RICHARD WILLIAMSON: Counting waterfowl for national archives

After months trudging the Downs counting butterflies, orchids and birds for the national archives, I return rather gladly to the harbours, to count waterfowl for the same.

I hardly have time to go down to the seaside just to sit and sunbathe any more, so I see little of the sea in summer. There are too many jobs to be done.

I started these monthly harbour counts more or less on my own back in 1964, and rushed from Emsworth to Bosham to Fishbourne channels on a single high tide, which is just about possible, but eventually the county’s birders allotted sections to separate counters, and today these are properly organised by the Harbour Conservancy.

All over Europe these estuaries and marshes and lakes are counted often on exactly the same day so that we have an idea of what is happening to geese, ducks, waders, herons, and the rest of the watery tribes across the continent.

My little niche these days is just Fishbourne channel, the one that runs to within a mile of the cathedral. The first autumn count is often the tail end of summer, and so it was this year, as the harvest moon as usual gave us the first of our Indian summers. There should be another for the October moon. Most of the harbour’s mute swans herd at the head of Fishbourne, where the fresh downland springs of chilled chalk water flow into the sea through the reedbeds.

There are 91 swans this year, and they enjoy eating the rhizomes of common reeds as well as those sheets of green algal growths which have increased in the harbour into dense mats compared to 50 years ago. Just as easy to count are the dozen or more little egrets, all shining white in the hot autumn sun as they stood in sleep under the shoreline oak trees.

The ancient salt-pan embankment running south from the reeds had, as usual, a huddle of almost 100 redshank, quietly sleeping off the dawn’s fill of little worms and crustaceans before the next low-tide meal in an hour or two. Everything is geared to the tides hereabouts.

A couple of ring plover slept with them, while four green plover and three grey plover kept all company. But where were the flocks of curlews and black-tailed godwits? I crossed the reed-bed path and bridges, and tracked down the western side towards Old Park Wood. At the tidal pond under the oaks, a kingfisher dived in and caught a minnow.

The saltings here are always thickly dense with sea-beet, sea rye grass, and sea aster. These latter are like miniature Michaelmas daises earlier, with pale blue flowers. Now they had all gone to seed. Camouflaged among this low forest, standing dead still, their long beaks curved downwards, were close on 100 curlews.

From the Scottish mountains and the reindeer-haunted tundra, they had lately come to live with us, until next March. Nearby I spotted the Concorde needle snouts of another 100 godwits, all the way from the Baltic and the Zuider Zee. Welcome to our shores, world travellers. Good to see you home again.