When we did finally reach the coast our good fortune continued. The sun had come out on Pennington Marshes – another favourite haunt – entirely not as forecast, and the air was alive with birdsong. The first chiffchaffing of the year to reach my ears was welcomed by all, as were multiple skylarks in full pelt, towering above us. Lapwing displayed over the floods, which also hosted plenty of wigeon, teal, pintails – which seemed to be everywhere throughout the afternoon – snipe, redshanks, two or three of the paler and leggier spotted redshanks, herons, egrets, shelducks, the odd meadow pipit, and a flock of black-tailed godwits flying overhead. Phew!
We didn’t get far without seeing another birder, of course, but they brought glad tidings of great spoonbills – one had dropped into the next lagoon over about an hour before. Luckily its great white bulk was still present, and one could scarcely have hoped for better lunchtime entertainment than to watch it feed, scything its incredible cutlery-esque appendage through the murky water. Also on the bill (get it?!) was a water rail, heard squealing from the reeds but not seen, Mediterranean gulls, unmistakable due to their comic nasal call and silver-white wings, and gently singing reed buntings (two singing males which seemed only to remember half of their typical song each).
Finishing up our food, we could hear grey plovers beckoning us further towards the sea. ‘Here I am!’ they cried, as ever, and so were we, adding them to our list as we traversed the sea wall alongside scurrying dunlins, ringed plovers, turnstones, curlews and a single graceful greenshank. And then another birder, another tip-off, and within minutes we had all enjoyed fine views of a male green-winged teal, a UK lifer all round though I have seen them (much more distantly) in America. Admittedly they haven’t always been considered a separate species to the European version and look pretty much the same, apart from the jaunty angle at which they wear their white stripes. But as I always say, a tick is a tick is a tick, and as it happens a teal of any sort is a stunning animal and well worth spending quality time with.
Both spoonbill and teal had been seen earlier in the week but I had no specific expectation they’d still be present. And indeed, since the spoonbill had been seen to arrive that morning and departed high towards the Isle of Wight whilst we were still watching, it’s probable that it was a different individual. Good fortune indeed, but it still wasn’t all! Squinting out to sea, we managed to make out at least four eider ducks bobbing and diving amongst the numerous rafts of red-breasted mergansers and great-crested grebes. And finally, the afternoon was rounded off with a pleasant jaunt onto Hurst Spit, a ramble along the strandline as I had fancied, and a close encounter with a flock of 100 or so Brent geese, mumbling and murmuring in their special way as they flew low over the shingle ridge and down onto the saltmarsh.
We finished on 71 species seen and heard for the day, which by hard-core birding standards is pretty low. But our list was packed with quality and achieved in incredibly leisurely fashion. We didn’t get up at the crack of dawn. We didn’t walk very far. And the weather was as clement as could be. Any colder and standing still to watch wouldn’t have been nearly so appealing. Any warmer and we risked a greater abundance of biting flies emerging, hungry for sweet, delicious birders’ blood. Apart from the few moments when the wind picked up, or at the very end of the afternoon when mist began to roll in from the Needles, we were in an early spring birding sweet spot.
Granted, the heated observatory at Slimbridge offers an even greater degree of comfort, with padded bench seats and an impressive array of waterfowl just inches outside the windows. And the Norfolk coast might well boast an even greater variety of birds. But on Saturday afternoon the freezing conditions now ‘enjoyed’ across Britain had already reached the east coast, whilst we still basked in sunshine. Great weather, great scenery, hand-baked snacks, a comfortable car with fully operating passenger windows, and a selection of Britain’s finest bird life. If it’s luxury birding you want, you need Chris’ Tours: all aboard!
If you recall, my camera ran out of battery early in the day. The turnstones and brent geese above were photographed nearby, but back in 2008.
Below: a first annual trip to the coast always gives a flagging year list a leg up!