Birding history of Selsey Bill

added 2013

PERSONAL REFLECTIONS: A SHORT HISTORY OF BIRDING AT SELSEY BILL
Part 1 – The early years 1959-79     
I’ve never actually lived on the Selsey (Manhood) Peninsula, but I’ve spent a great deal of time there and still visit regularly to this day. It’s now forty years since my interest was first kindled by Bernie Forbes taking me to sea-watch at Selsey Bill, and I can still remember the excitement. I also remember how straightforward my journey onto the peninsula was back then, unlike the journeys I make nowadays. I dread to think of the number of miles I’ve travelled back-and-forth since that first trip, but even so I still consider the area my local patch. Inevitably of course I’ve noticed a good deal of change, too often to the detriment of wildlife, though despite this, the Selsey area remains a wonderful place for a day’s birding, with a whole range of habitats all within a short distance. I’ve always been keen to document the birds of the area, which has resulted in several publications over the years, but whilst researching in 2009, it dawned on me that it is now fifty years since regular observations first began at Selsey Bill - wow! So what’s happened in that time?
Those that did the maths above will realise that my personal Selsey ‘career’ commenced in 1972, but things actually started way back in 1959. At that time a regular group of observers realised the potential of the area and began a programme of almost complete coverage, especially during spring and autumn, which was to last until 1965. A small observatory was set up during this time, operating from a rickety wooden hut, and the first Selsey Bill Bird reports appeared; initially half-yearly and consisting of typed sheets in a plain manila cover, later to become annual, with duplicated foolscap sheets and a cover picture of each year’s memorable bird. Many young observers cut their birding teeth here during these early years, some destined to become more famous in later life; Richard Porter, Mike Shrubb and B.A.E. ‘Tony’ Marr are three who spring to mind amongst a veritable ‘Who’s who’ of ornithological names of that time. I must pay tribute to these early Selsey pioneers; indeed members of this group – largely inspired by Tony Marr – were also responsible for founding the Sussex Ornithological Society in 1962. Amazingly, one of those who regularly attended in those early days is still watching there today – none other than the remarkable Beryl James (though perhaps son Paul has a similar claim as he was first taken there as a child!) The Bill-tip area held much scrub cover and vegetation, ideal for recording and ringing migrant birds, but by the end of 1964 that situation was changing. The expanding holiday trade and the growth in residential and leisure development began to cause the loss of natural habitat, so by 1965 many of the regular observers decided to switch locations to Beachy Head. This left only a few casual or local observers to continue at Selsey, although one dedicated individual in particular remained (H.P. Kay-Robinson), even managing to produce more ‘plain manila cover’ reports up until 1969, often assisted by a young Dave Flumm. Thereafter, although the site was never abandoned, information became erratic for several years.
So it was that in 1972 I paid my first visit, by which time a new generation of Selsey birders had taken an interest, realising as I did that some great birding was still to be had there, for even if the sea passage totals were sometimes not as great as at other sites, the variety of species and regular close views often provided some of the best birding in Sussex. Added to that, there was also a great chance of seeing unusual passerines, for even then the natural habitat was comparatively unspoilt – a situation that was to dramatically change in future years. My visits to the Bill for the first couple of years were infrequent as I lived in Brighton; furthermore my birding mentor Bernie was more keen on walking me across downland or heading inland to check bushes, brooks and commons and didn’t have the patience for a lengthy or slow sea-watch (and still doesn’t!!) When I moved to West Sussex in late 1974 the draw of the sea was to prove irresistible and visits quickly increased, but being new to birding I needed help and the company of others. How I envied those experienced enough to confidently identify a distant row of black dots skidding over the horizon as Common Scoter. Just how did they know that funny tern was an adult Little Gull? Surely that little brown finch arriving from the sea was unidentifiable, so what makes it a Redpoll? Would I ever know enough to separate the skuas?
As I ‘learnt my trade’ through the 1970’s I was to meet some great birders; Tony Marr would occasionally visit to keep an eye on us newcomers and steer us along the right path, whilst one of the new boys was Chris Janman, who still watches there today. Although small in stature, Chris was big on reputation and kept me and others enthralled with his twitching tales from the Isles of Scilly. What’s more, he had a camera, a proper one, from which he produced some impressive slides. As my experience grew, I became ever more enthusiastic, as did Chris, and the bond between us strengthened. I particularly remember one bitterly cold day in February 1979, sitting in Chris’s old Ford Anglia and jumping out to log a Pink-footed Goose arriving from the sea in a snow flurry! Just prior to this, we had discussed the possibility of jointly compiling a new publication to cater for the renewed interest, and sure enough our Selsey Bill (West Sussex) Bird Report 1979 duly appeared.
There were by now many other observers attending, including a regular clan from Hampshire; Ron King, Mick Hay, Barry and Margaret Collins, Dick Barrett, et al, plus Sussex notables such as Alan Kitson, Charles James and Tim Parmenter. And a not-so-notable newcomer Mervyn Jones, who little did I know then was due to figure large in my birding life. So, twenty years after the first pioneers had started watching at the Bill, it was thriving again with a new generation of observers and a new bird report. What followed is a story for another day. 


