Car-free birding: pleasures and challenges

By Sara Humphrey

When I was asked if I’d write a blog on my low-carbon birding journey, I wasn’t expecting many readers to have heard of my hometown of Eastbourne. Nestled at the end of the South Downs Way, in East Sussex, our well-known local birding spots include Beachy Head, Arlington Reservoir and Cuckmere Haven. A Hume’s Warbler took up residence on Eastbourne seafront over the winter, which attracted birders from outside of the area, but many wanting to add it to a life-list had already ticked the Newhaven bird, which turned up in 2019. 

Yet last month, Eastbourne really made the UK birding map. A rare American Robin was reported on Tuesday 8 February by local birder, Michael Clayton-Harding, and his wife, Rebecca. It was feeding on berries around an urban cul-de-sac. This was the first record for Sussex and I believe fewer than 30 have ever been recorded in the UK.

Hundreds, if not thousands, of birdwatchers have turned up from all over the country to see it since. While the atmosphere has been electric and I have really loved catching up with fellow birders; there’s a heavy carbon footprint attached to driving hundreds of miles for a rarity.

I contributed to that, even if it was a minor stat compared to the overall fuel consumption this bird’s appearance prompted. A message on the day it was found left me torn between sticking to low carbon, or possibly missing a local mega I’d likely never have a chance to see again. I rarely travel for rares, even by public transport, due to the time and complexity being car-free adds in to getting to remote locations. I’ve hiked 10 miles plus, just to dip distant Shrikes, too many times to risk that level of disappointment again. I’m content to wait for seasonal and occasional rarities to show nearer home turf, even if it means my UK bird list is unlikely to hit the 300s anytime soon.

Yet it was 4pm before I could get away from work on the day it was discovered and I was going to be working in Kent from dawn til dusk the following day. Who knew if it would even stick around until Thursday?

I had the choice between making a quick 2.5-mile hop across town by cab or walking for 50 minutes and risk missing it in the very last of the February light. Weighing up the options, I reluctantly chose the cab. I joined the few local birders in marvelling at how such a small bird had crossed the Atlantic and was happily feasting on berries, just in front of us. I felt I’d made the right call for me, as I know I’d have regretted missing it. Yet the longer the bird stays, the more I question my choice to add to the fossil fuel-fed miles its presence has triggered.   

It’s not the first time I’ve used a taxi for birding but it is the first time I’ve done it when public transport or a safe walking route has been available instead. I’d rather hike five miles to get to a location than get a cab most times, but as a lone female birder, sometimes a taxi is the only safe option. To get the best out of autumn on Beachy Head, I usually arrive in the dark to set up for the dawn. I use the quieter hours to listen for the sounds of chuckling Ring Ouzels and look for other migrant birds like Wryneck, getting in position before they start to feed. To get there by that time on foot would mean walking alone with my camera gear through unlit, risker areas of the town and seafront, around the time the nightclubs kick out. Buses up to the hilltop only run during busy tourist seasons and although I think birding at dawn up there should be the highlight of any Eastbourne holiday, I’m not sure the bus company or tourists agree! When it’s a choice between my personal safety or being 100% low carbon in pursuit of my hobby; my safety will always win out.

Last year was fantastic for Wryneck and setting up early meant I had close encounters when they finally foraged nearby.

I’m not uncomfortable being alone in the dark or in rural locations to keep my birding low carbon though. I’m often lingering around late-night stations past sunset in summer, after soaking in every last bit of daylight my camera can cope with. Those warm evenings are spent photographing purring Turtle Doves and singing Nightingales before walking familiar trails, guided by the moonlight. My favoured summer birdwatching sites are several miles from the nearest rail station, which only offers one train an hour at that time of night. So I take advantage of the darkness to listen to nearby Tawny Owls and flick back through my camera reel, drafting the content for my Instagram ready to post once I’m home.

Nightingales will always be one of my favourite birds to watch for and I’m lucky to still have good numbers nearby.

When I first got into birding, I started sharing my record shots with friends on Instagram, who were amazed to discover the breadth of wildlife I was finding in our local area. Since then, I’ve started really documenting the wildlife we have nearby through photography and film, to help others connect to it. I highlight the threats our native species face, including climate change, and I was promoting car-free birding long before I knew there were others who were passionate about keeping it low carbon too.

Cuckmere Haven – I’ll often stay out from dawn til dusk, even in summer, to make the most of the daylight.

I’m lucky that I have a huge variety of wildlife-rich habitats near me, which makes low carbon birding easier than it may be elsewhere. The coast offers seabirds, waders and wind-blown vagrants, with the sheltered valleys of the South Downs hiding breeding Corn Buntings, Yellowhammer and even the occasional Honey Buzzard. On migration, birds often stop here to refuel, while others overshoot the continent. Last year, 180 of the birds on my 190 year-list were seen in Sussex. 

