Thursday, 18 May 2017

A train, a bus and some mud

Part 10 -  March 1976 Pagham Harbour became a frequent place of ornithological pilgrimage. Conveniently, a train ran from Sutton to Chichester, where a bus would then take you to Sidlesham Ferry, a virtual gateway to the harbour and coast. The only downside to this method of transport was that the first train from Sutton did not leave until 09.00hrs, which meant a lunchtime arrival at Sidlesham – this restricted birding time, especially in the winter months. The southbound train journey was enjoyable, as the route passed through picturesque countryside  - including the levels at Arundel – where the odd good bird, such as Short-eared Owl and Bewick’s Swan were seen from the moving train. Once on the bus, expectation levels steadily grew, and by the time that Sidlesham Ferry came into view I was practically beside myself with excitement.

I would normally take the same route. An initial scan of the ferry pool would be a lengthy affair. This smallish water body and its accompanying muddy fringes was consistently full of birds – ducks and waders to the fore – and had the added attraction of allowing close and clear views of the birds. Once I had prised myself away, the ‘southern’ flank of the harbour was walked, ensuring that any spur of dry ground out into the harbour was taken, to check for further waders and wildfowl. The state of the tide would dictate where I could (and could not) explore. The footpaths here, especially the main route that snaked along a raised bank, would be a virtual assault course of muddy slopes, particularly during spells of wet weather. More than once a boot was prised from my foot by the sucking mud, with frantic and balletic efforts being made to rescue it before my vulnerable sock-shod foot met the same fate. I’ve seen birders fall, optics dropped, with the aftermath being not just a bruised ego but also a sheepish cleaning down and checking of binoculars, to ensure nothing had been damaged. The open vistas were exhilarating, with unimpeded views of the West Sussex countryside for 360 degrees. Bushes were liberally scattered along the way, where migrant passerines could be reasonably expected at the right times of year.

From here I would arrive at Church Norton, home to a small car park, a few aspirational houses and a charming church. It was quite wooded, so trees would be checked to increase the day list. No visit to Church Norton would be complete without taking lunch and the accompanying feeding of birds – Robins, Chaffinches and Great Tits in particular – that would practically line up waiting for the odd dropped crumb or offered crust. It became a ritual. A respectful search of the churchyard (could there be a more desirable final resting place for a birder?) would be followed by a vigil on the adjacent shingle spits where commanding views across the harbour could be taken.

It was but a short walk from here, up a shingle ridge, and onto the beach. High tide would have waves lapping at your feet, but a low tide would present a mess of shingle islands and the sea distant enough to hamper any scanning for birds. Turning northwards, a trudge along the shingle bank took you to the narrow harbour mouth, which unfailingly produced a rarer grebe or notable sea duck. From here you could look across the deep channel and onto Pagham beach. Turning southwards from Church Norton, it was only a matter of a few hundred metres before a small reed fringed water body, called ‘The Severals’, could be found, serviced by footpaths that allowed good birding access. In turn, these paths took you back to the car park at Church Norton via open fields and a farmyard.

On an average visit I would then retrace my steps to Sidlesham and wait for the bus back to Chichester – however, wanderlust sometimes took a grip. I could, and sometimes did, carry on past the Severals and walk the mile or so to Selsey Bill, that iconic birding site where birders in the 50s and 60s set up a short-lived observatory. Or, if I were being really adventurous, go back to Sidlesham and walk the lengthy northern footpath around the harbour and end up at Pagham Lagoon – this latter option was only taken up if there was a good bird to be had, or the daylight hours allowed it. Fortunately there was a bus that would take me back to Chichester from here.

Although a well-known birding location, it was never too busy with birders at Pagham. You could lose yourself and be in your own space if so desired. There was a small and friendly band of local observers, including Chris Janman and the James family, who would be only too pleased to pass on the latest news. My early visits to this charming area would invariably be made with no prior knowledge as to what was about, and with little concern as to the weather. On more than one occasion I spent the whole day in heavy rain, soaked to the skin, but wandering around with a beatific smile upon my face.

On this, my second ever visit, highlights were a Black-necked Grebe and Short-eared Owl from my initial scan of the ferry; a Spotted Redshank in the harbour; a few Slavonian Grebe on the sea, and, best of all, my first ever Avocet, thanks to a last look at the ferry, in fading light, before catching the bus. The future would confirm that no visit to Pagham was ever the same, was never dull and was always full of birds.

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