Back to basics

This weekend was momentous in the history of our Big Year as Chris and I decided to go birding separately at the same time. Whilst I’ve birded a fair bit without Chris, this was his first day out without me for company and it really made it feel like it was actually a competition. An eventful day, I think this deserves a proper write up. I’ve had my trip penciled in the diary for a good few weeks and I’ve been really looking forward to birdwatching with my friend Sarah at  Pulborough Brooks in West Sussex- a reserve I’ve heard a lot about but not ever visited myself.

I knew I was onto a good day before I’d even left the house- at least 10 Goldfinch in the garden and I discovered that something had finally discovered my Window Feeders as all the suet pellets and mealworm had disappeared! I caught the culprits red handed/beaked on Sunday morning:


Starling’s Sunday Breakfast!


The good luck continued, as once I left the A27, the route to Pulborough took me through some beautiful Sussex countryside until eventually I arrived on site to a car park full of birds flitting from tree to tree. Arriving before Sarah, I took the opportunity to do something I keep forgetting to do- I finally joined the RSPB. This is something I should have done quite some time ago and it feels really good to be (finally) supporting such a great cause. If you’re interested in nature, please consider donating here or becoming a member too. Sarah soon arrived, walking boots on, sandwiches and binoculars in hand and ready to go!

Pulborough Brooks is a reserve of two very contrasting halves. One of flat wetland full of waders and wildfowl and the other a contoured up and down woodland area with patches of deciduous trees, pines and open clearings. Both sides are beautiful and both so completely different. Setting off, we (or should this be I?!) decided to try our luck for Crossbill which had been reported, so made our way through the woodland paths. Whilst Sarah and I have discussed going birding a lot, I’d not really appreciated that Sarah had never really watched birds before. I’d managed to make the (incorrect) assumption that by being interested in coming with me, Sarah was already interested in birds, and therefore knew a fair bit about them. I think where birds have always been a part of my life since I was tiny, I’d not appreciated before that this isn’t the case for everyone and that to some people a Blue Tit isn’t a Blue Tit at all, its just a bird.

I feel I need to apologise to Sarah here, as by making this assumption I perhaps threw her in a bit at the deep end by looking for Crossbill! She probably thought I was spouting absolute babble at this point as I’d assumed that she would know exactly what we were looking for, which was a very stupid error on my part. As we started walking, Sarah quickly informed me that she didn’t really know anything about birds, so our initial spotting involved me pointing out what was visible and explaining what each species was with the help of a field guide. Hopefully, I didn’t go too far, and by pointing out Blackbird, Chaffinch and Robin I think I gave Sarah a bit of an insight into some common birds she may well see on a day to day basis. What is very tricky, is describing where certain birds are to a non-birder when looking through your binoculars, considering that in a wood, virtually all the trees and branches sound pretty much the same from a verbal description ‘that branch on that tree’ isn’t really any help, especially when you don’t know what you’re actually looking at or for!

Only a few steps into our walk, whilst I was scanning the tops of pines for my beloved Crossbill, Sarah picked up on something flying in and landing on a tree further away. Raising my binoculars to get a closer look, she had spotted a Great Spotted Woodpecker– what a first bird to find on our day out! The Woodpecker stayed around for a bit, moving from tree to tree.  This gave Sarah a chance to get used to her binoculars as well as discovering that watching birds does involve a lot of waiting around for things to re-emerge and I think she was very definitely introduced to the birdwatcher’s frustration of just as you find something in your field of vision it has a real knack of then deciding to move on.


Gorgeous dramatic sunlight


I would like to add here that I owe a very big Thank You to Sarah for giving me a new perspective to birdwatching. Thinking of how a newbie views birds has made me think and I have realised that knowing what you are seeing adds a completely different outlook to how you appreciate birds, and I hope that I gave her an ok introduction to the world of birds. We settled on a fallen tree to stay still and see what we could find- a tactic which yielded Treecreeper, Goldcrest and Long Tailed Tit as well as a very noisy cluster of Great Tit once we moved on. Later in the walk I finally found my sought after Crossbill, with a gorgeous male showing very well whilst he nibbled pine cones. This area of the reserve also gave us even better views of Great Spotted Woodpecker, which I think was a highlight for Sarah.


Me searching for GSW (note to self- I need a more camoflagued daypack...)

