Pagham and Medmerry – Tuesday 9th April 2024

Strength in the face of adversity. We (four stout members of Croydon RSPB) did not fully know what forces we may have been up against, although we had at least seen the weather forecasts. And we had all probably seen something on the BBC news about flooding of the Medmerry Holiday Park, (vaguely taken in over breakfast at 7 am), about 100 people being evacuated, police crews, ambulances and the rest. But the skies looked fine so off we went.

We were even joined by a gold-star fellow birder who had been at Pagham Harbour from 7.30! He eventually succumbed  to the needs of a warm home, hot drink and lunch, but credit due.

In fact the drive down to the south coast was dry and uneventful. The cause of the problems was a combination of high tide plus spring tide, and a westerly wind sweeping the waves ahead of it.

The first signs we saw of flooding was at the entrance to Pagham RSPB car park, a long stretch of 8 inches or more flooding, but as there were a few cars already by the visitor centre we (three cars in total) went for it. The visitor centre was officially closed, but still manned by a few volunteers. We were told that most of the site was flooded, and indeed the centre itself had been under salt water earlier in the morning. It might be possible to take the footpath behind the visitor centre toward the sea wall – they did not know – but that was about our only option.

The birds at the feeding station were oblivious to what was going on, so we were able to watch house sparrows, chaffinch, greenfinch, and blue and great tits.

Chaffinch by Steve Grayson

The path to the sea wall, and the old route of the Selsey Tramway (basically the sea wall) was actually quite walkable, being largely above the height of the flood, In the bushes away from the sea we could see or hear numerous woodland birds such as chiffchaff, chaffinch, robin, whitethroat and blackcap. Plus the usual woodpigeon and crow. An unexpected light shower soon cleared.

Across the marsh, water levels were fairly high. At lower tides the muddy creeks are usually full of ducks (although winter ducks are now few), and a number of waders. We spotted a couple of little egrets and curlews, a few great crested grebes and scatterings of herring and black-headed gulls. There were a few individual redshank, and occasionally four or so would flitter about.

Little egret by Steve Grayson

Stretching our ‘scopes to the maximum we could detect dunlin way across the bay. An occasional little egret would drift by.

Then, by pure good luck, we picked out a pair of red-breasted merganser, weaving and diving among the tops of the otherwise submerged reeds some way offshore.

As we headed towards Ferry Channel, along the tram route, a couple of swallows darted briefly into view and then disappeared. Although the pathway did not appear to have been under long term flooding, being slightly elevated, the effect of the deluge was evident by many hundreds of dead worms which must have drowned in their attempt to find dry land. We were told by an RSPB volunteer that they had also found a drowned mole.

The Channel is often a good location for a kingfisher, but unsurprisingly, given the conditions (including very high winds) it was not seen on this occasion. Neither was the spotted redshank which often appears here.

We had hoped to spend some time in the hide overlooking Ferry Pool, but the evidence of the flooding became very obvious here. Wellington boots might just have permitted access, but most (that is 3 out of 4) only had hiking boots. So instead we tried to survey Ferry Pool from the road side bank, where the wind kept ‘scopes and even binoculars difficult to keep still.

Nevertheless, we were able to observe a good number of avocets, some shelduck, a group of black-tailed godwits and one greenshank. Ducks were limited to shovelers, the odd mallard, pochard and a gadwall. The visitor centre had informed us that the wigeon had left a few days earlier, and probably so had the last of the teal.

Greenshank by Steve Grayson

This is usually a good location to search for buzzard and peregrine on fence posts and pylon, but in this wind they would have had to be crazy to attempt it.

We had to retrace our footsteps to the visitor centre. The tide was now much higher, perhaps 30 minutes away from full tide, but would not repeat the devastation of the night before.

The visitor centre door displayed a closed sign, but we were allowed into the warmth to eat our lunches, still able to observe the feeding station. On our way out we were met by a very tame pheasant. The volunteers admitted this was almost like a pet, and they had given it the name (if I remember correctly) of Sir Charles Richardson.

Pheasant by Steve Grayson

After lunch, and now down to just three of us, the initial plan was to drive to the Earnley car park at Medmerry and attempt a clockwise walk via Marsh Barn down to the Silt Pools, and then along the beach and back to the car park, returning via Marsh Barn again if progress beyond the Stilt Pools was not possible. But just short of the car park a police car was blocking the road and we were informed access was impossible for at least an hour.

