Average Birding

Pulborough Brooks

One weekend left in April. Where to go? I'm at a bit of a loss; some inspiration arrives in the shape of a tweet from Marylebone bird society. They're running a trip to Two Tree Island, but they also mention that the RSPB Central London group has a coach heading to Pulborough Brooks on the same day.

Pronoun guidance: AB1's on the coach. This post covers the events of April 28th, 2018. Cover photo of GWE actually from Dungeness!

A first time for everything

Now, I've not been to Pulborough before, but I have seen it pop up before during passage months on BirdGuides, when an interesting wader or two drops in for one or more days.

Going on the RSPB trip should provide some expert assistance; I'm assuming there's going to be some sort of group leader who knows their stuff and at least a few other semi-serious folk along for the ride. After nearly four months of amateur (average, even) self-guiding, this will make a pleasant change.

Well, that's decided then. I manage to get hold of the organiser of the coach, and there are still spaces; let's go for it. What possible perils could a coach full of mixed ability birders present?

The coach leaves from outside Embankment station at 8am on the Saturday. I'm there before the coach is; I mooch about in a way that broadcasts "too tired to interact with people right now" - this works perfectly, and I board the coach having only had to confirm my identity to the organiser.

There's mild consternation when a family of folk delays the set-off time by turning up late. Inside the coach, the population is split. There's a pleasing balance of "they're only five minutes away" versus "well, they know the rules, we can't wait for everyone". My two minds can see both sides of this argument; I suspect I'll get on with these people once I'm more awake! I park myself in a window seat and promptly fall asleep.

I wake up in a different world. What was a grey, damp view of Central London is now a sun-kissed panorama of grassy fields and woodlands. We're five to ten minutes out from the reserve. Well done, sleep governor.

In those ten minutes, I work out that I have neglected to bring my RSPB membership card. Much faffing and attempting to contact AB2 ensues, with little success. Curses. In the end, the reserve staff don't even check; the non-RSPB members have been given free passes, so it's assumed that non-pass holders are members (accurate, I suppose; the group seems to be free of any obvious master criminals).

Into the reserve

We're in. There's a minor delay while everyone goes to the loo. Thankfully, just outside the visitor centre there's a decent paved area which has a view over a good section of the reserve. A few littlies zip back and forth. I find a Buzzard sitting on a short tree in the edge of the woods to the left. Sharper eyes than mine (a good sign!) find Red-legged Partridge at the back of the field below. My first swifts of the year are scything around over the pool at the rear of the reserve. A touch too far away to hear them; shame.

The plan of this outing now starts to take shape. We're going on a well-known route, led by a man named Andrew Peel. There are a good twenty of us - how will this work? A few peel off with their own itineraries in mind, but a big group still remains. At least half of the fun of this is going to be seeing how this works!

Once we get away from the visitor centre, the first part of the reserve is definitely going to focus on passerines; it's a mixture of scrubby bramble and light birch woodland. Whitethroat is the default bird. Still no Lesser Whitethroat, though - there are three or four people who are good enough with their ears to pick it out very quickly (what a treat), and they can't hear one.

Andrew marshalls the group around this area at roughly the pace I'd choose; tarrying here and there when he picks up a hint of something interesting, but not too long. It's when he shushes a few stragglers at the back of the group that I know I'm in the hands of a professional, though. The guilty parties quieten down and exchange suitably chastened looks.

No stress Nightingale dip

We do need a bit of quiet; the next section is where we're hoping to pin down a Nightingale. How delightful to not need such an elusive tick; I listen out for the Nightingale with reasonable fervour, but with none of the nervous excitement that a year-tick viewing would bring.

The level of focus does, at least, yield some good views of the year's first Bullfinches. A good bird to tick off; it's not beyond the realms of possibility to not connect with it over a year (although there is, thinking about it, a reliable place to see them at Attenborough). We're treated to good views of Willow Warbler and Blackcap in the same area. No Nightingale though.

We turn right to explore the North end of the reserve. There's another large pool there and a vast hide capable of supporting a group lunch stop. On the way, there's another viewpoint over the pool. There's not a lot in terms of waders, but the wire fence that bisects the area from side to side is laden with hirundines; all three species are present. House Martin is new for the year for me.

The scoped among us set up to provide a better views; a few enthusiasts dispense some helpful tips to differentiate between Sand Martin (brown, obvious collar, chunky), House Martin (black, well, blue sheen, obvious white patch on rump, chunky) and Swallow (slimmer, red patch at top of chest, more delicate tail fork).