PERSONAL REFLECTIONS: A SHORT HISTORY OF BIRDING AT SELSEY BILL

Part 2 – Pom Kings and Pontins: 1980-99

The early 1980’s at Selsey Bill saw a number of new observers starting to watch there and several new species were added to the bird list, including Woodchat Shrike (1980 and 1983), Ortolan Bunting (1981) and Alpine Swift (1984). One thing was readily apparent; amongst the observers there was warmth of character, where regulars were friendly and welcoming to locals and newcomers alike – yes, it was even fun at times! Meanwhile Chris Janman and I continued to collate the bird records, and following the publication of our first annual Bird Report (1979) we went on to produce four more, until we eventually had to cease when overtaken by work and family commitments. That series of reports is now a collector’s item!
Mervyn Jones became our friend around this time and was by now living close to the Bill-tip. A gentle rivalry began to develop between the three of us, when talk was of who could see the most Pomarine Skuas in spring, or who had seen the most previously. One quiet day in 1983 we met in the Walnut Tree pub at Runcton to discuss things over a pint, and we ended up researching spring Pom totals back to 1979. This showed that Chris and Merv dominated and I was nowhere – but the Pom-King challenge was born, and with it the first Pom party! The idea of some sort of trophy was mooted; details are a little hazy now, but I do remember providing a rather silly hat, whilst a papier-mâché model was also considered and sometime prior to that the late Frank Forbes (Bernie’s dad) once provided a meat skewer with two ribbons and spoons attached! It would be some years before a framed Pom photo was eventually adopted, having been presented by Tony Marr (though we later learned he took the photo off Senegal!) Gradually the fame of the Pom-King challenge spread, and it proved to be a wonderful tool for getting observers to put in the long hours necessary and so increase coverage at the site. Merv was well adapted to this style of birding; never the most dynamic of watchers, he would happily lay on an old mattress for hours on end, often snoozing in the sun while others watched, awaiting the magic shout. He was also very jammy, with an uncanny knack of arriving just in time to avoid missing any Pom flocks. Chris and Merv were to monopolise the competition for the first ten years – save for a blip in 1987 when Owen Laugharne won it with just four birds – and it wasn’t until 1989 that I got a look in with my first title.
1989 proved to be a bit of a turning point. It produced a national rarity in the form of a Desert Wheatear, but it also marked the beginning of what I consider to be Selsey’s golden era – the Pontins years. The Pontins holiday camp in Grafton Road was situated close to the Bill-tip, but by spring 1989 it had been sold and quickly cleared of existing buildings, ready for development. Then something unexpected happened; a recession took hold and building projects everywhere ground to a halt. This left the large Pontins site derelict and it wasn’t long before it was overtaken by nature. Situated right on the coast it soon became a haven for wildlife and also served as an unofficial amenity space for local people, but most of all it was a great place for Selsey birders. No visit was complete without checking the area and over several years it accounted for many interesting bird records, including such delights as Golden Oriole, Tawny and Richard’s Pipits, Radde’s, Barred and Yellow-browed Warblers, Woodchat and Red-backed Shrikes, Serin, Lapland Bunting and Common Rosefinch. The time was also right for another publication – so I compiled a formal checklist of Selsey birds in 1991 which listed 253 species. The cover picture was a fine photo (taken by Dave Sadler) of a Glaucous Gull dubbed ‘George’ which regularly visited for some years.
