Monday, 13 January 2020

Enforced Perambulation

RSPB Cliff Pools - 13th January 2020

The weather forecast was not great when I arose this morning with increasing to gale force winds and rain by the afternoon. Now, this does not really help with my general reluctance to venture out into the countryside with my birding gear.

However, I have to start somewhere and so after metaphorically kicking myself out of the front door, I packed up my gear and headed down to RSPB Cilffe Pools with the determination to have a good long walk regardless of the weather or even birds.

I parked in the deserted car park and ambled back up towards the main gate where all the local dog walkers were lazily parked at jaunty angles so as not to have to walk another hundred yards and struck out towards the river on the raised bund.

I did toy with walking down the access road alongside for a close look at the Alpha Pool but the construction traffic was very heavy and I would have surely been asked to leave.  This meant that I was further away from the water than I would have liked and only had gaps between the Hawthorns to scan for interesting Grebes.  Great Crested and Little were liberally dotted about but I could not find the Black-necked but was very pleased when the Red-necked flew into view and plonked itself down.  I suspect that a Sunday approach is necessary for closer views. 

It was very quiet down to the Flamingo Pool where, despite the low tide, there were several thousand Lapwing and about 400 Golden Plover roosting up on the huge sandy margins while rafts of Wigeon and Gadwall upended for weed.  The birds were very skittish and regularly took flight in swirling dreaded of black, white and gold but of the perpetrator of such panic there was no sign and the nonchalant Buzzard chilling on a post did not seem to bother them at all.   

Plover action

Buzzard with Southend behind
A Greenshank and two Spotted Redshanks rested on the closer edge and a noisy Little Egret spooked two Kingfishers that had been sitting invisibly in front of me below the bank.

Greenshank and two Spotted Redshanks

Down at the Thames it was sunnier on the Essex side and I reckoned about a thousand Avocet gleamed in one snaky ribbon of white along the tide line while thousands of Dunlin and a scattering of Knot, Bar-tailed Godwits, Curlew, Grey Plover and Ringed Plover could be seen between Coalhouse Fort and Mucking.  I could not find any Black-tailed Godwits though.

Avocets at Coalhouse Fort


A few Skylarks and Meadow Pipits bumbled around but ten Linnets were all I found and a single Rock Pipit zipped down into a creek. Coming back off the river wall I began my approach to the Black Barn and its already audible hounds. Two male and female Stonechat adorned the fenceline in the ever increasing wind and a Reed Bunting became my first of the walk. Out near the old military training area I could see Stock Doves milling around and Starlings, Rooks and more Skylarks were on the pastures. 

Windblown Stonechat

A couple of goose calls and my eyes were skyward just as I encountered the only other two birders of the walk and 14 quick flying Russian White-fronts battled their way west in a straggly line with belly bars and white blazes showing well in the temporary good light.

Russian White-fronts

Over the Black Barn Pool there were more unsettled Lapwings and large rafts of agitated Teal, Wigeon and Mallard with a few Pintail thrown in while the closer two pools had plenty of feeding Shoveler.  At last a Marsh Harrier appeared, to take responsibility for all the disturbance as she deliberately flushed the smaller ducks with the intent of a late breakfast. A male soon arrived and seemed to be focusing on the Lapwings but neither were successful.

Dread of Teal
My route back past the Radar Pool added 150 Pochard, 20 Tufted Ducks and three pair of Goldeneye to the list along with plenty more Little and Great Crested Grebes, four more Greenshank, 22 Common Redshank and another two Kingfishers.  A Firecrest called in the Bramble entangled Hawthorns and showed briefly and Goldcrest, Chiffchaff and Long-tailed Tit were heard on the walk back along the chalk escarpment. I deviated up to the high view point which did indeed afford a great panorama across the whole reserve. I could see the whole of the Alpha Pool from here and although I was twice the distance away now, I could still identify grebes but alas not the two rarer ones! 

Great Crested Grebes
A last Buzzard getting harried by a group of Herring Gulls rounded up my five and a half mile walk.  The grey gloom of recent days was returning and the wind was increasing still so I decided that a nice cup of tea and some lunch would be in order.

Buzzard hassle

Saturday, 11 January 2020

Reflective January Ambles

RSPB Rainham Marshes 8th-10th January 2020
Time out with the new camera has still be something of a rarity since I bought it but I dragged myself out on the reserve on the last three days this week to at least give me and my brain some much needed air and space.

Photo opportunities were sparse but the marsh is looking fabulous with acres of shallow water and associated wildfowl.  Duck numbers are slowly increasing and the Wigeon and Pintail are looking especially splendid at the moment and flocks of flickering Lapwing adorn the grey skies at the merest hint of anything vaguely threatening like the Peregrines, Sparrowhawk, Marsh Harrier of an errant helium balloon (no particular species or shape seems to illicit a more drastic response).

