Some of you with a good memory may remember that last year I began a series of posts looking back at my earliest birding experiences. I got up to the late summer of 1976.
Part 13: August – September 1976
I had returned from a fortnight’s birding in Suffolk with enough ornithological memories to last an age, but all they did was to make me want to create more of them – and that meant more time birding! The day after unpacking my rucksack and filling my parents washing machine with dirty clothing, I was being picked up by Dave Eland to visit Pagham Harbour, in the company of Mike Netherwood and Nick Gardner. On the journey to the coast I bored them rigid with my tales from Suffolk, which they kindly listened to and made all the right noises in all the right places.
There were plenty of migrants on the Sussex coast that day, even though the hot, sunny and calm weather of the past few weeks had continued. The churchyard at Church Norton was brimming with Spotted Flycatchers, sallying forth from branches and headstones, with vantage points being at such a premium that a small flock had gathered on the church roof. In amongst them were two Pied Flycatchers that took up most of our attention. The number of Wheatears and Whinchats that we found in the nearby hedgerows and farm fields were also impressive, with double-figure counts of both, our scanning also revealing a good number of Yellow Wagtails, whose calls were a welcome backdrop to the afternoon. Our highlight was my second Wryneck in a week, a most showy bird that haunted the gorse-clad area between the church and Sidlesham Ferry. At times it took to the nearby fence posts, sat up and on view to a growing band of admirers. Willow Warblers and Whitethroats were breaking cover from every bush that we passed and a single Tree Pipit was a bonus. It wasn’t all about passerine migrants though – a fair sized wader roost had formed on the fields, a mixture of Golden Plover, Bar and Black-tailed Godwit, Whimbrel and Curlew. The ferry was, as usual, productive, with Little Stints and a Curlew Sandpiper. The birding was good and ever so easy.
A number of visits to Beddington Sewage Farm were made over the following week, including an afternoon in which over 500 House Martins were feeding above the settling beds, but I had one eye on my upcoming ‘holiday’ to Dungeness. Having enjoyed our visit in April, Mark and Neil Greenway had agreed to join me once again on the shingle. We arrived at the bird observatory during the afternoon of September 5th, to be informed about a couple of ‘unproven’ rarities that had just been claimed – a Bonelli’s Warbler and a Dusky Thrush – neither of which were seen again or were subsequently accepted as genuine. We stayed for four nights. During this time the weather started to break down, and although we enjoyed lengthy sunny and warm periods the cloud began to build up and rain finally came. The heat wave of 1976 was in its death-throes. The water levels were so low that the southern long pit was almost dry. What water did remain lay listless around several large silty islands, on which a single Curlew Sandpiper was feeding. It ignored anybody that sat on the bank to watch it, walking past within a few feet of the observers.
It was a visit blessed with plenty of migrants. A scattering of Common Redstarts and Pied Flycatchers were a feature, with larger numbers of Lesser Whitethroat (100 on 7th), Spotted Flycatcher, Common Whitethroat, Willow Warbler, Wheatear and Whinchat (25 on 8th). My third Wryneck of the autumn popped up in front of me at the Long Pits, and I was able to sit on the shingle and enjoy it all to myself. This species, that had been on my wish-list since my early days of birding, had now become a reality three-times over. But I still yearned for more of them.
One particular afternoon the three of us returned to the observatory from a walk around the recording area to be greeted by a fellow resident: “There’s a Woodchat Shrike opposite Boulderwall Farm!” Seeing our immediate state of agitation (we had no transport) he continued: “Don’t worry lads, I’ll drive us round.” That was kind of him, but he had just started to cook himself lunch, so while he casually prepared his bacon and eggs we sat nearby stewing. It would have taken the best part of an hour to reach Boulderwall on foot, so we had little choice. After he had finished (and washed up) we all piled into his car and sped round. The shrike had gone.