Close to Brighton Marina or in Shoreham you may see the little aptly named Turnstone, running along the water’s edge and turning over pebbles, seaweed and shells, looking for small insects, snails and worms. They look a rather like pebbles themselves so look carefully!
Another colourful bird with a bright red beak and red legs is the Oystercatcher. You may see little groups of them. Look for them near Brighton Marina, along the Undercliff walk, and at Shoreham. You may hear them before you see them. They make a “p-teep p-teep” sound as they fly away. Oystercatchers do not catch oysters! A better name for the Oystercatcher would be “Mussel cracker” as they eat mussels, shellfish and lugworms.
Black headed gulls are handsome birds with – not black heads in fact but a dark brown hood. Take a careful look next time you see one. They have lovely red beaks and dark red legs. Their cheerful call is “kreear”. You can see them near the beach but also inland looking for worms and insects in some ploughed fields.
Want to see a prehistoric looking bird? I think you should look no further than the cormorant! Cormorants have an ancient dinosaur like look about them, as they sit on boats or rocky cliffs and stretch their wings. Look out for the young birds which have a cream coloured chest.
In the Number One spot it has to be – the Herring Gull! I always think they have a mean glint in their eye! But that is just my fancy. Love them or loathe them they are a familiar sight around Brighton and Hove as they eye up the sandwiches you take to the beach. Herring gulls are the coastal birds most likely to come into conflict with humans. So let’s take a look at why that is the case and what it tells us about human behaviour too.
Herring gulls are big, bold and have a yellow beak with a red dot on it. The young birds are brown. They are seen all year round. The behaviour of Herring gulls has changed very radically since the 1920s. At this time the herring gulls nested on the chalk cliffs and fed out at sea or foraging on the beach. Gradually Herring Gulls learned that seaside towns like Brighton offered safe places to nest up on the rooftops and an easy source of food, as people dropped litter with some waste food and eat picnics out on the beach. The numbers of cliff nests dropped dramatically. Why bother foraging and using lots of energy flying out to fish at sea when there is a handy take away snack in a human’s hand or on a rubbish tip?
If Herring gulls have a mean glint in their eye, I think that the little kittiwake looks sweet and gentle. Why is it called a Kittiwake? That is the sound it makes. It has a black beady eye and is smaller than the herring gull. Unlike the herring gull, the kittiwake will not steal your chips or sandwiches. It catches fish out at sea for food instead. You will only see them locally between about March and August, when they nest at Seaford Head.
Written by Lynn Beun, Leader, RSPB Brighton & District Local Group
Living in this area we are very lucky, and can walk along the seashore, so I like to look at birds as I get some exercise and enjoy the seafront. You never quite know what you are going to see so keep looking carefully. The Undercliff walk near Brighton Marina is a good place to go, as is Shoreham.
A colourful bird that catches the eye with its black and white plumage and orange- red bill is the Oystercatcher, which I see near Brighton Marina and at Shoreham. You often see them fly off, with their piping cry as people or dogs draw near.
The oystercatcher is really misnamed as as it actually eats cockles! It also eats marine worms and other shellfish, prising them from rocks and seaweed with its long beak.
If you watch this film and are sharp eyed you will notice that there is a puffin in this film, which was made in a different part of the UK. Sadly, there are no puffins in the Brighton area and you would have to travel to specific island locations like the Alderney in the Farne Islands in the north of England, Scotland and South Stack in Wales to see these birds. Puffins nest in burrows.
A bird that is common and which I enjoy seeing is the Cormorant. This large diving bird can be seen sitting close to boats near Brighton Marina, at Seaford Head and in Shoreham. After fishing and eating it spreads it’s wings out. Scientists have debated the reasons for why it spreads it’s wings out. The most common reason given is that it spreads its wings to dry them. However, some believe it may be to help them swallow and digest the fish it catches. I believe it might be a bit of both, after watching a cormorant swallowing what appeared to be an impossibly large fish!
The juvenile cormorants have cream coloured fronts which, I always think makes them look a bit like penguins! But that is just my fancy.
Unless you look closely you may miss one little bird which is called the turnstone. This busy little bird has chestnut brown wings and a white front with orange-red legs. It blends in well with the pebbly beach itself and can be seen scurrying along the water’s edge along the undercliff near Brighton Marina, near Hove lagoon and in Shoreham when the tide is low. They avoid the most heavily disturbed beaches. .It is very aptly named, as it turns the stones over looking for tasty insects to eat. Watch them doing just that in the video below.
When walking along and watching gulls whirl around you need to remember – there is no such thing as a seagull! (Unless you are a football supporter of course!) Why do I say this? That is because there are many different types of gulls and herring gulls are the ones we see most frequently in this area.
