top of page
  • Writer's pictureSim Elliott

Making the most of life despite the limitations of covid-19; a great day with the birds of Shoreham

On Monday (21st December, the Winter Solstice) I had planned to got to Arundel, to visit the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust site there; however I decided not to go, as to get there I would need to take two trains, and whilst travel in tier two areas is permitted, considering the significantly increased number of covid cases in Brighton and Hove (a 61% increase in 7 days), I thought it better to avoid public transport. I am quite an anxious person; and I am the carer of someone in the clinically highly vulnerable category. I have to be careful. I felt disappointed, and I considered my options: stay at home or brave the rain on my bike? The best pace to see birds near me is undoubtedly the Adur Estuary and the Widewater Lagoon at Shoreham, but that would entail an 8 mile cycle in the rain.

When I looked out of the window at the heavy rain in Brighton I considered staying at home. But I remembered from previous experience that the weather in Shoreham can be very different from Brighton's weather, even though it is only 8 miles away; and the weather often changes quickly. In fact, it rained heavily, with intermissions of light drizzle, most of the day; but I had a fantastic day of birding.

It is very hard to get crisp images of birds on the shortest day of the year, when the day is permanently dusky as a result low cloud and permanent rain; but that doesn't spoil the enjoyment of capturing moments that uplifted me. The real pleasure of bird watching for me comes from seeing birds; the images I take are imperfect reminders of the moments of pleasure I experienced in the day. I enjoy taking photographs that I think are good; but I am not that bothered if my photos are mediocre, as they remind me of happy moments, however imperfect they are.

On arrival in Shoreham, after parking my bike and walking up the Adur from the Rope Tackle, the first birds I saw were some distant gulls - mostly Black-headed Gulls (in their winter, not black-headed summer plumage), Herring Gulls and a few Great Black-backed Gulls. I saw a lot of preening; hardly surprising in so much rain: birds use "wax" from their uropygial (preen) gland to waterproof their feathers. I had taken a leaf out of the birds book before leaving: I had chosen to wear my wax jacket; which proved waterproof.

Soon I noticed, just in front of me, a small group of Oystercatchers, feasting on mussels close to the Norfolk Bridge. Each Oystercatcher had a half-muddied beak, from picking mussels from the dark silt of the estuary.

I particularly enjoyed seeing this Oystercather swallow a mussel.

Whilst this is is not a great image, it reminds me of the joy of focussing closely on the very focussed attention that Oystercatchers utilise when foraging: they look very carefully, and so do I.

As I walked up the east side of the estuary I saw several Redshanks. I find Redshanks particularly elegant birds; their long legs and beaks seem perfectly designed for eating while wading. The way in which evolution selects morphological features that promote survival is one of nature's greatest marvels.

Further north I found this Little Egret striding purposefully, clearly looking for a fish lunch. Egret's have quite a comical gait when they are searching for prey speedily; it reminded me of film clips I had seen of the "Egyptian" dancing of the musical hall act Wilson, Keppel and Betty; much liked by my parents; less liked by me.

When I arrived at the old Toll Bridge and crossed it I saw my first sight of Lapwings in the Adur Estuary, on the mud island just north of the bridge. Lapwings are not particularly rare (although they are on the RSPB red list and their numbers are sharply declining due to land management practices - see the appendix on Lapwings at the end of this post) and they can regularly be spotted on the Adur, but Lapwings are so beautiful they lift my spirits.

There was a flock of about 30-40 birds, mixed with Starlings.

The Lapwing's sticky-outy top knot (i.e. it's crest) is, to me, their most enduring feature; especially when it flops over when preening.

Their crests defy gravity when their heads are upright.

This Lapwing has not sunk in the estuary silt; it is standing on a platform of silt below the foreground mud bank.

Thomas Bewick, wood engraver and naturalist, beautiful represented in wood and described in words Lapwings in his 1804 second volume of his History of British Birds.

"a tuft of long narrow feathers issues from the back part of the head, and turns upward at the end; some of them for inches in length... The Pee-wit [the alternative onomatopoeic name for Lapwing] is a lively active bird, almost communally in motion; it sports and frolics in the air in all directions, and assumes a variety of attitudes; it remains long upon the wing, and sometimes rises a considerable height; it runs along the ground very nimbly and springs and bounds form spot to spot with great agility"

The 40 odd Lapwings I saw were mostly sedentary, at the time of observation, although some certainly showed the capacity to run very numbly.

As I walked back down the estuary, toward the town, I passed some very common birds - some sparrows and a wood pigeon. I love common birds; their beauty is often overlooked because they are everyday birds. The common House Sparrow's numbers are declining; but they can still be seen with ease in Shoreham, and in my back garden in Brighton.

I try not to anthropomorphise birds; but sometimes I can't help it. This Wood Pidgeon looks particular grumpy in the continuous rain that has ruffled its feather. The "ruffled feathers" idiom in common parlance is based on the mistaken belief that ruffled feathers are a sign of agitation and anger in birds. This bird is just wet!

