2021 – A year of hope and struggle amongst continuing uncertainty

I wrote a review of 2020 strangely spurred on by a sense of impending loss. Having been forced to stay away from Pulborough Brooks for 2 months in the Spring of 2020 it was clear that 2021 was going to start with more of the same. However, instead of a sudden rapid escalation this new lockdown had been brewing all through the previous autumn, so the feelings of loss had been gradually growing. And in the winter time my local walks are not so attractive as in Spring when there is a profusion of chalk grassland wildflowers to enjoy.

So 2021 started with Lockdown 3 but the effect was tempered by a decision by RSPB that, while all our visitor operations would have to close, we would keep all the other habitat management and supporting survey work going. In early January I was allowed to travel to the reserve for the annual brown hairstreak egg survey. I ended up surveying the sector near Winpenny as per 2020 and found not a single egg. Some of my eagle eyed colleagues did much better but still the count in this area was down on the previous year illustrating quite well how the fussy butterflies are much happier laying on new growth blackthorn bushes.

The monthly Wetland Bird Survey (WeBS Counts) also continued and gave me 2 more days to look forward to during the lockdown. Doing the circuit at Amberley West I encountered 2 red kites perched prominently on a dead tree,

Later in the year they were to have their beaks put severely out of joint by an intruder – read on.

In the aftermath of one of those days I had a good opportunity to observe a marsh tit that was regularly visiting Fattengates Courtyard to take seed that was left on the logs there.

This was a welcome sight as marsh tits are not so often seen and it had been a few years since I’d seen one on the reserve.

By mid-March the pandemic situation was improving but more importantly for me breeding wader surveys for 2021 started giving me the opportunity to go twice a week, a huge improvement on once a month. I found myself doing surveys at Pulborough early in the week and then instead of my suspended Hides and Trails visitor activity I was doing surveys at Amberley on Fridays.

As in early 2020 a barn owl was coming out regularly in daylight, giving great views and on those late March occasions at Pulborough once I’d finished my surveying I joined the locals out to see it.  

There was a decision to do regular wader surveys at Amberley rather than occasional ad hoc ones as in the past, but over the course of several weeks it became clear that no successful breeding was likely to happen there, despite seeing one or two apparent nests. There were a number of factors that we thought might be an issue, in particular there were a lot of deer on the site increasing the risk of trampling, but the wet features which are necessary for feeding once chicks have hatched were drying out too quickly. Eventually the surveys were abandoned, but not before one of my highlight encounters in the shape of a white tailed eagle juvenile from the Isle of Wight reintroduction project that had taken up residence in the Arun Valley

The red kites, frequently seen at Amberley, were most unhappy about the intruder and on this occasion one could be seen repeatedly divebombing the eagle which remained completely unconcerned. The eagle has been seen on several occasions since at both Amberley and Pulborough Brooks, but curiously my sightings of red kites at Amberley dropped off. Red kites are well known for eating carrion and with plenty of deer on the site, Amberley has plenty of food for them. But,although white tailed eagles are particularly known for eating fish, they will also eat carrion and most things that are easily available, especially when young before developing their fishing skills. So the eagle was in direct competition for food with the kites.

By now we were half way through April and the nightingales had started to arrive and they seemed to keep on coming. After a few lean years it seemed that, with some help from our wardens the scrub and hedgerows had reached peak condition, and we had at least 10 singing males – a record in the 7 years I’ve been volunteering. Mostly the birds stayed out of sight for me, but the song was extraordinary as ever. 

One bird that did not stay out of sight was a migrating pied flycatcher male which stayed around the area near the top of Green Lane for several days in mid-April giving great views.

These birds are more often seen passing through on the autumn migration, so for this bird to stay in Spring for more than just a very brief rest was most unusual.

Also in mid April while I was returning to the Visitor Centre from doing a breeding wader survey I had a close encounter with a cuckoo on a post next to Upperton’s Field.  

The weather pattern in the Spring was very different from the lovely sunny weather of Spring 2020.  April was very dry but much cooler than usual. It then stayed cool in May but was also very wet. This resulted in our breeding waders having a tough time. Several lapwing nests were observed early that subsequently failed, with pairs resuming attempts breed. A visit to our warden by 2 ecologists during this period suggested there was a lack of invertebrate food possibly caused by the poor weather. But the lapwings and redshanks stuck at it and by late June and early July more chicks were appearing, some of which eventually fledged

In early July I also spotted a ringed adult lapwing which was one of the chicks from the successful 2018 brood, demonstrating that birds tend to be site faithful when it comes to breeding.

