Thursday 15 November 2012

Sussex by the Sea 14th November 2012

Reports of a female Hooded Merganser at Pagham Harbour for the last week or so had me taking advantage of a day off in lieu from work and heading down the A34 to Sussex. The merganser was to be found off Pagham Harbour North Wall, which currently is a Local Nature Reserve soon to be incorporated in the wider RSPB reserve encompassing the whole of Pagham Harbour, and being one of my former haunts I had no worries about finding the location. 

There has been much speculation concerning the origin of this individual. Is it truly wild or has it escaped? It's behaviour does not seem like that of an escaped bird but then Sussex is an unusual place for such a vagrant to arrive but there again a Paddyfield Warbler spent last winter in this very location, and who would have predicted that? Ducks are a nightmare concerning their origin as so many are kept in captivity and so many escape. I guess one just has to decide for oneself how to treat each one and this is only the latest in a long list and by no means will be the last. Me? Well all I can venture is that it is free flying, behaving normally and to all extents and purposes living free and wild in its natural habitat albeit on the other side of the Atlantic to that which is normal. It is also a very nice bird to see regardless. 

Leaving Kingham in the dark and joining, even at 6am, a large amount of traffic on the A40  and A34 I got to Pagham at 8.30 by which time the sun was up and beginning to shine. Normally this would be good news and very welcome but not for photography, as due to the position of the North Wall the sun would be shining straight into my camera lens as I went for what I imagined would be those stunning close ups of the merganser. Various reports said that at high tide it could come very close but it could also go missing for long periods. High tide today was at 11am.  So I could only hope it would follow it's previous pattern of behaviour. I walked down the lane to the North Wall noting there were already a large number of cars present for this time in the morning. I got to the sluice which is the beginning of the North Wall reserve and adjacent to the main channel which apparently was it's favoured location. 

The main channel from Pagham Sluice
Another birder said it had just flown in but was distant. No sooner had he spoken than three huge bangs emanating from the fields behind me set my nerves on end  A bird scarer with a noise volume of which any army would be proud. I have never heard a louder one. Nor apparently had the bird population of Pagham Harbour, with every wader on this side of the harbour taking alarm and heading skywards when it went off. They soon settled however but the whole process would be repeated every time the gun went off which thankfully was not that frequently. Scanning up the main channel I soon made out the distinctive head shape and profile of the merganser. It was diving and fishing energetically but despite the tide coming in was not getting any closer. I studied it at long range for half an hour but eventually got tired of doing this and started to check the myriads of birds shifting from one mud bank to another as the encroaching tide slowly covered the exposed mud.

I scanned through the flocks of Dark bellied Brent Geese moving in on the tide. One distant individual showed a huge white necklace on its neck. Interesting. It turned on the sea and the white rear flanks shone brilliantly in the sun. It was a Black Brant. I watched it swimming around, somewhat detached from its cousins, until it was lost to view in one of the rapidly filling channels. A flock of around five hundred Golden Plover wheeled around and settled briefly before they were up again and flying in formation around the harbour. They seem to be amongst the most aerial of waders, seemingly happier and in their element when airborne. A flock of Black tailed Godwits all neck, legs and beak elegance stood alert and wary, carefully segregated from a flock of Lapwings sharing the same rapidly diminishing area of mud bank. Grey Plovers pootered in the mud, calling mournfully and Common Redshanks gathered into grey huddles by the water's edge. Suddenly all the waders went up into the air in one milling mass of feathers and cries before carefully separating themselves into their respective flocks. A Peregrine swept in high from the outer harbour, accelerating faster and faster, over the wall and inland over the marsh and fallow fields beyond. It stooped at a flying bird but missed and careered off out of sight behind some trees. The waders floated back to earth, settled and the merganser was fractionally closer. It teamed up with a pair of Mallard eventually flying off with them out into the harbour and out of view. There was now quite a crowd of birders, many like me hoping to get some photos, others closer views but it seemed we were to be thwarted. The noise levels and chat inevitably increased with the merganser's absence. The Brent Geese flew to the fields behind the wall to feed and I walked west along the wall to check them out and see if the Black Brant was among them. It wasn't. Looking back to the sluice I could see birders looking downwards onto the sea close in. The merganser had obviously not only come back but had also come very much closer. This was my chance. I got back pronto and it was really close in. I took some photos but the light was very much against me with the sun shining almost directly into the lens but I had no option. It was this or nothing.

