Pagham North Wall
A sunny autumn Sunday proved enough to get me out of bed and down the A34 to one of my former haunts in West Sussex - Pagham Harbour. How I miss the sea, those huge skies and wide horizons and with what joy I found myself on the North Wall of Pagham Harbour mid morning. Sadly the four Spoonbills that had been here for the last few days did not share my enthusiasm and had moved on. I met Chris Janman, one of the locals, intently surveying a reed bed. 'There's a warbler in there showing itself intermittently and it looks quite grey. It might be interesting'. "OK I'll hang about". We chatted about this and that but the warbler did not show itself so we moved along the wall and then back again covering all the angles and extent of the reed bed. I was just about to give up when said warbler shot up into the air, flycatching from the reeds. It disappeared but then was up again. Then down again. Frustration. Finally it allowed us to get it in our scopes and obtain a good view of it. It now appeared warm brown. Just a late Reed Warbler then but nice to see all the same and it had provided a frisson of excitement and anticipation for an hour.
Chris left for home but I remained on the wall enjoying the surroundings. Before me was what is called the Breech Pool and which over the years has harboured many a rarity. The last one was the wintering Paddyfield Warbler earlier this year, in exactly the same reed bed as our Reed Warbler of today. Behind me the open harbour, still with the tide well in, stretched to the open sea and the water on the horizon became invisible in the bright sun.
Little Egrets roosted on a grassy island waiting for the water to recede. Wigeon whistled and floated around in groups. There was that unique quiet calm of a high tide on a still day as everything ceased moving and waited, waited for the tide to recede and the saltmarsh to become once more exposed. Before me the edges of the Breech Pool sheltered dozing Teal, the drakes still only half way to acquiring their full beauty. A Shoveler drake swam out of the reeds, its harlequin colours shone bright on the blue, sky reflecting water. Three Black tailed Godwits slept in the lee of some reeds, the birds pivoting on one leg as they kept one eye on their surroundings and Common Snipe hid in the long grass by the water's edge. A Greenshank, very pale in the sunlight, flew inland calling loudly and a flock of Curlew took off from the fields behind the Breech Pool and headed out into the harbour, their wild, loud cries accompanying them into the distance. A much harsher squealing betrayed a Water Rail concealed in the reeds. Finally a small brown passerine flew across the Breech Pool and perched right on the top of a small hawthorn. Not the usual Reed Bunting this time. Oh no! A female European Stonechat, but unusually not accompanied by a male. Perhaps she was a migrant getting ready to, as one of the old bird books I regularly read charmingly said of this species, ' take the tour of the Continent'. Yes, it was a very old book but quite readable and how much more gentle and quaint birding seemed to be in those days. The first two weeks of October are the peak time for passage of stonechats on the south coast.
My plan was now to go for the remainder of the afternoon to the other side of the harbour at Church Norton looking for Firecrests in the Churchyard, a favourite spot and possibly also to seek them in the wind blasted gorse and bushes sheltering the footpath running along the western edge of the harbour. Both failed to deliver a Firecrest but I did find two Goldcrests in the Churchyard. Along the harbour footpath a male Migrant Hawker was flying in a sheltered recess behind the gorse, shielded from any wind coming in off the harbour.
Nearby a Field Parasol fungus lurked like, well, a parasol, in the long grass under the gorse. The hawker sailed around aimlessly in it's little warm arena and then settled on some sun soaked gorse all ambition gone. Maybe this was the day when the sun on its tattered wings would be it's last.
Migrant Hawker male
Back in the Churchyard a couple of Red Admirals spiralled listlessly upwards, parted and drifted like separate, spent leaves down onto the grass. Their tired, energy expired flight pressaging their oncoming nemesis. Similarly a Peacock, resplendent in paint box colours, found a warm, sun soaked gravestone to fuel one last day and one last flight.
No birds in the Churchyard but plenty were now out on the exposed saltmarsh. Common Redshanks and Little Egrets were regularly spaced out across the harbour. Five Knot, all fussy and dumpy probed the mud in a small channel and a single Sanderling fed with a Grey Plover. The plaintive echoes of Grey Plover calls permeated the harbour and Turnstones flew back out to the rocky seashore. In the binoculars I found a large, all white wader, quite distant and in fact so distant I had to get the scope on it. What on earth was it? I increased the magnification and to my surprise saw it was a leucistic Curlew. This was definitely a first. It was not pure white but a very pale off white with the occasional random pale brown streak on the upperparts. The bill was the normal black and the legs the normal grey green colour. I like to imagine it had a close encounter with the local Peregrine and the shock turned it white.
While looking through the bins at the Curlew I also saw a Brent Goose mixing with the loafing Cormorants on their favourite island out in the middle of the harbour. I have been WeBS (Wetland Bird Survey) counting Brent Geese for twenty four years at nearby West Wittering so know something unusual about a Brent Goose when I see it. This one appeared to have very white flanks. The sub-species of Brent Goose that winter in the south of England and especially around here is the Dark bellied Brent Goose which do not have white flanks. Virtually annually now we get a vagrant Black Brant, the North American version of our Dark bellied Brent Goose, mixed in with the flocks of Dark bellied Brent and less often we get a displaced Pale Bellied Brent Goose which normally winter in Scotland or Ireland. I needed the scope again to confirm my suspicions but the identification was not difficult. An adult Pale bellied Brent Goose. Quite early and a very nice find to round off an unspectacular but very fulfilling day by the sea