Arundel WWT & the Arun: a Grey Wagtail, a Sedge Warbler, a Red Kite, and a Marsh Harrier, 26.04.21
As I now feel confident about using public transport again, I decided on Monday to visit the Arundel Wetland Centre (Wildfowl and Wetland Trust) and then take a walk along the Arun to Amberley.
To get to Arundel by train it is is necessary to change trains at Barnham. Next to Barnham station was a large Rookery. Whilst waiting for the train to Arundel I observed the Rooks' behaviour, it was fascinating. Rooks are social corvids, forming very large flocks. Rooks also form life-long partnerships and "spend a lot of time close together, feeding one another, displaying and vocalising together and preening. They also act at the same time, one copying the other’s movements. ... Rooks like to play with different objects, including sticks and stones. They will often play tug-of-war with another Rook. Although they don’t use sticks as tools, they do play with them, as well as use them to build nests" Rook Behaviour Guide | BTO - British Trust for Ornithology. I observed these Rooks mirroring each other at their nests. Rookeries are very noticeable at this time of the year, when Rooks nest, because of the Rooks' loud cawing; watching them play with sticks and add them to their nests is fascinating; and reminded me that nature is all around us, it is not necessary to go far to see nature, nor go to a designated nature site, such as a Nature Reserve or Wetland Centre, to see nature. The Rooks from this Rookery were not at all shy of humans, and flew onto the station platforms frequently, looking for crumbs from passengers snacks.
I also saw a pair of Collared Doves, foraging for food, on the station's platforms. I changed at Barnham again on Tuesday 27.04.21, on the way to Pulborough, and saw these Collared Doves again. When you see a bird once in a location it may not be in its home territory (many birds have a small territory in which they live), but seeing them more than once in the same area suggested that that it may be their specific territory; although it is not always possible to know whether you are seeing the same individuals. Collared Doves range covers the whole of the UK so they could be found almost anywhere, but they only came to the UK in the 1950s, after a rapid spread across Europe from the Middle East. Collared Dove Bird Facts | Streptopelia Decaocto - The RSPB
On the walk from Arundel Station to the Wetland Centre, I saw this Grey Wagtail. I saw it in flight first, it was clearly a Wagtail from it's "jizz" ("a birding term to describe a birds unique overall character and impression using shape, proportions movement etc. Once you become familiar with a species you pick up on the jizz to make a quick ID. Sometimes it gets you to a bird family quickly, or sometimes straight to a particular species"). Jizz - Identify this - Wildlife - The RSPB Community. I initially thought it was a Yellow Wagtail, but after checking with a fellow birder (via a Facebook posting in a bird group, a very good way of checking identification), it was "only" a Grey Wagtail Motacilla cinerea, still an RSPB red list bird (UK breeding estimate :38,000 pairs). Yellow Wagtails, Motacilla flava, are much rarer and a summer migrants from Africa. Grey Wagtails are more colourful than its name suggests with slate grey upper parts and distinctive lemon yellow under-tail. Its tail is noticeably longer than those of pied and yellow wagtails. They have gradually increased their range in the past 150 years and in the UK have expanded into the English lowlands from the northern and western upland . Likes fast-flowing rivers in summer their greatest densities are in the hills of England, Scotland and Wales ,Grey wagtail Bird Facts | Motacilla Cinerea - The RSPB. This Grey Wagtail was perched next to the Arun, by the Queen's Street Bridge, in a town right next to the hills of the South Downs. Knowing a bird's typical habitat and range is very important for identification.
I think it is important not to use the word "only" in bird watching, as it implies a negative comparison, which can have negative impact on well-being; downward comparisons are never helpful for happiness. I was originally disappointed that I had "only" seen a Grey Wagtail, not a Yellow Wagtail; but seeing a Grey Wagtail, like seeing any bird, is something special, if you take time to attend to its appearance and behaviour. Another problematic use of "only" is when it is used in relation to the number of species seen on a particular birding outing. When I visited RSPB Pulborough Brooks the next day (Tuesday 27.04.21) I was initially pleased with what I had seen (I saw Greenshanks and an Egyptian Goose, which were new to me, and birds that I have seen many times before, but were pleasurable to see). However, when I spoke to other birders on the site they had seen more species than me (including seeing Nightingales, which have just returned from Africa and I would have liked to have seen). I began thinking its was shame that I "only" saw the Greenshanks and the Egyptian Goose, and a few "common" birds. But really, how many species you see, or how rare they rare, are not important to wellbeing; enjoying what you see, especially when you look with sustained sustained mindful observation of appearance, behaviour, habitat etc., whatever you see, is the key to enjoying bird watching I believe. A Herring Gull doing something very interesting is just as interesting and enjoyable as seeing a very rare bird, or a large number of species.
When I walk through landscapes I enjoy finding interesting features, like this plaque from the Arundel Queens Street Bridge across the Arum, memorialising the fact that building of the bridge was instigated by Edward Blaxton, when he was mayor of Arundel. The history of bridges is fascinating, as the ability to cross a river has a profound impact on the history of settlement in Sussex. When I am walking around I try to notice things aside from birds; I am fascinated by the built environments as well non-built environments
This photo was taken Peter Trimming / Bridge at Arundel / CC BY-SA 2.0 Creative Commons Attribution Share-alike license 2.0
On the bridge was this sign that maid me chuckle. When choosing images to visually support key messages it is wise to choose images that convey visually the underlying meaning of the words/text that they support. I am no sure that the icon of the two swans on this sign supports the message of social distancing!
