Monday 26 April 2021

RSPB Rainham Marshes - one amazing week - 19th-25th April 2021

Well that was quite a week...

As I posted on Tuesday, the week got off to a great start with the Spoonbills still swishing back and forth across the pools with crests blowing in the breeze while the Black-winged Stilt found that morning had gone by Wednesday morning but not before entertaining quite a few visitors.   This was the fifth record for the reserve and the first since a pair in May 2017 that also stayed for just one day.

Spoonbill - in more traditional pose

Black-winged Stilt and Shoveler

I was off Wednesday and Thursday but only missed out on two more low flying White Storks.  Whether these are Knepp project birds is unclear.

Friday was a bright but cold day again but I got an inkling that it was going to be a ‘big day’ and by the end a whopping 101 species had been recorded including more Arctic bound Bar-tailed Godwits.  A flock of 38 dropped out of the sky over the river with a solitary summer plumaged Knot in amongst them. The tide was nearly full in and they could not make their mind up on which side to settle. A Greenshank along diminishing tideline was my first this year and seven Dunlin clung to the last patch of mud.  

Bar-tailed Godwits with Knot far left!

Bar-tailed Godwits

Bar-tailed Godwit - Ben Rumsby





I had just left some birding friends on the wall when I heard ‘pruuk’ way above my head. The brain said ‘Bee-eater!’ Reality said ‘Really?’ but then a series of calls in quick succession and I knew my instinct was correct. I mean, how could I mistake the call of this most iconic of Mediterranean birds that has been part of my spring birding for so many years?

What hope did I have?


I shouted in case the other birders could hear me and scanned the blue void above for a bounding turquoise torpedo whilst radioing out the news but to no avail.  This was my fourth Bee-eater for the reserve but I have only ever clapped eyes on one of them with the memorable find by Pat Hart on the 11th May 2007. I would love to have seen it but even hearing that sound warmed my heart.

Whitethroats were singing their scratchy refrain from the top Hawthorns and the numbers of them along with Sedge and Reed Warbler had leapt overnight but Grasshopper Warbler was still eluding me. 

male Common Whitethroat

I headed out on a late loop and found a nice warm spot not far from the Centre where one particular flowering Field Maple was proving very popular with insect life.  I got stuck here for a while and to be honest rushed my shots, which was a little frustrating but there were many Nomad bees in attendance and I tried my best to get some shots. At the moment I am fairly confident what species they are not but am awaiting some further help!

Nomada sp

Nomada sp

There were several Beeflies, what I believe were Andrena scotica and certainly Andrena flavipes along with several species of Hoverfly including Syrphus sp, Eristalis pertinax, Helophilus pendulus, Platycheirus albimanus, Platycheirus scutatus and a Cheilosia which I think may be C soror.

Cheilosia sp

Cheilosia sp

Andrena flavipes

Orange Tips were on the wing at last and there were many Small and Green veined Whites as well as Large White, Brimstone, Small Tort and Peacock. While following one Orange Tip I found an interesting fly on a Dandelion which I am sure is one of the very tricky Conopids called Myopa.

Fourteen Spot Ladybirds

Myopa sp

Green Veined White

I carried on around the trail and had a Lesser Whitethroat rattling from behind the old bird feeding station where two male Greenfinches were wheezing away and crazily displaying from the Poplars.

Around at Aveley Pool a pair of Common Terns were methodically fishing in circles and one of the Marsh Harriers spooked all the Pochard and Tufted Ducks out from cover where they were snoozing. Reed Warblers were chuntering low down in the still brown reeds and the Sedge Warblers were only slightly more showy with the odd parachute episode.  Cetti’s were constant vocal companions but I still only found three male Reed Buntings on the whole circuit and none were singing so I presume they are already feeding young like the Bearded Tits that were seen silently skimming the redtops with beaks full of grub.


As I reached the Target Pools a gang of about 60 Sand Martins moved over and with them were my first Common Swifts of the year and a couple of Swallows.  House Martins are however still almost non-existent.  I picked up a distant Hobby and then all the Martins dreaded much closer to me and with them were at least 25 Yellow Wagtails.  The Wags quickly came back down and out of sight but the Martins climbed and took ten minutes to reappear.  

Common Swift

The black male Ruff flew over my head looking for all the world like a short legged and billed Spot Red and three dinky – presumed Tundra race Ringed Plovers were on the Pools where Wigeon and Pintail still dabbled. Lapwings saw off the Crows and gave the Marsh Harriers grief as I headed back to base. 

Ringed Plover

A kettle of gulls came up off Wennington and a random shot revealed a 2cy Iceland Gull in the midst of the Gullnado and two adult Med Gulls rounded my day off very nicely.

Spot the Iceland - not the leucistic Herring!

Iceland Gull


Saturday morning saw me down at Rainham West just before seven to have a mooch around the most under watched part of the reserve.  We have had cattle on here now for several years and the area is much more open having been grazed. Unfortunately it has all but dried out during the super dry April but the grass was short in places and I found my quarry quickly. Rather surprisingly I was after Fieldfare as I had not seen any on the reserve this year – well in fact for over a year and the chance to see these hangers on proved too tempting. I counted 14 hopping around the pasture but I think 21 were seen shortly afterwards. These birds have been here for several weeks and I imagine that the persistent northerlies have postponed their departure.  