While our lapwings were struggling, following the success of last year’s first ever avocet breeding on the reserve, a pair of these elegant waders took up residence on the island at West Mead, and produced 3 chicks giving great views from the hide.

There followed an extraordinary tragedy. With the chicks apparently doing well at about 2-3 weeks old but still unable to fly the parents tried to move them all the way round to the North Brooks, using the main trail during daytime, with several visitors and some very alert crows and magpies in attendance. Sadly none of the chicks survived the inevitable corvid attacks.

Naturally I wondered what on earth had prompted the adults to move the chicks like this. There was certainly competition for space and food as lapwings and a pair of redshank with a chick were also using the island and the pool nearby, but the chicks appeared to be growing well. I think the avocets must have been inexperienced parents and we will just have to hope that they will nest here again in 2022.

Waders were not the only birds struggling to breed. For example, reports from round the country suggested that blue tits were struggling to find enough caterpillars to feed their chicks. I witnessed a slightly happier story at Winpenny in June with an adult blue tit feeding a fledged chick, but it is interesting to see how dishevelled the poor adult looks – yes it really is the one on the left in this photo.

And at time of writing there appears to be a large group of blue tits regularly feeding on seeds around Fattengates Courtyard so in the end it seems that the blue tits must have found sufficient caterpillars later on the season for some later broods.

Before the pandemic in 2018 and 2019 there had been a number of volunteer group events led by Anna Allum to establish the presence of dragonfly and damselfly species at both Pulborough and Amberley. Not surprisingly this went by the board in 2020, but in June, knowing my keen interest in this subject she approached me to see if we could start this again on a systematic basis with a smaller group of people.  We agreed a set of transects at both sites to give the best chance of locating all the species we expected to find, and started doing monthly transects. Unfortunately Anna herself didn’t have time to take part but she enlisted some help from Rob King and later we managed to convert Malcolm Davis into a dragonfly enthusiast to help.

This exercise was very fruitful, and we managed to discover 2 of the more unusual species at Amberley – scarce chaser and white legged damselfly

At Pulborough the transect down the string of heathland ponds had a good range of species and confirmed that there was still a healthy population of emerald damselflies. This was something I’d been concerned about in 2020 having failed to spot any of these, and had speculated about a possible adverse effect of the ponds drying out early. I need not have worried.

Of more concern however was the lack of black darters. There were a few reported sightings by other people but we failed to pick up any on the transects. After the wet May the ponds were holding water much longer which I had thought would be helpful. It will be interesting to see what happens in 2022 when we resume these transects.

The new Simms Pond near the path between Pipe Pond and West Mead is gradually maturing and was looking very productive so we added it our list of transects. We discovered the unusual variable damselfly and the common blue damselfly, not common at Pulborough because it tends to prefer larger permanent bodies of open water. We also found a very healthy population of a relatively recent immigrant to the UK, the small red-eyed damselfly. 

In early September a willow emerald damselfly was spotted at Amberley for the very first time and there were several sightings by the Dipping Platforms on the North Brooks at Pulborough to follow a single record in 2020 which had been away from the main visitor areas. This species has is another relatively recent immigrant to the UK but is still quite scarce.

And I must mention my colleague Graham Osborne’s coup in finding a blue-eyed hawker (sometimes called southern migrant hawker) at the Redstart Corner Pond.  This is another recent immigrant to the UK and seems to be gradually spreading.  Thanks goodness wildlife migration is not affected by Brexit!

Generally 2022 was reckoned to be a poor year for butterflies largely down to the cool weather in the Spring. There were to be no special butterfly moments at Pulborough like the purple emperor at the Hanger in July 2020. A few visitors came in July looking for the small and Essex skippers that in 2020 had been found in huge numbers on the thistles by the path between West Mead and Redstart Corner. Unfortunately the numbers were well down, most likely due to the cool Spring weather. Butterfly numbers do fluctuate enormously with the weather conditions and often bounce back vigorously so this is not especially a cause for concern now.

Ringlets seemed to be doing a little better, or at least were more prominent down the Zigzag Path and another species the bucked the general trend was the marbled white which seems to have been gradually increasing for the last few years.

