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  • Writer's pictureSim Elliott

RSPB Pagham Harbour 10.05.21: Terns (Common, Sandwich & Little) and Black-Tailed Godwits

This was the first time I had visited RSPB Pagham Pagham Harbour Local Nature Reserve, West Sussex - The RSPB for about 15 years, partly because when I gave up driving 10 years ago I thought it was inaccessible by public transport. In fact, it is very easy to visit by public transport from Brighton. I took the train to Chichester (55 minute jouney time), then the 51 bus from the bus station next to Chichester rail station to Pagham RSPB victors centre (25 minute journey time). The bus goes every 15 minutes and stops directly outside the RSPB visitors' centre, see: 51 - Chichester - Selsey – Stagecoach South (SCCO) – for details. This is also the stop for RSPB Medmerry Medmerry Nature Reserve, West Sussex - The RSPB

Pagham Harbour is a glorious and peaceful nature reserve, one of the few undeveloped stretches of the Sussex coast. This sheltered inlet is an internationally important wetland site for wildlife. Watch black-tailed godwits and little egrets by day, then linger when skies are clear for an amazing sunset. Pagham Harbour Local Nature Reserve, West Sussex - The RSPB And I did see Black-tailed Godwits, and Little Egrets, and Avocets, Shellducks, Greenshanks, Coots, Linnets, Tufted Ducks, Sandwich Terns, Little Turns, Great Crested Grebes, a Grey Herron, and Sand Martins.

I had a glorious day; wandering through a liminal space between land and see, in a terrain feeling distant from urbanisation, rich with bird life and natural beauty. Pagham harbour is more a tidal inlet than an estuary since no major river exits into the sea at this location. However, the broad form of the harbour behind the coastal spits that separate it from the sea means that between 4545 million litres and 9090 million litres of water flow into and out of the harbour, through the narrow mouth, each tidal cycle. (Brrowne, A.R. 1981. In Rayner, R.W. (Ed). The Natural History of Pagham Harbour. The Bognor Regis Natural Science Society pp 9-12. Pagham Harbour (

This is a Blackbird I saw on the green of Chichester Cathedrals, during a trip to buy a packed lunch in Chichester before catching the 52 bus. This Blackbrd was singing away loudly while carrying it's newly-caught worm; it vas a very amusing sight to see!

These pictures from RSPBP Pagham are in chronological order from 12.30 to 18.52

Mallard Ducks Anas platyrhynchos flying above the visitors centre

Ferry Pool

A Coot Fulica atra

Shellducks Tadorna tadorna

Avocets Recurvirostra avosetta

Shelducks and Avocets

Shelduck's and Black-tailed Godwits Limosa limosa

These large wading birds are a Schedule 1 species. In summer, they have bright orangey-brown chests and bellies, but in winter they're more greyish-brown.

Their most distinctive features are their long beaks and legs, and the black and white stripes on their wings. Female black-tailed godwits are bigger and heavier than the males, with a noticeably longer beak (which helps the sexes to avoid competing for food with each other).

They're very similar to bar-tailed godwits, which breed in the Arctic. Black-tailed godwits have longer legs, and bar-tailed godwits don't have striped wings. As the names suggest, the tail patterns are different, too. Black Tailed Godwit Facts | Limosa Limosa - The RSPB

The black-tailed godwit became extinct as a UK breeding bird in the 1800s. They returned as a breeding bird in the 1930s, but by 2016 their main nesting spot, Nene Washes in Peterborough, still held only 42 breeding pairs.

Now, thanks to the hard work of the RSPB and the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust (WWT), there is hope for these lanky, orange-breasted wading birds.

Hand-rearing chicks

The RSPB and the WWT joined forces under the Back from the Brink partnership to pioneer an innovative approach – hand-rearing black-tailed godwit chicks, or ‘head-starting’. A common technique with amphibians and reptiles, head-starting with birds is relatively new and this was the first time it was tried with wading birds in the UK.

The team knew, however, that bold action was needed to make sure that at least some chicks survived predation and spring flooding. Godwit parents also lay a second clutch once the first one is removed, so removing eggs potentially doubles the number of chicks.

A blooming population

This project has been a huge success. Over the last three seasons the team has released 112 head-started godwit chicks into the Fens, doubling the UK’s breeding population. RSPB Ouse Washes, for example, has more godwits now than it has had in the last 20 years.

The ‘head-started’ chicks have now been spotted on their migration paths as far away as Senegal and Morocco and some are already raising families of their own.

Rebecca Pitman, RSPB Senior Project Manager for Project Godwit, says: “It’s been amazing to see the team’s years of hard work and dedication really pay off, and to know that these birds now stand a fighting chance. With fewer than 50 breeding pairs, however, black-tailed godwits in the UK are still very vulnerable. They really need all the help they can get.