With increased water levels, many of the Snipe have moved to the foreshore saltmarsh and over seventy have sometimes been spooked by the Sparrowhawk forays and I have picked up Jack Snipe twice this way.

Wednesday dawned grey and cool and I tried at the west end of Aveley Bay before first light in the hope of seeing a Short-eared Owl and getting three seconds for my trouble.  Hundreds of Gulls streamed overhead from the marsh to the river and Lapwings and Black-tailed Godwits were calling down on the mud while a Song Thrush was belting out near the car park. 

I headed into the office and then out onto the trail for an early circuit to check on some signage. Song Thrushes were in full voice as several Rocky Robins accosted me as I entered the Cordite.  They are completely unafraid now.  

A party of Long-tailed Tits bimbled through and I could hear the Firecrest peeping but it was out of view.

On Aveley Pool, Lapwings were roosting up on the central bund and a party of Carrion Crows were industriously digging through the clods for worms which they wolfed down.

Two Chiffchaffs called to each other in the reedmace – both ‘normal’ in vocalisation which was good as I saw neither unlike the Cetti’s Warblers and Wrens which periodically popped up. 

Carrion Crow

The Target Pools were covered in duck, geese, gulls and Lapwings and both the male Marsh Harriers and the brightly marked female were patrolling the area and causing consternation and two Ruff, Water Pipit, Pied Wagtail, Skylark and hundreds of Starlings fossicked around the margins.

Early morning Greylags

Mono cranes in the old Ford's site

Male Marsh Harrier on patrol

The Peregrine pair put on a superb display as they hunted in tandem for over twenty minutes but despite their efforts I do not think they were firing on all cylinders and never actually came close to catching breakfast although most of the duck and Lapwing got to practice emergency take offs, splash dives and bowel evacuations.

A made my way out onto the loop even earlier on Thursday and it barely got light before I got back but I did manage to find the juvenile Russian White-front as it got blown past me in the howling southerly.  There was some quality Harrier action again but to be honest it was the Singing Gate on the riverwall that made the early morning effort worthwhile.

                                                              Singing Gate

Russian White-fronted Goose - honest guv!

Windy pylons

It calmed down by the evening and after a forty minute deluge the sun decided to make a vague attempt at making up for its paltry showing during the day and produced some good glinting off the Fords turbines and some Eye of Mordor moments before a post apocalyptic final flourish as the rain moved east.

The almost full moon was magnificent as I left in the evening.

Almost full moon

No early walk on Friday but with brightening skies and mild temperature I escaped for a late afternoon walk to ostensibly take some pictures of the great work the wardening team have been doing to speedily replace the aging wooden boardwalk at the Purfleet Hide with new indestructible recycled plastic boards.

With some sunshine at last I was able to play a bit more with the camera and papped a Coot and Moorhen at the MDZ as well as some Wigeon and backlit reeds.

Up on the river wall a possessive Fieldfare posed nicely in a Dog Rose and gave me a chance to practice with the lighting and such like on a fairly close stationary bird. I was quite pleased with the results.


Meanwhile down in Aveley Bay thousands of Black-headed Gulls had gathered in the golden light and I ambled back along the top of the wall in the company of a Filipino lady called Claire talking about her world travels, her desire to visit Cornwall and what being able to escape onto the reserve following the loss of her husband means to her.

Gulls in Aveley Bay

Three Common Gulls after a Black-headed Gull


Perhaps I should take a step back and try to reconnect myself with what the reserve and being outdoors means to me? I think I have lost my way in the last couple of years.  Mental wellbeing may be an important part of our current cultural personal awareness but I suspect I may have been neglecting mine over that of others around me.

I may work (and spend most of my daily life) overlooking a wondrous nature reserve but my connection to the actual entity that is the great outdoors is somewhat flaky at the moment. I do not adapt well to change.  

The flame is guttering and I am struggling to motivate myself to get out and engage with the natural world around me.  I can usually find an excuse not to go outside while at work. The idea of hauling myself to Suffolk and Norfolk (let along Cornwall) for the day just does not currently appeal (which I find odd to be honest) and in my heart I hope that that desire comes back.  Bar my trip to Shetland in September 2018 I have not been north of Colchester in two years.

On paper I have a busy year ahead with a whole week in Norfolk in early February before Costa Rica with Sunrise at the end of that month and then leading for Sunbird to Estonia and Belarus in April and May and a September escape to my beloved Lesvos in September. 

Perhaps it is simply the feel in Britain upon returning from a trip abroad that we are simply becoming ecologically poor in comparison? After forty years of British birding the phrase 'It's not what it used to be' keeps springing to the fore. I know that we have so much to offer from a wildlife spectacle point of view but living in the over populated south east with its crowded roads and public open spaces, it sometimes feels that that opportunity is a million miles away.

I will fight my way back so please bear with me if my posts are few and far between and lacking in traditional sparkle.

The full Wolf Moon... a restless night followed