One of the unforgettable sights of the winter in Sussex is the flight of the peewits at Pagham. You will see it on this week’s walk.
Best observed on a rising tide when the birds are flooded off their tidal feeding grounds, more than 1,000 of these dark green waders rise high up into the sky in dense flocks, making wonderful patterns.
Last week as I wandered along the north walls of Pagham Harbour, I was entranced by what I saw for several hours. I estimated 1,500 birds. They were spread out over the complete dome of the sky, like a vast net. Their wide, heavy wings create turbulence so each bird keeps a good distance from its aerial neighbours, often five feet away.
The patterns evolved first low down as long dense ropes of birds, black and 200 yards in length, as they rose above Pagham village. They rose higher and higher over the centre of the harbour. The patterns flexed and contorted into shoals in the same way fish group for safety.
Then at once I saw another flock of much paler birds high above them. They were golden plover, close relatives of the peewits. These are shaped more like falcons, are aerodynamic and so much, much faster.
They had organised themselves into more intense and sensible formations, too, with a leader and a wing formation stretching back, making perfect V patterns.
Sometimes they all became leaders, forming an intense straight, black line hurtling west as though heading for Ireland, then turning as if for France, and so back to Pagham after all. Sometimes the golden plovers dived en masse with a great tearing sound and swept at speed along the shores of the Church Norton beaches.
About half a million winter in the UK and 600,000 peewits, too. The damp meadows of Halsey’s Farm nature reserve are perfect habitat too for both these species.
While all this was going on, I was treated to wonderful flights of wild duck, all at quite close quarters. Pintails with their long tails and long necks could easily be distinguished at distance from flights of shelduck, mallard, and wigeon. Scores of teal flitted hither and thither and came in to feed 20 yards away.
Warmly ensconced in the dense tufts of sea rye grass with my old Zeiss binoculars, I felt I could have stayed there all night just looking at the grand flying display.
Most of the 20,000 water birds in this harbour were, it seemed, visible. This is in contrast to Chichester Harbour where the 50,000 wetland birds are scattered over wide areas and so cannot be seen in such masses.
This is a good place to be close to the brent geese as well, with flights of a score or more of these little black Russians making their own special engravings on the wintery scene. How lucky we are to be so close to all this spectacular wildlife.