Having wandered around the Woodland area until we were too hungry to continue, we made a lunch stop at a picnic bench overlooking the feeding stations, which I hope gave Sarah a chance to see some of the more familiar garden birds up close- Dunnock, Pied Wagtail, House Sparrow, Blue Tit, Great Tit, Chaffinch amongst others. Tea and sandwiches consumed, it was time to crack on with a quick visit to the hides overlooking Pulborough Brooks’ wetland.

What I wasn’t expecting, was that we would be waylaid in the visitors centre by a very exciting sighting. It turns out that mealworm are not just a lure for garden visitors but also for a bird I’d always known to be elusive- Water Rail. The ‘tame’ bird that frequents a patch of lawn at Pulborough shows so well that he or she is only a couple of meters from the shop tills, and was absolutely the highlight of my trip. Sarah informs me that I did actually shriek when the warden pointed it out to me so apologies to whoever I deafened in the process. What made this whole experience even more extraordinary is that about 30 seconds beforehand, I’d shown Sarah a photo of Water Rail and said something along the lines of ‘these birds are incredibly difficult to spot as they’re notoriously shy’, only to turn around to find one a couple of meters away. There is a beautiful shot of this bird here.


Proof for Chris- my Water Rail photo


With hindsight, we ought to have headed to the wetland side of the reserve first- ducks have a much better habit of staying still and allowing you to focus on them, which made for much easier binocular viewing on Sarah’s part. I got the impression that Sarah enjoyed this part of the day much more, and we had excellent views of Wigeon, Teal, Mallard, Shelduck, Pintail and Shoveler amongst others. A quick turn in Nettley’s Hide gave us views of a Snipe and a front row seat at the Shoveler show. I pointed out to Sarah a particularly close male Shoveler who was engaging in some bizarre head bobbing moves. Just as she had got her view right, Mr Shoveler pounced onto his mate. Lets just say that spring had definitely arrived for this pair!


View from Nettley’s hide


Shoveler are really lovely dabbling ducks. The male looks really dapper in his smart plumage, but best of all they have a long, flat bill which allows them to sift through the mud and silt for food. Have a look for yourself- here’s a Shoveler doing what Shovelers do best- Shoveling!

After this particular highlight, we decided to call it a day, and just in time we arrived at our cars before it really started to pour. Big, big thanks to Sarah for accompanying me- sorry if I birded you out and also apologies if I’ve got you hooked (I’m starting to think it may be the latter…).


3 thoughts on “Back to basics

  1. Love the post, First thing to say is, I’m not surprised you think I’m hooked the amount of links I sent you and the suggestion of getting to the reserve for 5am to be an early human catching the bird if you will. While I wouldn’t class myself as even an underling Birdwatcher, and I doubt I would go without you I did thoroughly enjoy it.

    As you said, I quickly let you know I had NO CLUE* about birds, and for the general person unless you get a chance to sit and watch one and see the detail most of the time it’s just a bird flying past you. I have to say I did feel a little silly at that point when I had to really spell out how little I knew. Readers I will say that Josie is an excellent person to go birdwatching with, she didn’t seem frustrated to be sat watching some birds she’s seen many times before and still seems excited by anything she spots (many shrieks that day)

    In response to which side I liked best, I’d still say the woodlands. I love a challenge and making things too complicated and while it was nice to sit and watch the ducks – and test myself over and over as to which one was which so that I wouldn’t forget later – hunting among branches to get a view of a tiny spec was much more rewarding. Besides the Woodpecker really was my highlight! Of course I did enjoy spotting the Shovelers in full view (I had been trying for a while to see their beaks but the ones before were busy shoveling) and the amusing courtship activity afterwards.

    * Saying this I did know what a Robin was, about the only bird I could identify starting off. Josie then explained how I might get it confused with a Chaffinch (which I did not see till the picnic area) and I told her I couldn’t possibly see how someone would be confused. It was a proud moment when I managed to identify the Chaffinch in the garden purely from that conversation, and an earlier view of it in a bird book, and KNEW it was a Chaffinch and not a robin.
    On a similar note in the Garden I said the Dunnock (Name advised by Josie, I had probably said something like ‘that bird’) looked a lot like the Robin, and apparently they are from the same family.

    So as you can see, I learnt a lot! Thanks Josie look forward to doing it again.

    • Sarah, I am loving the enthusiasm! I would like to clarify as I am now sitting with my Collins (THE best bird guide!) I have checked and Robin and Dunnock are not the same family. My mistake. But they are very similar looking…and the same shape

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