By Mike Russell
Senior Conservation Advisor
Big flocks of birds doing spectacular aerial displays is always a wonder to behold; huge murmurations of starlings forming an ever-changing picture show in a late afternoon winter sky have become a popular event in many parts of the country, but another one I urge to try and get out and see in Sussex this winter is the mass of golden plover down atRye Harbour nature reserve
I recently went down there on the last session with the Finding Birds in East Sussex group and from the hide at Castle Water you could see the sky just filling up with these lovely birds and drawing patterns as they twisted and turned in unison, possibly trying to confuse a marauding peregrine or merlin. It was interesting to note that they suddenly take flight in unison with the lapwings and initially there is a confusion of birds, but then more order is restored when the species sort themselves out, with the plovers forming into tight groups while the lapwing remained more loosely formed, their more slower, deliberate flapping not quite creating the same sense of cohesion.
Later on a few of us went on to the main reserve to get a closer look at these lovely birds and there they were, packed tightly on the shingle and mounds created for them, their gentle, plaintive whistling pervading the air. We met Barry Yates who said there was 2,500-3,000 golden plover there, an unusually high number given the very unseasonal high temperatures we are having at the moment, these sorts of numbers are usually associated with much colder weather.
As we were admiring them, they all suddenly all took flight, along with the lapwings and once again the skies with the sound of beating wings and cries and in the distance the small scythe-like silhouette of a darting merlin was espied, the cause of the sudden havoc. Once the plovers realised that the merlin was really not a problem they relaxed into a more casual descent, resuming their places on the ground, this time gently swirling over our heads, a truly magical sight.
I had a similar experience a few weeks ago in Norfolk, at Snettisham where there was double the number of golden plover, this time in brilliant sunshine and the display was absolutely breath-taking, their golden backs glinting in the sun as they descended back to the mud. We tried to think of a collective noun to describe these golden plovers and the best we could come up with was a ‘confetti of golden plovers’ because that what it looked like while they were descending.
So, whether you are near or far from Rye Harbour, get yourself down there this winter, it really is one of the great wildlife spectacles, and it’s happening right here in Sussex.