These were good times but sadly it couldn’t last and by autumn 1996 development began, following a public enquiry. I remember attending the latter but it was a foregone conclusion really. Much of the development was well underway by 1997 and the area soon became a massive housing estate with all its attendant problems of additional people, cars and dog-walkers; even the promised wide tree-lined margin on the coastal side did not materialise and our unofficial little nature reserve was lost forever. To be honest, at this time I thought seriously about giving up altogether at the Bill and an air of despondency hit me. I’m sure many of the regulars must have felt the same way. However I put on a brave face, reminding myself that when the holiday camp was still running we didn’t have access anyway, but in truth it was a bitter pill to swallow. Something was needed to lift the spirits, and as it turned out the Poms came to the rescue, for spring 1997 proved to be a bumper season, with a memorable passage on 2nd May. The fortunate title holder for that year was none other than John Brame from Hants, with the highest-ever winning total of 103, a record that still stands. Slowly but surely I managed to regain my enthusiasm for Selsey Bill, recalling all the good times I’d had and reminiscing about the characters there. It is simply impossible to try and mention them all, so I apologise in advance, but I must mention a few selected individuals:-
Bob Lord, then the warden at Pagham Harbour Nature Reserve, could usually be found ‘on the wall’ most mornings before reluctantly heading off to work. John Hibberd met his future wife at Bill House. Mick Hay and Keith Maycock from Hants always came as a pair and kept meticulous notes. Bob Knight was always in winter plumage whatever the weather and brought doorstep sandwiches. Dave Smith usually led the Worthing contingent and put up with much stick. Barry and Margaret Collins cycled for miles to be there after their mini-van packed up. John Brame always seemed to be decorating and would usually arrive late. Richard Prior could always be relied upon to start watching at daybreak, and would kindly volunteer to go home and refill your flask. Sam Hill would desperately watch before or after work. Ron King brought birthday cake. Lesley Coley brought home-made flapjacks. Dave Sneller brought a barbeque. John Dodd had a distinctive laugh. Dave Francis always mentioned Fulham FC.  Martin Casemore and Dick Eyre-Walker were a comedy double act from Shoreham. Andy House couldn’t get up early and would moan about what he’d missed whilst his greyhound Zippy stole your sandwiches. John Faithfull’s one-liners were second-to-none but his birthday hangovers in early May stopped him from winning a title. Alan Ford was just blunt to everybody. And the late, dear Barry Carter happily took on the role of log-keeper and would always cheer everyone up when he arrived. I could go on and on, but space prevents it.
Well, I and others did continue to watch at the Bill despite the Pontins development, as the last years of the 1990’s came and went in a bit of a blur. Regrettably other habitat in the area was also reduced as properties were expanded or developed, yet somehow enthusiasm was maintained. Then suddenly we were facing the prospect of a new millennium – so what would the future hold now for the Bill and its regulars?
PERSONAL REFLECTIONS: A SHORT HISTORY OF BIRDING AT SELSEY BILL
Part 3 –New millennium, old problems, hello SZ89: 2000 and beyond
Year 2000 arrived full of hope and hype, but the predicted computer bug didn’t happen, life soon quietened down, and it quickly became business as usual on the birding front. The year did produce a number of birding excitements; on 1st May there was a Bee-eater on Bill House plus a Serin in the garden, and 34 Pom Skuas passed by, whilst late autumn storms produced a good movement of seabirds including a dozen Sooty Shearwaters. Oh yes, one other thing – yours truly managed to win the prestigious millennium Pom King trophy! Apart from this however, it soon became apparent that Selsey would continue to suffer from its old problem – development (or perhaps more accurately over-development) – and with it a continuing loss of natural habitat. Within a few years another new housing estate and industrial complex would appear on the northern edge of the village, whilst at the Bill-tip continual improvements to existing dwellings meant that some of their large, vegetated sea-front gardens were ‘tidied’ or stripped of vegetation, leaving precious little for wildlife. It took time for me to come to terms with things, but the reality today is that, in birding terms, Selsey Bill can only realistically be considered a sea-watching site. True, it is also a migrant watch point where birds arriving or departing from the sea continue to be noted, but there is so little natural habitat left where migrants can actually rest or feed that most pass straight over. Add to this the human pressure and the number of dogs exercised here, and you soon realise that the days of finding some skulking rarity in coastal scrubland are effectively gone, or at least the chances are very much reduced.
