Rose-coloured Starling – Pagham Habour, West Sussex

A few juvenile Rose-coloured Starlings were being seen around the country and during the afternoon of Tuesday 24th another juvenile was found in West Sussex near the RSPB Pagham Harbour visitor centre just outside Sidlesham. The bird was associating with a mobile flock of Common Starlings along the old tramway and it was seen going to roost that evening with a small party of the starlings.

I was talking at Poole Camera Club on the Tuesday evening and when I got home at around 11pm I decided that I would probably head to Titchfield Haven the next morning to sketch from the comfort of the hides (as rain was forecast). It was a bit too late to text Dad to see if he could join me although conditions weren’t likely to be good for photography. I set the alarm for 6:30am and although the reserve wouldn’t be open until 9:30am I planned to sketch Ringed Plover on the high tide roost at Hill Head and then head into the reserve when I had finished.

The forecast was for the rain to clear a little later but as I was approaching the Titchfield Haven turn off on the M27 the rain became particularly heavy reducing visibility to not much further than the windscreen wipers! I then thought about the Rose-coloured Starling at Pagham and made a quick decision to keep on driving past the Titchfield Haven junction. I hoped that the starling might be refound and that the weather would be better by the time I got there.

I pulled into the RSPB car park at Pagham Harbour which is more or less opposite the Sidlesham Ferry Pool. Over the years I’ve seen quite a few good birds in this immediate area – Marsh Sandpiper, White-rumped Sandpiper, Booted Warbler and Collared Pratincole and also nearby in the harbour and at Church Norton – Lesser Sand Plover, American Golden Plover, two Red-backed Shrikes and a Kentish Plover.

As regards the Rose-coloured Starling I still wasn’t sure where the old tramway was. The pin on Bird Guides, if it had been positioned correctly, suggested that the tramway ran north-south alongside the western edge of the harbour and close to the visitor centre. I chatted to a couple of other birders who were also in the car park and they confirmed that the tramway was where I thought it was and that the starlings were moving between the hedges and bushes along the old tramway and then flying out onto the actual saltmarsh, however, they hadn’t seen the Rose-coloured Starling in a two hour search this morning!

The rain had stopped now and so I headed out on to the tramway, it was about 8:45am. There were a few mobile flocks of starlings with the biggest group perhaps 30 or so birds. When they left the bushes and hedgerows they would fly out on the saltmarsh and disappear down into the saltmarsh grasses and sea lavender. It seemed like the groups of starlings were fairly fragmented from each and there were regular small groups to check out in flight but no sign of the much paler Rose-coloured Starling.

I met up again with the original birders who had walked a long loop around the estuary without success. We split up again and fairly soon afterwards, at around 10:30am, I checked a slightly larger flock which had flown in from the north and sure enough the Rose-coloured Starling was amongst them. In flight the pale belly and overall sandy colouration made it fairly easy to pick out. I called it out to another birder next to me and she rang the other two birders who confirmed that they had seen the starling fly past at more or less the same time.

The flock was fairly large now, perhaps 100 plus birds, but the only views were those in flight. Eventually, however, the large flock settled in the hedgerows and bushes bordering the ferry channel. We walked further down the tramway to get closer views and the Rose-coloured Starling popped up into view for a minute or so allowing me to make a few sketches.

The Rose-coloured Starling was strikingly paler with a beady black eye and an obvious yellow base to a pinkish bill. The wing feathers were clearly darker than the mantle, head and body feathers. The large flock was flighty and spooked at the slightest thing and soon they were off again. We tracked the Rose-coloured Starling as it dropped down on to the mud at the edge of the saltmarsh and it then gave fairly good views out in the open for another minute or so.

There are around 40-50 records per year with a good number of these being autumn juveniles on the south coast. The nearest breeding grounds are Hungary and the Balkans. This is my eighth Rose-coloured Starling in Britain with three being adults in the winter and the most recent five all being autumn juveniles and all on the south coast including Hampshire, Dorset, Cornwall, the Scillies and now West Sussex.

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