White Wagtail was still present favouring the car park today and a Goldcrest had replaced yesterday's Firecrest in the pines at the top of the lane but apart from a few Stonechats little else was seen. Ron arrived and we once again enjoyed his company walking a shorter version of the Belle Tout loop in the cold northeasterly, but again, no sign of any Chiffchaffs or Wheatears although a second Goldcrest was seen near Birling.
Great Crested Grebe 1 on sea
Gannet 4 E
Canada Goose 2 W
Lesser Black-backed Gull 2 on beach Avocet 7 E at 7.35am White Wagtail 1
Pied Wagtail 3 Alba Wagtail 1 W
Stonechat 8 Black Redstart 1
Avocets passing Birling
Whilst this image doesn't do them justice, there are few finer sights on the Spring seawatches than a passing flock of Avocets. Early March consistently proves a good time for the species and the County record still stands at 120 seen passing Birling on 10th March 1995
We drove through thick fog for it to be clear at East Dean where there was a thick ground frost under the clear skies. A 20 minute sea-watch produced just a single Great Crested Grebe and 2 Carrion Crows arriving in off the sea so we set off up the lane in now glorious sunshine. A Firecrest in the pines was a welcome sign of Spring. A Collared Dove flew up the lane to land on one of the bungalows. A male Pied Wagtail was on another rooftop but was soon eclipsed by a smart White Wagtail on the roof of the old Hotel. It was good to see Ron Knight there with whom we spent the remainder of the morning. Before leaving the car park another Collared Dove was seen to arrive in off the sea and fly up the lane. In the hope of a Wheatear we walked the Belle Tout loop but in the event couldn't even find a Chiffchaff although another alba Wagtail flew north and we managed a double-figure count of Stonechats. Back at Birling it was still hazy out to sea and although the promised southeasterly hadn't materialised a party of 6 Mediterranean Gulls flew east. We then tried the Old Trapping Area, the Hotel Garden and Chat Vale but little was in evidence until a Reed Bunting dropped in just as we were about to leave.
A frosty morning with a dead Barn Owl being seen on the road at the Rainbow Inn near Barcombe a sad start to the morning. Sea-watching proved deadly hindered by the continuing cold northerly airflow. Walking the Birling and Belle Tout areas produced few signs of Spring. On our way home a circling Red Kite at one point being attacked by a Common Buzzard was the highlight of the day.
Common Scoter 4 E Common Buzzard 2 Common Gull 70 Auk sp. 3 W Green Woodpecker 1 alba Wagtail 1 W Stonechat 5 Carrion Crow 2 W out to sea Raven 1 Greenfinch 2 Goldfinch 25 Corn Bunting 4
We sea-watched for 45 minutes although there was a shimmer across the calm sea. With the unhelpful wind direction it was expectedly quiet although a Mediterranean Gull sat on the sea then flew east and a high-flying Grey Heron arrived in off. A Black Redstart was a welcome sight in the car park. A walk up the lane produced a trio of Siskins but unfortunately not the trio of Long-tailed Tits that included a caudatus-type seen during the week. A Peregrine was loathe to leave its kill regularly buzzing the Corvids, even passers-by and ourselves. A walk of the Belle Tout loop produced a few Stonechats but no sign of the male Dartford Warbler. The grazing ponies had unearthed a live incendiary device, a 'German export' from WWII, that was soon costing the British taxpayer as it became the focus of attention for the local constabulary.
Red-throated Diver 5 E
Great-crested Grebe 2 E
Cormorant 14W Grey Heron 1 high in off the sea
Brent Goose 7 E
Common Gull 20
Mediterranean Gull 1 E adult
Auk sp. 12 W
alba Wagtail 1 W Black Redstart 1
Goldfinch 20 Siskin 3+
Brent Geese at Birling (JFC)
Looking to cut across the headland in the fine weather
Black Redstart at Birling (JFC)
Peregrine at Birling (lower JFC)
WWII German incendiary unearthed by the ponies at Birling