Arundel Wetland Centre (Wildfowl and Wetland Trust)
NGOs (Non Governmental Organisation) play an important role in the conservation of birdlife. One of the most famous is the Wildfowl and Wetland Trust, instigated by the naturalist and artist Peter Scott. The Wildfowl and Wetland Trust's mission is to "save critically endangered species from extinction, work with communities around the world who depend on wetlands and inspire people to take care of nature." Our work | WWT. Their wetlands centres are lovely places to see Wetland birds. Their wetland centres manage existing wetland habitats, or create new wetland habitats, which then become the homes of indigenous wetland species, at those birds' volition (to the degree to which birds have volition). They are also have collections of non-indigenous wildfowl for conservation purposes, some of these are in contained aviaries, to protect them
The only aspect of WWT sites I have some concerns about are aviaries which contain wildfowl which are not there for conservation purposes; for example there is a new aviary at the Arundel Wetland Centre which included Avocets and Redshanks, along with endangered wildfowl from elsewhere in the world, that are not now endangered and are native to the UK. I prefer to see Avocets and Redshanks free in their natural habitats. I saw Avocets on Saturday at the Rye Harbour Nature Reserve, and Redshanks can regularly be seen in the wild on the Adur Estuary. I also have some concerns about reference collections of non-native, non-endangered birds only there for display purposes, such as the new Pelican Cove "exhibit". Although these may have value in motivating pro-conservation behaviour, they are not in an optimal habitat for their well-being, although I did not see any distressed behaviour in the Pelicans. The Arundel WWT says: The new Coastal Creek aviary is landscaped with rocks, shoreline vegetation and waterfalls, to recreate a coastline feel, giving the seaducks and waders inside a more natural environment. Standing 15 metres tall and 40 metres long the aviary offers plenty of space for the birds to take flight. Coastal Creek Aviary opening to visitors | WWT. However, the vast majority of birds live in areas of the centre that are their natural habit (either existing landscapes or human-made landscapes that replicate their natural habitats) where they are free to come and go as they please.
Here is a Tufted duck (Aythya fuligula) - there are around 16,000-19,000 breeding pairs in the UK with 100 000 in in winter because of birds moving to the UK from Iceland and northern Europe. Tufted Duck Facts | Aythya Fuligula - The RSPB. I saw one pair in a pond, and one in a large expanse of water surround by reeds; here is a Tufted duck in a pond.
Next I saw are some Greylag Goslings
The ancestor of most domestic geese, the greylag is the largest and bulkiest of the wild geese native to the UK and Europe. In many parts of the UK it has been re-established by releasing birds in suitable areas, but the resulting flocks (often mixed with Canada geese) found around gravel pits, lakes and reservoirs all year round in southern Britain tend to be semi-tame and uninspiring. The native birds and wintering flocks found in Scotland retain the special appeal of truly wild geese. Greylag Goose Facts | Anser Anser - The RSPB
Numbers: UK breeding:46,000 pairs; UK wintering:140,000 British-breeding birds and 88,000 from Iceland
I find Greylag inspiring wherever I see them, whether it is in the pond of my local park (Queen's Park) or in "wilder" habitats (e.g. on the gravel banks of Rue Harbour), or in the Wetland Centre!
Red-breasted Geese, Branta ruficollis, are a non-native species: native to the Arctic tundra and winter around the Black Sea. Red Breasted Goose - All creatures.... - Wildlife - The RSPB Community. They are occasionally seen in the UK as escapees from ornamental ponds and lakes. One of the impacts of colonialism in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was the collection of non-indigenous species from areas colonialised by Britain, for the pleasure of seeing "exotic" animals in England's stately homes (often funded by the profits from slavery) and this can be seen in the exitance of Red-breasted Geese and Egyptian Ducks in the landscape. These animals well-being must have been suboptimal as they evolved in completely different habitat to England's landscapes. This interest in exotic "specimens" extended to children of colour, slave children were often brought to the UK by the slave-owning country-house aristocracy, to display. When these children reached puberty they were often sent back to their own countries. This was inhumane. The existence of these children is evidenced in eighteenth and nineteenth century painting commissioned by slave-owning nobility which depicts slave children, along with exotic animals, including birds. See Britain's Green and Unpleasant Land: Creative Responses to Rural England's Colonial Connections, Corrinne Fowler (2020)
When I saw this lovely Wagtail I wondered whether this was a Pied Wagatial, Motacilla alba yarrellii, or a much rarer White Wagtail, Motacilla alba alba; as it seemed slightly whiter than Pied Wagtails, but I came to the conclusion that it was Pied Wagtail
Both Pied and White Wagtails are generally treated as different subspecies of a single species - which confusingly is known as White Wagtail. The ones that we tend to refer to as "White Wagtails" in the UK are perhaps better referred to as "continental White Wagtails". They pass through the UK on their way to breed in Iceland and Scandinavia in the spring, and on their way back in the autumn (when they are more difficult to distinguish). A few may also overwinter in the UK. If the back is very dark grey, or black, then you have a Pied Wagtail. If it is a much paler grey then you might have a continental White Wagtail. A Pied Wagtail or a White Wagtail or - Identify this - Wildlife - The RSPB Community
Dalmatian Pelicans, Pelecanus crispus are native in Asian countries as China and India, as well as to the southern regions of Europe, especially Greece. These six Pelicans were acquired by the WWT in October of 2020. In the brand new Pelican Cove exhibit opening this April. Dalmatian pelicans were a familiar sight in UK wetlands 2000 years ago, but they became extinct here as their wetland homes were drained and people hunted them for food. These big birds are built to fish with a huge throat pouch under an oversized beak that holds up to 3 buckets of water, acting like a net to scoop up prey. Take a Peek at Pelican Cove | WWT
There has been talk of "re-wilding" Dalmatian Pelicans: rewilding advocate Ben Macdonald makes the case for a careful reintroduction of the birds in the near future
From bill to tail, Dalmatian pelicans grow up to six feet in length, and have wingspans of up to 11.5 feet (3.5m) – dwarfing the UK’s existing largest bird, the common crane, which has a wingspan of up to 2.4 metres. Its size means it rivals the wingspan of the largest albatross species, and it is among the heaviest flying birds.
