• Sim Elliott

The Ending of Lockdown: three visits to see the birds of Adur.

Updated: Apr 9, 2021

On Thursday 01.04.21 I made my first visit - a brief afternoon trip to Shoreham Beach, Widewater Lagoon and the Adur Estuary to the Tollbridge (including the RSPB Adur Estuary Reserve) - since the ending of the third covid lockdown on 30.03.21. It was the first time I had had a day of birdwatching in Adur since the 03.01.21; three months in which travel outside my local area, Brighton and Hove, was prohibited. I had anticipated this day keenly, since the beginning of Lockdown III, as the Adur area is my favourite location for bird watching. Then, on Saturday 03.04.21 I made a full day outing to Shoreham Beach, Widewater Lagoon and Adur valley as far as Bramber (including visiting the Bramber Brooks Local Nature Reserve) and on Monday 06.04.21 (Easter Monday), I made another full day journey, reversing this route, starting at Bramber Brooks and ending at Shoreham Beach. This post is a celebration of the birds and landscapes that I love and missed so much during those three months of stay-at-home lockdown. All of the trips described in this post were made by bike, and the photographs are ordered chronologically.

(N.B Widewater Lagoon is the strip of water above the word "Google")

Thursday 01.04.21

Shoreham Beach

Arriving at Shoreham Beach again, just west of the west harbour wall, saw a Great Black-backed Gull eating a plaice whole. The elasticity of Great Back-Gulls' necks is amazing; as is their digestive system, which enables them to break down a large fish without (presumably) dyspepsia

A Great Black-Backed Gull in flight.

Further down the beach I saw these Turnstones (in summer plumage) on the rocks (these rocks are not indigenous; they were placed here as groynes to reduce longshore drift of pebbles, as a sea defence).

I saw far fewer Turnstones than on my last visit, on 04.01.21. This is may be because the winter migrant Turnstones have gone and the summer migrants have yet to arrive; with only non-breeding bird around; Turnstones do not breed in the UK."Turnstones are present for most of the year. Birds from Northern Europe pass through in July and August and again in spring. Canadian and Greenland birds arrive in August and September and remain until April and May. (RSPB). I am mindful that it is very difficult to know any species' true abundance in a particular location from one-off sightings; as the number of birds you see on a specific occasion is effected by many variables: weather, time of year, tides etc plus some degree of randomness. However, if you visit a species' habitat very frequently, over many years, it is I hope possible to get a feel though systematic recording of whether the number of birds seen on a particular occasion is typical or significantly fewer or more than typical; repeated observations over time could also give a feel of more general trends; increases or decreases in abundance over time. I haven't visited anywhere long enough to get a feel of when numbers of species in a location are typical for that time/date, in those conditions (weather etc,). I hope to develop that feel by walking a particular transect near me in Brighton once a moth (the undercliff, at low tide) and recoding my observations systematically.

Here is a Turnstone photo from my 04.01.21 visit (in Winter Plumage) tuning stones, as they do.

When I looked up from photographing the Turnstones I saw a flock of Oystercatchers in flight. Oystercatchers are a ubiquitous presence in the Adur Estuary, as despite the large number of winter visitors, there is a breeding population in the Adur Estuary area, that stay here all year. The piping call of the Oystercatcher tells you where they are. The resident Adur Oystercatchers are joined by migrants in winter from colder climes; who breed in northern England or Scotland.

Oystercatchers in flight (detail)

There are frequently Starlings foraging at the top beach where the beach melds into vegetation, often in shrubbery. Starlings are on the RSPB conversation status red list due to significant declines in populations nationally; but they are doing relatively well in the Shoreham and Brighton. I think Starlings are extraordinarily beautiful; their previous ubiquity has perhaps led people to overlook their beauty. Starling's iridescence is just as beautiful as a humming bird's, which you would need to travel a long way to see - hopefully you can see Starlings very close to where you live.

