The Birding History of Selsey Bill

  

The Birding History of Selsey Bill

 A personal review by Owen Mitchell


Foreword:

I’ve never actually lived on the Selsey (Manhood) Peninsula, but I’ve spent a great deal of time there and still visit to this day. It’s now about forty-eight years since my interest was first kindled by my great birding mate Bernie Forbes, taking me to sea-watch at ‘the Bill’ and I can still remember the excitement. I also remember how straightforward my journey through the Peninsula was back then, unlike the journeys 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 a local patch. Inevitably of course I’ve noticed a great deal of change, too often to the detriment of wildlife, but 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’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.


Bee-eater at Bill House, Selsey by Ads Bowley


1959-69: The early years and the Hut

The first consolidated observations started way back in 1959, when 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 but official observatory was set up during this time, operating from a rickety wooden hut, with detailed record-keeping and bird-ringing operations taking place. The first Selsey Bill Bird Reports also appeared during this time, 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 birding event….for example, White-tailed Eagle, Barred Warbler, and the Common Crane invasion of 1963.

How it all began!   (photo: BAEM)


(above) The original Selsey Bill Observatory nameplate (now attached to Dave Flumm's shed in Cornwall) and Dave himself as the young DSF outside the Hut, late 1960's (photos: DSF)

(below) Harry Robinson (HPKR) drinking a brew outside the windowless hut, late 1960's, probably shortly before it was demolished (photo: DSF) and (bottom) the early Selsey Bill Reports (foolscap size) (photo: OM)

Many young observers cut their birding teeth here during these early years, some destined to become more famous in later life; Richard Porter, the late Mike Shrubb and B.A.E. ‘Tony’ Marr are just 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. There are numerous tales of the hut, which had to be frequently repaired after storms, but some of the younger observers were even known to sleep there overnight (this was forbidden due to neighbourly complaints), despite the lack of any windows, toilet facilities or other basics. These young attendees – often just known by their initials - included Dave Flumm (DSF), Harry Robinson (HPKR), Alan Kitson (ARK) and even Paul James (PJ), who was often taken there as a young child by his parents, the late Charles and Beryl James.

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.

(above) A young Tony Marr (BAEM) with a grounded juvenile Pomarine Skua at the Bill on 8th Oct 1961, watched by the late Mike Shrubb. These two were stalwarts of the Bill in their heyday. (photos: BAEM)

(below) An early handwritten Bill checklist and a 1966 yearly summary, compiled by HPKR (photos: HPKR, per S.Krah)




1970-79: A new birding generation

As the 1970's began, the Bill was never actually abandoned, but information and observer visits became erratic, with no co-ordinated gathering of records for a while. As mentioned previously, by 1973 I'd made my first visit to sea-watch, but thereafter there were further visits, when I stayed longer and met one or two other birders….one in particular being Chris Janman (CRJ). My visits were still infrequent however as I lived in Brighton; furthermore my birding mentor Bernie was more keen on walking me across Downland or heading off to inland Commons at that time, not having the patience for a slow sea-watch!

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!

Meanwhile, the pair of us became ever more enthusiastic as the bond between us strengthened. Although small in stature, CRJ was big on reputation and kept me and others enthralled with his twitching tales from the Isles of Scilly. What’s more, he now had a camera, a proper one, from which he produced some impressive slides. I particularly remember one bitterly cold day in February sitting in his old Ford Anglia and jumping out to log a Pink-footed Goose arriving from the sea in a snow flurry! We had between us been collating the bird records and discussed the possibility of producing a new series of annual bird reports in the future. As it happened, by the end of 1979 we had already published the first and 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!

So, as the end of the decade beckoned, a new generation of birders was in place and twenty years after the first pioneers had started watching at the Bill, it was thriving again. This included many new out-of-County regulars from Hampshire and beyond, with the realisation that some great birding was to be had there, even if the sea passage totals were not as great as at some other sites. The variety of species and regular close views often provided some of the best birding in Sussex, whilst 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.

