Wednesday 14 October 2020

Shades of Grey at Pagham 12th October 2020

On what a turned out to be a somewhat wasted day Peter and myself found ourselves spending the afternoon at Pagham Lagoon in West Sussex.

We had set out in the morning with high hopes of seeing a Radde's Warbler that had been discovered at Seaford Head in East Sussex yesterday but it was not to be.The bird had flown and an hour spent forlornly looking at bushes proved unsuccessful. A continual passage of Swallows and House Martins were flying out to sea or along the cliffs and many Chaffinches, presumably also migrants, were 'pinking' away as they settled on the tops of the wind scarred bushes but there was little else around to keep us interested. Maybe we should have explored the area more fully as undoubtedly there would be birds to find but we decided to go west.

A Red throated Diver had been reported from Pagham Lagoon yesterday and by all accounts allowed relatively close views. Peter was keen to see it as it's not often you can get close to a Red throated Diver due to their preference to remain on the open sea.

It is a long time since I have been to Pagham Lagoon and by all accounts visitors are not so welcome these days although the lagoon is, as far as I know open to access by anyone. I was a little circumspect about the current situation and even on how to find the lagoon. Previously there had been a car park at the end of a long rutted and potholed track that ended by the far reaches of the lagoon but I knew that this had been closed some years ago and birders or anyone who did not live along the track were most definitely unwelcome. Nevertheless we opted to give it a go, feeling sure we would find a place to park relatively near to the lagoon and which would not annoy the 'nimbys'.

After a long drive across Sussex from east to west we drove into Pagham Village and for once my memory did not let me down and I found the correct potholed track (there are several) to drive down that would lead us to the lagoon. We chose to park on what we assumed was neutral ground and were just getting our stuff together when a lady in a Volvo drew up behind us. She wound down the window and told me this was part of her land. Oh dear! Conflict already and we had hardly started.This would round off our disappointing day in fine style

I turned on the charm and explained we were strangers, apologised for our unwitting incursion onto her property and asked if she would be so kind as to suggest where we could park that would not create offence.Diplomacy at its finest!

Somewhat disarmingly she broke into a smile and explained she had tried to look fierce but had to give give in. She explained she had suffered problems with many people coming to the lagoon during the covid virus lockdown, parking cars indiscriminately and leaving rubbish around the lagoon so it was all a bit sensitive but we were welcome to leave our car where it was.We both laughed and she could not have been more obliging, saying we could park outside her house at any time we fancied in the future.What a refreshing change from the frosty reception one sometimes gets these days.

She asked us what we were looking for on the lagoon and we told her about the Red throated Diver and she went to look it up in a book.

We walked down a track opposite to the lady's house that led to the lagoon and after about a hundred metres of walking across shingle and through low growing gorse we found a small area with open access to the lagoon.

Pagham Lagoon

There, close in to the shore, we found the Red-throated Diver. It was diving and feeding almost constantly, working its way along parallel to the shoreline.

We managed to get ahead of it and allowed it to come towards us and for a little while it remained close but then decided it was better to join the Great crested Grebes and retreat to the middle of the lagoon and preen a little. We sat on the shingle in order to lower our profile and it eventually came closer once more.

It floated low in the water, broad beamed and with a heavy looking head and dagger bill supported on a thick rounded neck. Each time it surfaced beads of water remained like decorative baubels on its slick waterproof plumage before running off its sloping back.

Supremely evolved to live an entirely waterborne existence, apart from when they come to the edge of the land and venture a metre from the water to nest, it moved with sinuous grace through the choppy water. The sun that had shone briefly this morning was long gone and the wind, although from the southwest, was blowing ever colder and stronger. The sky was sullen and grey threatening rain, the water the colour of pewter and so too the plumage of the diver was a complementing brownish grey above and white below. Sky, water and diver in colour co ordinated harmony.

We watched it fishing, arching its neck before sliding below the water, rising again with its body half submerged, the water running over its hindneck creating an impression that the bird was comprised of two separate parts, the head and neck detached from the rest of the body.

The bird was an avian torpedo with legs and feet almost at the furthest hindpoint of its body, perfectly positioned to propel it through the water as it hunted fish below the surface. It was I think a young bird, judging by its plumage, hatched this year and maybe, being inexperienced, that is why it has chosen to frequent this lagoon  rather than the sea nearby.

Its upperparts were brownish grey. the feathers narrowly margined with white creating a pattern of chevrons on its back and upper flanks complemented by accompanying tiny white spots on the rest of its upperpart plumage. Its scientific name is Gavia stellata, the first part derived from the Latin for seabird the second also from Latin and meaning starred, which doubtless comes from the fact there are many small white spots in its winter plumage. The head was a similar brownish grey on the crown and hindneck to the rest of the upperparts and the white on the face and neck was discoloured by copious thin brown streaks but the underparts were pure white. Its bill was gunmetal grey, the lower mandible notably upturned towards the tip. Its eye was wine red but in the dull light this was almost indiscernible.

For an hour we observed it as the weather closed in persuading us it was time to go and we agreed a dissatisfying day had been partially redeemed by this brief encounter.

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