The fossil record reveals the birds would have been very common in areas such as Somerset, Norfolk and parts of Yorkshire around 12,000 years ago, but due to hunting and drainage of wetlands, pelicans became extinct in the UK, with the last fossil from around 43AD – the time of the Roman occupation of Britain. Enormous Dalmatian pelicans could return to British skies after 2,000 years under ambitious rewilding plans | The Independent
Greylag Geese can't read!
More Greylag Goslings
Next I saw a pair of Eurasian Coots, Fulica atra and their gorgeous young
All-black and larger than its cousin, the moorhen, the Eurasian coot has a distinctive white beak and 'shield' above the beak which earns it the title 'bald'. Its feet have distinctive lobed flaps of skin on the toes which act in the same way as webbed feet when swimming. It patters noisily over the water before taking off and can be very aggressive towards other" Eurasian Coot Bird Facts | Fulica Atra - The RSPB
Its always good to see a Robin; however common they are.
Coastal Creek Aviary
Some juvenile Avocets, Recurvirostra avosetta in the Coastal Creek Aviary; I would have preferred not to see them in an aviary
These are Scaly-sided Merganser, Mergus squamatus; beautiful ducks which demonstrate how human exploitation of land, in this case forests, threatens bird life.
The Scaly-sided Merganser is also known as the Chinese Merganser. This is a large, handsome duck that resembles a cross between its closest relatives, the Red-breasted Merganser and Common Merganser, though the scaled flank feathers of both sexes are distinctive. It is a rare bird of forested lakes and rivers, its restricted range overlapping with those of both Red-breasted and Common Mergansers. Most birds breed in the Russian Far East, with small numbers in North Korea and North-east China. Little studied in the wild, it is a declining and globally Endangered species, threatened by the large-scale deforestation of the forested river valleys it favours for breeding. Scaly-sided Merganser - British Waterfowl Association
I saw Three Red-Breasted Mergansers at Widewater Lagoon at the end of of 2020; it was one of the highlights of my bird year!:
The Spectacled Eider that I saw next is a spectacular duck; and illustrates how the human exploitation of hydrocarbons and climate change threatens diversity and abundance of bird life.
The Spectacled Eider (Somateria fischeri) is a large sea duck that breeds on the coasts of Alaska and northeastern Siberia. They are named for the large white “spectacles” around its eyes, the Spectacled Eider’s striking look sets them apart from other marine birds.
When they are not nesting, these ducks spend most of the year in the frigid waters of the Arctic, where they eat bottom-dwelling mollusks and crustaceans. During the winter months, these ducks move far offshore to deep waters, where they often gather in dense flocks in openings of nearly continuous sea ice.
Unlike other sea ducks, Spectacled Eiders appear to remain in only a few areas and become vulnerable during their moulting season as they cannot fly away from a hazard. Spectacled Eiders also use long large cracks in the ice where water flows in their migration.
The U.S. population is approximately 3,000-4,000 nesting pairs.
Historically, Spectacled Eiders nested along much of the coast of Alaska, from the Nushagak Peninsula in the southwest, north to Barrow, east nearly to the Canadian border, and along much of the Arctic coast of Russia. However, climate change and oil and gas development have drastically reduced their habitat range. As a result the western Alaskan population of Spectacled Eiders dropped by 96 percent between 1957 and 1992.
The threat of oil and gas development in and near Teshekpuk Lake, known as an Important Bird area of global significance, is a possible threat to the Spectacled Eider’s future. Representative Doc Hastings’ proposed legislation to drill in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska could open up the most sensitive areas like Teshekpuk Lake to drilling and lead to the downfall of this threatened species.
The Spectacled Eider also faces possible threats from oil and gas development in the Arctic Ocean as there is currently no effective way of cleaning an oil spill in the Arctic sea ice environment. Spectacled Eider - Endangered Species Coalition
I saw many other non-native ducks and geese; they were all beautiful, and very interesting, but I am not going to discuss them here, as my main interests in ornithology are indigenous UK species, and their conservation; the re-introduction of indigenous species that are currently extinct in the UK, and introduced species that have become feral (in three sense of having escaped from domestication and become wild, i.e. can live independently of human intervention) in the UK.
Here is another Greylag Goose, with Goslings; the wild goose that is the ancestor of most domestic geese.
A diving duck (I know not which species), legs akimbo!
A Herring Gull, Larus argentatus, having a bath. Herring Gulls are so ubiquitous they get little attention from bird watchers; but their behaviour, especially of juveniles, is fascinating to watch
Whilst walking around the Wetlands centre I heard the distinctive sound of a Great Crested Woodpecker, Dendrocopos major, drumming.
It has a very distinctive bouncing flight and spends most of its time clinging to tree trunks and branches, often trying to hide on the side away from the observer. Its presence is often announced by its loud call or by its distinctive spring 'drumming' display. The male has a distinctive red patch on the back of the head and young birds have a red crown. Great Spotted Woodpecker Facts | Dendrocopos Major - The RSPB
They will happily tuck in at [garden] feeders containing peanuts, sunflower seeds and fat, and sometimes peck at apples in search of grubs inside. In late spring, adult woodpeckers often bring their offspring to feeders. Leaving dead trees standing where they are will mean a supply of wood-boring grubs and other bugs, great spotted woodpeckers' principal food source. Attracting Great Spotted Woodpeckers to your Garden - The RSPB
Walking through the reed beds I heard the sound of and then eventually saw a Sedge Warbler, Acrocephalus schoenobaenus. They are summer visitors, and winter in Sub-Saharan Africa. Their habitat in the UK is marshes, reedbeds and wetlands, where they perch on reeds and willow branches.
