Sightings 1 by Peter Driscoll

Late Spring 2011

The title of this article is not a comment on the weather but is meant to indicate that these notes are additional both to the Spring 2011 Sightings already published and the Summer 2011 Sightings that will appear later. We are taking advantage of the technological change that affects the whole Newsletter to bring the Sightings articles into sync with the actual seasons and at the same time revising the format to give fewer lists and more analysis. Those who want a more scientific approach are referred to the excellent websites of the British Trust for Ornithology (www.bto.org.uk) and Sussex Wildlife Trust (www.sussexwt.org.uk).

The new Sightings will refer occasionally to ‘phenology’ (the study of the times of naturally recurring phenomena, especially in relation to climatic conditions). We British, with our seemingly built-in urge to talk about the weather, would surely be champions in any phenology Olympics. The first cuckoo in spring is eagerly awaited – mine was heard at 11:44 on 10 April this year and continues to sing daily. Likewise, the swallow – with the knowing proviso ‘one swallow does not make a summer ‘ – is for many the ‘harbinger of summer’. I saw one on 11 April but since then none. Meanwhile they have been observed at Pagham Harbour since 22 March. Can you beat that?

Those of us who live ‘on the doorstep’ of Pagham Harbour Local Nature Reserve need sometimes to be reminded of how privileged we are. The Reserve qualifies for protection under a whole range of national and international measures and, using data kindly supplied by Ivan Lang, Conservation Warden, I would like Sightings to give a snapshot of how our key species are doing as well as reporting the numerous rarities that pass through.

In the past few months numbers in some of our key winter species have been as follows:

Dark-bellied Brent Goose 2453
Black-tailed Godwit 155
Northern Pintail 80
Grey Plover 557
Teal 318
Cormorant 105
Slavonian Grebe 4

In future articles I hope to see how these winter populations are faring over time and whether any trends emerge.

Pagham Harbour is also important as a breeding site for a number of coastal and wetland species and as a stopover point for numerous passage species. The latter have now arrived or have passed through on their Spring migration but it is worth singling out the lapwings that are nesting probably as a direct result of a Pagham Harbour project.

A key subject for study in phenology is the geographical spread of life forms perhaps in connection with climatic conditions. Climatic conditions have certainly affected my plans for digging a pond in my garden. I began last autumn when the water table was level with the top of the grass ie there was a centimetre of standing water. This made each spadeful of clay incredibly heavy. As I dug down – in the absence of rainfall – the water table fell ahead of me so that I now have a huge, deep dry hole.

The following is taken from the Met Office UK climate website:

With high pressure influencing the weather for most of [April], it was much warmer, drier and sunnier than normal. The mean temperature was 4.0 °C above the 1971–2000 average and it was the warmest April in the series from 1910, being 0.6 °C warmer than April 2007 (now ranked second). In central England, it was the warmest April for over 350 years. The daily maximum temperatures in particular were well above normal, by as much as 6 °C in the south-east. Rainfall was below normal in all areas — exceptionally so over much of southern, central and eastern England where less than 10% of normal rainfall was recorded. It was the second successive very dry month in these areas. Many places in the eastern half of England recorded less than 1 mm of rain. Provisionally, it was the 6th driest April in the series from 1910 and in East Anglia only April 2007 was drier. Sunshine amounts were generally around 150 per cent of normal, making it the sunniest April in the series since 1929.

The pond is supposed to attract wildlife to the garden and when I saw two mallards swimming, one moorhen wading and a pheasant in the pear-tree I was delighted with the success of my plan. However, my delight, like the pond-water, has gradually drained away and the waterfowl have abandoned us. Of course, many birds have deserted the garden to nest elsewhere. Some, like the pheasant, have come back again, in her case without young, with long-term residents like the blackbirds and robins feeding fledglings in the borders.

Maybe among the birds nesting locally is the blackcap who overwintered this year in Sidlesham instead of chasing back to Africa or wherever? He joined in merrily at the new bird feeding station (2 containers). If he does breed after not migrating then perhaps we are seeing evolution at work?

On the subject of feeding stations, mine is currently subject to non-stop raids by rooks and starlings. However, in February and March it really earned its keep with daily visits from troupes of long-tailed tits and, star of the show with his brilliant red underparts, the greater spotted woodpecker clung with claws and tail to the hanging containers. After a hesitant start, the robins also learned to perch on the wire containers rather than trying to eat while hovering.

We would like to include here records of wildlife you have seen on the peninsula – in your garden, on the shore, or just out and about. Please send your sightings (if in doubt indicate with a ‘?’) to:

sightings@mwhg.org.uk

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