(above)  Looking east from the beach towards the Bill House, April 1979, showing development just starting. It was in the left-hand corner of this field that the Stonechats mentioned in the text were found. (photo: CRJ)

(lower) This image actually dates back to the early 1960's but is the only one available; it was taken looking west from the old Coastguard tower of Bill House. Note the open spaces and large amount of scrub on the coastal side - which was still the case in the early years of the 1970's. (photo: BAEM)

(bottom) The Selsey Bill Bird Report 1979 - the first since the 1960's - though unfortunately the Arctic Skua drawing on the cover came out very white in the printing process! (photo: OM)



1980-89: Popularity and Pom Kings

The early 1980’s saw the popularity of the Bill grow rapidly and quite a number of new observers starting to watch there, including Paul Bowley (PB), who was of similar age to me and who also had a similar (but slightly longer) journey to make to get there - though he seemed to get up halfway through the night and invariably beat me by a good margin. Several new species were also added to the bird list, including Woodchat Shrike (1980 and 1983) 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 – and although we took it seriously, it was, well yes, even fun at times! And if you were looking for the warden of Pagham Harbour nature reserve early in the morning, there was every chance you'd find him there too!

Bob Lord (RML), the Pagham Harbour warden (bearded), directing the late Harold Turner outside the Visitor centre in the mid-1980's with his van at the ready. Bob was a keen attendee at the Bill and would often start his day with a bit of a sea-watch there. (photo: RML)

I was now into my thirties and with CRJ continued to collate the bird records, whilst a newer observer Mervyn Jones became our friend around this time, having moved to Selsey and taken up residence 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 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 the late Owen Laugharne won it with just four birds – and it wasn’t until 1989 that I got a look in with my first title.

During this time of increasing popularity however, the ever-present theme of habitat removal and development had continued apace, with the nearby Pontins holiday camp in Grafton Road to the fore and in full flow, plus the construction of new housing along the front, so that towards the end of the decade gardens now replaced the open land and the horse field that had formerly existed. Added to this, the West Sands caravan site was steadily increasing, bringing with it more traffic and visitor pressure. Somehow it had crept up on us but now the habitat reduction was becoming very obvious.


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 Woodchat and Red-backed Shrikes, but was a regular migrant trap. 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. Further reductions in habitat have regrettably occurred since then and green open spaces are now at a premium at the Bill. (photo: OM)

The year 1989 proved to be a bit of a turning point. It produced a national rarity in the form of a Desert Wheatear, which drew a good number of locals and twitchers to see it, but it also marked the beginning of what I consider to be Selsey Bill’s golden era – the Pontins years. The Pontins holiday camp was situated close to the Bill-tip, but surprisingly by spring of this year it had been sold and quickly cleared of existing buildings, ready for development. Then something unexpected happened; a major national recession took hold and building projects everywhere ground to a halt. At first this large site was secured by fencing and even a security patrol, but it wasn't long before that fell by the wayside and numerous access points developed as local dog-walkers exploited the opportunity this derelict amenity space offered. It wasn't long either before the area was overtaken by nature and it soon became a haven for wildlife, but most of all it was a great place for Selsey birders! As this decade closed there was reason to be optimistic about the next.

Waiting for Poms on the south-east corner, May 1988, as the three founders of the Pom-King competition discuss tactics (L-to-R: CRJ, MJ and OM) (photo: OM)

Rarity value! Locals and twitchers arriving on 1st Nov 1989 for the Desert Wheatear (photo: OM)

Pontins holiday camp is no more! The view from early spring 1989 shows the site being rapidly cleared. Fortunately it wasn't long before nature took over and it became a temporary haven for wildlife. (photo: OM)

1990-99: Pontins and the Golden Years

As the new decade began the Bill had become firmly established on the birding scene, with more visiting birding visitors than ever joining the locals, a thriving spring contest to establish the yearly Pom-King and a glorious early May that even saw a team barbeque on 'the Wall' in front of Bill House. Those regular sea-watching attendees now included an increasing number of Hampshire birders and the good-humoured banter with the Sussex lads was something to behold. Amongst the more notable of the former group were John Faithfull, the late Ron 'Chunky' King and the late John Brame who always gave as good as they got. To be honest there weren't too many female visitors during this period, but chief amongst them were Leslie Coley and Beryl James - both regular birders - with the latter being joined in due course by daughter-in-law Bridget. I also recall Pam Laugharne used to nearly always accompany husband Owen for serious birding, as did Margaret Collins with husband Barry; otherwise it was mainly wives on an occasional semi-social visit (my own included). Looking back, it was certainly a male-dominated situation then.

