The sun shines all day with lines of puffy clouds to the north; the wind blows steadily from the south. Walkers and an assortment of dogs crowd the tarmac path that runs from the car park by the small harbour along the straight channel that is the river Rother to the sea passing weather-beaten, old fishermen’s huts.
Avocets are nesting on islands and oystercatchers everywhere across the wide expanses of bare shingle, all safe behind the electric fences that keep the foxes out. The long lines of post and wire fences and bird hides look like latter-day sea defences. Ivy-leaved toadflax, an introduced species, creates purple smears across the shingle and clumps of dark green sea kale are bursting with white flowers.
Black-headed gulls are nesting on islands at the Ternery Pool; there are constant squabbles and chases as well as bowing courtship rituals and mating. Cormorants stand together on one island and single birds come in from and go out to sea in wide low arcs. There is also a flock of oystercatchers, possibly off-duty birds, and a pair of amorous herring gulls. Another herring gull floats over the black-headed gull nesting islands and is harried noisily until it departs. Tufted ducks, coots and a great crested grebe are also on the water. Sandwich and ‘commic’ terns shout and speed across the sky. A pair of Mediterranean gulls also float over, looking brilliant white under the clear blue sky giving their characteristic ‘jowel’ calls. The scene is one constant action and, viewed from the hide, like a busy film set.
The path runs down the coast to Winchelsea past the isolated, decrepit and sad-looking lifeboat house for the Mary Stanford, which was lost with all 17 crew in a terrible winter storm in 1928, and so abandoned but not forgotten.
Towards Winchelsea beach, where willows surround a large lake and wetlands feed the water, there is a rich mix of warblers. Lesser whitethroats rattle, common whitethroats scratch and blackcaps roll our their fluting call from the high hawthorn and dense bramble. Reed warblers sing from reeds, sedge warblers from the reedy margins and Cetti’s warblers from the waterlogged scrub and wet woodland. Late April at the ‘Winchelsea end’, the reserve is as much a riot of noise as the open pools and swathes of shingle at the ‘Rother end’.
At the very end of the path near Winchelsea Beach, higgledy-piggledy houses line the gravel track on the far side of small fields, many grazed by horses. There are also shallow pools and wet meadows but these are swamped with gaggling geese with just a solitary pair of lapwings.
Heading back towards Rye Harbour, one path option routes north though woodland and opens up onto a great rolling plain of short-grazed turf that has coated the ridges of accreted shingle and in the distance Camber Castle. A wheatear sits atop a tump and then the pair prospect a rabbit warren. At the castle, a hare runs across the bone dry grass and stops to watch. Today it and a flurry of jackdaws appear to be the sole guardians of King Henry VIII’s state of the art fortress. A small copper butterfly, or perhaps two, chase over the turf and a buff ermine moth settles on it. There is a small hide to view a lake called Castle Water with more geese, including Egyptian and Canadian, plus cormorant, gadwall and teal. The evening light is spectacularly clear. More reed warblers and Cetti’s warblers too and a lesser whitethroat singing in the next bush from a common whitethroat. The plant rich, wet ditches are inspected but it is now all a bit half-hearted as the distance walked takes it toll.
On the final stretch on the loop back to Rye Harbour and a welcoming table outside the ‘William the Conqueror’, a hobby, perhaps freshly arrived, circles overhead on its long elegant wings, idly traversing a field cordoned off as a sanctuary. A female sparrowhawk then flaps up in display from bright green willows and circles away into the low sun.