Widewater Lagoon

Immediately on my arrival at the Widewater Lagoon I saw this Little Egret in flight. The increase in the Little Egret population in Sussex has been extraordinary over the last 30 years. There were once a very rare visitor from the Mediterranean, they are now common. Is this expansion the result of climate change; the UK becoming warmer? Possibly, but the picture is more complicated than climate change alone. Little Egrets having been resident in the UK before: in volume 2 (water birds) of Thomas Bewick's A History of British Birds (1804) the first printed bird guide, to birds he mentions Little Egrets as present in Britain then and he describes an extravagant feast held to celebrate the installation of Archbishop Neville of York. Held at Cawood Castle which included 1,000 Egrets! Bewick comments: “No wonder the species has become nearly extinct in this country!”. Little Egrets were also hunted for their plumage, used to decorate women's hats. So perhaps their population has been cyclic, and populations have respond to a variety of factors, including habitat loss/growth and consumption for food, as well as climate change.

This Mallard has colour abnormalities, its possible a hybrid duck, a product of a Mallard and a domestic duck; and it is possibly also leucisistic (a genetically-caused partial loss of pigmentation in white, pale, or patchy coloration of feathers).

Here is Redshank foraging in Widewater. There are resident Redshanks which breed around the Estuary in saltmarshes, but in winter they are joined by many more, overwintering, many from Iceland.

and another Little Egret at Widewater!

Shoreham Harbour

I briefly looked, from the footpaths and the new Shoreham footbridge, to see what I could see in the RSPB Adur Estuary Reserve part of the estuary - see Adur Estuary Nature Reserve, West Sussex - The RSPB and I saw these Oystercatchers

When I returned home I saw this female Pheasant in the street below mine in Kemptown, East Brighton. It is probably an escapee from a game shooting farm on the Downs north of Brighton. I have included this picture as I have never seen a Pheasant in our city; it is a very unusual sight.

Saturday 03.04.21

Here are my cats, looing at me as I unlocked the padlock of my bike, which is attached to the front wall of my house, below the living room window, with a "bike anchor" and chain. Our cats have been raised as indoor cats, partly because we didn't want them to be bird catchers; predation from domestic cats has contributed significantly to the declines in numbers of some garden birds.

Carats Café, Southwick; and the beach immediately east of the mouth of Shoreham Harbour mouth

My first full day visits to the Adur area included a breakfast stop at Carats Café - in West Sussex - a pleasure denied to me during the three months of Stay-at-Home Lockdown. I saw, smelled and heard all the "normal" things I used to smell, hear and see: the sight of the Cormorants on the markers of the water outflow from the Shoreham Sewage Works (attracted to the fish who are attracted to the remnants of treated sewage), the smell of the sewage (less pleasant), and the lovely smell of my coffee; the trilling of the resident starlings who desperately try to get crumbs from my cake in-between worm eating; the view back to Brighton; the steady beat from the wind turbines as they generate renewable energy. Small pleasures seem great pleasures when you have been denied them for three months: these pleasure no longer seemed "normal" pleasures but very special pleasures

As I looked up from my coffee, I saw this Great Black-backed Gull prodding a fish. He/she gave up trying to eat this fish, perhaps because it was old and rancid. I have seen Black-Head Gulls eat bigger fish than this in one gulp; as you know!

When Great Black-backed Gull took off it revealed its amazing wing-span (1.5-1.7 meter). Only these UK birds have a larger wing span: Golden Eagle; White-tailed Sea Eagle, Gannet, Cormorant, Grey Heron, Whooper Swan, Mute Swan and Bewick Swan .

I took some time just to photograph the beach, as Shoreham Beach at low tide provides views of an immense horizon

Herring Gulls off Shoreham Beach

Widewater Lagoon

The first thing I saw at the Widewater Lagoon this visit was a Redshank. At this time of year there appears to be typically one or two redshank in the Widewater Lagoon, their numbers are much higher on the Adur Estuary and in Widewater during winter. Redshanks, residents and overwinterers, forage on the intertidal mudflats of the Adur Estuary (and in the shallow water of the Widewater Lagoon) along with Dunlin and Ringed plover on the Estuary; which I have yet to see. Winter migrants breed in parts of Scotland and north-west England and in Iceland. .

