Thanks to volunteer Phil for his report and photos....

Recent Sightings Friday February 9th – Wild Sussex Weather

Regular visitors may be familiar with the big sign on the entrance drive in which Pulborough Brooks proclaims that it is “Wild Sussex at its best”.  On Friday morning having driven through patchy rain under leaden skies, and with a strengthening wind all caused by Storm Erik, I passed this sign and thought that today might see wild Sussex weather at its worst.

Nevertheless on emerging from the Visitor Centre onto the main trail a dunnock was singing jauntily nearby and a lively flock of linnets was dancing over Upperton’s Field.

At West Mead there was plenty of action for the only visitors of the day – 3 brave souls who spent the morning with us. 

First a kestrel perched right outside the hide.

I wondered if it was the same bird I had witnessed taking a bath here 2 weeks earlier. 

A juvenile male marsh harrier was quartering over the South Brooks but seemed to climb higher than usual on the strong wind and one occasion swooped down rapidly rather like a peregrine.  A real peregrine was flying periodical fast and low sorties across the brooks and may have been the cause of a huge cloud lapwings, in excess of 1000 birds, that came up near the river bank.  Between them the raptors disturbed a large flock of wigeon which wheeled around in the distance. To complete the raptor activity one of our frequently seen pale fronted buzzards was on the ground with a mid-morning meal. 

Intriguingly, after sightings of several snipe in recent weeks occupying the very wet area to the left of the hide, just one was left as if the others felt the need of some shelter from the wind.

As the morning wore on the Downs became shrouded in cloud and I hurried round to Winpenny Hide to beat the worst of the rain just taking a little time out to identify 2 meadow pipits occupying the deer fence by the path.  At Winpenny it was quickly clear that moving on as soon as the rain eased was by far the best policy, the south facing windows being covered in rain drops.  I did however stay long enough to notice that lapwings were unusually sheltering from the wind out of sight on the other side of the river bank and occasionally a few birds would emerge, fly around for a while, and then return, as if testing the strength of the wind.

I paid a short visit to the relatively sheltered Dipping Pond area and wasn’t surprised to find that the Wetland Discovery Trail, currently shut for the winter, was largely inundated after the rain earlier in the week.  While there I noticed another large flock of lapwings coming up on the North Brooks and then my heart leapt when I saw  about 150 black tailed godwits come up from the direction of Little Hanger Hide.  This was significantly more than the 30-40 birds we’ve been seeing in recent weeks.

Arriving at Little Hanger I found our 3 intrepid visitors again who immediately pointed out a kingfisher on a fence post.  Sadly I couldn’t quite get a clear line of sight for a decent photo but it was lovely to see such a bright splash of colour on such a drab day.   Some time later a jay rooted round in the leaf litter in front of the hide providing some more colour in a slightly better sight line.

In the meantime the flock of godwits was very busy feeding on the grass just beyond the pool in front of the hide. 

They were constantly moving and difficult to count individually, but I estimated there to be about 230 birds.  Our visitors passed on some information about one of them with colour leg rings and I immediately recognised this as our old friend WY-YX, a previous subject of this blog, which has a liking for the South Coast and Pulborough Brooks. 

There have been some big fluctuations in the number of black tailed godwits seen this winter.  After a very dry first half of the Autumn the build up was very slow, but then accelerated considerably once the very wet second half was under way in mid-November and numbers built up to around 700 by Christmas.   However, with the flood waters gradually receding in a prolonged dry spell, and then ending with a very cold week and frozen water, numbers had dropped to only around 30-40 birds which were not always easy to find when feeding on the grass.  It seemed likely that the rest had moved on down to the South Coast, perhaps to the coastal lagoons of Pagham, Chichester and Langstone Harbours, or Titchfield Haven.

It is interesting that the numbers had taken such a leap over the last few days.  Could it be that the fields were in better condition for feeding after recent rain or was it the strong south westerly winds pushing birds away from the more exposed coastal feeding grounds?  Maybe with February several days old, and the days appreciably longer, the birds are gradually responding to the need to move back north to their breeding grounds in Iceland. It will be interesting to see if the numbers rise again over the next week or so.

As well as having good views of the birds feeding I was also treated to occasional bursts of fast purposeful flight where the birds sometimes seem like fighter jets flying in formation with their long bills and partially swept back wings. 

This is very different from the flight of a disturbed lapwing flock which has much less form and is characterised by a much slower flapping sort of flight.

With the rain more persistent I hurried round to Nettley’s Hide, most unusually passing by The Hanger without so much as a glance.  Here I noticed 2 very stationary greater black backed gulls, a distant ruff, and a group of very smart looking pintails, all completely unconcerned by the rain.

Most surprisingly however I could only find a single moorhen which was paddling away on the large flood pool to the left of the hide.  There is often a group of moorhens feeding on the grass by the hide and the previous Friday I had counted 16. Maybe they are not so hardy as other birds, but when the wind is from the South the North Brooks at the bottom of the Hanger and near Nettley’s Hide is the most sheltered part of the reserve. It will be interesting to see if they are back again on my next visit. 

Just as I was leaving the hide I was pleased to see a group of 8 snipe fly up out of the nearby rushes where they had been completely hidden.

On returning to the warmth and comfort of the café I reflected that despite the weather this had in many ways indeed been wild Sussex at its best.