It is difficult to see birds whose habitat is mostly reeds; the week before last I saw a Reed Bunting in Broadland's Park, in Worthing, in the reeds around the lake. It gives me a real sense of satisfaction when a get a sight of a warbler or bunting.
This Coot is showing it's amazing bulbous feet made of lobed flaps of skin on the toes, which act like webbed feet when swimming, and mean they can walk on lilies and on water when they are taking off into flight.
A Canada Goose and her goslings, Branta canadensis.
The Canada goose is our largest goose and maybe our most familiar. They are a common bird across most of the country, nesting on park lakes, flooded gravel pits and reservoirs. Canada geese are not native to this country, having been introduced from North America about 300 years ago. After the Second World War, they spread across the UK, ... they can congregate in large numbers. Canada goose | The Wildlife Trusts
This is a Whooper Swan, Cygnus cygnus; it "is a large white swan, bigger than a Bewick's swan. It has a long thin neck, which it usually holds erect, and black legs. Its black bill has a large triangular patch of yellow on it. It is mainly a winter visitor to the UK from Iceland, although a small number of pairs nest in the north. The estuaries and wetlands it visits on migration and for winter roosts need protection. Its winter population and small breeding numbers make it an Amber List species. Whooper Swan Facts | Cygnus Cygnus - The RSPB
This Whooper Swan is not a winter visitor, whilst it is not held at the Wetland Centre against its will, it is resident here all year, so it is not following the typical life course of Whooper Swans seen, now rarely, elsewhere in the UK.
There are also Berwick Swans Cygnus Columbianus bewickii, at the Wetland Centre .
Bewick's swan was named in 1830 by William Yarrell after the engraver Thomas Bewick, who produced the first illustrated guide to birds: The History of British Birds (2 volumes, 1797 and 1804) it is a subspecies of the Tundra swan (Cygnus columbianus),a small Holarctic swan.
Bewick's swan adults are white all over and young birds greyish with a pinkish bill. Compared to the similar whooper swan, these swans have proportionally more black and less yellow on their bill. They're also smaller than both mute and whooper swans and have faster wingbeats. Bewick's Swan Facts | Cygnus Columbianus bewickii - The RSPB
Every autumn, Bewick’s swans face a dangerous migration to the UK from northern Russia. Along their 3,500km route between the breeding and wintering sites there are predators, fewer wetlands and the risk of hitting power lines, but if they don’t migrate, they will be caught in the ice and snow of the arctic winter. In spring, they do it all again as they fly back to Russia. We also fear the rapidly changing climate of the Arctic will affect them. Monitoring Bewick's swans | WWT
The only swans that can be seen in the UK are Mute, Whopper and Bewick, and only Mute Swans breed in the UK. There are some Black Swans, Cygnus atratus, native to Australia which have escaped from ornamental collections
I took a boat ride (a "Boat Safari") in the Wetlands Centre, starting along the plant-filled wet meadow, onto the woodland "carr "( a type of waterlogged wooded terrain that, typically, represents a succession stage between the original reedy marsh and the likely eventual formation of forest Whittow, John (1984). Dictionary of Physical Geography.) The carr has willows and black poplar. The final section is the reed bed, where I saw this Tufted Duck.
Just before I left the Wetland Centre I heard some loud Black-headed Gull calls; I looked up up and saw two birds having a bit of a barney.
And last but not least, another humble Mallard, Anas platyrhynchos. Mallards are so common that bird watchers almost never mention them. When children say "duck" they are almost always referring to Mallards. But their ubiquity leads us to overlook their phenomenal beauty.
A walk to Amberley, along the River Arun
As soon as I left the gates of the Wetland Centre I saw this Mute Swan on her nest, in a brook next to the road that leads into the Wetland Centre, and as I looked up I saw three Mallards flying.
I have never walked from the Black Rabbit (the popular riverside pub in Arundel) to Amberley along the River Arun. I have wake from Littlehampton to the Black Swan in Arundel but never further. The walk was a revelation; it is such a beautiful part of Sussex; it felt to me a quintessential expression of Sussex downland countryside: gentle hills, sheep grazing the short grass of the uplands; the sound of warblers and buntings in the reeds along the river banks, birds of prey high in the sky, villages with flint-faced buildings. This landscape and ecology is not entirely "natural"; downland short grass ecology only exists because humans started grazing with sheep; the birds of prey have only recently made a come back partly due to human intervention.
This is the church of Saint Mary's in Burpham, seen from the river bank. A cruciform church with south aisles and porch and west tower. North transept and arch of south transept Norman, nave arcade Transitional-Norman, chancel C13, tower C15. The south transept, south aisle and porch were demolished in 1800 and rebuilt on the old foundations by Sir Thomas Jackson in 1868-1869, when the church was restored. Good large village church of medieval date, of which there are not many cruciform examples in Sussex. THE PARISH CHURCH OF ST MARY, Burpham - 1027657 | Historic England
This is the map at Amberley Station showing the local area of the South Downs National Park in which the station is located; showing Burpham, South Stoke and North Stoke.
