Tuesday 2 May 2023

Seaford White-crowned Sparrow

Last Saturday (the 22nd) a Mega grade rarity in the form of a White-crowned Sparrow was found in East Sussex at Seaford. This immediately piqued my interest as it was something that I "needed" for the UK and it was also well within my self-imposed driving range limit for going on a twitch. It also brought back fond memories of my twitch to the White-throated Sparrow nearby at Barcombe Cross back in April 2021. That bird was fairly reliable, turning up every forty minutes or so to feed on seed that had been put out for it. This bird on the other hand was being reported as very elusive and I had no appetite to go and spend all day search the dense undergrowth in the hope of getting lucky. Rather, I like my twitches to have a high chance of success. 

For this bird, I did wonder if locals there were going to resort to seed in order to try to improve the reliability and sure enough on Thursday it started to be reported regularly as "coming to seed" and "showing well". This was more like it! I did contemplate going for it on Friday but I had a therapy client that afternoon and didn't want to put myself under too much pressure so in the end I decided to go on Saturday. However, this was going to be the first weekend of it showing well so there would be hoards of people all with the same idea. So, I decided that I would have to be there uncharacteristically early for me at dawn. As I'm really not a "get up in the middle of the night to drive to a twitch" kind of person, at the last minute I booked an AirBnB in Seaford and headed off straight after dinner on Friday evening. The journey there was uneventful and I turned up at my lodgings for the night shortly after 10pm. After a brief unwind from the journey I was in bed by 11pm, ready to spring into action at first light tomorrow.

I had set an alarm for 5am but in the event I woke up at some time around 4:30am and decided to get up and press on. So it was that a little after 5:30am I rocked up at the car park, pleased to find that there were only 10 other cars there before me. It was very pleasant getting tooled up and heading off in the early light of dawn. There were birds singing all around and it was very peaceful and beautiful. I said to myself that I really must get up at sunrise more often: it's such a beautiful time of day!

Dawn at Seaford Head

After a 10 minute walk down to Hope Gap I soon came across the twitch arena. This was a gap between two extensive clumps of scrub into which a dozen or so birders were crammed, all peering intently up the gentle slope to a seeded area less than 20 yards away. There was just room for me to slot into the small crown and get a reasonable view of what was going on. After a quick enquiry I was informed that the bird had been seen this morning so it all should be straight-forward. And indeed within about 5 minutes I had had my first glimpse of it skulking around. The basic pattern was that it was coming to the seed every 20 minutes or so. It would initially perch in the surrounding bushes, where it would give its best views, before dropping down to feed on the ground where it was usually partially obscured by the various plants that were growing there. I remembered last summer in Canada seeing this species in a variety of different urban and parkland locations in Vancouver - it was good to see it again, albeit in very different circumstances. Anyway, the bird here was obliging enough and over a number of its visits to the seeded area I managed to get some reasonable video footage of it. 


A compilation of my best bits of video footage

The twitch arena - the bird would appear in the scrub in the centre of the picture

While waiting for it to put in an appearance, it was a pleasure to listen to the various other birds singing all around us. There was a close-by Cetti's, a number of Whitethroats and a Willow Warbler or two. Blackcaps and Chiffchaffs were also around as well as a variety of thrushes and finches. It's such a wonderful time of year where we can enjoy all the bird song! As people had had their fill and left, so one was able to be promoted up the twitch line and I was able to get marginally better views. However, my fears about the crowds proved justified. More and more people turned up and found themselves stuck at the back of the crowd, not really able to see at all. By the time I left the dozen or so people at the start had swollen to getting on for 50 - I was glad to be out of there by that stage! 

Twitchers crammed in the gap. This was before numbers got too large

I decided to have a wander down to the end of the little valley to take a look at the sea. Away from the crowds it was a lovely bit of habitat filled with various singing warblers. Down by the sea itself there were some Fulmars soaring around the chalk cliffs and a Rock Pipit and a Curlew on the shoreline. A quick sea watch in the company of a couple of other post-twitch visitors revealed some passing Common Scoter, a few Sandwich Terns and some Gannets. The sound of the sea was very relaxing and I spent quite some time just relaxing and listening to it.

The sea from the bottom of Hope Gap

Eventually it was time to head back home. As I passed the twitch site again there were now so many people that some were reduced to trying to scope the Sparrow from back on the main path. I thanked my stars that I'd decided to come at first light. I headed back to the car park which was now absolutely heaving. There I detooled and fired up the Gnome-mobile for the drive back home. The Saturday traffic was busy but I arrived back home late morning for a welcome celebratory cup of tea. It had been a very successful twitch.

As a footnote, that was the last day the bird was seen. Thankfully I didn't decide to go on Sunday instead as that would have been most gutting! There is something rather satisfying about seeing a bird on the last day. Somehow much better than seeing one early on which then goes on to stay for months. Either way, it was good to get my first national list tick of the year after my nasty dip at the start of the month.

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