In winter, I’ll brave the cold winds to look for hardy Purple Sandpipers around Newhaven Harbour.

I live in an area without many dedicated birdwatching hides, so I’ve always been a ‘wander while I work’ kind of wildlife photographer. It meant the sites I started out at were rarely watched, but often busy with other walkers. I found seeking less disturbed areas gave me longer with each bird and eventually I’d built up quite a wide-ranging patch, all accessible by public transport. It stretches from Rye Harbour to Tide Mills, with the furthest inland walks taking in Arlington Reservoir and Abbots Wood. Knowing the quieter footpaths and secret spots became a blessing during lockdown, when daily walks meant most accessible wild spots were far busier than they’d even been before.

Urban fringe sites like Shinewater Lakes, West Rise Marsh and Whitbread Hollow were havens for me then. Even though the sites were busy, the paths furthest from the access points would get me to secret walks alongside reedbeds or to hidden glades, where I could still feel wild even though the world was in chaos. Birdwatching had never felt more important for my mental health than it did in those long months.

Even when I’m in unfamiliar territory and keen to see the birds I don’t get in Sussex, I’ll find a low-carbon way. A family trip to Norfolk last summer meant I spent several days walking the four miles back and forth from Brundall to RSPB Strumpshaw Fen, where I added Grasshopper Warbler, Bittern and Little Owl to my year list.

Family holidays give me a chance to see birds I can’t easily find in Sussex, like the Grasshopper Warbler I found at RSPB Strumpshaw Fen.

The holiday took me closer to Stone Curlew than I could get from home too, so I packed up my camera gear, caught the Brundall train through Norwich to Brandon, the nearest train station to Weeting Heath. The 4.5 mile hike there and back would be worth it for a sighting of these strange looking birds. Yet on arrival, I found most of this was along a main road with no footpath, resulting in a far more nerve-wracking walk than planned. After I’d been lucky enough to spot the birds in the distance, a regular in the hide told me views of Stone Curlew had been rare this year. The unseasonably wet spring, another symptom of the climate crisis, had led to high grass growth and made viewing difficult.

When I tell people I’m car-free, there’s often an assumption I can’t drive rather than I just choose not too. I passed my test as a teenager but I made a conscious choice not to buy a car. I’m physically able to walk miles, I don’t need to drive for work and I don’t have childcare responsibilities that might necessitate me having one, so it was an easy choice for me to make. There are times I know it would make my birding life so much easier to be able to drive to a location when time or daylight is a limiting factor but I rarely regret the commitment I’ve made, even when I’ve been unable to see fleeting birds like the Melodious Warbler that briefly graced the cliffs around Eastbourne last May.

On migration, birds like whimbrel can be found feeding on the slopes of the Cuckmere Valley.

It can be frustrating when annual visitors regularly turn up just out of reach. Hen Harriers, Nightjar and Hawfinches are all best seen at dusk, but the sites they favour locally are so far out in the sticks, it’s impossible for me to get there and back in daylight on foot. They are often far too far out for buses or trains to be an option.

Some of the species I’ve struggled to see have turned up when I’ve learnt their favoured habitats and walked new routes in the hopes of seeing them though. It’s how I first found Turtle Doves, Black-tailed Godwits and Corn Buntings. This winter, I wandered through Abbots Wood, a place I only usually visit in warmer months, as I suspected that Brambling might feed there. I never found Brambling in those particular woods but located Redpoll, Siskin and amazingly, a group of six Hawfinches! I was the first to report roosting Hawfinches there this season, which was a great feeling and is one of the real highs of local birding, you get to know your sites so well that any unusual species tends to stand out!

Although Hawfinch are occasional visitors to that woodland, local birding has also helped me to find a wintering Dartford Warbler in a reedbed, a suburban calling Cuckoo and even a Yellow-browed Warbler on autumn migration. My best self-found rarity to date can’t compare to an American Robin, but when my report of a possible Marsh Warbler at Cuckmere Haven was accepted from my photos, I knew I’d be seeking out more rarities in future. And now I know I’ll be paying closer attention when watching the birdlife on my urban sites too!

A Marsh Warbler on migration has been my best self-found bird to date.
Sara Humphrey

All photos by Sara Humphrey.

Instagram: www.instagram.com/sussex_sara 

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One Reply to “Car-free birding: pleasures and challenges”

  1. Good read Sara. Nice to recognise some of your local haunts, as well as hearing of your further travels.

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