“Project Godwit is still working hard to give black-tailed godwits that helping hand. As well as hand-rearing the chicks, the project is also creating and managing wet grassland habitat in the East Anglian Fens. We are also studying their movements to understand where they go on migration and are continuing to work with local communities to help conserve black-tailed godwits and their wetland habitat into the future.”

Project Godwit is a partnership between RSPB and WWT with major funding from the EU LIFE Nature Programme, HSBC 150th Anniversary Fund, Natural England, the Heritage Lottery Fund through the Back from the Brink Programme and the Montague-Panton Animal Welfare Trust. Black-tailed godwits bounce back (


A Lapwing (Peewit) Vanellus vanellus

A Black-headed Gull Chroicocephalus ridibundus and the Lapwing

A Blackbird Turdus merula between the Ferry Poll and the Ferry Channel


Ferry Channel

A Greenshank Tringa nebularia

A Grey Herron Ardea cinerea fling above trees to the wet of the harbour.

A mute Swan Cygnus olor in reed banks in the south west part of Pagham Harbour, from the path to Tern Island in the harbour mouth . I heard Sedge Warblers Acrocephalus schoenobaenus and other warblers, but, as usual, I could not see them!

A Black-headed Gull

A Little Egret Egretta garzetta flying over the harbour after foraging in a brook.

Another Little Egret having a bad feather day!

A Linnet Linaria cannabina - there were several fling, and landing on brambles and fences and fence posts along the path to the Harbour Mouth

A view of the tidal mud flats that fringe the harbour

Another Linnet

Church Norton spit in the distance - in front of the harbour.

Great Crested Grebes Podiceps cristatus in the harbour

Bognor in the background.

Oystercatchers Haematopus ostralegus in the Harbour

Common Terns Sterna hirundo Sandwich Terns Sterna sandvicensis and a few Little Terns Sternula albifrons over and on Tern Island in the harbour.

These delightful silvery-grey and white birds have long tails which have earned them the nickname 'sea-swallow'. They have a buoyant, graceful flight and frequently hover over water before plunging down for a fish. They are often noisy in company and breed in colonies. The common tern is the tern species most likely to be found inland. UK breeding:12,000 pairs. UK conservation status: Amber. Common Tern Bird Facts | Sterna Hirundo - The RSPB

The Sandwich tern is a very white tern, with a black cap on its head, a long black bill with a yellow tip and short black legs. In flight it shows grey wedges on its wings tips and it has a short forked tail. In the UK, many of the important colonies survive because they are on nature reserves. UK breeding:11,000 pairs. UK conservation status: Amber. Sandwich Tern Bird Facts | Sterna Sandvicensis - The RSPB

A line of 12 Cormorants Phalacrocorax carbo

The Harbour mouth and Bognor Regis behind.

Flying Terns

Pagham Harbour Landscape

Little Tern Sternula albifrons

UK conservation status: Amber. Population estimate (RSPB) UK breeding:1,900 pairs

This delightful chattering seabird is the UK's smallest tern. It is short-tailed and has a fast flight. Its bill is a distinctive yellow with a black tip. It is noisy at its breeding colony where courtship starts with an aerial display involving the male calling and carrying a fish to attract a mate, which chases him up high before he descends, gliding with wings in a 'V'.

Its vulnerable nesting sites and its decline in Europe make it an Amber List species. It is also listed as a Schedule 1 species in The Wildlife and Countryside Act. Little Tern Bird Facts | Sternula Albifrons - The RSPB

Stephen Webster, RSPB Site Manager for Pagham Harbour and Medmerry Reserves, said: “The breeding bird successes at Pagham Harbour [in 2020] are a fantastic testament to the hard work and dedication by RSPB staff and volunteers. “Year on year we are seeing individual species setting new reserve records, such as the numbers of breeding pairs of Sandwich Tern or the number of chicks raised by the Little Terns. Add to that the new species that keep appearing, whether they are bird species, moths or dragonflies it just goes to show what an internationally important area Pagham Harbour is.” Record number of breeding shorebirds seen at Pagham Harbour Local Nature Reserve - West Sussex County Council

A success story for RSPB Pagham Harbour

A record 164 sandwich tern chicks fledged from RSPB Pagham Harbour last year.T he harbour also saw 15 little terns fledged – one of the UK’s rarest breeding seabirds. The RSPB said 2020 saw a huge number of threatened seabirds successfully breed along England’s south coast due to the hard work of RSPB staff and volunteers to provide and protect suitable habitats. Sandwich terns nest directly on the ground which puts them at a higher risk of predation, human disturbance and flooding. Because of this, they rely on nature reserves.

In 2012 the RSPB took on the management of West Sussex County Council’s Pagham Harbour nature reserve and created ‘tern island’ nesting sites, leading to a boom in their numbers. Staff have also patrolled during lockdown.

