It’s not a zoo

Dawn over Pett Level. Flocks of Yellow Wagtails move west through twittering whirls of Swallows & House Martins. A Greenshank calls overhead and the young Buzzard commences its day’s begging. In the still air, the calls of Sandwich Terns, Curlews & Oystercatchers drift in from the beach.

The sky is scored with trails from dozens of westbound flights originating from cities now busy in daylight.

I don’t usually schedule RX Birdwalks in August since people are away or busy getting bronzed or dragged down into the grandparenting vortex and anyway the migration is only just starting. But over the last week or so there have been a lot of small migrants as well as a variety of waders passing through. On Tuesday I found no fewer than 74 species at the west end of Pett Level (though my record is 76) including my first (and last?) Swifts for 3 weeks, while on Friday morning I saw more warblers at Winchelsea Beach than I can ever recall seeing before. Local bird-ringers have been catching loads of birds this week but not so much that morning. Puzzling. There must have been hundreds of Whitethroats flitting around gardens and horse paddocks, with many Lesser Whitethroats and Willow Warblers, slightly fewer Blackcaps, several Spotted Flycatchers and a Redstart.

So Saturday’s walk would be an excellent opportunity to catch up with all these species, the only problem would be keeping up with them all.

Not so. Was it the clear night that encouraged all these little birds to lift up into the heavens and steer by the stars southward? No doubt, for few remained and were hard to see. Typically, you catch sight of them as they whizz across a gap or hop out onto the surface of a bush, but even as you raise your binoculars and attempt to fix the spot with a lightning memorization of shadow or twiggery they are gone. Maybe you can follow a trail of quivering leaves or a silhouette in the depths and, if lucky, catch enough of a glimpse of a diagnostic fragment to know what you’re looking at.

Beside the canal the Pett Level Preservation Trust maintains rich and varied habitats full of flowers, insects and birds. During the last week a Kingfisher has been regular here as well as a hunting Sparrowhawk.

So it was hard work but we did see nevertheless a reasonable range of species (59) by lunch time, the first of which was a Hobby hurtling through the Coastguard gardens in pursuit of hirundines but making do with a dragonfly. Also prowling through the gardens, now sufficiently wooded to merit their presence, were a couple of Jays, which used to be quite scarce birds here. A couple of days previously one of these Jays had departed from the usual keynote squawks to mimic the hungry keening of a young Buzzard. Jays can be disconcertingly accomplished mimics (check Xeno-canto) but for most of the time settle for Default Raucous. The Buzzard itself was hunched on a derelict owl box while its ragged parents soared overhead.

Following clearance last winter by the Trust, this sheltered glade in front of Toot Rock has attracted many small insectivorous birds.

Following my plan to find bushes full of warblers, we repaired to the beach where the rising tide should (next plan) edge waders off the moorlog and straight past us. Which it did, but they were all Turnstones. Nothing wrong with Turnstones, especially at this time of year when there are still adults in fabulous tundra-tortoiseshell breeding plumage, except that recently on an ebb tide both at Pett and Rye Harbour, I’ve seen instructive varieties of species and plumages at close hand as hungry birds have converged from their high-tide roosts. Curlew Sandpipers even.

However, the stones were warm, the sunshine warmer; it was like being on holiday with a soporific sound-track of ericking Sandwich Terns.

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