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Chichester Harbour is one of the best sites for wintering waterfowl and waders on England's Channel coast. Almost enclosed with a narrow opening to the sea, there is a wide main harbour area with four channels running northwards.
To the west and partly in Hampshire is Emsworth Channel which separates Hayling Island from Thorney Island. On the eastern side of Thorney Island is Thorney Channel, leading to Nutbourne Marshes, with the narrower Bosham and Fishbourne Channels further east. The mudflats have extensive, Eel-grass and Sea-lettuce beds and Cord-grass found over large areas. Much of the coastline in this area is built-up or suffers from excessive disturbance and the farmland is under intensive agriculture but there are several protected areas and some excellent birding sites.
To the east of the town of Chichester is a series of twenty or so gravel pits which, although they are now heavily disturbed, still attract birds of interest in reasonable numbers. Birds can be seen from many access points around the harbour but there are several locations that should not be missed.
[Map]Thorney Island is probably the most important area for birds within Chichester Harbour. It is not a true island since reclamation has linked it to the mainland and it is largely owned by the Ministry of Defence. However, there is a footpath around the shoreline giving good views across the harbour. The small and inaccessible Pilsey Island off the southern tip is an RSPB reserve.
The area known as Thorney Deeps is marshland with reedbeds and open brackish water and now famous as one of the largest roosts of Little Egret in Britain.
Wintering waders are an important feature of Thorney Island with Oystercatcher, Grey Plover and Dunlin all reaching more than a thousand and many other species present in smaller numbers. Greenshank, Spotted Redshank and Green Sandpiper, elsewhere in Britain seen mainly on passage, can be found here in small numbers in winter.
Waterfowl also occur in good numbers especially Dark-bellied Brent Goose, Common Shelduck, Eurasian Wigeon, Common Teal and Northern Pintail on fields and marshes and Long-tailed Duck, Common Goldeneye and Red-breasted Merganser offshore. Great Crested Grebe also winter in the channel sometimes with other grebes and divers, seaduck such as Common Eider and Greater Scaup, and occasionally auks. Common Kestrel, Barn Owl and Little Owl are resident joined in winter by Eurasian Sparrowhawk, Merlin, Peregrine Falcon and Short-eared Owl.
Waders also occur in large numbers on Thorney Island during passage periods and autumn in particular. All the regular north European waders can be seen with both godwits regular, Little Stint, Curlew Sandpiper and Spotted Redshank. Kentish Plover is an occasional passage visitor, particularly to Pilsey Island. Waterfowl passage begins with Dark-bellied Brent Goose followed later by various ducks. Northern Hobby is a regular autumn visitor often seen hunting the hirundines that roost in the reedbeds of Thorney Deeps.
Breeding species include waders such as Northern Lapwing and Common Redshank on the marshes with Oystercatcher and Ringed Plover on the sand and shingle beaches. Reed Warbler and Sedge Warbler breed in reedbeds and Lesser Whitethroat and other warblers in the adjacent scrub. Cetti's Warbler now occurs in very small numbers.
[Map]East Head is a sandy peninsula projecting northwards into the main harbour area at the eastern side of the narrow harbour entrance.
On its eastern side it shelters a small area of saltmarsh which attracts wintering waterfowl including Dark-bellied Brent Goose, Common Shelduck and Eurasian Wigeon. Each year small numbers of Pale-bellied Brent Goose joined their darker cousins and Black Brant has also been recorded.
Waders also occur here in winter with Sanderling preferring the sandier harbour side of the spit. Offshore in the harbour entrance three species of diver and the scarcer grebes are possible as well as various seaduck and auks.
Snow Bunting and Horned Lark are rare winter visitors. Terns and skuas pass East Head on passage and passerine migrants are sometimes numerous. Farmland nearby has Grey Partridge and Red-legged Partridge, Barn Owl and Little Owl as well as passerine breeders such as Eurasian Skylark, Meadow Pipit and Common Whitethroat.
Chichester Gravel Pits
[Map]Chichester Gravel Pits lie to the east of the town of Chichester, a series of twenty or so flooded gravel pits, now suffering from heavy disturbance but still attractive to a wide range of waterfowl and waders.
Wintering ducks include Common Pochard, Tufted Duck and Common Goldeneye. Long-tailed Duck is regularly seen, a somewhat surprising find on an inland water and one or two Red-throated Diver usually put in an appearance. Gadwall, Northern Shoveler and Common Teal also occur and there is a regular Great Cormorant roost. In midwinter Water Rail is often seen, Great Bittern is becoming more regular and Green Sandpiper, Common Chiffchaff and Blackcap are usually present sheltering in the dense brambles and willow scrub around the pits.
In spring waders such as Whimbrel and Bar-tailed Godwit pass through in small numbers and terns and gulls may wander inland from the Channel. Wintering Common Chiffchaff and Blackcap are joined by migrants as well as Common Whitethroat and Willow Warbler, Reed Warbler and Sedge Warbler. Common Tern breeds on artificial islands but the disturbance on many of the pits in summer limits the number of breeding species. However, Common Shelduck, Common Pochard, Tufted Duck and Ruddy Duck all manage to breed in small numbers. Little Grebe and Great Crested Grebe also nest.