(above) On the Wall in May 1991 as the popularity of the Bill increases (photo: OM)

(below) The famous barbeque day from around the same period. Here Leslie Coley and Dave Sneller chat whilst enjoying their hot dogs, with Mervyn (MJ) attending to the cooking. Note the small mattress upon which the latter spent an inordinate amount of time, generally snoozing whilst awaiting a shout for Poms! (photo: OM)

Pontins had by now brought a whole new aspect to birding at the Bill. The deep recession in the building trade had continued and was to last several more years, whilst the habitat had matured into an unofficial little coastal nature reserve. No Bill visit was complete without checking the area and sometimes it was a tough decision as to whether to stay looking at the sea or to walk the Pontins patch, which over several years 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, Hoopoe and Common Rosefinch. Another highlight was the friendly owners of Bill House around 1991 allowing us to use their tower (formerly a Coastguard look-out) as a sea-watching hide. It was quite cramped and difficult sometimes but very welcome, though sadly permission ended when the premises changed hands a couple of years later.

Observers watching from the Bill House tower in 1991 (photo: OM)

Gateway to paradise - the old entrance to the Pontins Broadreeds holiday camp, early 1990's (photo: OM)

The upsurge in interest meant the time was also right for another publication – so I compiled a formal checklist of Selsey birds in 1991 which then listed 253 species. The cover picture was a fine photo of a Glaucous Gull dubbed ‘George’ (taken by Dave Sadler) which regularly visited our patch for some years. These were good times and these golden years lasted until the end of 1995, when suddenly the writing was on the wall. We'd got used to having this wonderful area for over six years, 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.

Views of the old Pontins site, above late 1991, below 1993, showing natural habitat beginning to take over (photos: OM)




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)

To be honest, after this I thought seriously about giving up altogether at the Bill and an air of despondency hit me for quite a while. I’m sure many of the regulars must have felt the same way. I put on a brave face, 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 the late 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, recalling the good times I’d had and reminiscing about the birds seen and all the characters there. It is simply impossible to try and mention all these people so I apologise in advance, but I must mention at least a few selected individuals from that time who come to mind :-
Bob Lord, present most mornings before reluctantly heading off to work. John Hibberd who met his future wife at Pontins. Mick Hay and Keith Maycock from Hants who always came as a pair and kept meticulous notes. The late Bob Knight, a modest lovely man, always in winter plumage whatever the weather and who brought doorstep sandwiches. The late Peter Le Brocq, who had enormous binoculars and could talk forever, but never arrived before late afternoon. Eric Soden who too often missed the action by a day on his visits from Surrey. Dave Smith who usually led the Worthing contingent and put up with much stick. Barry and Margaret Collins who cycled for miles to be there after their mini-van packed up. The late John Brame who always seemed to be decorating in spring and would usually arrive late. Richard Prior who could always be relied upon to start watching at daybreak, and would kindly volunteer to go home and refill your flask. Sam Hill who would desperately watch every spare minute before or after work. The late Chunky King who brought banter and birthday cake. Lesley Coley who brought home-made flapjacks. Dave Sneller who when asked by inquisitive strangers always said he was looking for submarines. John Dodd who had a distinctive laugh. Dave Francis who always mentioned Fulham FC.  Martin Casemore and Dick Eyre-Walker who were a comedy double act from Shoreham. Andy House - now my blog co-editor - who first appeared in 1993 but couldn’t get up early then and would moan about what he’d missed whilst his greyhound Zippy stole your sandwiches. Mike Waring whose loud voice always announced his presence before you saw him. John Faithfull’s sharp one-liners which were second-to-none but his birthday hangovers in early May stopped him from winning a title. Alan Ford who was just blunt to everybody. And the late, dear Barry Carter who happily took on the role of log-keeper and always cheered everyone up when he arrived. I could go on and on, but space prevents it.
 One of the great characters that used to visit from time to time was the late Peter Le Brocq - seen here in 1991 in his green wellies arriving for an evening watch - but note his trademark giant binoculars on a tripod and a similar pair in his hand, these being dubbed the LeBroculars by all the locals. Nearest to Peter in this view is the late John Brame, a former Pom-King and still the highest total record holder. (photo: OM)