Change is inevitable and I came to realise that that there was a need to adapt, so I began to re-consider the options. The Selsey faithful had always included within their recording area the large undeveloped area of rough grassland to the west (colloquially known as Selsey West Fields, but more accurately Bracklesham), but there are other important areas too. East beach extends as far as the boundary with Pagham Harbour Local Nature Reserve and since the early 1970’s had specifically been excluded from the Selsey Bill recording area; yet in the 1960’s the whole area of Church Norton beach and the Severals reed-beds was actually included within it by the birding pioneers of the day. The rest of the Reserve is of course situated very close to the Bill in any case. It became clear that the southern tip of the Manhood peninsula is probably best considered as one important area in ornithological terms, and a glance at the local Ordnance Survey map soon showed that all these areas (i.e. Bracklesham/West Fields, Selsey and Pagham Harbour) fell conveniently within one 10 Km square – SZ89 – and so I and some others adopted this as the new recording area. I began to research and collate the records, and in 2003 published a fully updated report, Birds of Selsey & Pagham, which documented a full list of the 324 species then recorded in the area (plus nine sub-species and potential splits). Some observers will  continue to regard these areas as separate units, and that is their prerogative; some also consider the Bill-tip itself as the only proper recording area.
As I write this in early 2013, we are well into a new decade, the fifty-fourth year of regular and continuous observations at the Bill, so where are we now and what is the outlook for the future? Well, it is not all doom and gloom; indeed far from it, for there are surely some exciting times ahead. The camaraderie of the regulars is alive and well, whilst the fame of the annual Pom King trophy has spread, ensuring there will be plenty of sea-watching effort put in each spring. Observers old and new are still welcome, with Justin Atkinson currently doing the honours as site recorder. New birds will surely be added to the list, and there will be occasional spectacular passage movements, though most of the watching will be routine and not infrequently dull! There will certainly continue to be changes, some to the detriment of the area; however The RSPB had already bought a substantial chunk of West Fields as its new Bracklesham reserve, and now following land acquisition of the surrounding farmland for a planned ‘managed retreat’ from the sea at Medmerry, the area will be turned into a large wetland nature reserve with masses of potential. The RSPB has now also taken over the management of Pagham Harbour from West Sussex County Council (since February 2012). Just imagine that for a moment – Selsey Bill at the tip of the peninsula, surrounded on both sides by large protected nature reserves – and one day in the very near future it will come to pass. Who knows, perhaps even the Bill-tip itself could benefit if its profile was raised in the eyes of the public and a bit of greenery was to be restored.
As I bring this trilogy of personal reflections to a close, I would like to thank all those who have watched at Selsey Bill over the years; you have been a part of my life and a great source of inspiration to me. One thing is certain – you’ll know where to find me when the wind is blowing south-east on a fine spring morning and there’s a whiff of a Pom in the air. And you can bet your life that one or other of my birding buddies – probably Chris Janman – will be close by, still trying to ensure I don’t see the most!
Footnote: This trilogy of articles was originally written in 2010, but I have now updated it where necessary. The Medmerry project mentioned above is well on the way to completion and the RSPB, having now taken over the management of Pagham Harbour, will eventually do likewise with Medmerry. And of course, there is now a blog site for the area!      Owen  (March 2013).
A young Tony Marr, accompanied by Mike Shrubb, with a juv Pomarine Skua found on the beach at the Bill tip, Oct 1961.
Note the amount of tamarisk and scrub in the background, and a mist net cane, as ringing used to occur at this small observatory of the time. Tony told me they actually used an old duffle coat to capture the moribund bird; sadly the vegetation here (and the duffle coat!) have long gone.
(photo: courtesy of Tony Marr).