After walking across the new Shoreham foot bridge, which forms part of the National Cycle Networks Route 2 - Dover to St Austell - wow, I had a takeaway lunch (a hot vegetarian pasty, a hot vegan sausage roll and a very hot coffee) on Shoreham Beach. I had a take-away because I did not want to sit inside because of covid; I am used to eating in the rain, wind and cold outdoors now. The secret is to get the hottest takeaway you can, and eat it as quickly as you can.

As I walked along the beach I spotted a crow repeatedly flying up from the ground to drop a shellfish on to the beach to crack the shells. Such planning shows the extraordinary intelligence of corvids.

Crows have a false reputation of being sinister because of the nature of their craws (see the appendix below for information of crow's craws) and their frequent use in books and films to signify threat and an ominous atmosphere.

So when I saw this crow on cross on the spire of the Church of the Good Shepherd, Shoreham Beach, it was hard not to see it as a signifier of something sinister.

But crows are some of the most intelligent birds. Crows are mainly solitary, but they often forage in groups. A group of crows is called a murder; which doesn't help their reputation; and their will mob birds that are predators; but that is a form self-defensive.

When I got the beach, there were many Herring Gulls to be seen, as always. Watching the gulls surf large waves on a blustery day is always fun, and they fly close over the waves when its blustery.

When I arrived at Widewater, as soon as I walked to the start of the lagoon, by the car park, I saw these three Red-breasted Mergansers (in their winter plumage) immediately; pure luck that they had lined themselves up like three ducks on a wall (although Mergansers are not ducks).

Whilst this is not a great photo, I was pleased to have snapped this shot of a Black-headed Gull passing a Merganser very closely; with no social interaction (and no two-meter social distance as per covid rules either!)

And as the sun was setting I spotted these three Mallards; the commonest duck, but one of the most charming!

This Mallard was having a scratch; but I needed to have taken it with a faster shutter speed to get a better photograph; but it amused me greatly.

On my walk back to collect my bike, I walked along the path aside houseboats; the sun was setting and the path was illuminated by the the lights from the boats; this bush was the brightest thing had seen in a day of mist, low cloud, rain and drizzle; but I had enjoyed it enormously, taking my time to observe the birds I saw slowly.

Why did Monday make me feel good?

There are various psychological mechanisms which could explain the boost of positive emotion that my trip to Shoreham engendered. One explanation is straightforward; seeing something that you believe is beautiful makes you feel good. The quality of attention is also a factor in well-being; focussed attention is a distraction from negative thoughts (worries about covid etc.); that can be conceptualised as mindfulness (intentional and non-judgmental attention in the present moment) or flow (being completely engrossed with the one task at hand, without making the conscious decision to do so).

Another explanation of my well-being when watching birds in their environment is a sense of being part of something bigger than oneself. That may be conceptualised theistically, being part of God's creation, or atheistically, being part of chain of scientific causality which connects all things in an ecosystem. Perhaps these things are the same; if you take the view that God is the ground of all being and not an external presence, then one can concur with Einstein. In his book on "Einstein and Religion", Max Jammer writes "The philosopher whom Einstein admired most was Baruch (later, Benedictus) Spinoza, ... Einstein was most influenced by Spinoza's thesis of an unrestricted determinism and the belief in the existence of a superior intelligence that reveals itself in the harmony and beauty of nature" (Einstein's Poem, Lorenz Institute, University of Leiden, accessed 2020).

After I have been outside in nature, which has a direct and immediate positive impact on my emotions; I savour that experience, to extend that feeling of positivity. That savouring may include reviewing the photos I have taken; researching the science on particular birds or a particular environment, making links with cultural artefacts (paintings, engravings literature, films), and writing bog posts like this.

I am not that bothered by the causal explanations of subjective and objective wellbeing, although research into the psychology of well-being is fascinating. I have some concerns about the crude reductionism of many neuropsychological explanations of specific aspects of wellbeing; which have become endemic in popular physiology (which entail pictures of the brain which somehow explain how and why you feel good). I am a physicalist in my philosophy of mind, I believe that all cognition and emotion have a physical substrate in the mechanisms of the brain; studying brain mechanisms in medical physiology is useful as it can lead to interventions to ameliorate illness of the brain; but trying to understand the physical processes which explain wellbeing seem futile, unless you want to develop pharmacological therapies for psychiatric illness, which I don't. For many people reductionist behaviourism (quite unpopular in psychology now) may be the most useful strategy for bosting your wellbeing; note the things you did that led to you feeing happy, and do them again (as long as the pursuit of your happiness doesn't damage other people or the environment). Although there is a little more to it than that, cognition, thinking about what you did and felt is also important, hence this blog. We are after all, homo sapiens, the hominids that think; not that we should assume that only we think; the crow on the beach who dropped the seashell to make it crack open to get to its food had a cognitive understanding of cause and effect.

