The moon is full so the tide is at its highest; the sea has poured into Pagham Harbor, filling every silty channel, it now laps gently against the north wall – the man-built structure which prevents the salty water from covering the farmland and reedbeds beyond. The sun is strong but noticeably lower in the sky than it was a few weeks ago, clouds are few so the full pavilion of our atmosphere is visible – starting from a watery blue at the edges and rising to a deep aquamarine at the zenith. Pagham harbor sits on the eastern side of the manhood peninsula, which juts out from the mainland of Sussex in a perfect equilateral triangle. The land here is as flat as anywhere in Suffolk so there is a clear view northwards; Chichester cathedral sticks up amid a sea of trees, behind which is the long and high slope of the back of the South Downs. These hills have a great shawl of woodland stretching across their southern side, and with the naked eye one can trace the ridge far into the east past Shoreham, beyond which they fade into the blue haze somewhere near Brighton.
As John and I walked up to the north wall a bright orange Comma butterfly caught my eye as it fluttered over a bramble thicket. In my mind this lovely creature belongs to the heat of summer – yet I know it will sleep through our winter to emerge one last time. A ploughed field hosted a mass of feeding Woodpigeons, amongst them we spotted a couple of Stock Doves looking quite slender next to their chubby cousins – this rural scene reminded me strongly of Ladybird books. A few scattered Swallows passed over as we took in the view on the wall, immediately in front of us however twelve Mute Swans were lounging silently on the high water – absolutely dwarfing a young Little Grebe that was making its way past them. Without any exposed mud there were few waders in the harbor, yet in the middle distance a large group of duck sat on the water whistling to themselves. After eyeing them through the ‘scope it was clear they were mainly Wigeon with a couple of graceful Pintail floating amongst them – Wigeon are chunky yet pretty with a gentle disposition and a very social nature.
A sudden and short explosion of song behind us informed John and I of the presence of a Cettis’ warbler, though we had no hopes of actually seeing one of these cunningly secretive birds. On the north side of the wall is a small, very shallow lagoon edged by reeds which attracts many waterfowl and waders; standing upon one bony leg each was a group of scruffy Lapwing in their coats of metallic green. Beside them, but in greater numbers, were smoke-grey Godwits of the Black-tailed variety – they were in various positions – some resting with bill under wing, some feeding with bill poked in mud and some preening with bill shoved in feathers. Their bills (when you can see them) are wonderfully long and slim and half black and half orangey-pink; they are great appendages with many uses and the dreaded foe of any mollusc. Within this same pool sat a pair of sneaky Snipe trying to look inconspicuous amongst all the tiny Teal which were crowding the edges of the pool – their fantastically bright teal-green speculums flashing in the sunlight.
As we sat for lunch and gazed out over the rapidly draining harbor (for the tide was now receding) an emperor dragonfly flew up the side of the wall and hovered perfectly not more than a metre away. Despite the breeze this turquoise jewel of invertebrate design held its position without effort and zestfully biffed up a passing fly that dared to enter its territory (or it may have been trying to eat it). This tiny, ferocious predator was another remnant of the season gone and will die with the cold weather.
A short jaunt in the car to the opposite side of the harbor brought us to another small, shallow pool which was bordered by a busy road – not that that seemed to bother the birds. Stuffed to the brim with feeding and slumbering waders, gulls and ducks it took a while to sort through the species present but amongst the Teal, Herring gulls and Godwits were some feathered treasures. Among those present were six individuals of the herald of the RSPB and symbol of conservation success – Avocets; always a pleasure to come across and strikingly beautiful. Sifting with energy along the boggy shoreline was a total of fifteen minuscule Dunlin, looking for all the world like a group of clock-work toys – the mind boggles at how such compact creatures can journey thousands of miles. Much less obvious to spot but just as nice to see were at least nineteen Mediterranean gulls; they have pure white wing tips like paper-thin ivory and thick, blood-red bills that contrast greatly with their slimline figures and light grey plumage.
One or two warmly-buff coloured Chiffchaffs were whistling as they hopped busily through the branches of a tangled Elder bush – not far now from their big leap across the channel on their way past the twitching guns of southern Europe and on to the heat of Africa. Our next stop was the long shingle beach at Church Norton which in summer is host to breeding Little Terns and gulls. The gradually fading ruins of the Norman fort at Church Norton must be one of the least known and inauspicious archaeological sites in the county; just about half of the steep earthen ramparts remain – now home to rabbits and bramble. Another scan over the now exposed mud of the harbor revealed numerous wailing Curlew and some lovely perky-looking Grey Plovers that revealed from their still moulting plumage that they were quite fresh from their northern breeding grounds.
We made our way up and onto the beach; bunches of remarkably tough sea-cabbage grew straight out of the shingle, somehow scratching nutrients out of this unstable and distinctly salty habitat. Despite John’s optimism there was very little on the sea itself, on the pebbly shoreline below us though were at least twenty-five gorgeously-white Little Egrets poking at cockles and worms in the mud. A flock of piebald Turnstones cruised along the water’s edge and landed in a loose flock not far from a funny-looking Curlew that I was desperately trying to turn into a Whimbrel. With his keen eyes John picked out a lonely-looking (and very distant) pair of Brent Geese – an irrefutably autumnal bird and surely the first of many winter visitors that are swarming this way as I write. Today I think John and I drunk some of the last dregs from the great tankard of summer; Swallows, Chiffchaffs, butterflies and dragonflies (not to mention the lovely mild and sunny weather) were probably among the last we will see for this year – oh well.