Opposite Burpham I noted a huge bird fly overheard. I thought at first it was a Buzzard because I had seen a few Buzzards in the Adur valley of late. However, I checked my photo with the Cornell University Ornithological Laboratory App - Merlin - and it identified it as a Marsh Harrier. As this is a rarer bird, I posted the image in the Shoreham and District Ornithology Society private Facebook group, and a fellow bird watcher confirmed that it was indeed a Marsh Harrier, Circus aeruginosus
The Sussex Bird Report for 2019; the mot recent report of the Sussex Ornithological Society, reports that in April 2016 16 Marsh Harriers were seen in Sussex: Pulborough Brooks and the Arun Valley being one of the reported area.
The following information is from Countryfile magazine on-line's Marsh harrier guide: ID, how big, flight patterns and prey - Countryfile.com By Pete Dommett and highlights the terrible damage to bird life by agricultural pesticides (Published: March 24th, 2021 at 8:53) and the remarkable recovery in numbers that can occur when human-made threats to animals are resolved
Reduced to a single breeding pair in Britain 50 years ago, the marsh harrier is now thriving in its wetland strongholds.
There are three species of harrier in the UK, the largest of which is the marsh harrier. In 1971, this impressive raptor was Britain’s rarest breeding bird. Since then, numbers have steadily increased and today there are 590–695 breeding pairs in Britain. Head to one of its stronghold and you may be lucky enough to spot its silhouette nicking the sky like a razor; a sharp-cut chevron on a backdrop of blue. Simple, subtle and with just a suggestion of menace.
How to identify a marsh harrier The marsh harrier is the largest harrier and has a heavier build and broader wings than other species. They are wetland specialists. Marsh harriers have a lazy flight – a few slow flaps followed by a long, wavering glide. Males are silver, black and rusty-red, while female harriers have dark brown bodes and are noticeably bigger. Marsh harriers have a wingspan of 122cm and weigh 540g (male)/670g (female).
History of the marsh harrier Half a century ago, an opportunity to glimpse the marsh harrier’s spring courtship would have been an exceptional privilege. In 1971, the marsh harrier was Britain’s rarest breeding bird of prey: just one pair nested at Minsmere in Suffolk that year.
The species – along with other raptors, such as the peregrine falcon – had been all but wiped out by the widespread use of agricultural pesticides, including the now-infamous DDT, which built up in the birds’ bodies. Coming after a century and a half of extensive habitat destruction and relentless persecution, this was very nearly the final nail in the coffin. To avoid extinction as a British breeding bird, the marsh harrier would have to bounce back from this perilous position. Which, astonishingly, it did. A gradual withdrawal of insidious insecticides, stronger legal protection and the redevelopment of wetland habitats paved the way for a long-term revival. You may also like:
How many marsh harriers are there in Britain? The UK’s breeding population of marsh harriers has almost tripled over the last 25 years and is still on the up; the most recent estimate (published in the journal British Birds in February 2020) puts the figure at between 590 and 695 pairs.
Marsh harrier distribution The majority of these, at around 70%, are in the east and south-east of England – it’s still the species’ stronghold. However, this bird has recently expanded its range, spreading north to counties such as Cumbria, Northumberland and Aberdeenshire and west to Somerset. Marsh harriers were West Country birds long ago. Go back thousands of years and these graceful raptors would have populated the Somerset Levels, then a vast marshy sea. In fact, the UK’s only fossil records found for this species are from Iron Age lake settlements in the area. The marsh harriers later lost their marshland habitat as the land was drained, first for farming and, centuries later, by a rapidly expanding peat industry. The latter – which peaked in the 1960s as the demand for horticultural peat resulted in large-scale extraction – left huge, dark scars across the landscape. Identified by its broad wings and long tail, with a wingspan of 1.2m, the marsh harrier is the largest of the harriers
Marsh harrier courtship and breeding Marsh harriers are well known for their impressive courtship displays. The male marsh harrier climbs high, turns and then tumbles downwards like a lovestruck lapwing. This dramatic display – evocatively known as ‘skydancing’ – is performed by other harriers and it’s a thrilling bit of theatre. The climax of this courtship ritual is the famous mid-air food pass. The male bird often holds his position in the air with a kite-like tilt of the tail, his legs dangling. Squealing, the female flies beneath him and then, at the last moment, flips upside down with talons extended. The male lets go of his parcel of prey for his prospective partner to take.
This breathtaking behaviour is not just for show. By provisioning his mate with prey, the male harrier ensures that she’s in prime condition for egg-laying, which usually begins in late April. And it doesn’t end there. Hidden away on her reed-bed nest, the female relies on food deliveries throughout incubation – which takes 31–38 days – and for the first two weeks after the four or five chicks have hatched. Add in the fact that the male might well be supplying food to another female, for marsh harriers are routinely bigamous, and he’s got his work cut out until well into the summer months. Marsh harrier hunting and diet The items on a marsh harrier’s menu are many and varied. Everything from insects and amphibians to small mammals and the chicks of waterbirds are taken by the male. The female bird, being larger, can target more substantial meals – including moorhens, water rails and wading birds – to feed her growing brood.
The marsh harrier’s hunting maxim is ‘low and slow’. It quarters the ground like a barn owl, floating above the reeds on those long, V-shaped wings, looking and listening intently for movement below – their owl-like facial discs assist with this. Surprise is their key to success: they can turn on a sixpence and drop down on to their quarry in an instant. Marsh harriers have a varied diet that often include moorhens.
Do marsh harriers migrate? Until recently, most marsh harriers migrated to north and west Africa at the end of the breeding season. Now, they’re overwintering in the UK in ever-increasing numbers."
Shortly after seeing the Marsh Harrier I saw this bull in the next field, which caused me some perturbation.