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 still 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? Before we knew that however, there was a difficult chapter in the Bill's history to be faced just ahead....
There had been a troubling situation brewing and eventually things came to a head. It is difficult and somewhat unpleasant to recall now and words must be chosen carefully here, so I will just mention the fact that certain scarce or rare species were increasingly being claimed, mainly from one source trusted at the time, that did not stand up to scrutiny. Then other reports concerning highest totals of more common species, or unusual early/late dates also started to appear from the same source as well as rarity claims. Those who lived through it will know, but the reputation of the Bill - and indeed the Peninsula - was suffering badly as a result. It went on for some years, rather too long, but eventually I and others felt it had to be challenged - so it was. The problem was resolved. Enough said.

2000-09: A new millennium, but old problems

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, a Serin in the garden there and 34 Pom Skuas passing 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 the 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.
The old Pontins site, Feb 2001 - a sea of housing with just the Oval field left. Compare this with the previous views from the early 1990's (photo: OM)

After the loss of the old Pontins site it took time for me to come to accept the reality that, in birding terms, Selsey Bill could now only realistically be considered a sea-watching site. True, as a migrant watch point, there were birds arriving or departing from the sea at times, but as regards grounded birds there were now few pockets of natural habitat left that could actually attract migrants to rest or feed, so most passed straight over the area. Added to this, the new developments and growing local population were also increasing the human pressure on what open spaces there were, with a notable upsurge in the number of dogs being exercised, so that the chances of finding a skulking rarity in coastal scrubland were very much reduced. One not insignificant area was actually improving though - in the form of the Bill House garden -  which now had tamarisk hedges and hebe plants developing nicely all around the southern end.

On the Wall in spring 2001, with a mixture of regulars and visitors. Standing is the blog co-editor AH in his more youthful and less well optically-equipped days, with Hants birders JF seated in front of him and the late Ron 'Chunky' King to his left (laughing as usual) - next is Richard Prior (RP), then local, in the white cap. (photo: OM)

Another gathering of regulars, locals and visitors, this time at the 'south-east corner' in early May 2003. Chunky features in this image too (standing at rear); here he is seen in the process of dishing out birthday cake to all. The late dear Beryl James is the rose amongst thorns on the lower tier. (photo: OM)

Despite my downbeat feelings, I came to realise that change is inevitable and there was an urgent need to adapt. It would be totally wrong to think that things were winding down at the Bill; indeed just the opposite, for the first few years of the decade saw good numbers of visitors still attending, together with a newer generation of locals too. Certainly some younger blood was needed, especially those who could only look forward and not back, for the Bill has always been fortunate enough to find devotees to carry the baton. Time had moved on and I and the young birders I'd previously watched with were now all gentlemen of a certain age. CRJ was easing back on his birding, Sam Hill's (SH) brood now included many grand-children to keep him busy when he wasn't actually sea-watching (!) whilst Paul Bowley (PB) was now a senior citizen and his young birding sons, Adam and Aaron, were grown up! Fate was to play it's hand to our advantage again, when Justin Atkinson (JA) moved to Selsey, just a couple of minutes drive from the beach. It wasn't long before he'd established himself and being a keen sea-watcher he agreed to take on the official Log. The close proximity of both SH and JA to the sea meant that the pair of them were often at the Bill before anyone else had arrived, and their bond developed just as mine had with CRJ all those years ago.

Spring 2007: Regulars on the wall. L-to-R are JA (our current Log-keeper for the Bill), CRJ (who started here probably even before me), SH (started after me but not sure when and seems to have been around for ages) and PB (started in 1981 and almost the same age as me). (photo: OM)

The Bill still proving popular - these observers are viewing a splendid summer-plumaged White-billed Diver that spent some days offshore in Oct 2007. (photo: OM)