In September my favourite ivy bush at Fattengates was buzzing with insect life as usual, especially ivy bees and a few hornets. Despite this the rather unassuming star of Fattengates in 2021 has been the bank vole family that has been feeding on seeds around the rotting logs for much of the year and was still doing this on 31st December

Throughout the autumn there has been the usual crop of migrant waders such as green sandpiper, greenshank, ruff and dunlin, but this year we had a visit from a pectoral sandpiper, a North American species which crops up in small numbers every year in the UK and was last seen at Pulborough in autumn 2017. Also of note was a white ruff which I encountered several times in November and December. At first sight it looked like one of the white doves from the Visitor Centre but it was ruff shaped and was trotting around feeding in typical busy ruff fashion, sometimes in the company of other normal looking ruffs.

After some heavy rain in late September and early October it looked as if the Brooks would become very wet for the winter, but a rather dry spell set in for the rest of October and November. But this didn’t stop the return of our usual winter duck species arriving along with large numbers of wintering lapwings from Europe.

The early rain however encouraged fungus to appear in the woods during October and November with one tree stump in Black Wood providing an especially attractive display.

Throughout the autumn raptor sightings were increasing, especially marsh harriers, and one Friday in late September I witnessed a lengthy dogfight between a marsh harrier and a crow.  

In November a peregrine seemed to take up residence in the “peregrine willow tree” on the North Brooks which has not been much occupied in recent years.

One rather wet Friday morning in mid November I took a quick check on the tree prior to retreating to the drier conditions in Nettleys Hide. There was no sign of the peregrine but I was astonished to find that a solitary bird I first assumed to be a grey heron was actually a “common” crane, and caused me to get rather wet taking photos before I retreated to the hide.  

Being very definitely uncommon in Sussex this led to a lifetime first for me, not the crane itself but the submission of an official record to the Sussex Ornithological Society.

On a different Friday in November another tall wetland bird, a great white egret, was in residence all day on the North Brooks. A grey heron sometimes seemed to take exception to its presence and tried to chase it away in a very stately pursuit.

In early December a whole series of sightings began of a lesser spotter woodpecker, typically in the area around Fattengates Courtyard. I tried several times without success to find this bird and eventually decided to give up and just enjoy the rest of the wildlife. So one day I found a sizeable group of elegant male pintails on the pool at West Mead, including a small group that seemed to be practising synchronised up-ending.

I found observing the black tailed godwit numbers and how they respond to changing flood water levels very interesting. Looking back through my photographic records from past years they seem to respond best to very wet conditions short of a complete flood of the sort we had in the winter of 2019-20. So in a rather wet week in December the numbers shot up from typically about 40 during the dry autumn spell to about 200 on 10th. 

The Christmas period was wet and on returning to the reserve on the last day of 2022 there was much more flood water and a consequent big increase in godwit numbers. I estimated about 450 when they were all lined up in their favourite spot behind the thin strip of land that runs between the 2 main flood pools on the North Brooks. When 3 juvenile/female “cream cap” marsh harriers appeared they provided a most wonderful flying display. This is surely the finest spectacle Pulborough Brooks has to offer in winter time, especially if the sun happens to be out when their undersides flash a brilliant white.

A little earlier on 31st Chris and Juliet Moore had drawn my attention to 2 cattle egrets in the distance on the North Brooks making 2021 the 2nd year in a row I have seen cattle egrets on the reserve. I hope to have rather more sightings in 2022 as there is no doubt this species is increasing in the UK.

My wildlife year ended with a magnificent male marsh harrier seen quartering by the riverbank from Winpenny Hide, giving 4 different marsh harriers on the same day – a record for me.

On the human front there have been big challenges for the reserve in 2021 trying to cope with staff leaving, sickness and injury. We now have a 2nd warden and there are expectations of other new members of staff arriving soon, so we hope they will settle in well. While all this has been going on major works have been undertaken in the shape of a permanent anti predator fence and re- landscaping the South Brooks around West Mead and Winpenny to help our wader populations and it will be interesting to see how they respond in 2022. 

We end the year with huge uncertainty about the pandemic but hope that the latest wave will not prove so bad. Mindful moments are just as relevant now as they were last year. One of my personal favourites is to come on a wet day when there are few visitors, shelter in one of the hides and just sit for several hours to see what wildlife turns up. One such wet day was in early June when a long quiet session in Nettley’s Hide produced a kingfisher on the bush by the ditch to the left.

And, as last year, I still find that in the shorter days of winter there is nothing more peaceful than watching the sun setting behind the downs in this beautiful landscape.