The winter months are the best time to see merlin on the reserve and this year has been no exception, with small numbers of sightings during November and December. Britain’s smallest bird of prey, this species occurs all around the most northerly parts of Europe and North America, with the UK population of around 1300 pairs breeding in the north and west of the country. During the winter months these birds move to the lowlands and the coast corresponding to the increase in sightings at Rye Harbour. An old name for merlin is ‘pigeon hawk’, though this refers to the fact that it is pigeon-sized rather any its prey preference, and at Rye Harbour certainly its main victims appear to be skylark and smaller waders such as dunlin.
The bulk of wader numbers during December was provided by golden plover, with 1600+ present on Flat Beach on the 23rd, 350 lapwing here on the 24th and 330 curlew on Harbour Farm on the 4th. On the shore, the highest numbers were provided by a count on the 22nd which found 160 dunlin 44 knot, 17 grey plover and 11 sanderling, while elsewhere on the reserve at least 28 snipe were recorded at Ternery Pool on the 24th. A good selection of Waterfowl on the Beach Reserve during December included red-breasted merganser, scaup, up to 1750 wigeon and 27 pintail on Flat Beach and black-necked grebe on Ternery Pool. At Castle Water the highlights were great white egret on the 4th and 11th (two) and bittern (above) on the 22nd (with another seen on Harbour Farm on the same date) while a pink-footed goose was seen on Castle Farm on the 6th and 18th. Elsewhere, up to five goldeneye were present on Harbour Farm during the month, while offshore notable sightings included 18 red-throated diver on the 18th and 75 common scoter on the 22nd. Raptors sightings at Castle Water during the month included regular marsh harrier, with three on the 24th, buzzard on the 4th, 23rd (two) and 24th and merlin on the 18th. The highlight however was a hen harrier over the Beach Reserve on the 19th. Passerines during December included regular sightings of kingfisher, particularly on the ditch to the south of the caravan park in Rye Harbour itself, up to 25 fieldfare at Castle Water, raven on Harbour Farm on the 18th (two) and Beach Reserve on the 19th (three) and seven bearded tit at Castle Water on the 22nd. In addition, up to two rock pipit (below) were present on the saltmarsh throughout the month and 10 bullfinch were seen at Castle Water on the 4th.
As might be expected there were little in the way of invertebrate records during December, though despite the often cold clear conditions peacock butterflies were seen on the 6th and 14th (two), while the tiny fly Opetia nigra was added to the reserve list on the latter date. Mammalian records included a weasel near Lime Kiln Cottage on the 7th and a water vole ‘latrine’ at Castle Water on the 22nd.