Fortunately when I climbed the stile into the bull's field I noted that he and his entourage were separated from the path by a small brook
The next settlement on the Arun is South Stoke. The curious tower of it's church, looking like a Victorian Gothic town hall, can be seen from some distance away. St Leonards is a flint church from the11th century two-cell church, altered in the 13th century with lancets, a porch and a tower with a narrow arch of unusual form. There were extensive 19th century alterations.
The small village is two miles from Arundel along a narrow lane, which ends by the church, and is close to the river Arun, on the other side of which North Stoke is to be found. Half of the parish is in Arundel park and the Duke of Norfolk presented his secretary James Dallaway, the historian of Sussex, to the rectory in 1799 (VCH 5(1) p213).
The two-cell church is built of flint, which includes herringbone masonry in the less restored north walls of the nave and chancel. The proportions of the doorways suggest it is later 11th century, so this is quite possibly the church mentioned in Domesday Book (11, 84). ... The west end is not the only unexpected feature, for the later 13th century south porch has small triangular buttresses on each side, intended to support the vault inside which has heavy transverse ribs, another unexpectedly ambitious feature for such a church. ... In the 15th century the nave roof was renewed (the replacement has crownposts) ...T his was replaced by lancets at a heavy 19th restoration, of which nothing is known, except that it was after her visit. The most conspicuous change was a new spirelet on the tower, over-sized and corbelled out in a way more reminiscent of a Victorian town hall. Such a clumsy design hardly suggests the involvement of a significant architect. South Stoke – St Leonard – Sussex Parish Churches
The path north of South Stoke passes through picturesque countryside, with wooded banks along the rover Arun and its tributary rivulets, one of which crossed by a foot bridge
From the footbridge I saw and heard the beautiful song of a Song Thrush Turdus philomelos; a species that was once common but has greatly declined
A familiar and popular garden songbird whose numbers have declined markedly on farmland and in towns and cities. It's smaller and browner than a mistle thrush with smaller spotting. Its habit of repeating song phrases distinguish it from singing blackbirds. It likes to eat snails which it breaks into by smashing them against a stone with a flick of the head.
The decline in song thrush numbers has probably been caused by the loss and degradation of preferred feeding and nesting habitats. Loss of hedgerows and wet ditches removed feeding and nesting sites, while increased land drainage and tillage are likely to have reduced the number of earthworms and other crucial invertebrate prey available to song thrushes on farmland. Grazed permanent pasture (especially cow pastures) and woodland are important habitats with plenty of food for song thrushes. Both of these have been lost or degraded in many lowland areas. Song Thrush Threats - The RSPB
I looked back to South Stoke through a clearing in the wooded bankside path
As I left Small Stoke I saw a Grey Heron, Ardea cinerea, fly into the air from a site on the banks a small brook.
Grey herons are unmistakeable: tall, with long legs, a long beak and grey, black and white feathering. They can stand with their neck stretched out, looking for food, or hunched down with their neck bent over their chest. What they eat: Lots of fish, but also small birds such as ducklings, small mammals like voles and amphibians. After harvesting, grey herons can sometimes be seen in fields, looking for rodents. Grey Heron Bird Facts | Ardea Cinerea - The RSPB
Thomas Bewick, for his 1797 History of British Birds, produced this beautiful woodcut of a Heron eating
Thomas Bewick, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
The path to North Stoke, and on to Amberley, leaves the River, as the river bends West, and passes over a small hill, in the field through which the path passes there were many rabbits Oryctolagus cuniculus.
Rabbits are a common sight in the British countryside, and their emblematic status as a signifier of an English bucolic sentiment was reinforced by Beatrix's Potter's Peter the Rabbit books. Wild Rabbits though were, and still are, a source of food for those on low incomes; my Nan cooked rabbits which my Grandfather, a butcher and farmer, shot.
Beatrix Potter explores this tension between human and animal. It is important to recall, then, that Potter wrote that Peter’s father was baked in a pie by Mrs McGregor. Real world things really happen to animals. Throughout the story, Peter is aware of the danger he is in. He is aware of his own mortality. Peter’s persona as a “naughty boy” is not played out as an identity by which he is judged or punished, though, but rather, as a sensibility that must simply enact itself.
Children are left to decide for themselves about the consequences of his disobedience and desire. As such, this ambiguity has helped maintain The Tale of Peter Rabbit as part of a canon of literature and film for children that has become part of the very process of their development and socialisation. Paul Wells, August 31, 2018, The Conversation Peter Rabbit: why it is still one of the greats of children's literature (theconversation.com)
(C) Royal Mail
The following information about rabbits comes from The Mammal Society Species – Rabbit – The Mammal Society
Lifespan: Rabbits don’t often live for more than 3 years. Over 90% die in the first year of life, and most of these in the first three months.
Origin & Distribution: There are a number of reports now indicating that rabbits were originally brought over by the Romans in the 1st century. What remains unclear is when a wild breeding population was established after this. Rabbits are now widespread throughout Britain and Ireland, but are absent from Rum, Isles of Scilly and a few smaller islands. Rabbits can be found almost anywhere they can burrow: sand dunes, railway verges and even in urban areas. The most suitable areas are those where the burrow area and food supply are side-by-side, such as woodland edge and hedgerows. Open warrens are maintained where good burrowing conditions exist on areas of short grass, sand dunes, railway verges and in urban areas. They are rarely found above the tree-line and avoid damp conditions and areas deep in conifer woodland.
Diet: Rabbits eat a wide range of plants including grasses, cereal crops, root vegetables and young shoots of meadow plants. They will eat tree bark especially when snow covers other food sources.
General Ecology: The random network of tunnels, dens and bolt holes is known as a warren. Tunnelling is undertaken predominantly by the female. The depth of the burrows depends on the nature of the soil and the height of the water table. Large warrens usually imply a high population of rabbits. Rabbits are normally nocturnal but will come out in daylight if undisturbed, especially during the long days of summer.
