Spoilt for choice at the U3A Summer School in Chichester, I decided to join a friendly group of birdwatchers, writes Pat Smith
I signed up months earlier for the U3A Summer School at Chichester University. The main problem was deciding what course to follow. Did I want to be a philosopher? Or a psychologist? Visit Roman villas at Fishbourne and Bignor? Find out how satnavs worked on the maths course? Discover the history of knitting and actually do some (slight problem here). Draw? Become an expert on memory?
Spoilt for choice between the 12 or so courses, I decided to become a twitcher and signed up for the Watching Wildlife course. ‘I can tell a crow from a robin,’ I reassured myself. ‘Long walks in beautiful nature reserves can’t be bad as long as it doesn’t rain.’ On the Monday, as I travelled to Chichester, it poured. At the opening reception people looked pityingly at me. ‘It might clear up. The weather forecast says it’ll improve.’ And it did. For the next three days the 12 of us put on sun cream, not gloves, hats instead of waterproofs, and actually enjoyed the shade.
Pagham Harbour was our first destination, a Royal Society for the Protection of Birds reserve which is seven miles from Chichester. It’s a big inlet that fills and empties with each tide, sheltering wild ducks, geese and wading birds. It has a wealth of wildlife, beautiful landscapes and a rich historical heritage. It’s also one of the few salt-marsh habitats left on the South Coast. We walked slowly through this beautiful landscape, spotting bee orchids, yellow poppies and teasels among the grasses. These tall, spiky plants, which look like extras from Jurassic Park, hide a ghastly secret: ‘They’re semi-carnivorous,’ said our guide. ‘Tiny insects fall into the join between main and side stems and drown in rainwater collected there. As they decay they’re absorbed.’ We saw many, many birds – notice the precise detail here – and learnt to recognise several bird-calls as we wandered alongside creeks, pausing to scrutinise the area with our binoculars and watch fleets of fluff-ball ducks following their mothers. Skylarks have become rare, but we managed to spot one. We also saw people striding along with huge-lensed cameras, telescopes on tripods slung over their shoulders and all the paraphernalia of dedicated twitchers. They were seeking the Hudsonian whimbrel, an American wading bird with a long, delicate beak, spotted in Pagham on 12 June. It has only been sighted twice before in mainland Britain, so has created a sensation in the birding world. Other days were just as interesting. We spent time at Pulborough Brooks, another RSPB site a little south of the town. Although there are many habitats, their main focus is on reclaiming the natural heathland from a conifer plantation. Progress is slow and steady, with natural wildlife increasing. The warden pointed at a green iridescent beetle resting on a leaf. ‘It’s a tiger beetle,’ he said. ‘There’s a particular wasp that preys on it by stinging the female to paralyse it. Then it injects the beetle’s larvae with its own egg. When the egg hatches it feeds off the beetle’s larvae.’ Nature – red in tooth, claw and injection needle.
It is delightful to study a small patch of ground. At first nothing seems to be happening, then you notice the twitch of a leaf as a bug settles, a flower dipping its head as a bee lands or a flicker in the grass as a lizard darts through it. I stood and watched a log for about five minutes as moths fluttered, beetles scurried and three iridescent damselflies rested in the sunshine. Pond-dipping revealed even more delights, with tiny water beetles scurrying through the water, several varieties of larva and a host of other wrigglies. On our final morning we strolled along the Chichester Canal and learnt to tell the difference between water parsley and hemlock water dropwort, which is the most poisonous indigenous plant in Britain. At our final lunch most of the group steered clear of the lettuce! What made the summer course so special? I loved the way other members of the group accepted my level of ignorance and took time to share their expertise with me. Accommodation was single rooms in student halls of residence with ample facilities for wheelchair users. And we even had evening events: two drinks receptions, a quiz, the frothy Gershwin musical A Damsel in Distress at the Festival Theatre, and a local group entertainment with a bluesy mixture of old favourites. Best of all, it was a chance to meet random people from all areas of the South-east and discuss issues from their groups, put the world to rights or simply ‘chill’ and enjoy a glass of wine in good company. That’s what the U3A is all about, really.