Mike Russell on some of the unexpected wildlife guests to visit Sussex this year

PUBLISHED: 16:44 08 April 2014 | UPDATED: 16:44 08 April 2014

Mike Russell on this year’s surprise visitors, including the grey phalarope, which delighted birdwatchers by diverting from its normal migratory route

Sussex was a source of great excitement for birdwatchers at the beginning of the year as a few species turned up that are not usually found in the county.

Perhaps the oddest was a grey phalarope, which went on to become one of the most photographed birds ever and made the national press, principally because it was the most confiding bird imaginable and paraded up and down in front of ranks of binoculars, telescopes and cameras. This wonderful little bird for some reason decided to spend just over a week at the children’s paddling pool by Hove Lagoon, lovely for toddlers, but initially it seems uninviting for birds as it is a basic concrete bowl filled with water with no vegetation and seemingly no life within it.

Nevertheless, it seemed to find this strange location to its liking, appearing to find microscopic food on and under the surface, as well as having its diet supplemented by photographers who threw mealworms into the pool just to get one more perfect picture.

Grey phalaropes are tiny wading birds, smaller than a blackbird, that breed on the Arctic tundra. After the breeding season they migrate, we think, to the west coast of Africa and spend the winter out at sea, feeding on invertebrates on the surface of the water. I was mulling over with some other birders why this species is so unconcerned by people and the rows of camouflaged admirers that it paraded before. One of our conclusions is that throughout its short life, it very rarely comes into contact with any human beings. There are no settlements around their breeding grounds and spending the winter at sea means they do not view humans as a threat.

Meanwhile, further to the north of the county a very different species was attracting the crowds, this time at the Sussex Wildlife Trust nature reserve at Old Lodge on Ashdown Forest – a flock of up to nine parrot crossbills. This species is found throughout north-west Europe with a few pairs breeding in Scotland, but a very rare visitor this far south.

Parrot crossbills are specialist pine cone feeders, their mandibles are crossed at the tip which allows them to extract the seeds from the cones and it is the cones of the Scot’s pine that this bird is particularly adapted to feeding on. To the uninitiated, they look just like a common crossbill, which is actually not that common in the south either, but a good view will reveal that it has a very large bulbous beak. These occasional irruptions of unexpected species are either caused by a failure of a food crop in their normal range or that they have had a very successful breeding season and the high population means there is not enough food for the increase in numbers.

We are not sure what will happen to these two birds that found themselves outside their normal range. Will the phalarope get back onto its normal migratory route? Will the parrot crossbills return to their usual breeding territories much further north? We will probably never know, but we do know that they gave hundreds of people a very bright start to the New Year.

What’s your most unusual wildlife sighting? Let us know at jenny.mark-bell@archant.co.uk

Sussex Wildlife Trust, Woods Mill, Henfield, West Sussex, BN5 9SD, 01273 492630 

WildCall (wildlife information service) - 01273 494777

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