We spend a bit of time here watching these birds - like the first Whitethroats of a week ago, it's the first good view of them many of us have had for many a month, and it's marvellous to have them back. It may not be summer yet, but the dark influence of Winter is banished.

Onwards to lunch. Others have brought considerably more comprehensive supplies and I am jealous; my sandwich and biscuit pairing seems comparatively meagre. One or two Common Sandpipers (tick!) dotted around the islands in the pool provide a salve to my food envy.

The giant form of a Great Egret just a few metres in front of the hide helps too. What a neck these birds have! I wonder how fast the head accelerates when the compact s-shape snaps straight to pick up a prey item.

A pair of Linnets pop up and down in a bush on the left. There is great excitement at the appearance of a water vole in a nearby channel. Thinking about it, this perhaps isn't a great surprise. WWT Arundel is only a few miles down the river Arun from here and, on a previous visit, I'd easily describe that area as overrun with water voles. One would hope that the population would spread around a bit!

We hang here too long for my liking; the available birding is exhausted very soon after my limited food supply. I suppose that's my fault for not bringing a more bountiful set of snacks. I take the opportunity to execute a sneaky wee while the rest of the group finishes up.

Sedge hope

Our next stop is a mound that surveys an area of what can only be described as sedge (Having looked this up, I'm less convinced -Ed). Funnily enough, this would be a good place to pick up Sedge Warbler or Grasshopper Warbler. We're here at the wrong time of day though; unless there's been constant murk and rain and the sun is only just coming out, 2-3pm tends to be moribund. We find a few Blackcaps, but nothing else.

Further along, we encounter the second 'lens-good-birding-average' incident of the year. A man approaches us to ask "what is this that I've taken a photo of?" It's a Greenfinch. I am mystified that these folks can spend so much on camera kit, be clearly interested in birds, but also be so green. They don't carry binoculars either. Odd. Each to their own, I suppose.

The rest of the circuit is mostly uneventful; we do hear a Sedge Warbler in a bush off to the left of one of the paths, but despite its proximity (it can't be more than a couple of metres in) I can't get eyes on it.

One further tick awaits from the final hide of our tour; there's a juvenile Tawny Owl sitting in the crook of a tree. It has few discernible features at this stage of its life - you can pick out the head and eyes from the grey ball of fluff, but that's about it. Again a good tick to have; the owls near where we live have been almost entirely absent this year.

The group tarries in the Nightingale area on the way back to the visitor centre; I plough on; I'm running on vapours - these people don't deserve to have to cope with a hungry AB1. A chocolate brownie and a coffee later and I am restored.

Post-reserve bonuses

The group slowly filters in; they managed to track down a Nightingale and had good views. Vicarious happiness abound; interesting - hadn't realised that the success of other birders would be so contagious. It probably helps that I've already seen one (and had a recent injection of calories -AB2).

As a bonus, it appears I have been inducted into the "semi-serious birders" category. Or possibly it's just that one of this group, a friendly chap named Nigel, has decided that I need to be more closely integrated. Four of us trundle off into the sandy woodland area that's accessible from the car park in the hope of tracking down Woodlark; there's an area that's being deliberately maintained in the hope of attracting them.

This trip has no success birding-wise, but it's good to get to know the members of this crew; they are a likeable bunch with great enthusiasm for birding, tempered by, I suspect, a lot of experience of finding bugger all.

We reconnect with the remainder of the group back at the tour bus; Nigel ends up sitting next to me and does a remarkably good job of distracting me from travel sickness by telling me about the works of the West London Bird Group that he runs.

Excellent - more opportunities to go birding with people who know what they're doing. Somehow I make it all the way back to Embankment without heaving (and, all the time, paying enough attention to keep the conversation going). I stumble around Embankment for a while until the world stops spinning, then get on the Northern line home. Four-tick day; new people met, no major social embarassment; jolly good.

April roundup

I review the spreadsheet the next day with mixed feelings. It's not a bad haul for April, but one or two things that I'd hoped to have seen by now remain unticked. Reed and Sedge Warbler have both been heard but not seen; no panic there - we'll definitely come across them in the next month or so.

No Grasshopper Warbler or Lesser Whitethroat is more problematic - these will be around for a good few months, but they'll sing a lot less (and generally, after May, be a lot less visible). Let's file that under 'cause for mild concern'. We'll overlook the lack of Lesser Spotted Woodpecker and concentrate instead on the fortuitous finding of Nightingale, Ring Ouzel and Spoonbill.

In total: We've made it to a nice round 140. 60 to go. The cricket mantra of keeping the scoreboard ticking over comes to mind; a couple of birds a weekend and we should hit 220 by the end of the year.