During the first 50 days of the coronavirus lockdown in the UK, birders, along with most of the rest of the population, were restricted to staying at home and venturing out just once a day for exercise. That exercise had to be taken within walking or cycling distance from home.
I am fortunate enough to live within easy walking distance of the beach on the UK south coast. Between my home and the shoreline is a large house and grounds now owned by the local council. Part of the grounds is managed as a nature reserve. During lockdown, I walked through the grounds almost every day, turning east or west as the whim took me. Here is a summary of what I found, including a few surprises.
Where shall I go today?
Although I have been living in my current home for nearly three years, I had only given the nearby nature reserve the most cursory attention, casually spotting birds as my wife and I walked through, or occasionally venturing to the grounds of the large house to ‘stretch my legs’. Under normal circumstances, there are too many other tempting birding destinations within easy reach! What the lockdown effectively did was reduce my options to two: do I turn left (east) and go down a path to explore the eastern undercliff and the beach? Or do I turn right (west) through the nature reserve and descend to the beach that way?
The nature reserve
The woodland to the west of the large house was originally a common, then part of an enclosed estate, then more recently a radar and communications research facility. When the council acquired the land and designated it as a nature reserve, it was heavily infested with invasive and non-native species, such as rhododendron and holm oak. Fortunately, at ground-level at least, that has long been cleared away to leave a largely deciduous wood of mixed native and non-native trees. The wood is partially dissected by a narrow stream, dammed to form a small pond.
Resident birds include Stock Dove, Woodpigeon, Moorhen, Tawny Owl, Great Spotted Woodpecker, Jay, Magpie, Carrion Crow; Coal, Blue, Great and Long-tailed Tits; Goldcrest, Wren, Nuthatch, Treecreeper, Blackbird, Song Thrush, Robin, Dunnock, Chaffinch, Greenfinch and Goldfinch. These are augmented in summer by Chiffchaff and Blackcap, when Swallows also regularly swoop overhead, and in winter by one or two Firecrests. From the cliff top you can look out across a broad bay. From here, during lockdown, I would regularly see Great Crested Grebe, Black-headed Gull, Herring Gull, Sandwich Tern, Cormorant and Gannet, plus the occasional passing Oystercatcher.
The beach below the nature reserve is not as interesting bird-wise as the stretch to the east of the large house. Here the shrubs on the undercliff are home to Stonechats and House Sparrows, as well as Jackdaws and some of the commoner birds of the nature reserve. Several winters ago these bushes also served as a temporary home for an overwintering Lesser Whitethroat. Turnstones are regular on the beach here throughout the year, and in winter, the groynes attract some Purple Sandpipers, which I re-connected with at the start of lockdown.
Since my previous birding in this area had been somewhat sporadic, it is not surprising that I was able to add some new species to my ‘patch list’ during lockdown. These included pairs of Sparrowhawk and Bullfinch in the nature reserve wood, and a Wheatear on a groyne along the eastern beach on 22nd April. Three Whimbrel that flew past the beach that same day, and a single Common Sandpiper on 6th May, were also ‘site ticks’.
Lockdown birding magic moments
On 22nd April, while I was on the eastern beach, 26 Mediterranean Gull headed east, many just over my head. This was special, but two other moments really stand out for me:
The Sparrowhawks I found at the nature reserve are resident in the area and I have often seen them circling in thermals or flying past from my garden. Then, early on Sunday morning, 26th April, the splendid male of the pair took off from a groyne on the eastern beach and flew right past me at knee-level! Definitely an LBMM for me!
Two days later, on 28th April, I found two Firecrests feeding together in the reserve. I had previously seen a singleton near the large house, but could these two birds actually be a pair? And could they be looking to breed in the wood? Unfortunately, I am no longer able to hear the high-pitched calls of this species, so have not been able to re-locate them. However, I shall definitely be looking out for these birds during the coming months and seeing whether I can spot any fledglings!
The lockdown experience gave me the opportunity to thoroughly explore the ‘patch on my doorstep’. Unfortunately, I didn’t find the falls of migrants I was hoping for – the good weather probably meant they flew straight ‘over the top’ – and the sea-watching proved disappointing (again, no favourable weather conditions). Nevertheless, I mostly enjoyed my ‘daily hour of exercise’ and found a few more species to add to my site list, along with experiencing some good moments to treasure.
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