I cannot now remember exactly how and when JA was persuaded to take on the role of official Log-keeper for the Bill. I'm sure he must have volunteered and yet I have a hazy recollection of me and others applying some gentle pressure, but either way it was just what was needed. JA's keen eyes and attention to detail made him the best candidate by a country mile and what's more, living a stone's throw from the place meant he was clearly the man for the job. Not easy, as I well know, but I think he liked it really! Just as well, for he'd be carrying on into the next decade. Meanwhile, my gentle suggestion that the Pom King event had perhaps outgrown its interest and usefulness and should now be dropped was very soon shouted down and scuppered.....more on that later! 
Pom party 2007, with OM presenting the trophy on behalf of the outgoing Pom King (Jim Weston) to new winner JA. Dress code was shorts and sandals, in memory of our dear friend Barry Carter, who had sadly passed away a short time previously. The trophy shown was subsequently replaced by a newer memorial one in honour of Barry - and this older trophy is now used as the runners-up award. (photo: Mrs OM)

2010-2019: Still going strong and a Blog is born
As this decade began we had passed the 50th anniversary of continuous observations at the Bill and things were still going strong. The previous decade had seen the publication of another report (2003) - this one being the Birds of Selsey & Pagham - but with advances in technology, especially the internet and mobile phones, it was becoming clear that perhaps the Bill should have some such representation in the future. In earlier days, it was not even possible to get a message from the Bill-tip to the adjacent Pontins patch - how we would have liked a mobile phone then. Now we can even send the photo or video. But I digress....
The first winter of 2010 was quite a cold one and it produced a good selection of winter birds. It was by now obvious that a new generation of birders was visiting, supplementing the efforts of the locals, whilst the new technologies and bird information services were able to disseminate information almost instantly to anyone who wanted to twitch the scarcer species on our patch. This decade would, for example, see increasing numbers of the scarcer herons on the Selsey Peninsula, with Cattle Egret ceasing to be a rarity and becoming a regular sighting and Glossy Ibis an almost annual visitor.....with both subsequently being added to the Bill list. 

The new team of regulars at the Bill had by now well and truly settled in and the hours of sea-watching were starting to increase considerably. The Pom King rivalry was still going strong too and the the local Selsey area residents - especially JA, SH and AH - supplemented by several newer residents and 'semi-locals' were now able to give this increased coverage. But in 2013 perhaps the biggest change of all would occur, putting Selsey Bill firmly back on the map. So it was that on 11th March 2013, barely knowing what a blog was, I tentatively opened a basic ‘Selsey Bill & area birding blog’ – that first attempt adding only a few back-dated Selsey Bill records. My plan was to focus almost exclusively on the Bill, but it didn’t stay that way for long! Having mentioned it to the locals, almost immediately AH showed great enthusiasm and a willingness to assist me with what he considered a long-overdue development. The rest, as they say, is history.

That history of the blog can be viewed separately and more fully (see title bar) so I'll keep it brief here, but suffice it to say that the blog title changed four times in quick succession before we finally settled on 'Birding the Selsey Peninsula' to reflect all the other good areas around the Bill. We also decided to put out the bird news for the area daily, starting with the Bill sightings first. What neither I or AH could have anticipated was the extent of the effect the blog would have. It wasn't too long before there was an obvious upsurge in activity and enthusiasm from amongst the regular Bill faithful, with more hours sea-watching being done than ever, friendly rivalries developing in respect of Bill and Peninsula year-lists and life lists, more obscure and under-visited areas being checked out, with more photographs of the birdlife, and so on. The information provided by observers was fed to us as blog editors, then in turn we promptly disseminated it to others in our daily output.

The blog page-hit marker was picking up rapidly and after the first year or so our information was being used nationally by the professional Bird Information Services. Added to that, many birders were now visiting the area from near and far, whilst the local team - for that's what it now was - had also swelled in numbers. A busy spring sea-watch now could easily number 30-40 people, sometimes 50+ and whilst some of the old guard (myself included) were still attending, many new faces were appearing. This was generally to the good though occasionally there were drawbacks, albeit usually minor ones.

A look through the Sussex Bird Reports (published annually by the Sussex Ornithological Society) reveals the number of hours of sea-watching coverage for each of the main sites in Sussex and makes interesting reading. The number of hours covered at Selsey Bill during 2010-2012 averaged around the 500-700 mark annually, whereas in 2013 - the year the blog commenced - it had shot up to exceed 1000. It dropped back just a tad in 2014, but has never really looked back since, now comfortably exceeding 1000hrs. The last year of the decade saw an astonishing total of 1267hrs coverage; to put that in perspective, the next highest site (Splash Point, Seaford) achieved 187hrs of coverage that year. Totals will of course vary at all sites year on year, but the reality is that the all-year-round effort by the Selsey sea-watching team has now dwarfed that of all other County sites.

