West Country interlude: Dipper, Crossbills, Purple Sands

Half-term was spent in Rousdon, on the Devon/Dorset border close to Lyme Regis. Not a birding holiday; mostly time spent eating, drinking tea or booze and shopping for fossils. But there were some birds along the way, several of which I haven’t seen for years.

The Rousdon Estate itself lies atop the crumbly cliffs West of Lyme Bay. Much of the bird life is similar to Firle Park: thrushes, woodpeckers, crows, Nuthatches and Treecreepers, Buzzards and Sparrowhawks. But there are some differences: lots more Coal Tits due to the greater number of pines, and a resident pair of Ravens (still rather commoner in Devon than in fast-recolonised Sussex).

This time the beach below at Charton Bay had Oystercatchers, Curlews and Shelducks,  while in previous years I’ve seen Red-throated Divers, Great Crested Grebes, Guillemots and Stonechats. There’s probably lots more, but birding tends to come second after poking about for ammonites at the base of the cliffs.

One grey morning I took the dog out to a piece of heathland just north of Rousdon. It’s called Trinity Hill, and it offers views down to the West over Axminster.

It’s bordered on several sides by Forestry Commission pine plantation, which is much less rich and important than the heathland BUT does provide something for Common Crossbills to feed on. I heard a few during the walk, my first for years (I’m deaf to them in Sussex, it seems).

And although it was hardly a spring-like day, Yellowhammers were singing and a Great Spotted Woodpecker drumming. There’s not much information available about what other birds you might see here, although a local guide to the birds of Lyme Regis (the author’s name escapes me) mentions Nightjar. It also looks good for the odd Dartford Warbler or Great Grey Shrike (but then I think that about anywhere with a bit of gorse).

Cleverly, we saved the most serious birding for the worst weather of the week, last Friday. The rain was so bad we spent about half of the morning in a cafe overlooking the Cobb in Lyme Regis. But we did manage a walk through Lyme along the river, and eventually came upon a pair of Dippers near Uplyme.

It took me years to see my first Dipper – I spent many hours in my teens walking along streams and rivers in Cornwall, Scotland and Wales without success; I’d started to consider the possibility that reports of their existence were part of some elaborate and pointless practical joke, played out across every field guide, pamphlet and nature reserve information board in western and northern Britain. I was nineteen when I finally connected with one; it was sitting innocently (and just like in all the textbooks) on a rock in the middle of a turbulent stream, in the Spey Valley near Kingussie.

Anyway, these ones gave themselves up with less bother; one of them was nest-building, and both birds gave us good views, unperturbed by the soggy telescopes and cameras trained on them. The three shots reproduced here come courtesy of my almost-brother-in-law, who must have incurred friction burns putting the camera in and out of its case with sucessive showers.

Back at the Cobb we had time (and high tide) to take a quick look at the Rock Pipits and Purple Sandpipers before a ferocious hailstorm killed the last of our enthusiasm for being outdoors.  The Cobb is among the more picturesque places to see Purple Sands in the South of England, and the eight here were (again) my first ones for ages – I just can’t rustle up the enthusiasm to go looking for the ones closer to home, at Newhaven, Brighton Marina or Shoreham Harbour.

Still, Firle is a wonderful place to come back to. The Red Kite has been reported in Glynde again in the last few days, and Spring’s just around the corner. And even when the birds don’t appear, the sun often does, just above the Beacon (and occasionally behind a tree).


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