They are very large and have a yellow beak with a red spot on it. These are the ones we tend to think of as “seagulls”. Some love them and some loathe them! Herring gulls used to go out to sea but in urban seaside areas now stay around the town because they have learned that there is a good food supply from humans and adapted their behaviour accordingly. I noticed during the lockdown when people did not have food for them to snatch, they had reverted to their natural behaviour. They were dropping shells to crack them open. I also had a crab claw drop on my head whilst out walking only to look down at a herring gull that landed and was waiting his snack!
But, there is a rather special gull called the Fulmar which is related to the albatross that nests on small ledges on the cliffs along the coast between the undercliff. This gull feeds in flocks out at sea following the fishing fleets and will not steal your chips! They fly differently to herring gulls – they do not flap their wings but have what is sometimes described as a “stiff winged” flight. They fly with their wings flat. Brighton’s version of an albatross. You can see them close to Brighton all year round. People should not get too close to them though because Fulmars possess an unusual gland on their beak which secretes a foul-smelling oil. If the bird is disturbed on the nest it will squirt this at an intruder. You will notice in this picture the oil gland which gives the beak an unusual shape.
A bird less frequently seen in this area is the delightful Common Tern. These delightful silvery-grey and white birds have long tails which have earned them the nickname of “sea swallow”. They have a graceful flight and frequently hover over water before plunging down for a fish. This tern may be seen most frequently inland, in places like reservoirs as it nests in shingle and on specially made “tern rafts” where it is protected from predators. They nest at Ardingly and Arlington reservoirs in Sussex. However, keep a look out as the common tern does pass our area through on its migration routes, and in Sussex can be seen at locations between Rye Harbour and Pagham. Common terns migrate to Africa and winter in locations such as Senegal, Gambia and Ghana, returning in the spring.
And so we end our walk along the seashore and catch the bus home. These are just a small selection of our coastal birds. What will you see today?
The Sussex coastline has some great spots for coastal bird-watching. From Kingfishers to Kittiwakes, you will find an abundance of beautiful coastal bird life right on your doorstep. Lynn Beun from the RSPB Brighton & District Local Group has chosen her top six.
There’s no such thing as a seagull!
“There’s no such thing as a seagull”. I was taught this when I started birdwatching. What! you say? Yes, there are different types of gulls and they have different names. I will tell you about three gulls and two of my other favourite coastal birds that you can spot in Sussex. This is just my personal selection, which ones would you choose?
Seen any exciting coastal bird sightings in Sussex? Have you got any tips on bird-spotting you would like to share? Let us know in the comments box below.
Hotspots for Coastal Birds
Use our map below to discover hotspots in our area and some of the key species to look out for.
Below are our latest articles exploring birds in Brighton in further detail. This week Kerrie Curzon has written an article on why the Kittiwake colony at Splash Point is thriving and take a walk along the Brighton coastline with Lynn Beun from the RSPB Brighton & District Local group.
Edward Thomas Booth notes in his catalogue from June, 1867 that kittiwakes (Rissa tridactyla) are common. They are currently the most numerous gull species in the UK; however, they are now in serious decline. Since 2000 black-legged kittiwake numbers have declined by more than half.
Booth’s entry about the summer kittiwake diorama discusses the Sea-Bird Preservation Act that protected the birds. In Booth’s opinion:
‘the senseless slaughter that took place round their breeding-stations every summer having been allowed to continue too long without interference.’
The Sea Bird Preservation Act of 1869 was the first in the country to protect birds. It prevented people from killing seabirds and collecting their eggs from April to August so that they could breed. The main motivation for this was not for the protection of the birds themselves, but to aid sailors who relied on healthy seabird populations to find land in foggy conditions.
As a collector of birds, Booth’s following sentence contains no sense of irony at his killing of these birds: ‘The specimens in this case were obtained at the Bass Rock in June, 1867.’ The winter kittiwake diorama contains adults in winter plumage and juveniles that were ‘shot a few miles off Brighton, in the winter of 1870.’
The black-legged kittiwakes joined the IUCN Red List of Endangered Species in 2018. Current threats to kittiwakes are associated with their prey, sand-eels and herring which are in decline, due to the effects of climate change. This impacts the prey the sand-eels feed on and the breeding season of the herring, which no longer coincides with the kittiwake breeding season. This results in lower breeding success for the kittiwakes.
Despite the downward trend of many populations of kittiwakes, the colony at Seaford Head in Sussex continues to thrive. Seaford Head to Beachy Head is designated as an area of Special Scientific Interest and Seaford Head Nature Reserve is part managed by Sussex Wildlife Trust and the National Trust. There are over 1000 nests in the kittiwake colony. No one knows exactly why they are doing better than other colonies around the UK. A possible explanation is that prey species are also faring better in the South East. However, this may change as sea temperatures are expected to rise faster along the south coast bringing more unpredictable changes for the kittiwakes and their associated marine ecosystem.
Written by Kerrie Curzon, Collections Assistant, The Booth Museum of Natural History