An overnight frost had coated the trees and fields with a dusting of white, leading to a chilly but scenic start to the first of my days’ patrols on the Isle of Wight. My first visit is to Bembridge Harbour on the east of the Island, a wonderful place to spot a wide variety of bird species, particularly during the winter months. When I arrive, the tide is low and the sea is calm, and I am immediately greeted by the sight and sound of small flocks of chattering dark-bellied brent geese flying over the sea and into the harbour.
As I look out onto the intertidal I see oystercatchers feeding at the edge of the water, their bright orange beaks and legs standing out against the grey of the sea and sky. A few redshanks patrol the mudflats, searching for their first meal of the day of worms and molluscs by probing their beaks into the soft wet sand.
On the far side of the channel linking the sea to the harbour, an island of mud appears at low tide, and I spot the brent geese again, small clusters of family groups making up the larger flock, one or two of which are squabbling with their neighbours as they settle. They are accompanied by many other coastal birds: greater black-backed, black-headed and herring gulls, cormorants, oystercatchers and ringed plovers. Some birds are feeding, some are preening, and some are bathing at the edge of the water.
The skies open suddenly and a heavy rain shower hits as I make my way to the Causeway, a raised footpath that runs across the harbour adjacent to the old mill ponds, linking St Helens Duver to the old tide mill. This area of saltmarsh, mudflats and lagoons is an important space for birds to feed at low tide, and is used by many including curlew, black-tailed godwits and redshanks to roost at high tide. Despite the showers, visitors to the harbour are enjoying the sight and sounds of all the different species of birds present around the Causeway today, and it is great to see people helping the wildlife by staying on the paths, keeping dogs close by and giving the birds plenty of space so that they can feed undisturbed.
The tide is rising now, and a little egret is fishing in the water below the first of three small bridges along the causeway. It stirs the muddy water with its bright yellow feet, attracting small fish that it grabs with lightning speed and its spear-like bill. I spot a flock of dunlin, our smallest wading bird species, running about and feeding frantically at the waters’ edge, making the most of the short space of time that they have left to fill their bellies before the tide comes in and covers the mudflats.
I’m always amazed by how quickly the sea comes into the harbour here, especially during spring tides, gushing underneath the causeway bridges and transforming the extensive areas of mud and saltmarsh into a wetland in a very short space of time. At high tide, as the land available for birds becomes less and less, the remaining islands of saltmarsh become a vital refuge for them to rest and shelter while they wait for the tide to recede once again, allowing the birds to conserve the energy reserves that they need to survive the winter months.
The rain stops and the air is filled with the haunting, bubbling call of a curlew, and further along the Causeway I spot a small group of these large wading birds resting at the edge of the saltmarsh, their long, downward-curved beaks tucked neatly under their wings while they sleep. Some black-tailed godwits are preening nearby, using their ludicrously long beaks to straighten out their feathers, keeping them in tip-top condition to insulate the birds against the elements.
I chat to a group of walkers and show them some of the birds through the telescope. They are amazed to learn about the incredible distances that they travel to our shores each year. Through our role as rangers, we raise awareness of the challenges that migratory coastal birds face, including journeys of thousands of miles from their breeding grounds in places including Siberia and northern Greenland, to reach the Solent region.
As the tide continues to rise and flood the estuary, the harbour comes alive with the tinkling calls of teal, small dabbling ducks that fly from the Baltic and Siberia to spend the winter here. The males of the species are beautifully decorated with green glam rock eyeshadow and an unmistakeable gold triangle on their bottoms. More brent geese bob gently on the water, waiting for a quiet moment to feed on the algae and seaweed that covers the rocks below the causeway.
The skies darken and rain begins to threaten once again, so I leave the harbour and return to my car, in awe of the incredible birds toughing it out against the weather, the tides, the availability of food, and all the challenges they face during the winter months here on our coast.