We hadn’t been to Pagham for two and a half years, I was shocked when I realised it; because it is such a good reserve for birds and we have always seen such good stuff there that I could not believe that such a length of time had passed since our last visit. So on a Sunday afternoon after church we decided to pay an overdue visit to this distant but rewarding RSPB reserve, it is a long drive and our conversation drifted from one subject to another before dwindling away until we encountered some slight memory loss concerning the actual way to get there. Eventually we parked down the familiar quiet country lane on the edge of the tiny and remote village of Pagham and walked onto the part of the reserve known as the ‘North Wall’.
There is a sluice that breaks through the sea wall which lets water flow from a small stream on one side into the enormity of the tidal estuary on the other. It is to this estuary that all our attention is now directed, the tide is out and undulating mudflats stretch away to the distant sea, speckled with the silhouetted forms of countless birds feeding and sifting through the slimy muck for their invertebrate food. The sun is in front of us and therefore working against us – the birds are little more than dark shapes, even through binoculars. We are helped though by a passing cloud and our combined experience and manage to identify numerous Wigeon (medium-sized golden-orange coloured ducks) a pair of eclipse Pintail (my favourite duck), vast numbers of Redshank interspersed by the odd Curlew newly arrived from the moors of the north where they breed. But a special treat awaited our eyes as John noticed a small group of dumpy waders feeding quite close to us at the edge of the rivulet. They looked like Dunlin but with longer more de-curved bills and a buffy wash to the breast, the way they fed was also different to a Dunlin’s rapid ceaseless movements; John suggested Curlew Sandpiper – a bird that I had not seen before and which is quite scarce. We consulted the birder’s bible (Collin’s Bird Guide) and asked the opinions of our neighboring birders, and after checking all of the ID features we both agreed that they were indeed Curlew Sandpipers; a brilliant start to the day.
On the landward side of the sea wall lies a large reed-fringed pool that, based on previous experience, is either swarming with ducks and waders or is as empty as a hermits diary. On this occasion it was teeming with feeding birds, and we noted Black-tailed Godwits, miniscule Teal, a solitary Snipe and best of all a group of around ten Spotted Redshank amongst the Godwits. These are the rarer, prettier, larger cousins of the multitudinous Common Redshank and I had only seen one once before– and that was from some distance; these were literally right in front of us, one hardly needed binoculars and with all the key features clear as day, it was very satisfying indeed.
We then got back in the car and drove all the way around to the other side of the harbour to a spot named Church Norton; that led directly onto the shingle beach and gave good views over the estuary and the English Channel. Unfortunately there was little to see on this side of the mudflats so we tried our luck on the beach with a view to trying a spot of sea-watching. Now, I must make a small diversion to explain the subject of sea-watching; it is a sub-division of birding that has its own tight-knit community and which requires quite different skills to those used in normal birding, one might almost classify it as a separate hobby altogether. It involves long and early hours in all weathers sitting or standing while peering through a telescope trying to identify and count swimming or flying birds that 90% of the time are little more than very distant, fast moving, flapping or floating objects. Admittedly it can add a few good birds to your day list that you wouldn’t otherwise see and when you do eventually see a rare bird while sea-watching (after putting in many hours), it can potentially be a VERY rare bird – think Tropical/Pacific!
So we scanned the sea and shore and noticed Oystercatchers, Little Egrets and some distant Brent Geese, as well as a decent number of passing hirundines (Swallows and Martins), almost all of them juveniles getting ready to begin migration for the first time. We had a moment of excitement as an impressive Peregrine Falcon scorched past, giving the local oystercatchers good reason to get the heck out of there and generally panic. John exercised his key skill – that of stamina, by continuously scanning the sea while I gazed into space (long since bored of staring at empty waves), as I knew it would John’s hard work paid off and he spotted a few Mediterranean gulls, giving themselves away due to their distinctive lack of black wing-tips. Not long after he got us both a Gannet that was passing by eastwards, managing to look absolutely enormous despite the probable miles between us; this is an impressive sea bird akin to an albatross, I have previously seen these at their best on a trip to the Farne Islands when a couple flew fairly close to our boat, completely dwarfing the gulls and Terns that swarmed around us.
So finally, before heading homeward we briefly stopped off at a small roadside mud patch known as the Ferry Pool which topped the day off with seven gorgeous Avocets; reflecting their black and white forms in the mirror-flat surface of the water, framed by the setting sun and reminding me more of a painting or lino-cut print than real birds. In all 50 species, which is pretty good actually and testament to the quality of this reserve, I hope that the gap until our next visit is considerably less than two and a half years.