The Birding History of Selsey Bill
A personal review by Owen Mitchell
I’d always been keen to document the birds of the area, resulting in several publications over the years, but in 2013, after fully retiring, I realised it was time to move forward and embrace the online world – resulting in the ‘Selsey Blog’ you are now reading. However, whilst the Peninsula undeniably holds many good birding areas, there is something special about being on a headland and watching birds on migration moving over the sea, always with the additional hope of something unusual either arriving or departing. Sea-watching is not for everyone; there are many dull days and it is often dependant on the right wind and weather combinations - but get it right and there is surely no finer type of birding!
So, what follows is a personal review of how events have unfolded at Selsey Bill since regular observations were commenced. However, this review is not all about me, other than the part I have directly played as part of a team - for really this is a history of a team of people where individuals may change over time but the group purpose is maintained. I did consider writing this to merely include the facts, omitting any emotion, but in truth that would be selling it short; birding at the Bill has been and still is so much more than that. A host of individual personalities have helped shape the history of the place through the years, hence I felt I had to record this where possible for future researchers.
The Bill-tip area held so much more scrub cover and vegetation than is the case today, ideal for recording and ringing migrant birds and species such as Melodious Warbler (several), Great Reed Warbler and Savi’s Warbler were soon added, whilst species arriving from the sea included Corncrake and Quail! Nothing is forever however and 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. Sadly this left only a few casual or local observers to continue at Selsey for the next few years, although one dedicated individual in particular remained (HPKR), even managing to produce more ‘plain manila cover’ reports right up until 1969, often assisted by a young DSF.
Then in late 1974 things changed considerably when I moved to West Sussex and much closer to the Peninsula, where the draw of the sea was to prove irresistible and visits quickly increased. There was a problem though, for 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, but especially Tony Marr whose ability in the field was legendary. He would occasionally visit to keep an eye on the young ‘whipper-snappers’ such as myself and CRJ and steer us along the right path. It stood us in good stead and I found myself adopting some of his techniques and detailed diary notes, which I use to this day. It has to be said though some of the ‘birding establishment’ of the time were less understanding and, let’s face it, at times downright distrustful! I vividly recall being with CRJ on a then undeveloped field near Bill House in late April 1979 where a pair of Stonechats was breeding, when suddenly another male Stonechat appeared. It was remarkably pied in its full summer plumage, with a massive while collar and rump and bold white wing flashes too, quite different to the ‘normal’ Stonechat, which eventually drove the interloper away, but not before a couple of other observers also saw it. It was without doubt an Eastern Stonechat – then just a sub-species - very striking in every way. Perhaps naively, CRJ and I agreed to do separate descriptions without further consultation – with no photos as was then normal – and to our dismay the record was rejected, with some discussion over slight omissions in our notes. Looking back it still hurts and there is in my mind absolutely no doubt – but it taught us both a salutary lesson. No doubt the BBRC had their reasons, but I feel sure the perceived birding inexperience of the two new Selsey upstarts involved was a factor!
My best-ever find on Pontins was a Radde's Warbler in 1991. No mobile phones then and no camera; I remember quickly doing some notes with shaking hands (above). I was all alone so I drove round to the James's house in Selsey where there was no reply! I left them a quick sketch before thrashing down to Pagham Harbour, where thankfully I found a couple of locals who came back and saw it. (OM)
The roll of honour for the annual Pom King challenge. The winners are shown, together with the winning number of Poms for the year in brackets. The number of different winners is also shown and currently stands at 13. It takes a lot of resilience to actually see the most birds in any spring - often involving hours of patiently waiting and being prepared to stay longer than any of your closest rivals....so it's not for the faint-hearted and can be more demanding than it first appears! (OM)