Throughout Christmas and New year violent storms racked the country, with gale force winds ripping and roaring, iron rain lashing from leaden skies, and swelling seething floods. January 6th, 6.30am, darkness cloaked the world beyond the window yet the steady clattering of yet another band of rain sounded all too familiar. By 7am however, as the final members of the team joined the others in the car with the days designated driver at the wheel, the rain had stopped and the sky was growing faintly, but promisingly, lighter to the east. The journey south across the South Downs towards the coast grew gradually brighter and from the car windows we spotted not only Black Headed Gull, Carrion Crow and Cormorant, but rare blue sky as well!
Our first stop was Pagham North Wall, overlooking harbour mud flats and reed-edged lagoons. Ducks, Waders and Geese were busily feeding here at low tide, or hunkered low out of the vicious wind.
Despite the gale roaring and whistling through the legs of our telescope tripods we left the North Wall with a total of 25 species.
A quick comfort break at Sidlesham Visitors centre (RSPB Pagham Harbour) produced a few small birds and Pheasant at the bird feeders, and my favourite duck the Shoveller alongside the recently resident pair of Ruddy Shelduck.
It was time in our plan for seawatching at Selsey Bill. The wind again proved our adversary and we soon found why we were the only birdwatchers that seemed visible on the bill that morning. Our total when we left the seafront with its churning waves had risen to just 35 species.
Our second option for seawatching was Church Norton, and after the disappointment of Selsey Bill we decided to give it a go. A few waders not seen at North Wall were a pleasing addition to the list in the harbour, as were some small birds, including Treecreeper in the trees and hedgerows. Out on the sea, with our tripod feet wedged securely in the pebbles, Long Tailed Duck and Slavonian Grebe alternately appeared and disappeared in the swell.
The tree tops at West Dean Woods tossed in the wind. A party of Red Legged Partridges strutted like clockwork toys along the road. Our 61st bird, and 'bird of the day' was a Little Owl, well known amongst local birdwatchers, but one I had had a run of bad luck in attempting to see which I was relieved had at last broken.
Even a lunch break was interrupted by birds, as two male Bullfinches were spotted in the top of nearby Ash trees.
Lakes provided our next birds, with Egyptian geese at Benbow Pond, and Goosander on the lake at Petworth Park, where we also found a carnival of Siskin in Alder tree tops.
Despite our best attempts we were still missing several common species. It was time to head to our last, and reliable, stop at Pulborough Brooks RSPB reserve. Significant flooding of a level rarely seen in the valley hampered our progress however and we searched hard for another 8 species before the sun set dramatically on the horizon. A Sparrowhawk was a pleasing final bird, despite its determination to spook the Redwing flocks and (nearly) foil our attempt to track down a Fieldfare amongst the smaller thrushes.
We retreated to the car as dusk fell, to tot up the day's score and celebrate with tea from thermos flasks and mince pies.
We headed home vaguely hoping for a hungry owl hunting the roadside, but with a final total of 76 species, lower than last years (beginners luck) 93, but considering the raging gales and deep floods, not too unsatisfactory.
The New Year Bird Race is a fundraising effort for the Sussex Ornithological Society (www.SOS.org.uk). If you wish to sponsor me/donate please feel free to leave a comment, or contact me via my twitter @SophiEcoWild, or SophiEco Wild Facebook Page. Thank you!