Then a lawnmower started up in a large garden backing onto the harbour by the sluice and the merganser took fright and swam well out and away into the harbour, moving parallel to the wall. Damn. All my fellow birders followed it by walking off down the footpath on top of the North Wall. I stayed put. I had seen the merganser well, got some photos and did not fancy the crowd. There was a nice secluded bench nearby out of the wind and in the sun. I claimed it and sat in peace and quiet, dozing in the sun with the intoxicating scent and quiet hum of bees in the flowering ivy behind me. A Red Admiral cruised by. I rested my head on my hand and only half awake contemplated life for an hour. No one disturbed me. A rough week at work and likely to get worse tomorrow but this pleasant day was re-energising my spirit and was much needed. 

The secluded bench overlooking the main channel
The merganser flew off the sea over the wall onto the Breach Pool behind and swam into the reeds never to be seen again while I was there. It was now noon. Two calling Greenshank flew over my head their mellifluous tones ringing out over the sea and a flock of Common Snipe whizzed around above the reeds like a formation of low flying fighter jets. 

The Breach Pool behind the North Wall.
The merganser was last seen here having flown in from the harbour
I was reluctant to leave my sunny spot but finally stirred myself and returned to the car. I had another planned objective and that was to see a Common Crane that had been reported from Amberley Wild Brooks now part of RSPB Pulborough. Local knowledge came to the fore and I drove through Amberley Village turning onto a minor road that rose up above the village with the brooks down below on the left.

There is an unofficial viewpoint on this road where you can stop the car and gain a panoramic scan of the  huge expanse of the brooks. This would be by far the best option to look for the crane. Five minutes was all it took and there was the crane on the far side of the brooks.  Elegant. Huge. Pale grey in the sun with a red and white head. An adult. Walking sedately around, feeding in glorious isolation. Two other birders joined me. They had never seen a crane before."Blimey its huge. It's as big as a Dodo" 'If you say so.' Another birder who I had not seen for over twenty years joined us. 'Long Ed.' At least that is the nickname my pal John gave him all those years ago. He is/was to put it mildly a bit strange and somewhat annoying, constantly talking to himself but his main characteristic is possessing the strangest looking head you have ever seen. It looks like it has been squeezed very hard making it go vertically long and thin. I made a note that I must call John and tell him he is still around. 

I had not expected to see the crane quite so quickly and easily so now had some time on my hands before making the journey home. I decided to spend an hour at nearby Arundel to see if I could finally find one of the Water Voles that live in the stream beneath the walls of Arundel Castle. Not exactly a quiet spot and certainly not an obvious place to look for Water Voles. This is tourist, day tripper, let's feed the ducks land with many people wandering about but the voles are there. The stream in question is not very wide and is bang slap next to the footpath along which everyone walks. I parked the car and walked along the footpath by the stream checking the banks. Plop! and something brown was swimming the few feet across the stream. Yes? No! It was a Brown Rat. I walked the length of the stream until it joined Swanbourne Lake but found nothing apart from some very fat Mallards and two more rats all no doubt attracted by the bread. Walking on over the bridge to Swanbourne Lake I looked for Mandarin Ducks. Here I was more successful, finding in total fourteen, the males resplendent in their courting finery and displaying to the females. I wandered back and found two Grey Wagtails feeding in the lake's outflow.

I strolled back along the path by the stream checking the banks again. A Brown Rat was feeding on my side of the stream apparently oblivious to all the human traffic passing. By the opposite bank with some overhanging brambles a small rodent swam close in to the bank and then climbed out and sat there facing out under the brambles. Bins up. Close focus. Two beady, black currant eyes in the cutest little brown face you could ever wish to see and there it was. A genuine, full frontal, Kenneth Grahame, Wind in the Willows Water Vole. Ratty! I watched as it crouched by the water, whiskers aquiver, alert but motionless. Just time to get some photos and some strange looks from passers by and then a Moorhen swam up to it and too close. With an audible plop it was gone, swimming underwater below the bank. I followed the bubbles and watched as they disappeared into a submerged hole. Gone.

It has been so long since I have seen one. In my youth I never gave them another thought as they were so common on our local river but now they are endangered and a truly worthwhile find. My day in Sussex, as always lifted me, especially encountering 'Ratty' and I headed home into the setting sun

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