January 1999

New Year’s Day – Friday 1st January – Sturminster Newton – Bright sunshine and a breeze greets the dawning year. Cawing Rooks fly down Blackmoor Vale. There is much activity down the disused railway – Blackbirds, Goldfinches, Blue Tits and Robins. The bridge over the Stour has been removed, so I wade through mud to get to the meadow that borders the river. Water boils through the millrace and Fiddleford Mill. Both Buster and Dill the Dog are rather uncertain about the boiling torrent below them. The path back across the water meadows is just a tad wet. Indeed, at one point it leads through a gate that is standing in what can be respectably called a pond. Fieldfares chukk overhead and Redwings stand watchful at the top of Poplars.

Saturday 2nd January – Dorset – Down the valley of the River Piddle in bright sunshine. Four Little Egrets fly up the water meadows. The road summits the downs and Weymouth lies below. The great head of Portland is clouded by rain. We reach Lodmoor and head round the reserve. Something is causing considerable alarm amongst the Lapwing, Golden Plovers and duck. It is some time before we find the large Peregrine Falcon that is responsible. There is a small group of Pintails, good numbers of Wigeon and Teal, a few Shoveler, lots of Mallard and gulls. Fortunately we reach the second hide just as a squally shower hits us. Sadly, a number of Black-headed Gulls have badly oiled breasts.

Radipole – We hear but do not see Cetti’s Warblers. A female Scaup is on the edge of a large flock of sleeping Pochard.

Sunday 3rd January – Brighton – Kay and I “stroll” along the promenade. It is head down against the gale stuff. The sea is almost at high tide and great rollers are crashing on the shore. Next to the Palace Pier are two groynes – in this case stone piers that go a short distance into the sea. Normally folk can wander down these but today the police are stopping people approaching them. (The Chief Constable may not be too pleased that they have parked their patrol car where it is being buffeted by the sea crashing over the top of the promenade – sea containing large amounts of shingle!) The Lower Promenade is deeply flooded, as the shingle has built up on the smaller groyne, blocking the sea from flowing back.

Monday 4th January – West Sussex – A quick stop at Chichester Gravel Pits reveals good numbers of Tufted Duck, Pochard, Coot and Shoveler.

Pagham – Pagham Harbour was probably first used by the Saxons who called it Wydering. By the Middle Ages it was a busy port called Selsey Haven, trading with the quay and mill at Sidlesham. By the mid 19th Century much of the trade had gone and in about 1870, the harbour mouth was dammed and the whole area reclaimed for agriculture. However, a storm in 1910 broke the sea defences and the whole area returned to a tidal harbour of mud banks and salt marsh. It is now a “Ramsar” site. The car park is worthy of a few minutes investigation. Greenfinches, Chaffinches, Blue and Great Tits all concentrate around the feeding station. A Green Woodpecker flies over. The are a few Shelduck, Black-headed Gulls and a lone Black-tailed Godwit on the Ferry Pool. The path down to the sea is a quagmire. Curlews feed on a winter wheat field. Regularly, small skeins of Black-bellied Brent head inland. Mallard feed in the creeks between the large stretch of salt marsh. Huge flocks of Dunlin and Grey Plover are feeding on the mud. They are suddenly spooked and fly in clouds up the harbour. More Grey Plover arrived with a few Knot. Down near the old harbour entrance, Brent feed on the mud. A pair of Red-breasted Merganser bathe in the river. The keening of Curlews and Redshank drifts across the marshes as the sky grow greyer and the wind stronger. A Little Egret feeds in a drainage ditch beside the grain crop field. The harbour is now filling fast with the rising tide. Flocks of waders wheel seeking high-tide roosts. A brilliant yellow-green flash, rapidly followed by another, rises from the heath next to the path as a pair of Green Woodpeckers disappear towards the trees. Then a sudden overhead noise from a skein of 150 plus Brent Geese fly around seeking another field in which to feed.

Church Norton is the west way into the Pagham Harbour. By the time I arrive the water is high. Four Red-breasted Merganser and two Great Crested Grebes fish in the open water. A pipeline just above water provides a resting place for Grey Plovers and Dunlin. Round the corner a Long-tailed Duck and Little Grebe dives. The sea is rough and rollers break on the shingle banks. I suggest to Dill the Dog she may like to clean off some of the mud but get a very sour look as she retreats up the beach and sits down watching the waves with trepidation.

Ambersham Common – A heathland site near Midhurst. Climbing up through the conifers, the place seemed quiet. A Great Spotted Woodpecker flies silently across open ground. However, apart from a distant laugh from a Green Woodpecker that was that! But the area showed its potential.

