Low, grey Nimbostratus clouds were scraping along the tops of the South Downs, they were also drizzling a miserable mist of rain onto the windscreen as we drove south towards the coast on what was looking to be a perfect day’s birding in early spring (that was sarcasm). In the spirit of trying to go to new places for birding this year, as opposed to our usual and increasingly predictable haunts in Sussex, John and I were heading to a part of the quite large inter-tidal area that has the heading of ‘Chichester Harbour’ although only one of the many channels can truly be called that. We’d never been there before anyway.
The Chidham/Cobnor peninsula is a wedge of very flat, low land that sticks out into a great tidal bay, wide creeks on either side separate it from the neighboring peninsulas of Thorney island (owned by the M.O.D.) and Bosham peninsula. Our intended walk would take us right around the coast of the peninsula, giving good views out over the vast mudflats, channels and islands, we didn’t know quite what to expect in terms of birds but wildfowl and waders were obviously going to be the main fare.
It was still mizzling (miserably drizzling) when we arrived, but fortunately it stopped not long after we started walking and it stayed mostly dry for the duration of our trip. The first bird we saw was a Skylark, bravely elevating himself far into the wet heavens above us where he poured forth a ceaseless melody of trills, whistles and warbles far too complex for any human ear to fully appreciate. From the same field we also heard the familiar ditty of a Yellowhammer song, just once though and we failed to locate the bird visually.
The east side of the peninsula was probably the most productive for birds; the long walk down to the southern point produced large numbers of Brent Geese (hundreds of which were always flying past in skeins or feeding along the muddy banks). Grey Plover were less showy than the geese but were still in large numbers, their distinctive feeding action gave them away – scurrying forward suddenly then stopping with head high, alert for movement on the surface of the mud, then scurrying on again. Redshank were abundant and noisy, tiny, cute Dunlin were to be seen in large parties at the shoreline busily feeding with heads down to the mud, Curlew were also abundant but spread out along the creek, occasionally crying out with their atmospheric bubbling call.
One of the best birds of the day was also fairly common, we saw at least 12 – mostly in pairs and had quite good views as they often bobbed on the water close to the shore – I am talking of the striking Red-breasted Mergansers. These are ducks in the saw-bill family, nothing like your manky farmyard Mallard, no sir, these are gorgeous black, white, green and red birds with long bodies that sit low in the water, they have obvious punk crests and long hook-tipped bills lined with serrations. Male and females are different colours so are easy to distinguish but both are just as lovely to see, especially on a dull spring day such as this was.
We did have a lovely surprise upon walking past a lagoon on the landward side of the coast path, we were looking at a very tame Brent goose when we noticed two waders standing in the water not far off. Turns out they were only a pair of beautiful Spotted Redshank! This is a rather scarce species told apart from the common Redshank by its pale silver plumage, clean white undersides, clear eyestripe, longer legs and bill (which is half black, half red) and also their feeding action by which they up-end themselves head first into the water rather like ducks do. We weren’t expecting to see these today so were were well chuffed bruv. At the same pool we also had two Snipe fly over, just common ones though.
A large tidal lagoon further on also proved good for waders with Black-tailed Godwits, Grey Plover, Oystercatcher, Dunlin and a Knot as well as some Shelduck and Teal. We were also impressed by how close the waterbirds allowed us to get, as the coastal path was only a few meters from the waters edge at points and the waders feeding along the shoreline gave us fab views, seemingly unconcerned with our proximity. So we got good views of a Bar-tailed Godwit and some Turnstones rummaging about in the clumps of seaweed.
Eventually we reached the southernmost point where we found a small hide with what might be described as ‘excellent ventilation’ (or rather, no door and a permanently open window) from which we had good views of a suite of waders including a dainty Greenshank. What I also loved about this end was the stunted, twisted old Oak trees that were growing right at the high-tide mark out of the banks, the wind and salt had clearly affected them – resulting in some sculpture-like shapes in root and branch.
The walk up the west side was less productive as the path turned inland slightly with views over farmland that at this time of year was rather quiet (read ’empty’). However we eventually reached a large bay at the northern end where the peninsula joins the mainland, a good scan of this bay through our scopes produced some good birds. Aside from a huge flock of 500 or more Brent Geese that flew in, we spotted a large group of Pintail feeding on the shallow water, a flock of Wigeon were sleeping on the far shore, Common gulls were among the Black-headed gulls and I managed to pick out three or four stunning Mediterranean Gulls in full breeding plumage as well.
As we were walking back inland a very brightly coloured male Yellowhammer perched on a hedge no more than a meter from us, allowing five minutes of breathtaking views of what is one of my favourite birds – its lemon-yellow head with black stripes almost glowed and we noticed other details like chestnut streaks along its flanks. There were also other signs of spring about that I noticed on our walk; some early flowers were out including Lesser Celandine, Primrose and Blackthorn blossom and the leaf-buds on the Hawthorns were bursting open too.
We decided to end a really great days birding with a stop at Waltham Brooks on the way back through the Arun valley in the hope of seeing the long-staying Great Grey Shrike. Alas, the Shrike was nowhere to be seen despite a rather long time waiting and searching for it, but in recompense we did have fab views of another of my favourite birds – a Firecrest. This beautiful sprite of a bird was flitting about in a hedgerow surrounded by large numbers of Chiffchaffs and Goldcrests (its plainer cousin) that were wintering in close proximity to a water treatment works, attracted no doubt by the invertebrates living in the you-know-what.
One of the best aspects of the days outing was that we didn’t come across a single other birder, the Chidham area was very quiet, giving the sense that we had the birds all to ourselves. Just waiting on those first spring migrants now!