 
 
 

Before and after: this photo (above left) was taken from the Bill House tower in Dec 1990 and shows how the area used to be just a year after the derelict Pontins site was cleared. The scrub and encroaching vegetation right on the coast proved to be a magnet to migrating birds until late 1996 when sadly it was developed.
This photo (below) was taken exactly a decade later from the same point and shows how the final development has left precious little habitat for wildlife with only the 'Oval field' ex-football pitch remaining amongst a sea of houses.
 
This photo shows the old Pontins site in its heyday.
 
Below: early Selsey reports 1961-64, the 1979-83 reports, and more recent reports.

 
 
 
 
 


Selsey pioneers! Richard Porter (above left) and Tony Marr pictured in 1981. These two, as young birders, were involved in the early observations at the Bill from 1959 onwards. Both have gone on to make a name for themselves in ornithology....... !! Interesting to note how birding clothing and equipment has changed. Compare this with this recent image (below right) of the regulars on the wall; pictured left-to-right are Justin Atkinson, Chris Janman, Sam Hill and Paul Bowley (and ?) This is the normal base and watch point for sea-watching activities; however if the wind is from the east or southeast, then observations are normally switched to the 'south-east corner' (bottom left) - this offers a much better degree of protection when the wind is in this quarter.


















With a sea-level watchpoint there is a fairly low horizon, so markers on the horizon are important when trying to locate passing seabirds. One of the most identifiable and obvious is the Mixon (below) which is known to all the regulars as 'the Mile basket.' It is actually just over a mile offshore; it is pictured here in a stormy sea. Recently, Justin Atkinson consulted an Admiralty chart which actually showed it was 1.1 miles off the Bill-tip (not sure yet whether statute or nautical miles), but for interest other markers are as follows:-
red buoy - 1.9 miles, green bouy - 2.2 miles, Nab tower - 7 miles and Culver Cliff (Isle of Wight) - 12 miles.










This photo dated spring 1983 shows the horse grazing field adjoining the beach and backing onto the gardens of large detached houses; it became known as the 'shrike field' after attracting a Woodchat. Note the large house on the right, which was demolished and sold with the land for development. It subsequently turned into Cherry Gardens, where four bungalows were built and sadly the field suddenly turned into extended gardens - see below (dated 1999). Further reductions in habitat have regrettably occurred since then and green open spaces are now at a premium at the Bill.
 
 
How times have changed! This old photo is actually a postcard that was donated to me years ago by CRJ, and shows Selsey East beach area in 1959 (photographer anon). Note the wide open spaces and the lack of fisherman's huts and housing - a very different view from the present day.

 



Perhaps one of the most enduring sights at the Bill is that of Bill House, shown here at the end of a rainbow during a storm. The tower is in fact the original old Coastguard tower, but the building has long since been a Nursing home, as it still is today (though several proprietors have come and gone). In the 1990's we were permitted to use the tower for sea-watching operations by the then owners, but that has long since ceased. The gardens here are probably the single most important bit of habitat left on the Bill-tip.
 
How's this for a stormy sky? This is actually a colour photo, not black-and-white (dated 7th Nov 1998) and shows how the  the sea and weather conditions can soon change at the Bill. In forty years I have seen Selsey Bill in all its moods from flat calm to tornado, which I guess is part of its charm!




 




 

Gateway to Paradise! The entrance to the old Pontins Broadreeds holiday camp still remained after the site was demolished  - note the name within the wrought-iron gates and the warning signs. This view is dated autumn 1992.

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