Social groups vary from a single pair to up to 30 rabbits using the same warren. Within large groups there is a distinct social hierarchy. Origins of status are not known. The most dominant males, known as bucks, have priority of access to females, known as does. The most dominant does have access to the best nest sites. Bucks and does seldom fight with each other. Competition between does for nest sites can lead to serious injuries and death. In groups with more than one female and more than one male, rabbits are not monogamous. Lower ranking rabbits may be forced to breed in single entrance breeding “stops” away from the main burrows where they and their young are more vulnerable to predators.
When I was a child everyone knew about Rabbits and Myxamatosis; as its was a scandal. Myxamatosis and rabbits is the paradigmatic example of how unnecessary human intervention in controlling animal populations can be a disaster for animal wellbeing. Myxomatosis is a disease caused by Myxoma virus, a poxvirus in the genus Leporipoxvirus. The natural hosts are tapeti (Sylvilagus brasiliensis) in South and Central America, and brush rabbits (Sylvilagus bachmani) in North America. The myxoma virus causes only a mild disease in these species, but causes a severe and usually fatal disease in European rabbits (Oryctolagus cuniculus). Myxomatosis is an excellent example of what occurs when a virus jumps from a species adapted to it to a native host, and has been extensively studied for this reason. The virus was intentionally introduced in Australia, France, and Chile in the 1950s to control wild European rabbit populations. Myxomatosis - Wikipedia
As I walked through the wooded path toward Amberley I saw many spring flowering plants e.g. Field Speedwell, Veronica agrestis
As I walked into Amberley I saw this Starling, Sturnus vulgaris. Starlings often perch on telegraph wires and TV aerials.
Starling numbers have declined markedly across much of northern Europe and the UK. The decline in the UK started during the early 1980s and has continued ever since. Recent data from the Breeding Bird Survey suggest continuing population declines affecting starlings in England and Wales since 1995. The cause of the starling decline in the UK is unknown.
Long-term monitoring by the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) shows that starling numbers have fallen by 66 per cent in Britain since the mid-1970s. Because of this decline in numbers, the starling is red listed as a bird of high conservation concern. Starling Population Trends and Conservation - The RSPB
And a few meters on I saw this beautiful Goldfinch, Carduelis carduelis
Unlike Starlings, the population of Goldfinches is booming in the UK, partly because of garden feed.
Populations of birds like goldfinches and wood pigeons that were rarely seen in gardens 40 years ago are now booming because people are leaving out food for them, according to a new study. As a result they are "reshaping" entire communities, researchers said.
“Back in the 1970s goldfinches and wood pigeons were seen eating food in 10 per cent of gardens whereas now they’re in around 90 per cent of gardens which have food out,” lead researcher Kate Plummer from the British Trust of Orthonology (BTO) told The Independent.
During that decade, households mainly put out nuts, oats and seed mixes. At the time, half of all birds using feeders were either sparrows and starlings. Now there’s much more choice, with fat balls, niger seeds, suet cake and sunflower hearts all on sale. As a result there is a greater diversity of birds coming into our gardens, including long-tailed tits, siskins, nuthatches and bullfinches. Formerly rare garden birds now booming thanks to food put out for them, report says | The Independent | The Independent
As I walked along I frequently heard the booming caws of Rooks, in Rookeries.
Here is an example of the problems that we have maintaining historic chalk grassland habitat. We see sheep; grazing is the activity that produced and maintains the rare short grass habitat of the South Downs, above the sheep is a vineyard, which are becoming more common on the South Downs. Wine is more profitable than sheep farming.
As I approached Amberley I saw this Blackbird, Turdus merula; the singing of Blackbirds is one of the pleasures of an evening walk in the countryside. This Blackbird shows the traits of leucism (an abnormal condition of reduced pigmentation affecting various animals (such as birds, mammals, and reptiles) that is marked by overall pale color or patches of reduced coloring and is caused by a genetic mutation which inhibits melanin and other pigments from being deposited in feathers, hair, or skin Leucism | Definition of Leucism by Merriam-Webster
After hearing the blackbird I noticed a large bird of prey circling the Arun Valley, again I thought it was buzzard, but when I looked at the photo carefully I realised it was a Red Kite, the first time I have seen a Red Kite knowingly. I felt so excited, I had always wanted to see a Red Kite in Sussex, as they are emblematic of the importance of reintroduction projects
Red Kite were extinct in the UK, and they are an example of a very successful re-introduction; and the horrors of egg collecting. The following text comes from Red Kite Conservation - The RSPB and shows the wonderful success of the reintroduction of Red Kites.
The red kite is subject to the longest continuous conservation project in the world.
Red kite persecution
The first Kite Committee was formed in 1903 by concerned individuals appalled at the continuing destruction of kites, who initiated the first nest protection schemes. The RSPB is thought to have been involved continuously since 1905. The rarity of the red kite made it a prime target for egg collectors and bounty hunters, who robbed up to a quarter of nests each year. More sophisticated nest protection initiatives during the 1950s and 1960s succeeded in reducing the proportion of nests robbed, and this is no longer regarded as a serious problem for red kites.
In 1980s the red kite was one of only three globally threatened species in the UK, and so it was a high priority for conservation efforts.
It became apparent that due to the low rate of chick production by the Welsh kites, largely caused by the marginal habitat the birds live in, combined with the activities of egg collectors and illegal poisoning, the birds would be unlikely to be able to spread out of Wales.
In recognition of this, the RSPB and NCC (now Natural England and Scottish Natural Heritage), got together in 1986 to discuss the feasibility of reintroducing the red kite to England and Scotland.
