Scots call it the ‘wild calloo’

Long-tailed duck.
Long-tailed duck.

PAGHAM lagoon, used to have an almost hallowed reputation among coastal gunners and bird watchers as being the place on the Sussex coast to see unusual and rare seabirds.

It does not look much now, with its mobile home park turning it into a pleasant holiday place next to the beach.

Sure there are plenty of moorhens and coots and tame mallard hob-nobbing with the holiday-makers and enjoying their hand-outs.

But way in the past it used to be a deep-water shelter for wave-battered travellers that wanted a safe haven during storms.

This was where you would find the so-called ‘sea pheasant’, that strange wild salt-water duck of the ocean edges nowadays called the long-tailed duck, seen here in my photograph.

Of course it was virtually inedible but in the 1870s was much in demand as an ornament in a glass case. It is a red letter day to see a wild one today.

The Scots called it the ‘wild calloo’ from the unearthly call it had which seemed almost to bewitch fisher-folk hunting for herring in calm autumn nights off the Scottish Isles.

They thought it was some kind of spirit of drowned men who had gone down when boats overturned in storms.

Four loud yodelling notes that sound a little like the human voice in extremis, on a lonely wave-swept ocean edge, answered by gruff, strangled barks of the females, caused many an imaginative mind to think the worst, or the supernatural, on a lonely wave-swept ocean edge,

I once had an extraordinary close encounter.

I was out on the Essex coast at Walton, in a gunning punt in bright starlight at 4,30am on a January morning, rowing gently with the tide down Hamford Water, when a long-tailed drake suddenly landed in the water five feet astern. Facing the stern I had a marvellous view of the bird so close as he kept in my wake.

I can only suppose that he thought I was a giant friend, dressed as I was in a grey smock and black wading boots, with the general shape of the craft as long and slim in shape as himself.

After a while he dived underwater and I never saw him again.

Today I am lucky if I ever see one, but the occasional turns up in January/February off Clymping, Worthing or Church Norton.

Being circumpolar they are seen in winter all around the coasts of North America and there, the locals love them to bits, giving them a string of affectionate names and here are a few I have found: old squaw, old wife, old granny, old injun, old Billy, John Connolly, uncle hubby, scolder and squeaking duck.

On a raw winter day if you stand on the shingle and watch the turning of the bottle-green waves as cold and clear as glass off our shores at Pagham, who knows, you may still hear the yodelling of the wild calloo.

Or you could go to Arundel’s Wildfowl and Wetland Centre and see them next to you in comfort.

Richard Williamson