Waterside Natural History Society visit to Calshot Marshes

A few days of proper wintry weather has turned the warmest December in years to little more than a distant memory.

Members of the Waterside Natural History Society were clad in their warmest outdoor clothing for the walk from Calshot along the coast to Ashlett but were still surprised by the cold wet and windy conditions.

Fawley Power Station chimney was draped in low cloud leaving less than half its height visible from the road to Calshot.

If the chimney was painted in height markings like a ruler it could perform the function of a low cloud measuring device. Even this would be more useful than its present shut down condition.

The walk started from the only remaining free car parking spaces at the end of Calshot village and immediately stepped into history.

Memory or imaginations were kindled by the sight of the abandoned railway running in a straight line from the old military camp to the Calshot Spit.

Ghostly trains could be heard and the sound of military personnel striding purposefully around the Officers’ quarters could be imagined as the group passed the whitewashed buildings.

Further on the remains of Calshot Castle built during the reign of Henry VIII appeared dimly through the grey drizzle.

A small flock of Brent Geese with a couple of Curlew and a few Oystercatchers were seen in the field behind the shore just before the entry to the Calshot Marshes Reserve.

First impressions on entering the reserve were one of a sea of mud as the tide was at its lowest exposing the extensive mud flats.

A few Teal, Wigeon, Oystercatchers, Redshank and a solitary Dunlin walked on the mud looking for food. Mud was also a feature of the footpath for the first few yards due no doubt to the extensive rainfall in December.

The cold gloomy weather did not bode well for the walk along the sea shore but spirits were lifted by the sight of a magnificent male Marsh Harrier.

Many birdwatchers would be pleased to see such a bird flying high overhead on migration but the bird was observed quartering the reed beds less than a hundred yards away on the landward side of the walk.

The male Marsh Harrier is a very colourful bird with black wing tips on a grey body with a dark brown patch in the centre.

It can at first sight be confused with a large gull especially on the coast but whereas the gulls hold their heads up with bill pointing ahead the Harrier flies with its beak downwards continually looking at the ground for food.

The Latin name ‘Circus aenuginosus’ refers to its circling flight and brown or rusty appearance but its search for food is dominated by finding prey rather than harrying it.

The Marsh Harrier was a surprise sighting but a Peregrine Falcon is well known for flying around the chimney at Fawley Power Station and birdwatchers with binoculars always watch out for it.

Sure enough the bird was spotted on a metal ladder above one of the auxiliary transformer bays which gave a relatively close opportunity to distinguish its features.

In contrast to the leisurely quartering search for prey of the Marsh Harrier the Peregrine Falcon swoops on its prey in mid-air in a much more dynamic fashion.

Two pairs of Pintail ducks were seen at the water’s edge. The pin tail although recognisable is not as obvious an identifiable feature as the white stripe curving up the long neck.

They never congregate in large flocks but can be seen individually on most stretches of water and with their clean lines make an attractive bird to watch.

A small bay near the power station had the largest congregation of birds seen on the walk. Each species seemed to form its own group with the Shellduck at one end.

Oystercatchers came next followed by Brent Geese and Godwits at the other end. A solitary Lesser Black Backed Gull and a few Mediterranean Gulls stood at the water’s edge.

Curlew came and went but preferred the grassy areas to the mudflats and a small flock of Dunlin followed the tide.

The only other thing of any significance was the large Jellyfish that had been washed up on the beach by the retreating tide.

They are usually seen in the summer driven on to our shores by warm water from the Mediterranean. It was obviously dead but who knows how many more could be swimming in the channel.

Despite the atrocious weather the variety of birds seen made the walk very worthwhile but Spring cannot come soon enough.