The sea-watching data from the Sussex Bird Report 2019, published by the Sussex Ornithological Society (SOS) (reproduced with permission and thanks to the SOS editors). 
(Incidentally, if you are not already a member of the SOS I would urge you to join; the detailed annual report, free to members and from which this information is extracted is alone worth the modest joining fee!)

So much seems to have happened since the arrival of the blog, but as it has developed, so an important supporting cast has followed....JA with his detailed log-keeping for the Bill, Ian Pitts (IP) who has taken on the important role of Statistician, Bart Ives (BI) who has become Deputy Editor, providing cover during the absence of the main editors, but who has also become our go to 'tech kid' as he understands much more of the modern technology than the editorial dinosaurs, dealing with social media and more. Then of course comes our WhatsApp group, set up by IP and assisted by BI, which has ensured instant messaging, beyond our wildest dreams not so long ago. Regulars such as Chris Northwood, Paul Matson and Sarah Russell have also done their bit to provide coverage at various times and there are others who have helped in various ways. It wouldn't work without you all.

The blog editorial team with the official Bill Log-keeper JA (bottom left, next to OM). At the back are AH (festooned in bin's and camera), with BI.

Things were going well then and 2019 was nearing its last quarter, but little did we know what was just around the corner! As we were starting to look towards the next decade there was mention of an unusual respiratory disease spreading from China that had alarmed some scientists.....a possible pandemic, which we would soon get to know all too well as Covid-19.


2020 onwards: Lockdown and beyond - back to the future

The Coronavirus pandemic (Covid-19) hit the largely unprepared world before the decade had even started, but by early 2020 it was spreading across the UK rapidly and the death rate was alarming, especially amongst the elderly - a group which now certainly included me and some other mature Bill-watchers! On 24th March 2020 the Government put the entire country into lockdown for weeks, allowing just an hour's exercise per day - bad news indeed for any active birder. Travel was also severely restricted for some while - so in short, only those observers living at or very close to the Bill would be able to visit to take exercise, whilst for the rest of us it was a no-go.  

Much will be written about the pandemic and doubtless more eloquently than here, so I don't plan to discuss it further, other than to highlight the disruption to normal birding activity. Further restrictions and lockdowns were to follow and some rules eased a bit later, but it would be a year like no other and a memorable spring for the wrong reasons. Throughout all the difficulties though, some sea-watching was carried on by the lucky local few and the the log was maintained....and for the record, there was some coverage on every single day of the year. Now that's dedication! The latest Sussex Bird Report 2020 shows a total of 971 hours of coverage for the year...still almost four times as many as the next closest Sussex site.

The sea-watching data from the Sussex Bird Report 2020, published by the Sussex Ornithological Society (again with permission and thanks to the SOS editors). Remarkably, despite all the problems, there was some coverage on every single day of the year.

As I write this in late 2021 we are still going strong and we haven't yet missed a day's posting on the blog, where our page-hit counter has now passed a million and a half. Covid-19 is still with us, although with the advent of vaccinations thankfully not as severely, but doubtless we will all have to learn to live with it from hereon in. A whole new generation of birders knows where Selsey Bill is and also the sites on the rest of the Peninsula, with some making at least a few visits and many frequently so, for there is almost always at least something of avian interest going on. The bird list is now considerable and over time will continue to grow as new species are added. We all sometimes speculate as to what the next 'new' species will be but I daresay we'll be wrong; who could have guessed that last one - a Common Nighthawk!

I do get asked occasionally how many species have been recorded on the Peninsula and at the Bill. The Peninsula list is straightforward really and currently stands at an impressive 344 - though I should add that in the case of scarce or rare birds, only fully documented and officially accepted records are included. This includes historic records of Ruddy Shelduck, but in more recent times the birding authorities have opted to put more modern records of this species outside of the main list. I won't go into the detailed reasons, but suffice to say it is included in our list (and almost everyone else's too I suspect). 