Richard Archer, RSPB conservation officer, said: “The success of our little tern numbers has led to the highest number of breeding little terns in over a decade and reflects a huge amount of planning, hard work and innovation.

“Our volunteers, operating under Covid-19 restrictions, have been fantastic.

“If they can breed successfully, little terns will often return to the same nesting beach every year, so it’s a really positive sign that the work we are doing here will support the future of these vulnerable birds.”

Another Linnet, on the fence on the beach of Church Norton spit ; the shingle beach that partially "closes" Pagham Harbour. The fence stops walkers and birders entering the area of the beach where the Terns' nests are.

Ruined sea defences; possible World War Two defences, in Pagham Harbour, viewed from Church Norton Spit

Church Norton Spit beach

Ruined sea defences; possible World War Two defences, in Pagham Harbour, viewed from Church Norton Spit

Looked toward the fenced off Tern nesting area on Tern Island from Church Norton Spit

A flight of Cormorants leaving the harbour

Church Norton Spit beach

Common Tern flying over Church Norton Spit

Bognor Regis from Church Norton Spit

Oystercatchers on the foreshore at Church Norton Spit

Herring Gulls Larus argentatus and a Jackdaw Corvus monedula on Church Norton Spot beach, seaside

There are many Oyster shells in Church Norton Spit

Ruined sea structures; possible World War Two defences, in Pagham Harbour, viewed from Church Norton Spit

More Oystercatchers and a Tern on the Church Norton Spit, facing Pagham Harbour

Herring Gull (?) in flight

Pagham Harbour from Church Norton Spit

Bognor Regis from Church Norton Spit beach

Smaller spit running of Chirch Norton Spit at 90 degress

A Little Egret on Church Norton Spit beach

Looking toward Selsey East from Church Norton Spit

The reed-surround pools: The Severals

A Mute Swans

A pair of Tufted Ducks Aythya fuligula

A Swallow Hirundo rustica catcning insects over the pools

In the reeds I could hear Sedge Warblers, Acrocephalus schoenobaenus and Cetti's Warblers, Cettia cetti but could not see them, I also heard a loud choir of Marsh Frogs Pelophylax ridibundus

Marsh Frogs are Europe’s largest frog. They are considered non-native and were introduced into Kent in the 1930s. Since then they have become established throughout Romney Marsh and the low lying areas of North Kent as well as becoming common in other areas too. It is very easy to distinguish the Marsh Frog from our native frog as the Marsh Frog has no eye patch, is generally much larger, has a rounder snout and (in males) two grey air sacs on either side of their mouths which produce their unique call. Their loud call can be heard quite clearly near breeding sites from April to September. Marsh Frog colour varies but they are generally quite green and usually have two parallel lines along their backs with eyes closer together than a native frog. They form part of what is known as the water frog or green frog complex of species which includes not only Marsh Frogs but Pool Frogs and Edible Frogs. Although most water frogs in Kent are Marsh Frogs both Edible Frogs and Pool Frogs have also been recorded. They are not always easily told apart. They are active both day and night and like to bask in the sunshine.

Some debate and growing concern surrounds whether Marsh Frogs can impact on our native species. They were originally thought to prefer breeding sites which our native amphibians did not favour, such as ditches and dykes, however it is now known that they will readily use ponds and they are now often spotted in the same habitats as our native amphibians. This frog is a predator and might potentially have an impact on a range of native wildlife over time (as well as potentially carrying diseases to our native amphibians). Due to this concern it is listed under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981

Referred to as non native, alien and sometimes exotic, these species are those which do not occur naturally in the UK and have been introduced, accidentally or deliberately, by man. Many non native species are not able to survive or thrive in this new home and many non natives are of no threat to native biodiversity. However some can thrive and in some cases become ‘invasive’. In general these problem species may potentially carry new diseases which may affect our native wildlife or they may prey on native plants and animals and have an impact on native species abundance or habitat availability.

With reference to non native species in general, please remember not to release any pets or exotic species into the wild as although this has been done in the past, to do so now is illegal and can cause considerable harm to native habitats and wildlife. Be careful also about which plants you purchase or discard from your garden pond. For more information on Invasive Non Natives visit the Non Native Species Secretariat website where you can find out more information about certain non native flora and fauna and read about national campaigns such as Stop the Spread.

We can all play our part in protecting Kent’s herpetofauna by sending in records of native species and also by helping us to monitor the exotic species which are now calling Kent home.

Have you seen a Marsh Frog (Non-native) in Kent? SUBMIT SIGHTING ONLINE Marsh Frog (Non-native) | KRAG (

Herring Gulls on another small spit from the beach, at the end of the Pagham Harbour RSPB Nature Reserve (heading southwards) towards Selsey



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