Saturday, 20 June 2015

30 Days Wild Day 19: Birding at Pagham Harbour

OK so I might have accidentally missed a day of this little challenge. Thursday completely got away from me and before I knew it, it was bed time and I had done nothing remotely wild. I plan to make up for this by tagging an extra day on at the start of July and hopefully day 19's blog will more than make amends for the lack of day 18! 

So. Day 19. What a corker it was! It definitely comes under the heading "visit somewhere new" as I took my very first trip to Pagham Harbour nature reserve, managed by the RSPB. Whenever I'm volunteering at Pulborough and talking about Pagham Harbour to the public, I always feel slightly shameful as I'm encouraging people to go but had never been myself! So I decided it was time to rectify that. Funnily enough, a very rare bird called a Hudsonian Whimbrel, normally found across the pond in America, showed up at Church Norton (just down from Pagham) around this time last week. It was purely by chance that myself and my colleague and friend Lauren had decided to visit several weeks ago, nothing to do with the Whimbrel and, incidentally, we didn't see it. 

Lauren was acting as my tour guide since I had no idea where to start and the reserve area is enormous. We began in search of a family of nightingales we had been told were nearby, down the cycle path to the left of the reserve. We tried several spots along the trail and waited but didn't see the adults or juveniles, although we did hear several bursts of the nightingale alarm call, so we knew they were there, just very well hidden in the dense vegetation. What made up for the lack of nightingales spots was the sight of an adult whitethroat (the first time I'd seen one) feeding a juvenile. There was a lot of birdsong going on around us within the vegetation, including chiffchaffs and skylarks and Lauren pointed out to me the call of a blackcap, which sounds exactly the same as two marbles banging together. Very recognisable.

Along the track were the remains of two sparrowhawk kills; one was just a puff of feathers but it must have been disturbed while eating the other, as the body was left behind, minus the head which was on the other side of the trail. Lauren told me they eat the brains first as that is the most nutritious part. Sadly, we didn't spot the culprit.

In this area, we stood for some time listening to at least two, possibly three, reed warblers in the bed to the right of the photo. At times they sounded extremely close to us and we desperately tried to search them out but as it was quite breezy, they chose to remain lower down the reeds where the movement was minimal. A couple of lapwings flew overhead, their white bellies and underwings glinting in the sunlight. 

I was pleased to see a few butterflies about but not as many as I expected on such a warm day; a meadow brown, large white and several red admirals. Looking out across the wetland area, we spotted three little egrets, a grey heron, a lone oystercatcher, sleeping shelducks and a cormorant flying across the air. Cormorants really do look unusual in flight; almost pterodactyl-like. 

Little Egret

The ferry pools were absolutely teeming with black-tailed godwits, both adults and juveniles, the former with beautiful, rufous heads and necks, and the latter looking much more dull and grey in comparison. There was one lone redshank who's much smaller size set it apart from the crowd of godwits, several shelducks including some older juveniles and a pair of little-ringed plovers were scuttling back and forth across one of the sandy banks. They certainly are speedy little birds and blend in with sand so effectively!

As we walked back towards the car park, swifts soaring above our heads, we briefly stopped to look at the dipping ponds. Apparently, not long ago, they had some heavy flooding that filled the ponds with saltwater so it has taken some time for them to recover. Several damselflies flitted around and a beautiful broad-bodied chaser circled the area.

We drove down to Church Norton as Lauren told me this is the best area to see birds, particularly in the winter when all of the waders arrive in vast numbers. One of the most exciting spots of the day for both of us happened in the car park of Church Norton, before we had even reached the trail. A song thrush jumped down in front of us with a snail in its beak, completely unfazed by our presence. Usually, these birds are much more shy and illusive so it made a nice change, especially as, only a few feet from where we stood, the thrush began to bang the snail on the ground repeatedly until it broke apart. It then had a brief peck at the insides before a car came along and spooked it. Obviously we know this behaviour goes on (the broken shells by my pond are evidence enough) but neither of us had ever seen it happening before!

With the hot, sunny weather we had on the day, it felt as if we were on a beach in the Mediterranean when we tore ourselves away from the thrush. The water was extremely clear and, apart from the odd individual, there was no one but us around. We spent some time watching the Tern Island where breeding common and little terns are nesting. We did spot one individual with an all-black beak which we suspected could have been an Arctic tern but it stayed stubbornly hunkered down so we didn't have much to go on. Lauren manged to spot a Med gull among the more chocolatey black-headed gulls which unfortunately flew off before I could peek through the scope.

The oystercatchers were making quite a racket most of the time we were there and there was one which might have been sitting on a nest, as she didn't move off her spot at all, despite being extremely vocal. I'm quite taken by how white they look in flight, in comparison to their more black appearance on the ground. 

L-R: Black-headed gull, tern, shelduck

Tern Island, 30-40 adult and juvy cormorants to the left.

Oystercatchers and lone shelduck

Possible nesting oystercatcher

We headed over to the right next, where the beach is. There were shoals of fish swimming very close to the shore line and the tide line was littered with hundreds of shed crab skins in various sizes. We set up camp in an area of vegetation that is apparently very good for short-eared owl sightings in the winter. The call of a chaffinch was the overriding sound that punctuated the raspy cries of the gulls. Several small, brown birds kept darting over the hedges then disappearing into the foliage, too fast for us to I.D. them. Lauren suspected they might have been bunting of some sort.

We did spot a bird which looked to be a juvenile goldfinch, with a bright yellow bar on its wing, a couple of greenfinch, and possibly a yellowhammer though it didn't stick around for long! A pair of buzzards hovered above the tree line in quite an impressive way considering the strength of the wind at the time.

As we made our way back along the beach, we stopped to have a look at the oystercatchers again, since they were still making a lot of noise. Lauren put the scope on another little-ringed plover but when I looked at it, I noticed the beak and legs were orange rather than yellow and there was no yellow ring around the eye. We decided based on this that it had to be the little-ring's larger cousin, a ringed plover. I was very excited having only seen the little-ringed before. 

I'm definitely going to make plans to visit again in the autumn/winter time when hundreds of dunlin and knot will be arriving. I'm also hoping to get down to Medmerry soon too, which is the RSPB's newest reserve and is only just down the road from Pagham.

Full bird list from the day:

Common Terns
Little Terns
Artic Terns
Black-headed Gulls
Shelducks (juv + adult)
Ringed Plover 
Little-ringed Plover
Grey Heron
Little Egret
Cormorants (juv + adult)
Song thrush
Whitethroat (juv + adult)
Robin (juv + adult)
Juv. Goldfinch

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