Spotting birds along Brighton’s seashore

Lynn Beun, Leader, RSPB Brighton & District Local Group

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.

Oystercatcher from The RSPB on Vimeo.

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!

Photo of juvenile Cormorant, copyright Andy Hay. Courtesy of RSPB Brighton & District Local Group.

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.

Turnstone from The RSPB on Vimeo.

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!

Photo of Fulmar, copyright Andy Hay. Courtesy of the RSPB Local and District Group

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?