Bird-watching may not be the most challenging of activities but it is certainly rewarding and it's peaceful, too. Clive takes a trip to Rye Harbour Nature Reserve to see what he can see...
LOOKING back on my childhood from an increasing distance, there are three things that I regret. Foremost among these would be my attitude to Roger Anderson. Because we were seated alphabetically at my primary school, it was Anderson's misfortune to have me as a neighbour for no fewer than six years. He was everything I wasn't: hard-working, neat, conscientious and adored by the teachers. Consequently I disliked him with a passion that I have more recently transferred to suicide bombers and was forever hiding his pencil case. This drove Anderson to distraction and my hunch is that he is quite likely receiving counselling to this day as a consequence. If you are out there, Anderson, I'm genuinely sorry.The school was in a leafy north London suburb and all the boys supported either Arsenal or Spurs. For some obscure reason - possibly because Anderson chose Arsenal - I opted for Spurs. Apart from a brief period of glory in the early 1960s, being a Spurs' supporter has been a hugely frustrating experience and so the irreversible choice I made back then has been one I have lived to regret.Finally there's Oscar. Perennially cheerful and uncomplaining, I kept him incarcerated for the whole of his life. His existence must have been an appallingly dreary one that was only occasionally enlivened by a thrilling taste of freedom. My mother, although not in Anderson's league, was pretty well organised, liked things to be reasonably tidy and would therefore only rarely allow me to unclip Oscar's door and let him flit around the living room. Seeing his tiny claws skidding along the top of the television and having him land on my head was thrilling. However, after only a couple of minutes of mayhem I was obliged to pop him back into his cage. Oscar was a budgie and it seems that it has always been the lot of budgies to be imprisoned for their entire lives.
I'm stuck with Spurs as the very notion of switching my allegiance to Arsenal is abhorrent. On a more positive note, I have now publicly apologised to Anderson. So that leaves Oscar. Since he literally fell off his perch three days after Spurs last clinched the League title in the spring of 1961 (was it shock?), there's nothing I can do for him. However, as a tribute and by way of recompense to his kind, I resolve to take a greater interest in birds and learn more about them.And so I've come to Rye Harbour Nature Reserve for a spot of bird-watching. Established in 1970, the reserve occupies a triangular piece of land owned by the Environment Agency and Sussex Wildlife Trust and is managed by East Sussex County Council staff supported by volunteers from the Friends of Rye Harbour Nature Reserve. Dr Barry Yates, the manager of the reserve, greets me at the Information Centre, gives me a guidebook and lends me a pair of binoculars. Around 200,000 people a year visit this attractive 350-hectare open space at the mouth of the River Rother. Some walk their dogs, others sit on the beach, while the suspicion is that only a small percentage are especially interested in the wildlife.
Although with binoculars strung around my neck I'm literally focusing on the birds, there are all sorts of fascinating plants (the once-extinct Stinking Hawksbeard, for example), insects (the scuttle fly, first discovered by Dr Yates at Rye and named after him - Megaselia yatesi - and assorted other creatures inhabiting the reserve. Not all are good news. Foxes, mink, rats and badgers, which eat the birds, are particularly unwelcome and electric fences have been erected to keep them away from the nesting sites.The good news is that the tide is in, which means that the birds will be concentrated on a smaller area. The less good news is that mid-summer is not the best time to see them. According to Barry, May is the best month but, as we set off on our circular walk, he assures me we will see at least some of the 288 species that have been spotted here.I immediately and correctly identify two crows that pass overhead. It's hard to tell if Barry is as impressed as I'm hoping he is. "What's that, then?" he asks, pointing at a small bird sitting on a nearby fencepost. Looking through the binoculars, I see a bluey-grey bird with black cheeks and what in polite society is called a white rump. I'm genuinely excited but completely clueless as to what it is. Sensing my struggle, he reveals: "It's a Wheatear. Its name has nothing to do with wheat but is a corruption of white arse. A summer visitor, it will soon fly off to Africa."The next streaky, little, brown bird looks familiar but I can't positively identify it until Barry gives me a massive clue that it's a famous songster. "Skylark!" I yell and the frightened bird promptly disappears. I've still a lot to learn about bird-watching. I recover some of the lost ground a little further on when I correctly identify a white, heron-like bird striding along the edge of a lagoon as a Little Egret. That was the bird-watching equivalent of a 35-yard free kick right into the corner of the net.I haven't a clue what the next big bird with long red legs and matching beak is. "It's an Oystercatcher," Barry informs me. There are a lot of them in the reserve presumably because a diet of oysters boosts their libido and encourages them to breed. My fascinating theory is promptly squashed by Barry who explains that, around these parts anyway, oysters don't comprise a significant part of their diet. Pity.The name of birds can be misleading. For example, the Sandwich terns don't feed on what you might think they feed on nor, apparently, are there any to be found in Sandwich. But there are quite a few here sitting alongside Little Terns and Common Terns by a pool and Barry is explaining how to tell them apart when they all suddenly take off and start wheeling around in the sky. Instinctively, Barry looks up, immediately spots the cause of the kafuffle and tells me excitedly that it's a Marsh Harrier. The terns are evidently less thrilled to see it than we are and several of them mob it and force it away.To escape the searing sun and sit down for a bit, we enter one of several hides that are scattered about the reserve. Much as I would love to, I resist the temptation to ask the several bird-watchers peering intently down binoculars whether or not they spotted the Marsh Harrier and instead sit on a stool and stare out over the lagoon.
There are Tufted Ducks, Little Grebes, Shellducks, Egrets, Cormorants and assorted waterfowl. Looking through my binoculars, I feel like Jack Hawkins scouring the water for tell-tale signs of an enemy submarine. But it's remarkably peaceful watching the birds. They are quietly going about their business and I can begin to understand why enthusiasts could spend the whole day here.As we wander back, Barry explains that being a bird-watcher doesn't merely consist of making occasional visits to nature reserves or bird sanctuaries but is something you do all the time and enlivens dull activities such as car and train journeys. Driving home I spot a green woodpecker. Oscar would be proud of me.