RICHARD WILLIAMSON: Country walk: Nutbourne Marshes

Today on this walk I am on the look-out for one of the rarest birds in Britain, plus one of the greatest success stories of its conservation.

It is all here on our doorstep in Chichester Harbour close to the A259 at Nutbourne Marshes between Emsworth and Chichester. The walk is 2.3 miles (3.5kms) with a car-park in Prinsted village, by the seawall at SU766051. I walked there last month starting off along the sea-wall path which is hard and dry all the way along.

The view at high water was a silver sea on my visit, stretching south four miles to the harbour mouth. At low water the mudflats are exposed and then masses of water birds have their heads down in the ooze looking for ragworms, snails, and plankton of hundreds of different species before the tide once more draws a wet blanket overall. Brent geese were kronkling to each other as they discussed family matters and how good the sea-wrack and enteromorpha seaweeds tasted and whether should fly onto local cereal crops for a change of diet. I passed old plants of tree mallow, bristly ox-tongue, pink valerian, and also sea-beet which was growing out of the concrete post- piling. Curlews trilled their moorland songs.

As the path turned left around the top north-east corner of the estuary I saw at last what I had hoped for all along: twelve slim, black and white birds with long thin beaks tucked under their wings, asleep on the edge of the tide. They were the avocets which traditionally winter in this channel (see Nature Trails for full story).

They were huddled close to other water birds for protection and company. Fifty black-tailed godwits, forty redshanks, ten dunlin, some wigeon and teal and a solitary little egret made up the rest of the company. A seat on the seawall made viewing comfortable as all these birds slept, ignoring the continued traffic of walkers and dogs fifty yards from them. I met two bird-watchers who complained about the over-zealous scrub clearance of Marsh Farm SSSI on my left which is where the Ham Brook outflows to the sea.

They said that rushes and long grass of that meadow had been destroyed and the habitat ruined for reed buntings and water rails as a result. A small sign put there by the Harbour Conservancy as you enter the village explains what they have been up to. See what you think. My walk turned left down the minor road, and then I followed finger posts westward through the trees and the houses, and along the edges of fields until turning back southward to my outgoing path.