The birds that are less rare than thought

editorial image

THE HUNGRY sea has been gnawing away again at Pagham beach and trying to fight its way over the seawalls into farmland at Fishbourne in Chichester Harbour.

One of the highest tides of the year during the new moon in mid January was within a foot of the top of a new seawall there. The whole of that bank has been strengthened by infill and grading, with the concrete facing repaired continually by the wildfowlers who have the shooting on the seaward side.

On that particular weekend I was doing a waterfowl count for WEBS, Wetland Bird Counts, that is. Now, there is a public footpath through the reed beds with a couple of handrail bridges over the fresh inflows so that you can walk from Fishbourne to Bosham as a pleasant wander by the sea and through the fields.

The tide was high at about noon so I thought I would have plenty of time if I got to the footbridges an hour before. Normally you are just about alright 40 minutes before unless there is a sou’west gale that pushes the tide up in the Solent and holds it there for an hour.

Imagine my annoyance to find the path between the bridges flooded to a depth of three feet an hour and twenty minutes before the top.

Even more annoying was to find that one Wellington had sprung a leak, the rubber perishing and splitting on the heel.

So I just about got to the first bridge, emptied the boot, stood wondering what to do, and was quickly marooned.

It takes almost two hours for the water to fall back. Well, thought I, if I am to be standing here for nearly two hours with the reeds sighing all around the water swirling as grey as the clouds lowering with snow from the north, I shall spend that time usefully listening out for any indication of a water rail.

The small sky denizens of the reed beds only give themselves away by their occasional squeaks, grunts, groans, and pig-like screams. In nearly two hours I had but one brief contact, a pig-like grunt.

When I eventually got home I read that WEBS counters elsewhere are experimenting with a taped play-back of the water rails’ voice to make counting easier.

At one nature reserve, visuals had given at most four birds on the marsh. By playing the tape for 60 seconds, waiting a further minute for interested birds to focus, and then giving another 30 second recorded voice, it was found that the reed bed in fact held 20 birds, a result which amazed the seasoned birders. It seems this rare rail which is never seen is in fact much less rare than we thought.

What fun I could have had. Even my frozen foot would have been forgotten on that freezing January afternoon in the reed beds.

Richard Williamson