Adapted from an article originally published in the Hampshire Ornithological Society’s quarterly magazine “Kingfisher” in April 2017.
About half way between the cities of Portsmouth and Southampton on the south coast lies Titchfield Haven NNR, arguably one of Hampshire’s finest reserves. It’s the place myself and a number of other birders call our beloved patch, and it’s certainly had its fair share of rarities over the years! The reserve is a mosaic of wetland habitats – reedbed, water meadows, manmade scrapes, small wooded areas, and the mouth of the river Meon. My patch actually includes more than simply the official reserve, with the addition of the seafront (Hill Head/Meon), along with the farmland (Posbrook), a small copse (Little Crofton), water meadows and Floods that lie just outside of the reserve boundary along the canal path; all referred to as Titchfield Haven by locals. Indeed, the land outside of the reserve too, has shared the rarities – including the greater yellowlegs that started off on the ‘Bridge Street Floods’ in January 2015 before later spending time on the reserve itself, and the red-rumped swallow in May 2017 that covered almost the whole area including the Floods.
Although the reserve itself is only open from 9.30am til 5pm (during BST) and 4pm the rest of the year, the canal path – that runs between Bridge Street, Titchfield, and Hill Head – and seafront can be accessed at all hours and are well worth exploring. Not only that, Brownwich and Chilling Cliffs, a short walk from Hill Head, are also good for wandering around. Entry to the reserve is £4.25, with concessions available for students and over 60s. Children aged 5-16 are £2. Parking is available around the seafront, and there’s a small car park at Bridge Street. [Correct for 2017]
There are two sides to the reserve: the scrapes on the west side and the river and meadows on the east. The entrance to the east side is a short walk from the visitor centre, while the entrance to the west side is along the seawall by the start of the canal path. Severn hides in total to explore, with four on the west side and three on the east side. There is also the free Cottage Hide looking out onto some feeders by the visitor centre. And with the variety of common, scarce and rarer species recorded in recent years, who knows what you’ll see during your visit!
Between 2014 and 2017 the area has played host to black-winged stilt, greater and lesser yellowlegs, red-rumped swallow, Siberian and Caspian stonechats, buff-breasted and semipalmated sandpipers, penduline tits, Pallas’ grasshopper warbler, barred warbler, Radde’s warbler, aquatic warbler, yellow-browed warbler, stone curlew and snow bunting, great grey shrike, tree sparrow*, …oh and an alpine accentor that almost slipped away over Brownwich Cliffs unnoticed!
As for the canal path, the first floodwater south of Bridge Street is Bridge Street Floods, while Posbrook Floods is alongside the tarmac stretch of path, with the east-west footpath on its south side. The east side of this footpath to the equestrian fields is known as Little Crofton, and you can continue along the footpath for a change of scene, when it’s passable. At the north end of the tarmac track is a bridge that leads to Great Posbrooke Farm, and the fields there are good for pipits and wagtails, especially in Spring, and have been good for water pipits in the winter months. Hammond’s bridge is the most southerly along the canal path, and crossing it can lead you onto yet more footpaths and a pleasant walk around Posbrook.
Regarding the seafront, technically Hill Head ends once you walk west to the harbour, but generally sightings from “Hill Head” include the area up to the western end of the Chalets, and then further west of that is Brownwich and Chilling, and Southampton Water/Hook. The Meonshore chalets are a favoured place for black redstart that tend to appear in November. And for those who don’t know, reports from the Sailing Club refer to Hill Head Sailing Club (not Salterns), and Rainbow Bar is the spit exposed at low tide opposite the west entrance to the reserve.
For much of the summer, the Scrapes are a mosaic of black and white – avocets, Mediterranean and black-headed gulls and common terns – but during Spring, and more so in late July to October, waders can drop in at any moment, like common, green and wood sandpipers, little ringed plover, little stint, curlew sandpiper and ruff. The passage of whimbrel, bar-tailed godwit and knot is particularly noticeable in April when seawatching at Hill Head. The light on the west side is often better later in the day, although this is less of an issue as daylight increases and dawn gets earlier and earlier. All the hides except the Meonshore Hide face east, into the sun.
The Meadow tends to be quieter in the summer, until the stonechats, wheatear, whinchats and yellow wagtails return or pass through, but the Knight’s Bank and Meadow hides are good vantage points for raptor watching, including hobby and marsh harrier, as well as spoonbill that seem to drop in at almost any time and favour the Frying Pan. The Suffern hide, looking out onto the river, is often good for kingfisher once they return in late July after breeding up river, as well as ducks, geese and grebes.