These two Mute Swans are resident on Widewater all year. They normally produce cygnets every year who leave later in the year to take up life as adult birds elsewhere. They are very territorial and repel any "foreign" Mute Swans wanting to set up home on Widewater. For a history of the Widewater Swans click here.

Widewater is also home to a number of Mallards. I have also seen Little Grebes on Widewater, and Red-Breasted Mergansers (rarer Winter visitors) but not on the three trips of this post.

And another Redshank! There were two Redshanks at Widewater on all three occasions I visited.

Some flowers along the walls of the Widewater carpark,

And another Little Egret. These three pictures are of the same individual. On all the three occasions I visited Widewater this week I saw two Little Egrets on the Lagoon.

Shoreham Beach

There are always Carrion Crows on Shoreham Beach, and often Jackdaws. I have observed Carrion Crows puck up molluscs and drop them on to the beach to crack their shells, so that they can eat the soft parts; they are clever birds.

Toward Brighton. From left to right are visible the Whitehawk Hill TV transmitter (below which I live); Sussex Heights (the block of flats on which two Peregrine Falcons nest each year), the i360, which "replaced" the beautiful Victorian West Pier (where I saw Ronnie Corbett in the early 1970s in the beautiful pier theatre), which was damaged by fire in the 1970s and was then left to rot in he sea, and the new buildings of the Royal Sussex County Hospital (where my mother underwent cancer treatment for the last seven months)

There are many budding landscape artists in Shoreham. Here is an arrangement of shells on a stick.

I spotted as usual Starlings and House Sparrow in the shrubs at the top of the beach.

The beauty of House Sparrows astounds me; yet we have taken these remarkable little birds for granted; perhaps because of their former ubiquity. House Sparrows are now on the RSBP conservation red list; although there numbers seem to be stable or increasing Shoreham and Brighton.

The range of flora found on Shoreham Beach is of natural importance. These species are only found on shingle beaches

There are often Jackdaws and Crows on Shoreham beach; this Jackdaw was collecting twigs for its nest.

I view of sails - old and new (Rampion Off-shore Wind Farm).

Starlings have a preference for perching on TV aerials, telephone poles and telephone wires; this one is perched on a TV aerial in Ferry Road; where the Beach Bakery is located, where I bought my lunch!

A weather vane on the rook of a house in Ferry Road

The extremely nice vegan curry parcel, and vegan mandarin orange pastry from the Beach Café.

Adur Estuary (Shoreham to the Toll Bridge)

I then took on Saturday afternoon the path along the Estuary from Shoreham; which is the beginning of the Downs Link foot and cycle path. This route between Shoreham-by-Sea and Guildford follows an old railway line. For more details see: Downs Link - Sustrans.org.uk; and immediately saw Oystercatchers, one of the Estuaries "signature" birds.

Here is a juvenile crow, on the boards leading to the banks of the estuary above the Railway Bridge.

I soon reached the Tollbridge, which was built 1781–82 and was the first bridge across the Adur; it is now a pedestrian and bicycle bridge.

North of the Tollbridge there is an island of silt which normally provides a location for many birds. When I was last here (04.01.21) there was a large flock of Lapwings here, but I saw none on Saturday 03.04.20; as they are typically Autumn sightings. They have may have moved to farm land around the estuary to breed. Lapwing populations have declined greatly in the UK especially in the South East

"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)

Here is a photograph of Lapwings I saw on 04.01.21

However, I did see many Herring Gulls, some Black-Headed Gulls (in Summer Plumage) and some Great Black-backed Gulls at this point on the Estuary.

Black-headed Gull.

Here is a Little Grebe I saw at this location; I haven't seen a Little Grebe here before, but I have seen them on the Widewater Lagoon. As typical with Little Grebes, as soon as it sensed it was being observed it dove and came up some distance away. The RSPB describes the Little Grebe perhaps unfairly as a "small, dumpy grebe which often appears to have a 'fluffy' rear end."

Here are some Herring Gulls and a Jackdaw on the mud island that was covered in Lapwings in the Autumn.

