Keyhaven Marshes are located due south of Lymington on the southern English coast, just opposite the west side of the diamond-shaped Isle of Wight. In fact in most of these photos, where you can see wooded hills in the background, they are the Isle of Wight. The Solent is the stretch of sea in between.
I had vague memories of miles of marshland which flooded at high tide. I’d first encountered these wild places when I was holidaying in the New Forest in the 1970s, but never actually walked around the area. It was when I did a recce to Lymington for the first Craft and Gift Fair I did there last spring, that I decided to go on to the very end of the road, and check out this protected area. I’ve been back several times since. It’s a birding hotspot, a hiking trail, a runner’s delight, and a wildlife refuge all in one go. It has sea views, a lighthouse, ferries and occasional big ships, although most of them go the other way around the Island to get up into Southampton Water. Southampton is a major port.
The first time I went this year was in the early evening, in April or May. I wasn’t sure of the area or how long a walk would take, and I just went out on the track to the south-east, to the slipway, then round on the coast past Butts Lagoon and back to the car park.
This time, I was out for an afternoon’s birdwatching, so took the route marked as 5 km. It took me less than two hours, which is fast for birdwatching, but the bit marked ‘Ancient Highway’ on the board was a lane with few things to look at.
My first surprise was to see something that looked just like a Dartford warbler. Now, these little chaps are still considered rare, although they have recovered from their nadir in the 60s. I know of three places you might see them, so added this to my list. It’s the first I’ve seen since I’be been actively birdwatching! As I didnt see its tail, I didnt confirm it to myself until I’d spoken to someone else, who’d seen one in the same area.
This outing was all part of the Great Coastal Birdwatch event, which took place over the school half-term. I listed all the birds I saw, then realised later that the ‘count’ was supposed to be for an hour. I reckoned that my first hour would have got all the coastal birds, and submitted a list of over 30 species – including the Dartford Warbler.
It was funny walking through to where you knew you were going to encounter the cattle (cows, as it happens). It is common to deliberately introduce grazing animals in wildlife habitat to keep the vegetation suitable – left to itself it would turn into scrub and eventually forest.
There were far more birds, and in more variety, than there had been in spring. The Solent area is a haven for migrating and over-wintering birds. Many of the waders fly off to northern Europe to breed, and some to Iceland. It was interesting to notice that the over-winterers in Norfolk tend to come from different parts. The black-bellied Brent geese is a less common in Norfolk, but it is the pale-bellied version that is less likely in Hampshire.
I stopped and chatted to some other birdwatchers, especially when we were trying to work out exactly what some flocks of small birds were. We eventually determined it was a mixture, or intermingled groups, of goldfinch, whinchat, stonechat, linnet and reed bunting. Lots of variations on brown streaky with black, white, and coloured patches and buff underneaths. And as soon as you thought you’d seen one, it moved and something else was in its place!
Walking back along the Ancient Highway brought a couple of interesting things, like flocks of starlings, a rejuvenated hedge by the old technique of layering, and a strange gate which made me wonder what was going on beyond… but mainly it was a straightish track between hedges.
One of the good outcomes of this, after chatting to other birdwatchers, is that I got my act together and joined the local bird society. About time too.
I’m looking forward to my next visit.
*The Needles. Chalk cliffs eroded into narrow slabs.
(c) all photographs mine except otherwise stated