April and May, and then later mid-August through to early October, can be a good time for the passage migrants. Terns gather on the scrapes, and beach when the tides out, where all 6 of the regular terns can be seen – common, sandwich, arctic, little, black and roseate. It’s always worth looking out for them when seawatching too as they pass through, and often in spring the odd black tern linger for a short time on the scrapes or Posbrook Flood.
I remember someone commenting that Hill Head must be one of the worst places one would consider seawatching, and compared to the likes of Portland Bill it probably is, but it has its moments! Light south easterlies in April and May are most ideal for the passage of gannets, terns, waders, gulls and skuas and more, through the Solent, especially in the morning and evenings (perfect for waiting for the reserve to open). If you’re lucky a seawatch could yield arctic skuas, kittiwake, little gull, the 5 commoner tern species, various ducks like common scoter, and red-throated diver. There’s also the chance of pomarine and great skuas, and fulmar… Indeed, during April and May 2017, a minimum of 24 arctic, 18 pomarine and a single long-tailed skua passed through over 12 days along with black terns, little gulls, kittiwake, great skua and fulmar – the best few days of seawatching locally I’ve ever had!
There could be birds on the sea too especially during the winter months, so always worth scanning, although be warned birds on the sea are often distant! More recently, the ducks have been favouring the water around Fawley Power Station and Brownwich Cliffs, and the winter of 2016/17 had an impressive selection with up to 7 velvet scoter, 6 scaup, 2 long-tailed ducks, 60 common scoter and 50 eider, red-necked grebe, and all three divers.
In the winter, the regular overwintering waders can be found on the beach, including the turnstones (that stay most of the year), sanderling, dunlin, ringed plover, grey plover, curlew and oystercatchers. During Spring and Autumn, additional species may include knot, bar-tailed godwit, and whimbrel, among others. Plenty of gulls to check through too, as you never know what could be lurking. Yellow-legged gulls are seen throughout the year, particularly in June and July after they disperse.
Along the canal path, and less so on the reserve, the various passerines pass through, so in Spring and more so in late July through to October, wheatear, whinchat, redstart, spotted flycatcher, garden, and willow warblers are all possible, with the first four species favouring fenceposts in the various fields. whitethroat, lesser whitethroat and yellow wagtails are also regularly seen along the canal path, and on the reserve, too. The Floods are always worth scanning for garganey and any waders, while tree pipits (among others) are more likely to be flyovers so listen out for them! As Autumn progresses, the flyover finches become more of a feature.
Bearded Tits tend to go up river to breed, so the time to see them is August onwards when they reappear. Calm mornings are best, with the reedbed by the road and west entrance to the reserve being a good spot to try, although you may well see them anywhere around the scrapes too. Listen out for the “pinging”!
Water Rail also become more visible around August, especially if the water levels are good. Last year they were frequently seen on the scrapes, including right in front of the Meonshore Hide. Elsewhere, the river is worth checking, especially from the viewing point or Suffern Hide after low tide when mud should be exposed.
Hopefully this gives you a good idea of what to do during a visit to Titchfield Haven. There’s so much more to explore! Thanks must go to the various local birders who frequent Titchfield Haven and also call it their patch, as they’ve spent many, many more years birding the area than me but have been encouraging, friendly and passed on a great deal of knowledge and tips for birding in general and on patch – you know who you are! Without them, I wouldn’t have been able to write this article.
*yes, tree sparrow is a rarity here!
As you can probably tell, I’m rather fond of Titchfield Haven having fallen in love with it since I began birding. The more birding I did, the more often I visited and soon gave in and called it my patch in 2014. It’s been a great way to develop my birding skills, in part thanks to the lovely local birders who’ve been friendly and encouraging, and taught me a lot about fieldcraft, bird ID etc. Not only that, it’s been a great way to get to know other local birders too. Since properly patch birding, I’ve recorded 198 species and found a number of noteworthy species including Caspian stonechat, two-barred greenish warbler, red-rumped swallow, pectoral sandpiper and marsh warbler. I’d definitely recommend patch birding to anyone who doesn’t already do it; so many wonderful memories I’ll always cherish!
Not all of my memories relate to rarities – there’s been lovely moments where other birders are what makes the day special, or enjoying the common species and having great days in spring or autumn, but the stone-curlew and great grey shrike are two good reminders of how anything can turn up, even if it seems like a ‘quiet’ day! Titchfield Haven never ceases to amaze me. It’s not quite Shetland, or Spurn or the east coast, but it’s still a fantastic reserve.