The joy of staying local

Matt Phelps

It’s barely light. The sky is gunmetal grey tinged with indigo, while a ribbon of fiery pink stretched across the eastern horizon warns of inclement weather ahead. For now, it’s dry and bitterly cold as I crunch my way along the frozen riverbank from home to my local patch, Pulborough Brooks.

There’s a particular spot along the Arun which offers a great panoramic view over most of the wetland areas, plus a good stretch of the river. In the past from here I’ve had memorable encounters with Short-eared and Barn Owls, Kingfisher, Cetti’s Warbler and a young Cuckoo being fed by its Reed Warbler foster parent. Just the other day by this point in my walk I’d already seen seven Goosanders and a pair of Tufted Ducks (not common here) on the river and a flyover flock of White-fronted Geese.

Today as I scan across the marsh I quickly set eyes on four large white shapes, like half-finished snowmen; except there’s been no snow. They’re Bewick’s Swans, newly arrived overnight on the icy southeasterlies, later to join the regular wintering herd further down the Arun Valleyalbeit now tragically reduced from its former three-figure glory of decades gone by.

I’m less than a mile from home, but totally immersed in the wildness of my surroundings. It’s just me and the whistling of Wigeon and the wind.

For the past three and a half years I’ve grown to know and love this particular corner of West Sussex as intimately as any fellow patch birder knows their own favourite haunt. The fact that our house backs onto such a stunning natural landscape was a big selling point for my wife and I when we moved here from Surrey in 2017. Of course, I know I’m fortunate to live somewhere so rich in avian splendour but wherever I’ve lived I’ve always gone out in search of birds locally.

In my early birding life I have fond memories of being taken to see a Sparrowhawk nest in a nature reserve at which I volunteered, close to where I grew up, and I vividly remember the first time I encountered the likes of Nightjar, Cuckoo, Dartford Warbler, Red Kite and Firecrest in local woods and heathlands. These seemed such exotic and wild species to see just a short distance from home, having previously only really been aware of the common garden birds I saw from the window.

Expanding my horizon a little further, I discovered Tice’s Meadow on the Hampshire/Surrey border, again just down the road. Here I discovered even more delights including Waxwing, Black Redstart and countless weird and wonderful waders, from Temminck’s Stint to Wood Sandpiper. Again, I was amazed that these images from field guides were springing to life on my own doorstep. I credit my dad with first sparking my interest in birds when he pointed out Swifts over the garden and Skylarks over the sand dunes on family visits to Hayling Island. I can still well remember his incredulity when I returned from one of my early visits to ‘Tice’s’ and told him I’d seen Common Terns and Lapwings just a couple of miles away.

I lived in various places in Surrey prior to moving down to Sussex, but one of the most important tasks for me when settling into any new abode has always been to scout out the local area. A favourite routine is to get a map and spend plenty of time looking at it and familiarising myself with footpaths, and plotting circuitous routes taking in likely patches of habitat. Even when I lived a stone’s throw from the commuter town hustle and bustle of Woking I stumbled across Little Ringed Plovers, Little Owls, Lesser Spotted Woodpecker and Great Grey Shrike, among others.

While living near Guildford I frequented Shalford Water Meadows by the River Wey for a couple of years. Even here, a popular recreational area for local people, I found Garganeys, Brent Goose, Curlew and singing Nightingale. Finding a rarity, or even a moderate scarcity, on home turf is certainly part of the thrill of patch birding but it’s also about observing the subtle phenological changes through the yearthat first burst of Willow Warbler song, the trickle of hirundines that becomes a torrent, or the early signs of southward movement in autumn. Migration in all its forms holds a special fascination for me and watching a local patch is, in my experience, the best way to notice those day-to-day developments first-hand. Seeing a Wheatear or Yellow Wagtail drop out of the sky in front of you feels all the more special when it’s right on your own doorstep.

And so, to Sussex, and Pulborough Brooks. Most famous for its massive flocks of winter ducks, Lapwings and more recently Black-tailed Godwits, it’s part of the wider Arun Valley SPA, one of the most important sites in the UK for wintering wildfowl. Thanks to excellent work by the RSPB, Pulborough now hosts good numbers of breeding Lapwing and Redshank and, for the first time, a pair of Avocets successfully bred in 2020. In fact, I discovered the nest while scanning the northern side of the reserve from my attic during the first lockdown! The pandemic has made us all more aware of the value of finding places nearby to watch birds, and the Brooks has certainly been a great sanctuary to me in these extraordinary past twelve months; and I’m sure it will continue to be a special place to me for many years to come.

Ironically, the now familiar ‘stay local’ message is particularly pertinent with the climate and ecological crisis looming at the forefront of our minds. It’s something we should all be aspiring to, even post-Covid, if such a time ever exists. Prior to the first lockdown, my wife and I had talked about holidaying somewhere in Europe by train. There’s a lot of places and birds I’ve not seen, but I love the idea of heading out with just a bag and choosing a ‘patch away from home’ to discover new scenery and wildlife.

As local patches go, Pulborough really has all I could ask for. It’s a world class wetland site close to a major river, just 20-odd miles from the south coast. It has a scattered patchwork of woodland, scrub and a small heathland which supports breeding Nightjar, Woodcock, Woodlark, Spotted Flycatcher and Cuckoo. To date, 223 bird species have been recorded on-site, with my own list standing at 172. Some self-found highlights include White-rumped Sandpiper, Red-necked Phalarope, Iceland Gull, Common Scoter, Smew and Long-eared Owl. Since my first full year of patch watching here, in 2018, I’ve aimed to reach 150 in one calendar year. So far, I’ve managed 149 twice, in 2018 and 2020. I’m hoping this will be the year I hit my target and I plan to do so as much as possible without the aid of fossil fuels.

I love the feeling of freedom offered by travelling on foot. I have to drive a lot for work during the week so it’s liberating at the weekends not having to think about where I’ve parked the car or if I’ll need to stop for petrol on the way home. It’s just me, my optics and a bag of snacks and coffeeand the birds of course. Last summer I treated myself to a bicycle which opened up new opportunities, as I found myself able to cover the whole patch in half the time, meaning I could spend more of my time out actually watching birds.

A particular highlight of last year was a patch ‘big day’ in late May, when the regular participants of the annual Mole Valley Bird Race competed individually on their respective local patches. I managed to see or hear 83 species at Pulborough between 4am and noon. Walking out to the reserve pre-dawn and sitting on the edge of the heathland listening to Nightjars and Woodcock, with Nightingales and Redshanks in the background will I’m sure be hard to top as one of my all-time favourite patch memories.

I do still indulge in the odd twitch now and then, within Sussex or neighbouring counties, and occasional trips to remote corners of Britain or, even more infrequently, the odd foreign excursion, but I always look forward to returning to the patch with renewed enthusiasm after any spell away. In the winter months, the short days preclude me from birding before or after work, so Saturday morning is always an eagerly awaited treat as I head out at first light, excited for what I might find. So, if anyone needs me this weekend, you know where to find me!


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