So it was back to the first car park, near Easton Farm, and the more conventional (to Croydon RSPB) route to the pools. Coming back we spotted a raptor some way ahead high above the road. It initially looked like a kestrel as it was static, as if to start the usual hovering. However as we got closer we realised it was a buzzard, kept in place by the strong wind which must have been affecting the flight choices and patterns of many of the local birds.

Leaving this car park the first expanse of water is the large creek on the left (Easton Rife) which at this point, around high tide, was largely flooded, so not very attractive to waders. Three were spotted, and fortunately they came slightly closer to us so that we could distinguish two redshank and a greenshank.

Further along, the way splits into a higher level (footpath) and lower (for cycles and horses). The lower path gave some shelter from the wind, but at times acted as a wind tunnel. We mainly took the higher path, slightly boggy in parts, to enable better viewing across all of the reserve. By now the sun was beginning to shine and to illuminate the spread of gorse bushes, now almost in their full blossomed glory. One would normally be looking for Dartford warblers and yellowhammers here, but the wind kept small birds to a minimum. (Although there was one possible yellowhammer sighting, shooting like a rocket from behind us into trees to our right.) This area on the right is, for much of the route a series of ponds and reed beds, heavily populated with marsh frogs happily croaking away with gusto, unaware, with just their noses popping above the water, of any unusual weather conditions.

They were accompanied on high by a number of skylarks throughout our walk.

Skylark by Steve Grayson

To our left the reserve was under more water than is usual, but this seemed to be as much down to rain as much as tidal flooding. Bird numbers there were surprising low, with a few scattered redshank, a few groups of herring gulls, and the odd little egret. In the opposite direction a distant raptor was probably a marsh harrier, based mainly on its flight pattern, but, as noted before, the wind was likely to disrupt normal progress somewhat.

Our first grey heron (a rather dark looking individual) rose briefly from nearby reeds, and made a few repeat performances later on.

Stonechats, mainly in pairs, began to make more frequent appearances, on brambles and fences. Four linnets made a number of juddering flights from place to place.

Stonechat by Steve Grayson

As we approached the Stilt Pools we realised that tidal flooding must have been very significant here, as there was basically just one large lake, and none of the usual islands and spits, which normally rewards careful scanning with ringed plover and possibly other less common birds.

The shore had a few redshank (and possible greenshank), shovelers and mallard, while on the water were a good number of tufted duck, about four mute swans, a few coot and the odd moorhen and gadwall. A small number of cormorants flew back and forth. There may have been more to see although being so exposed it was difficult to keep our scopes still, and time was limited as we had to make an earlier than usual return home.

Cormorant by Steve Grayson

The sea defence consisting of large rocks has in the past been a good spot for early wheatear, but not on this occasion, on neither the exposed or sheltered side. What we could see here was something of a torrent of water draining from the pools (pool!) south into the nature reserve itself.

The walk back to the cars was rather uneventful, (although we had a good view of a greenfinch), largely in decent sunshine, but still with something of a chill from the wind, now thankfully largely into our backs

Hearing the terrible news of the effects of the flooding before we set out, and the expectation that strong winds would probably reduce sightings, it would have been easy to cancel the trip, but all those who had expressed a prior interest determined to be resilient, and I believe went home thinking they had made the right choice.

Species lists

50 bird species were seen/heard during the day. Eight of these were new for the year taking the total to 88 for 2024.

Canada goose, Mute swan, Shelduck, Shoveler, Gadwall, Mallard, Pochard, Tufted duck, Red-breasted Merganser*, Pheasant, Woodpigeon, Coot, Moorhen, Great Crested Grebe, Oystercatcher*, Avocet, Lapwing, Curlew, Black-tailed Godwit, Dunlin*, Redshank, Greenshank*, Black-headed Gull, Great Black-backed Gull, Herring gull, Cormorant, Grey heron, Little egret, Buzzard, Magpie, Rook, Crow, Blue tit, Great Tit, Skylark, Swallow*, Cettis warbler(h), Chiffchaff (h), Blackcap* (h), Whitethroat* (h, ) Wren (h), Starling, Blackbird, Robin, Stonechat, House Sparrow, Chaffinch, Greenfinch, Goldfinch, Linnet*

Other taxa:

Rabbit