Two iconic sites
Part 6: September - October 1975 The Epsom RSPB Group held a number of field trips throughout the year, and after my successful Epsom Common excursion with them in May, I had booked myself on a further two, both to well-known sites that promised me more avian wonder. The first was in early October, to Pagham Harbour.
I was picked up by car from Cheam Village, part of a convoy that made its collective way down to the West Sussex coast. The vehicles all reconvened at the Sidlesham Ferry Visitor Centre. This was just off from the harbour itself, close to a sizeable pool, viewable from a raised pavement that ran along its southern edge, butting onto the Selsey road. The water was dotted with muddy islands, with exposed mud just below were we stood. This was being criss-crossed by a number of feeding waders, at incredibly close range. I was able to examine the birds in feather-by-feather detail. My fellow-companions now showed me what experience can do, as they pointed out to me that, in amongst the Dunlin that were before us, were two further species – Curlew Sandpipers and Little Stints. To accompany this tutoring that I was receiving I stood with my field guide open, checking off identification features and the illustrations within against the real-life versions that were running around in front of us. Nearby were a couple of Spotted Redshanks, reminders of my earlier Beddington success.
We then drove round to Church Norton car park and walked down to the edge of the harbour. A world of mud, water and sky met us, the distant horizon a thin dull smudge, the air full of calling Curlews and Oystercatchers. It was as if all before us had been gently whisked into a frothy concoction, a mixing of the elements. Wherever I looked, there were birds. A group of Grey Plovers were picked out, also Black-tailed Godwits. The shingle spits that we stood upon were shared with Ringed Plovers and Common Sandpipers. A female Pintail swam out into the middle of a channel that snaked through the mud. A Kingfisher flashed by. Nearby farmland provided us with both Tree Sparrow and Corn Bunting. Pagham Harbour had ensnared me. I would be back.
Staines Reservoir had a reputation as one of London’s top bird watching sites. My dog-eared copy of ‘Where to Watch Birds’ by John Gooders was full of praise for it and generous in its suggestion as to what might be seen on any given visit. It was a place that boasted a list of rarities that was more befitting a coastal headland and seemed to have enticed generations of top bird watchers to partake in the ornithological offerings that would be, as far as I could tell, always available. As with the Pagham trip, I was a passenger in a three-car convoy. The drive through south-west London was monotonous, a flat and virtually treeless 1930’s suburbia, with the odd flyover and office block attempting to give a little height to the surroundings. We arrived at Ashford, where the cars were parked alongside an ominous grassy bank that rose steeply into a battleship grey sky, made all the more prominent by the flat surrounds. A high metal fence, all rusted spikes, corralled us along to a point where a pathway ran up the side of the grass and presented us at the start of a long narrow causeway, which ran away in a dead straight line, bisecting a vast body of water. Our vision was hampered by more iron rail fence, which appeared on both sides of the path, hemming us in like cattle. We could see through it however, and those tall enough, and in possession of a telescope, could balance it on the fence’s cross bar and scan beyond to their heart’s content. The water was grey, the surface dulled by the morose sky above, and a stiff breeze whipped up shallow peaks, altogether uninviting. I looked around me, taking in the old ironwork, the lightly vegetated path, the London skies – and was aware of the ornithological folklore bestowed upon it. The ghosts of those who had been here before were present in my imagination, old boys dressed in sou’westers, with brass-pull telescopes and an eye for the unusual. This was no different from Stonehenge, The Tower of London or St. Pauls Cathedral to me – a place that possessed an aura of wonder and a sense of history. That I was standing here to try and add to its rich tapestry excited and humbled me in equal measure.
But as can often be the case, when something has been built up, it is not unusual for it to not deliver. We looked out over the water, on both basins, in a desperate search for the rafts of duck that we believed would be here, but we had to conclude that there were none - I wondered whether I had read the correct script. The more experienced hands in our group were muttering about it having never been so poor, which was of little consolation for me. We walked all the way to the far end of the causeway, where a smart brick water tower was in danger of becoming the day’s highlight. When we were almost back to the point of our entry, a shout went up, and there just the other side of the fence was a male Snow Bunting, feeding in amongst the weed strewn banking not six feet away. I was mesmerised by this soft confection of browns, apricots and creamy whites, with a short, stout apricot bill working away to tease seeds from the desiccated vegetation. We left the bird still feeding, with an appreciative audience in attendance.