Tuesday 5th January – Sussex/Kent – Head east below the South Downs. A pink dawn with grey clouds scudding below the glowing nimbus.

Dungerness – I always seem to have blazing sunshine at Dungie, which does not actually make for easy birding. From the first hide the tricky task of checking the gulls is undertaken. They all seem to be Herring Gulls in this group. On another shingle island stand over one hundred Cormorants. The wildfowl numbers are impressive, especially the huge flocks of Wigeon. It is hard to imagine how the flock of Greylags manage to sleep with the constant noise of Lapwings around them. The birding is slow, although a red-head Smew is a nice bird to tick. A female Stonechat hovers in the wind before landing on a Bramble to take up its typical pose. Scanning another flooded gravel pit with another flock of Wigeon I find another three Smew. In the end, there are at least seven Smew present. A Red-necked Grebe proves very elusive, feeding close to Phragmites in a narrow channel.

Rye Harbour – Didn’t have time to explore this site, but it looks good. An old Martello Tower stands next to the car park. They were erected as defence outlooks against an invasion by Napoleon, which never came.

Wednesday 6th January – East Sussex – The Buckle – Seaford – At the west end of Seaford seafront, the Buckle looks like just a few houses and caravan parks. However, it was a bit livelier in 1545 when Sir Nicholas Pelham’s troops repelled a force of 1500 Frenchmen who had, two days earlier sunk the Mary Rose (Henry VIII’s flag ship) at Southsea; although the loss of the ship was due to English incompetence rather than French skill. The buckle is the Pelham coat of arms, adopted in 1346 when a Pelham accepted the sword and belt of the French king on his surrender at Poitiers. The sea is rough. A Guillemot bobs up and down whilst preening. There are Cuttlefish skeletons and Whelk egg cases on the tide line. Bulldozers are on the beach replacing the tons of shingle moved by the storm-driven high tides of recent days.

Seaford Head – The other end of the seafront was more productive. I sheltered from the constant wind by the wall of some fortifications (probably WWII) that are on the rise of the Head. A flock of ten Common Scoter bounced around in the rollers and a Red-throated Diver flew east.

Cuckmere Haven – The valley through the Downs is wide, sculpted by the meandering River Cuck. Exeat Bridge is the main route over the Cuck here and once boasted a church but that has gone. Bright sunshine and a blue sky lighten the view. Wigeon and Canada Geese are the main wildfowl, with the usual gulls and Cormorants. Further down river Little Grebe, a female Red-breasted Merganser and another Little Egret feed. I head a little way up a side valley that leads to Foxholes, an old smuggling haunt. The farm nestles in the side of the valley with sheep and horses feeding quietly on the hillside. Back on the path to the sea and Sky Larks squabble in the air, hovering and chasing each other. Down to the sea, with the first of the Seven Sisters headlands a towering, shining wall of white chalk.

Arlington – The large reservoir was a disappointment – a flock of Wigeon and some Canada Geese. On a narrow lane between Ripe and Firle a small long winged bird flew along the road in front of me. It pulled to one side and lifted over a hedge as the car drew level – a Merlin.

Thursday 7th January – West Sussex – Pagham Harbour – A real dawn chorus of Robin. The sun lurks behind mountainous cumulus clouds. Shelduck and Shovelers vie for the brightest plumage prize on the Ferry Pool. A flock of Dark-bellied Brent Geese drop onto the fields. The path from Church Norton to the Harbour is alive with singing Robins, chirping and chasing Blue Tits, alarmed Blackbirds and a hyperactive Goldcrest. Large numbers of Brent are on the mud banks of the harbour, lifting off in groups to travel inland to graze. A Little Egret flaps lazily over the channels. A Black-headed Gull bullies a Curlew and steals the worm the latter had pulled from the mud. On the beach three of us spent a long time looking at a Scoter. A Surf Scoter had been reported but we were unable to decide on the bird’s identity. Back in the harbour, thousands of Dunlin feed on the mud.

Ambersham Common – I try this site again. It is still quiet. A Kestrel hunts over the dead Bracken. A Stonechat sits on a small Silver Birch. A few Coal and Blue Tits call from the conifer plantations.

Rackham Woods/Amberley Wildbrooks – A hillside of sandstone rises up from the floodplain of the River Arun. The woods are old and blessedly unmanaged. Great trees lie dead, creating the perfect environment for new growth. The floodplain is Amberley Wildbrooks and this year the flooding is extensive. The noise of honking Greylags and Canada Geese and the whistling of hundreds of Wigeon is loud although I am ¼ mile away. I have never seen so many Pintail together before – dozens of splendid males circling and showing off.