Reintroduction would only be considered if the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) criteria were met in full:
Existence of good historical evidence of former natural occurrence.
A clear understanding of why the species disappeared. Only if the disappearance was due to human action and the species was unlikely to recolonise naturally, would it be considered.
The factors causing extinction have been rectified.
Suitable habitat is still present to support a viable population.
Birds intended for release are genetically as close as possible to the former indigenous population.
The removal of birds for the project does not jeopardise the survival of the population from which the birds are taken.
The red kite is one of few bird species in Britain that fulfils all the criteria.
In 1989, six Swedish birds were released at a site in north Scotland and four Swedish and one Welsh bird in Buckinghamshire. Altogether, 93 birds of Swedish and Spanish origin were released at each of the sites, with the last birds released in 1993 in Scotland and 1994 in England.
The first successful breeding was recorded at both sites in 1992, and two years later kites reared in the wild themselves reared young for the first time. Successful breeding populations have become established in both locations.
These early successes justified the next stages of the programme with the aim to produce five self-sustaining breeding populations of red kites in Britain by year 2000. The eventual aim is to ensure that the red kite breeding population expands to colonise all suitable habitat throughout the UK.
What happened next?
Accordingly, the first 11 birds in East Midlands were released in 1995. The first breeding was recorded in 1997, when three pairs bred successfully fledging eight young. Almost a half of the birds released in the Midlands originated from the south England population. In 1996 the first 19 red kites (originating from Germany) were released at a site in central Scotland. They first nested in 1998 when two pairs fledged five young. In 1999 the first red kites were released at Harewood House, north of Leeds, and to everyone’s surprise, the first successful breeding took place the following year. To help the English and Scottish populations to join up, another release site was set up in Dumfries and Galloway in 2001. Four pairs nested there two years later. Releases in the Derwent Valley in north-east England started in 2004.
The future for red kites
Until now, the red kites have enjoyed the goodwill of local people, and it is important for the long term survival of the birds that this continues. Although kites were traditionally associated with low-intensity agriculture, the re-introduced kites seem to be doing well even in the more intensively farmed southern England.
The main threats they face are illegal poisoning by bait left out for foxes and crows, secondary poisoning by rodenticides, and collisions with power cables. These problems are continually being addressed to reduce their impact on the kites.
All the birds released as a part of the reintroduction programme and a proportion of the wild-fledged young have been fitted with coloured wing tags, each with a number/letter combination that allows for individual recognition. Please report any sightings of tagged red kites to the BTO website. This will help with monitoring the whereabouts and movements of the tagged individuals and the spread of the kite population as a whole.
Public footpaths are a great treasure of the British landscape; they democratise the landscape. All of my walk from the Black Rabbit, Arundel to Amberley was on footpaths. But footpaths ae under threat: The footpath network of England and Wales has developed over centuries. Many of the paths we use today date back to medieval times, and even earlier. But here’s the thing: it’s estimated that around 10,000 miles of rights of way aren’t documented
on the official record known as the Definitive Map. Some are in regular use, while some may be fading away; inaccessible or impassable. But whatever state they are in, if they’re not recorded by January 1st 2026, they will cease to be registered as rights of way, and we can’t legally walk them any more. Help protect an at-risk footpath near you — Walk 1000 Miles
Approaching Amberley, I heard then saw a male Pheasant, Phasianus colchicus, a common sight and sound in the English countryside, although they are not indigenous birds: Pheasants are native to Asia, but were introduced into much of Europe by the Romans, possibly arriving in the UK with the Normans in the 11th century. Largely forgotten and locally extinct up until the 19th century, they became a popular gamebird once again and are extensively reared by gamekeepers. Pheasant | The Wildlife Trusts
a male and female pair of Pheasants
the female Pheasant
Walking into Amberley many wild flowers were in bloom.
Red Campion, Silene dioica
English Violet, Viola odorata
I saw a female Mute Swan, Cygnus olor on her nest, the flood plain of Amberley, south if the village
She was joined by a bullock,
And a saw another male Pheasant, with two females - a "harem"
Pheasants are birds that can be found alone or in small flocks. Typically, a mother hen and her brood will stay together until early autumn. While pheasants are able to fly fast for short distances, they prefer to run. If startled however, they will burst to the sky in a "flush." Their flight speed is 38 to 48 mph when cruising but when chased they can fly up to 60 mph.
Pheasants spend almost their entire life on the ground, rarely ever being seen in trees. They eat a wide variety of foods including, insects, seeds, and leaves.
Roosters typically have a harem of several females during spring mating season. Hen pheasants nest on the ground, producing a clutch of around twelve eggs over a two to three week period in April to June. The incubation period is about 23 days.
As I walked into Amberley I saw this Goldfinch on a TV aerial, a sight I have not seen before; they are normally in trees, hedges or bird feeder, or feeding on teasels.
After three hours ambling from Arundel I reached Amberley's train station, which is on the London Victoria to Bognor Regis line, opened by the London, Brighton and South Coast Railway on 3 August 1863. In its former good yard is now the Amberley Museum, a fascinating museum which showcases and preserves the rural, transport, industrial and communications history of the south of England Visit Amberley Museum for a family day out in Sussex
My last sight and sound of Amberley, as a boarded the train back to Barnham ,was a Blackbird on top of one of the station cat park lights sing his heart out. Bird are everywhere,
I was quite hungry when I got to Barnham Station (20.20) so I bought a packet of crisps from the vending machine at the station. When I sat down to eat them, this Rook came up to me and tried to scrounge some crisps. When I didn't oblige it went to the rubbish sack and tried to open it with its beak; it was a hungry Rook.
When I got off the train at Brighton to walk home from the station the moon was full.