Relaxing by the Arun watching summer snipe

Common sandpiper
Common sandpiper

Passing through Arundel on a hot and busy day, I thought to myself “Stop rushing around like a dog chasing its tail and relax for an hour along the banks of the mighty Arun river”. I am very good at giving myself advice. Nobody else does, and I was quite pleased with myself when I heeded such wisdom.

Parking under the lime avenue by the castle walls I soon entered that mental hot bath beside the sliding tide. On draw-down this river empties quickly, leaving a fringe of muddy edge where springs ribbons of reeds.

Now my eyes were fixed upon this micro habitat as they are every autumn. For it is from this strip of delicate black and shiny ooze that a very particular little denizen will, if you are lucky, arise on shimmering wings. I use that adjective advisedly.

No other bird in Britain except perhaps the skylark, as he ascends to sing, has quite that strange, weak looking way of flying. Humming birds do and perhaps the kingfisher as it hovers before the plunge.

But no bird flies quite so delicately as the common sandpiper when it skims away from the walking figure on the bank to find another little patch of rich aquatic slime.

There it finds tiny snails, larvae of water flies, and salt tide worms. The old Sussex name for this diminutive bird is summer snipe. That is how it behaves, flying a couple of hundred yards and pitching quickly to resume feeding.

The painting by Sussex bird artist Philip Rickman made seventy five years ago makes the sandpiper almost unreal as though stuck onto the river scene. But it is so accurate because the flight of the sandpiper is almost unreal. It seems to hover, flicking its wings in spasms. Therein lies its charm.

I walked for a couple of miles upriver before I saw one on my afternoon off. A boat with white moustache of bow wave put it up. On the far side it passed by, as always no more than a foot above the surface. What a moment to be treasured in memory.

Then as it settled I saw the reason for the other old Sussex name: Wagtail. It bowed to its reflection, bobbed this way and that, almost curtseyed to the lovely friendly mud.

I was lucky to have caught it, for like the swallow, it was on its way to South Africa. In April it may come back again. The Adur and the Arun are favourite haunts, and so is any large shallow inland lake like Petersfield Pond, the scrapes in Pulborough Brooks, and all the big inland reservoirs. At Pagham Harbour you will see it on Sidlesham Pond.

With snowy abdomen, bronze-brown back this solitary bird must surely capture the sight of even the most casual walker. On some old mill-pond you can watch it flicking through the water-logged leves like a frenzied clerk shuffling papers. Even its beak shivers or vibrates to help frighten the lazy worn upwards in its burrow.

About one hundred are recorded in the county every year but you must keep alert to see it. For in the day it can have left us and be on its way to Spain, then the Niger Delta, and on to the bottom of the world.