Pulborough Brooks – More wetlands, this time managed by the RSPB. However, the pools are a little disappointing with far fewer wildfowl than on the Wildbrooks. And it starts raining heavily! I leave a hide when the rain eases and head for the next one. A pale motion over the reeds – a Barn Owl quartering the area like a giant tan-coloured moth. I reach the second hide and enjoy stunning views of the owl hunting. A little later a second Barn Owl is over the marsh.

Friday 8th January – Shoreham – The sky glitters black and white with a confetti of Lapwings. Dunlin also shine as the flash up and down the River Adur in a tight flock. There are also good numbers of Redshank and Grey Plover feeding on the slick, shiny mud. Walking back up the road, a pair of House Sparrows and a Starling are having a right set-to on a roof, possibly disputing the ownership of an under-the-eaves nesting site.

Saturday 9th January – Stanmer – A bright morning but the northerly wind is biting. Stanmer Woods are quiet, just the occasional Robin or Blue Tit. Around the park, Wood Pigeons leave their roosts with cracking wings. It looks like the Council have closed Stanmer House, a fine 18th century Mansion. On the bridleway back to the Ditchling Road I see a shiny patch on the edge of woodland. The binoculars reveal a superb male Sparrowhawk, his finely barred breast reflecting the light, yellow eyes staring unblinkingly. In a field a covey of Red-legged Partridges watch warily.

Wednesday 13th January – Barnsley Canal – Yesterday’s snow has turned to slush and fine rain. The tow-path is a mixture of mud and wet ice. The area is generally quiet – the usual Magpies, a few Fieldfare and Redwing, Blackbirds, Mallard on the loop, Moorhens, Coots and a Little Grebe calling in the distance. The Mute cygnet is still near the nursery nest, its parents and sibling are away. There must now be some doubt as to whether this cygnet can fly or not.

Saturday 16th January – Caldervale – I had forgotten how much later dawn comes in Yorkshire compared to Sussex. So when I reached the Calder-Hebble Navigation it is still dark. The canal is very full and the river flooded. Water pours over the top of the lock gates. Flocks of seagulls are heading away from Pugneys Country Park, several miles to the east. Many descend on a flooded field to bathe and seek food. At the end of the lane by The Navigation public house there is a wooden staircase leading up to a passage underneath the railway lines on a bridge over the river. It is pitch dark and rather spooky inside. Beneath my feet I can see the rushing river through gaps in the boards. Dill the Dog decides I can lead the way and follows me closely. The other side is in Horbury Junction. I wander around the streets and back to the river through the factories. Bird life is minimal and it is still gloomy in the dawn. I head back across the river and go into the woods to collect some kindling.

Friday 22nd January – Wombwell Ings – The fields and meadows are wan yet bright as the sun glances off the frost whitened grass. A Chaffinch pinks, a Robin sings and a Blue Tit chatters. Dill the Dog rolls in the grass leaving a green stain in the rime. The ings contain the usual assortment – Wigeon, Mallard, Shoveler, Teal, Goosander, Canada Geese, Little Grebe, Grey Herons, Lapwings and Black-headed Gulls – the last creating most of the noise.

Saturday 23rd January – Liverpool – The River Mersey is huge, grey and choppy. Black-headed, Herring and Great Black-backed Gulls follow the legendary Ferry towards the Pier head. We head inland to the Anglican Cathedral. It stands on the edge of a small gorge that is lined with grave stones. Building started in 1901 in a strange pink stone (later I discover it is sandstone quarried from the Liverpool suburb of Woolton), and was finished in 1941. A great central tower is flanked by naves. Inside a service is ending with the huge organ whose pipes stand high on both sides of the choir, booms out.

Sunday 24th January – Liverpool – The tide is out and ice-covered seaweed covers the exposed rocks. A Curlew and several Redshank probe the mud. The Mersey seems surprisingly shallow with large sand bars exposed. On the far shore the Cammel-Laird shipyard stands quiet. Nearby Port Sunlight is visible and in the background the mountains of North Wales rise through the mist.

Saturday 30th January – Dewsbury – The grey dankness makes it seem more like November than late January. However, the ringing song of a Mistle Thrush lightens the air. I am following a rough road parallel to the River Calder towards Mirfield. A wide shallow grassland valley is beside the road – presumably an abandoned railway.

Sunday 31st January – Worsbrough Country Park – Blue and Great Tits call loudly alongside the disused Wombwell-Penistone line. The reservoir hosts a good number of diving ducks – Pochard, Tufted Duck and Goosander. There are also the usual numbers of Mallard, Black-headed Gulls, half a dozen Grey Heron and Great Crested Grebe, whose breeding plumage is returning rapidly. A nearby field is full of rows of young Willow! I then notice that there are a number of fields that contain Willow as a crop.