Appendix 1: Lapwing populations

From the RSPB website.

"The UK population of the lapwing fell by at least 40 per cent between 1970 and 1998*. This decline has been largely caused by the loss of mixed farming and spring cropping,

and the intensification of grassland management. Declines in the west of the UK are leading to local extinctions.

Since the 1940s lapwing declines have been driven by large-scale changes to farming. Large areas of grassland were converted to arable, marginal land was drained and improved, and chemicals were introduced for fertilisers and pest control with increasing reliance on them.

By 1960 the lapwing population had stabilised at a lower level.

Another sharp and sustained decline started in the mid-1980s, with range contractions in south-west England and in parts of Wales. This followed further intensification and specialisation - abandonment of rotations, switch from spring to autumn sown crops, increased drainage, increased use of agrochemicals. Such changes have resulted in much of the arable land becoming unsuitable for nesting by April because the crop grows too high. Tillage, drainage and pesticides have also caused a reduction in food availability.

As pasture land is improved, the resulting increased risk of trampling by livestock, earlier cutting for silage and lower food availability have affected lapwings adversely. Phasing out of rotational farming and shift of arable to the east of England and pastureland to the west of England has removed the habitat mosaic that is essential for successful chick rearing.

Mosaic where grass and spring tillage fields are close together has declined significantly in recent years, and the loss of this prime habitat has resulted in a decline in lapwing numbers.

Nest failures on arable land come from egg losses during cultivation and from predation, and poor chick survival due to crop growth. Crop growth can also shorten the laying season." (RSPB)

Appendix 2: Crow Language: How Does It Work?

The ... Crow and similar species are one of the never-ending mysteries for people who study bird language (what is bird language?)

Their vocal repertoire is so complex that it can be challenging to make sense of the sometimes confusing behavior of crows.

Yet as complex and varied as it may be, crows have the potential to bring some of the most important information that you could glean from listening to bird language.

They’re almost always around anywhere there are people and their voices travel so far that if you learn to recognize the alarm behavior of a crow then you’ll be able to greatly extend the distance at which you can detect things like hawks, eagles, and other aerial predators.

The best thing if you want to understand crow language is not to try and understand every complex nuance, but to instead look for the largest level distinctions that can help us sort all the various calls into simple categories.

Two Basic Types Of Caws

Crow language can at the most simple level be broken down into two major categories that you’ll hear when you’re out in the field.

I would hazard a guess that not knowing how to listen for these two categories accounts for most of the confusion that beginning bird language people have around understanding crows.

This is because a huge number of the crow calls that you’ll hear outside are non-contextual… meaning that they really can’t practically be linked to anything specific like a predator because their primary function is simply to communicate with other members of their flock at a distance like a companion call.

A lot of people when they hear these calls will try to figure out if it means something specific when what it really tells us is that there’s nothing specific happening in the landscape at the moment.

The other basic type of call is noticeably different and is always linked to a specific event such as a predator.

Usually once you identify that you are indeed hearing some sort of bird language event in the crow vocalizations it’s only a matter of looking closer to figure out the source.

Companion Calls (Non-Contextual Vocalizations)

Companion calls are extremely common in crows but they work very differently than other passerines ...

What you’ll hear is the crow will usually be up in a tree looking into the distance and it’ll give off a short burst of 1-9 or so “caws”.

The caws will all be similar in sound and then you’ll hear a pause where presumably the crow is listening for a response.

After a few seconds or maybe longer it’ll give off another burst of similar caws followed by another period of silence.

This burst & silence pattern can go on for quite a number of repetitions before the crow quiets down or flies away.

The key thing to notice with this pattern of calling is that you won’t be able to link the calls to any sort of specific context like a predator.

Click play to hear an example of this type of calling:

Context Calls

The other broad category of calls can be linked to specific events taking place in the landscape.

In academic research these are sometimes referred to as unstructured calls because they don’t follow that very structured pattern of regular bursts & silence as with the companion calls.

Instead, these “unstructured vocalizations” can be made with the exact same caw sounds as the companion calls but they are much more variable in terms of sound.

They fluctuate in volume, pitch, frequency and overall intensity, as the event gets more intense.

Continuous “cawing” from multiple individuals can go on without stopping for a very long time as the crows mob the source of their excitement.

If you hear these sounds coming from a group of crows, you might see other crows flying towards them at rapid speed to rally and mob an eagle or an owl.

You might also hear a sudden burst of intensity pick up as a coopers hawk flies to a new perch.

In this way you can actually hear the movement of things like coopers hawks at the front of their disturbance by the sudden bursts given off by groups of crows.

It’s important to note that this pattern of calling isn’t always alarm.

Sometimes crows will simply be fighting over food or attempting to steal a fish from an [other bird]

Sometimes they’ll be defending their territories from other crows or ravens; but once you’ve detected this sort of activity happening and you know it’s not just a simple companion call, then it’s just a matter of getting close enough to the source in order to figure out what all the commotion is about.



bottom of page