Autumn passage begins in mid-July with waders such as Green Sandpiper and Common Sandpiper and if water levels are low and enough muddy margins are exposed the pits can attract Black-tailed Godwit, Ruff, Greenshank and others. Black Tern and Little Gull are regular along with commoner terns and gulls and hirundines pass through in large numbers.
Birds you can see here include:
Red-throated Diver, Black-throated Diver, Great Northern Diver, Little Grebe, Great Crested Grebe, Red-necked Grebe, Slavonian Grebe, Black-necked Grebe, Northern Fulmar, Northern Gannet, Great Cormorant, Great Bittern, Little Egret, Grey Heron, Mute Swan, Canada Goose, Dark-bellied Brent Goose, Pale-bellied Brent Goose, Common Shelduck, Eurasian Wigeon, Gadwall, Common Teal, Mallard, Northern Pintail, Garganey, Northern Shoveler, Common Pochard, Tufted Duck, Greater Scaup, Common Eider, Long-tailed Duck, Common Scoter, Velvet Scoter, Common Goldeneye, Smew, Red-breasted Merganser, Goosander, Ruddy Duck, Western Marsh Harrier, Hen Harrier, Eurasian Sparrowhawk, Osprey, Common Kestrel, Merlin, Northern Hobby, Peregrine Falcon, Red-legged Partridge, Grey Partridge, Common Pheasant, Water Rail, Common Moorhen, Common Coot, Eurasian Oystercatcher, Pied Avocet, Little Ringed Plover, Common Ringed Plover, Kentish Plover, Eurasian or European Golden Plover, Grey Plover, Northern Lapwing, Red Knot, Sanderling, Little Stint, Temminck's Stint, Curlew Sandpiper, Dunlin, Ruff, Jack Snipe, Common Snipe, Black-tailed Godwit, Bar-tailed Godwit, Whimbrel, Eurasian Curlew, Spotted Redshank, Common Redshank, Common Greenshank, Green Sandpiper, Wood Sandpiper, Common Sandpiper, Ruddy Turnstone, Arctic Skua, Mediterranean Gull, Little Gull, Black-headed Gull, Common Gull, Lesser Black-backed Gull, Yellow-legged Gull, Herring Gull, Great Black-backed Gull, Black-legged Kittiwake, Sandwich Tern, Common Tern, Roseate Tern, Little Tern, Black Tern, Black Guillemot, Razorbill, Feral Pigeon, Stock Dove, Common Wood Pigeon, Eurasian Collared Dove, European Turtle Dove, Black Cuckoo, Barn Owl, Little Owl, Short-eared Owl, Common Swift, Common Kingfisher, Eurasian Skylark, Shore Lark, Sand Martin, Barn Swallow, Northern House Martin, Tree Pipit, Meadow Pipit, Rock Pipit, Yellow Wagtail, Grey Wagtail, Pied Wagtail, Common Wren, Dunnock, European Robin, Common Redstart, Whinchat, European Stonechat, Northern Wheatear, Eurasian Blackbird, Fieldfare, Song Thrush, Redwing, Mistle Thrush, Cetti's Warbler, Sedge Warbler, Eurasian Reed Warbler, Lesser Whitethroat, Common Whitethroat, Garden Warbler, Blackcap, (rare W), Common Chiffchaff, (rare W), Willow Warbler, Goldcrest, Spotted Flycatcher, European Pied Flycatcher, Long-tailed Tit, Blue Tit, Great Tit, Eurasian Magpie, Eurasian Jackdaw, Rook, Carrion Crow, Common Starling, House Sparrow, Chaffinch, Brambling, European Greenfinch, European Goldfinch, Eurasian Linnet, Lesser Redpoll, Eurasian Bullfinch, Snow Bunting, Yellowhammer, Reed Bunting, Corn Bunting
History and Use
There are several other areas worthy of the birder's attention in the Chichester Harbour area. The best of these is Nutbourne Marshes[Map], a Chichester Harbour Conservancy reserve in the Thorney Channel with tidal mudflats and creeks and two shingle and saltmarsh islands, North and South Stakes, with breeding Black-headed Gulls.
The Chichester Harbour complex, including neighbouring Langstone Harbour to the west, is the most important area for wintering waterfowl and waders on the south coast of England.
Areas of Interest
Access and Facilities
To reach Thorney Island turn south from the A259 just east of Emsworth and park on the approach road. A better alternative for the keen walker is to take the public footpath from Emsworth Marina westwards following the coastal path around the island then cutting across via the north side of Thorney Deeps and back to Emsworth, a round trip of about 10km.
For East Head take the A27 to the east of Fishbourne and turn south on the A286. There is a footpath from East Head to West Itchenor which gives good views over the eastern side of the harbour.
The A27 Chichester bypass cuts through the area of Chichester Gravel Pits, there are several other roads fringing various pits and a good series of footpaths allows access.
- Chichester Harbour on Streetmap
- Thorney Island on Streetmap
- East Head on Streetmap
- Chichester Gravel Pits on Streetmap
- Nutbourne on Streetmap
Content and images originally posted by Steve