As regards Selsey Bill totals, it is more difficult to be precise. Nowadays, our Log-keeper JA is very strict on what constitutes the boundaries of the site; basically everything south of a line drawn between the Lifeboat station to the east and the old Coastguard station to the west. This means that Selsey East beach and West beach/windmill are therefore now excluded, instantly wiping a few species off my previous Bill list! This hasn't always been the case however, for in the 1960's a much broader area from the Severals at Church Norton all the way to the West Fields area (now Medmerry) were included, plus an old sewage works (now long gone) to the north of Selsey. Certainly in my earlier days the boundaries included all of the East beach at Selsey and the town, plus most of West Fields. The problem therefore is that it is difficult to be exact as to whether some scarce species were inside or outside the current tighter boundaries. A project is ongoing to resolve this, but although the current total is not yet fully established, it is likely to be in the region of 261.

And so, as I now approach the finale to my personal recall of the Bill's history, I must ask the reader to cut me a little slack so that I can express a few personal views and observations, even if some do appear to be rather negative....

As one who lives off-Peninsula and is faced with a fraught journey of 16 miles each time to be at the Bill-tip, I have to mention the dreaded B2145. Basically it's a nightmare, reputedly the busiest B-road nationally and there is never really a quiet time now to avoid the HGV's, tractors and caravan escorts, quite apart from the ever increasing volume of cars. It's not a lot better either just getting onto the B2145....and this is before all the new housing estates are completed. It has at times caused me to review my birding habits and doubtless it affects other non-locals too. Leave home just those couple of minutes late and you'll join the queue, especially anywhere near school times. Those living close to the Bill have a big advantage nowadays (I can hear their groans from here as I mention it again!)

Habitat loss seems to be increasing and with the government's latest strategy of building more and more houses just about anywhere, it is depressing to see what is happening all around. It can only get massively worse when all those new housing estates and increased populations take effect, although this is not just a Bill or Peninsula problem of course. It's not always about big areas of habitat loss, far from it; the odd bit of hedge here, a couple of scrubby bushes there, an untidy corner or two, and so it goes on relentlessly. As if to prove the point, in October 2021 the lovely tamarisk hedges and hebe bushes in Bill House garden, attractive to migrants including Serin, Marsh Warbler and even Water Rail (!) whilst providing shelter for birders too, have now all been ripped out by new management to open the view.

The sort of thing that just keeps on happening.....above, the lovely gardens with hebe bushes and tamarisk hedges in the gardens at Bill House in 2019, whilst below, in 2021 a managerial alteration brings about an awful change, to open up the vista for commercial reasons, and another little corner of precious habitat disappears. (photos: OM)


The annual Pom King challenge is something I must also comment on. I've touched on this before, but due to changing circumstances I began to review the validity of the competition again - and was even bold enough to sound out opinion from the locals - suggesting they now do have a considerable advantage. Let's just say my thoughts met with a robust response and any ideas that the competition should be dropped or altered in any way were soundly rejected! It's unique and has become an institution, so the status quo is maintained.

I am now at the stage when inevitably I keep looking back. One of the things that has struck me in compiling this review is the number of times I have found myself referring to 'the late so-and-so' when in my mind they are still very much here. One of the photo's I have used actually shows six folks who are no longer with us - all special characters in their own way and very much part of the history of the Bill. Yes, they are part of my history too, the memories flood back and I pay tribute to them all....good birding wherever you are, my absent friends.

But, as I've previously mentioned, I have to accept change and it is necessary to look forward as the story rolls on. I am also acutely aware of the part played in modern times by a host of newer observers at the Bill. I have named only a few thus far, but it is simply not possible to include everyone, although hopefully all are included in the Contributors list on the blog (let me know if your name is absent but should be included). Named herein or not, you are all part of the story.

So, as we look to the future and wonder what is ahead for the Bill, one thing for sure is that there will continue to be change. There will in time also be new species added to the bird list. New observers will come; perhaps including more female and/or ethnically-diverse birders amongst them, for my biggest hope is that fresh blood will arrive, keen younger birders who will become enthusiastic and carry on the story, just as I did after the 'Selsey pioneers' of the early 1960's. I've birded quite a number of places in my time, but somehow I've never quite found anywhere like the Bill, with it's friendly rivalry and humour. It's not the best spot to watch from, that's for sure, but it has consistently delivered over the years and to see a flock of Poms coming along 'the bar' on a sunny May morning is unbeatable. And (personal trumpet ready) there's only one person who has seen two unforgettable and magnificent flocks of 25 passing by there.......any idea who?