There is an excellent coffee van (a previous horse trailer) at the end of the Tollbridge. I always have a coffee here; it is frequented by workers from the Ricardo engine factory next to it, and many walkers and cyclists travelling the Downs Link path

From the coffee van you can see the preparation work on drainage being undertaken the the site for the new IKEA and housing; it makes me feel sad; the ground that the IKEA site will occupy will significantly detrimentally effect biodiversity in the Adur Estuary SSSI; and may impact negatively on Lapwing numbers. I would rather have lapwings than more furniture. See New Monks Farm – can the Secretary of State see sense? | Sussex Wildlife Trust for more details.

From the Tollbridge you can also get a good view of the rear of the Brighton City Airport's Art Deco terminal, built in 1936, and designed by Stavers Tiltman, for the then called Brighton Hove and Worthing Joint Municipal Airport.

St Botolph's Church

From the Tollbridge I continued cycling up Downs Link, passing may spring flowers and trees in blossom, on my way to St Botolph's Church: Cow Parsley

Goat Willow/Great Sallow

St Botolphs's Church - "The Wayfarers Church" - is on the west side of the Adur, almost opposite the now disused Beeding Cement works.

"St Botolph's Church is of charming flint construction and stands on a slight rise above the River Adur. Today with just a house or two for company it is hard to imagine that 700 years ago it was at the heart of a bustling port and crossing place of the river.

As the river changed course and silted-up the population gradually moved away and since Tudor times the church has served a tiny farming community. The south door carries the date 1630 in delightful graffiti and leads into a homely and welcoming interior.

The tall chancel arch dates from late Saxon times and is surrounded by the ghosts of medieval wall paintings whilst the three huge blocked arches in the north wall show where a north aisle has been demolished to match its reduced circumstances. The church has given its name to the place - St Botolph is patron saint of wayfarers - and today it receives many visitors walking the South Downs Way which crosses the river nearby." St Botolph's Church, Botolphs, West Sussex | The Churches Conservation Trust (visitchurches.org.uk)

In sharp contrast to the beauty of St Botolph's Church, on the East side of the Adur, almost opposite St Botolph's, is the ruin of the Cement Factory at Beeding, closed in 1991. A pair of peregrine falcons have breed at the top of the factory: Peregrine Falcons are not concerned with aesthetic beauty, just the functionality of their breeding sites; there is another pair that regularly breed at the top of the rather hideous Sussex Heights "luxury" flats, designed by Richard Seifert and built between 1966 and 1968, in Brighton. The fascinating history of the use of chalk to make cement at Beeding is told here: CHALK - A History of Shoreham (Beeding) Cement Works - shorehambysea.com

Opposite the front of St Botolp's Church , is a herd of Jacob's Sheep; these are a domestic breed of UK sheep; in earlier times they were considered "park sheep", to ornament the estates of landowners.

Inside St Botolph's there are fragments of medieval wall painting.

On the weather vane of the church perched a Jackdaw; the weather vane no longer turns, so it would have been of little use to a Jackdaw seeking to discern the wind direction; no problem though as birds are equipped with sensory mechanism to determine wind speed and direction themselves!

The fields in the Adur flood plain north-east of the church provide many beautiful views.

Bramber Brooks

My visit to Bramber Brooks, just north of Botolph's, on this Saturday was my first. Bramber Brooks is very new Local Nature Reserve. Part of Bramber Brooks is a Scheduled Ancient Monument protecting evidence of ancient salterns (medieval ponds where water is evaporated to the point where sodium chloride precipitate out, allowing pure salt to be harvested. Bramber Brooks is part of a Site of Special Conservation Importance (SSCI) and is known as a habitat for Barn Owls, Willow Warblers, Cetti's Warbles.

A seal paid a visit to Bramber Brooks earlier this year and a video of him can be watched here: by clicking here. However, on my visit to Bramber Brooks this Saturday I only saw a Tabby Cat, a Male Pheasant, a Robin, and some Blue Tits, But I did see a Buzzard flying overheard; which although happily common now in Sussex, always brings me great pleasure.

However, as I approached the Bramber Brooks entrance I spotted a rare concrete parrot in the front garden of a house in The Street (Bramber's main road)