10/07/2024
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David Campbell: when a birder migrates

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Birders have so much to think about when moving house. Never mind the council tax band and whether the area is still 'up and coming' economically – we need to know how close we are to the nearest marshes and whether there are any good leading lines for visible migration.

Moving more than a few miles can completely change one's birding prospects. It can be tough to say goodbye to a local patch. After all those years of putting in hours at a favourite site, getting to know its birds and building an impressive patch list, the thought of making it work long-distance might even cross your mind. But a clean break is for the best and a new area offers an exciting fresh start.

Just make sure you time it right so that all the packing and unpacking doesn't clash with key weeks for migration. I ended up wishing I hadn't stalled for time when my partner suggested a summer move a couple of years ago. Much of September and October last year were taken up with shifting 60 km east along the Sussex coast from Worthing to Hastings.

Although the split into two modern counties is effectively ignored for bird recording and competitive listing, the move from West Sussex to East Sussex meant swapping a flat and depressingly urbanised coastline for rugged, underwatched clifftops and exciting wetlands within easy reach. Entering an upgraded birding arena but without having to abandon my county list, I couldn't have hoped for better.


This Olive-backed Pipit, only the third for Sussex and a fine inland prize, was a parting gift for David on his old patch (David Campbell).

A Common Kingfisher flashed past the top-floor window as we heaved the first few boxes up to the 'dumping room' in our new house. I'd already scrutinised the habitat in our new area on Google Maps, so I knew there were no water features close enough to make this a regular sighting. It seemed like a good sign.

 

New house, new patch

Thankfully, autumn still had enough gas left to give me a taste of local birding once the essential unpacking was done. Although there seemed to be few 'resident' birds around the garden, the advantage of living at the top of a hill was clear every time I stepped outside to hear migrating finches, hirundines and Meadow Pipits on tap.

Sorrow at leaving behind Cissbury Ring, my former birding haven in Worthing which saw me off with the discovery of the first Olive-backed Pipit in Sussex for 20 years, was soon forgotten with a fantastic realisation. 

Hastings Country Park had been the obvious choice of local patch. However, utter laziness when it comes to hiking up and down hills to walk to its west edge, and a miserly attitude to parking charges, led me to check out a comparatively titchy area of similar terrain closer to home.

I'd dreamt of a place just like West Hill, but I hadn't thought it existed. The habitat looked incredibly promising but pleasingly easy to cover. From one spot, it was possible to keep an eye on a sheltered gully while logging overland migration and seawatching. What's more, it was a safe area to bring my dog, Bentham, along, with nothing sensitive for her to disturb.

The next day the weather was so awful that I'd had to cancel a birding tour, but I was straight back out to West Hill. A Ring Ouzel appeared in the trees as I made my way to a comfortable seawatching position at the base of the hill. My long-awaited first Balearic Shearwater in Sussex flew past, followed by another. This was all the proof I needed that I finally had excellent birding a short walk from home. You don't get that on Zoopla.

 

  • This column first appeared in the April 2024 edition of Birdwatch. To be the first to read the magazine each month, take out a subscription to Birdwatch, or get the magazine alongside your bird news by subscribing to either Bird News Ultimate (paper magazine) or Bird News Ultimate Plus (digital access).
Written by: David Campbell

David Campbell works for BirdGuides and co-runs Wildstarts Nature Ltd, a Sussex-based guiding company: www.wildstarts.com