Poms passing the Bill (photo: D. Mason)

(above) A slow sea-watch! Mervyn Jones (MJ), Beryl James (BJ), Bernie Forbes (BFF - who first brought me here) and Dave Smith (DIS) relax - whilst even the dog looks bored. The dog in question belonged to AH and is in fact Zippy who never missed an opportunity to steal your sandwiches! (photo: OM)

(below) Birding is a serious business but it can be fun too and this snapshot at Pontins dates back to spring 1982. The youthful chaps with Miss Piggy are (L-to-R) MJ, OM, CRJ and RML and I recall that the comedian the late Bob Monkhouse was the star billing in cabaret that evening. (photo: 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)




End: updated Nov 2021






4 comments:

  1. Owen, this is a thoroughly enjoyable read and trip down memory lane. Whilst admittedly, I was part of the rival Birling Gap crowd in the 70's and 80's, it brought back to me memories of people, some of whom sadly, I had almost forgotten about but none more so than Beryl James, the finest chocolate cake baker known to mankind. Unfortunately, where I now live - some 4,500 miles away from Selsey, sea-watching requires crossword puzzle and Sudoku books, so quiet is the passage - but I did manage a few Poms back in 2001. However, as you know, there is real compensation being on an island only 50 miles long with a bird list over 490. Again Owen and terrific read, thankyou. Best. Martyn

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  2. Hello from Hampshire

    I check the blog everyday with great interest, and will eventually visit the area before I am to old to. I love reading any history and stories to do with birding and the optics that were used during the 60's 70's and 80's. I will read this properly with a nice cup of tea later today. I have already read the earlier history of the blog that was in 2 parts and thoroughly enjoyed the memories and photos.
    One question, will the Pom King competion re-start in the future?

    Thank you for such a great blog and hopefully I'll bump into someone around the area.

    Regards

    Tony

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  3. Well done Owen, this brought back many happy memories, and sadness for friends passed on.

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  4. A great read Owen and it brought back a lot of happy memories of my time there during the 1960s until I left Sussex in 1980. I used to spend my summer holidays (and occasionally Xmas!) at the Obs there, hitching down from Worthing on a Friday evening after school. Your tales of the traffic these days starkly contrast with the situation in the 60s when I would wait for ages for a car to give me a lift on the final leg from Chichester. Occasionally I would borrow my brother's Lambretta scooter and I remember on one occasion racing Mike Shrubb on his red Vespa(?) to Church Norton. I almost won but, refusing to brake at the CN turning, carried straight on over the hedge into the field beyond!

    I do remember a more recent visit to see Beryl James, a great friend, at Selsey but had to turn back due to the traffic! Happily we did catch her another time before she passed away. She was a wonderful lady and, together with husband Charles and their children, would take me out at weekends all over the peninsula.

    Staying in the Obs was never for the faint hearted and if Harry Robinson wasn't with me, I only had the rats for company. I think there was a nest under the floorboards and they would keep me awake all night with their gnawing as I lay in my sleeping bag with a heavy stick next to me which I would bang loudly if one ran over me in the night. They would eat their way in through the skirtings and every morning I would place bricks over the holes to keep them out. Eventually I took all the bricks away as I was worried the walls of the hut would collapse! The hut was very sparse: no windows, a table, chair and bench. We cooked on paraffin Primus stoves by Tilley lamp (which also served as heating) and would spend the evenings reading Field Guides. We kept our food in tins on top shelves but invariably there would be a loud crash in the night as the tin with my food would fall to the floor so the rats could get at my sandwiches. Rats are clever!

    In 1980, Gerda and I got married in Chichester. My parents had moved to Selsey by then and following our Reception at the Rushmere Hotel (now sadly gone), we all went for a seawatch. My notebook entry for 19.07.1980 reads: "We got married today! Seawatch 1620-1715 - 2 Gannet, 5 LbBGull, Guillemot & Turnstone west. With Tony Marr, Nick Lord, Alan Kitson, Sally & their son Jamie et al"

    The next day, as we left Selsey, I had a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker over the road just south of Sidlesham. Happy days. Dave Flumm

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