Changes in the air

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Already our winter migrants are leaving. Geese and ducks are heading north to their summer breeding grounds including our own pintail and wigeon ducks and brent geese. However, their departure means that soon the first of our summer visitors will be touching down on our shores signalling that spring is on its way.

The first of these, are wheatears and can be found along our shingle beaches and in open farmland. The smart little male has a grey crown and back, black wings and an orange flush to its breast. Sporting a black patch through its eye and a white stripe above the eye, it flashes its white rump as it flies ahead.

The smallest of our swallows and martins, the sand martin, is close behind and like the wheatear has spent the winter in Africa. Its upperparts are a uniform brown and underparts white, with a distinct brown band across the chest. They zoom through the skies, fast and agile on pointed wings, catching insects over open fields and water.

As the honks, quacks and whistles of our leaving wildfowl fades, a new sound emerges with the arrival of the first warblers. The male blackcap as its name suggests sports a ‘black cap’, while the female is similarly distinguished by her ‘brown cap’. It has a typical hard unmusical call, but its song is a beautiful rich, fluting affair which few other birds can rival.

Willow warblers and chiffchaffs epitomise the unfortunate nickname of ‘little brown jobs’ that this group often get tagged with and are almost impossible to distinguish apart. The key to identifying them is their voices. The chiffchaff repeats its name ‘chiff, chaff’ over and over as regular as a metronome while the willow warbler’s song is a wonderfully evocative downward spiral and one my favourite sounds of spring.

We are busy preparing for another summer visitor, the little tern, for which Pagham Harbour is particularly important and internationally recognised. This delightful little seabird will start arriving in April. Staff and Volunteers are working hard to remove vegetation from Tern Island to encourage them to nest here and away from the shingle spit where they are vulnerable to disturbance. If you would like to help out on one of these work days and get a different view of the harbour, contact us on 01423 641508 or email pagham.harbour@rspb.org.uk

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