Fieldfares - they were a long way off!

There are still rogue patches of Giant Hogweed to be dealt with

Three Song Thrushes were singing and it was Warbler Central for the entire walk although I was especially pleased to hear a single Grasshopper Warbler at last albeit for just a few minutes. The habitat is perfect and I suspect that there may be more out here if I come back on a warm evening or stupidly early when the traffic noise lessens slightly.

A fine dark form Pheasant - most at Rainham have a grey rump

Sedge Warbler on dead Giant Hogweed stem

Skylarks sang and a pair of Stonechats was a significant find as they look like the only breeders this year on the reserve while Gadwall and Little Grebes were in the steaming ditches.


A view from the middle of Rainham West

male Stonechat


From here I still had time to head to the little car park and do and up and over of Rainham Ridge where both my target species were soon located with a single plump Corn Bunting and a giant of a Greenland Wheatear that was so chunky I felt the earth move every time it hopped. It was a beauty with rich, sharp colours, a huge white supercillium and smoked salmon for a throat spot. It stood so upright that it felt like it would fall over backwards and those super long wings stretched most of the way down the tail.  To think that this bird will work its way to north west Scotland and then fly to Greenland or even eastern Alaska in one go – a truly amazing little bird.

male Greenland Wheatear

Meadow Pipits parachuted down around me and Skylarks were strutting around and offering themselves up on posts. I came back past the traditional splash of Cowslip yellow on the pathside before heading into work. 

Meadow Pipit








And a bag around its foot...

Not a Paradise Wydah but a Herring Gull with video tape entwined...

There was not a great deal of time for trail ambles but news of a pair of Whinchat on the Ouzel Field did see a brief dalliance beyond the building.  I could only see the smart little female but was happy none the less and while showing her to several people I picked up a patrolling Red Kite, Yellow Wagtails and a party of Swifts before I had to head back.  




Red Kite


I could see the Bar-tailed Godwit flock on the other side of the Thames and two Whimbrel and a Curlew slipped over the wall and onto the marsh.  The Whimbrel Posts had two 2cy Common Gulls (a tricky late April species) and a single Black-head.

'Oi!!' said the Whimbrels

A late lunch saw a second short walk down to Dent’s Drop where a smoky Spotted Redshank in full summer garb was feeding around the edges with three Greenshank and a Little Ringed Plover while a Jack Snipe did the decent thing and popped out on the side of Africa Island and gave a very good full bobbing lemon display with Common Snipe for company.  It looks like at least seven pairs of Avocet are now nesting on ‘their’ island and six Egyptian Geese were engaging in full on warfare and I suspect that this summer this may become our next breeding species.  

Jack Snipe - Pete Merchant

Spotted Redshank from when it was seen on the foreshore - Paul Hawkins

Suddenly it was 330pm and I had to get back just as a Hobby started to put on a great display overhead and it even zoomed between the light cones on the Centre!


If we thought the species total on Friday was amazing then Saturday knocked it for six with a staggering 114 species recorded which is by far the best single day ever and considering we are 30 miles inland up the River Thames it is all the more astonishing.  The only mild disappointment was just missing out on a late White Stork that flew east over the woodland but there is always another day.

Welcome to another day and a different Sunday circuit of Rainham West taking in the road to the Barges where a Nightingale had been heard the previous day.  I had no joy but did hear at least 28 singing male Cetti’s Warblers and made some good counts of the other warblers and the fantastic Linnet colony. I did not have the Gropper or Fieldfares but the Stonechats were still present and a Cuckoo sat silently in a Willow sheltering from the cold while the big roadside willows seem to have Ring-necked Parakeets now...

Common Whitethroat

female Stonechat


I checked the gulls on the Barges pontoon and found two Whimbrel off towards Frog Island along with a pair of Oystercatchers.  With a few minutes still to spare I popped to the little car park where a quick scan of Aveley Bay added two Grey Plovers to the wader tally along with two Bar-tailed Godwits and three Ringed Plovers.





A Spurge to look up

English Scurvy Grass

Common Ragwort

Time for work and just before 9am I was opening up around the building when I glanced up to see a White Stork circling with a Gullnado (thanks Sam for this word). I ran into the building and yelled ‘Stork!’ before grabbing my camera for a few hasty shots as it drifted slowly south west with the gulls in tow. Thankfully my message got several of the locals on the river wall onto it.

White Stork

White Stork- Neville Smith was a little closer than me!

It became a very odd day after that as despite the much cooler and greyer conditions it actually turned into the busiest day of the week. That is not to say that there were not little birding nuggets to be had and a mass of terns off towards Erith felt mostly like Arctics and I certainly had a couple more heading up river that way while a solitary Sanderling was seen scurrying along the other side along with about 30 Barwits.  Swifts and Sand Martins piled in during the day with a couple of hundred of each and I spent a very late lunch at the end of the ramp watching Greenshanks, Snipe, Hobbies and Marsh Harriers and listening to scratchy Whitethroats and the quintessential summer sound of screaming Swifts above me.

A Grey Wagtail flying over became the last new bird of the week taking it to a very impressive 127 and other than a few more waders and perhaps terns there really was not much more that we could have seen. All told 23 species of wader were seen across the reserve during the week.

I know that it is not all about the numbers but it really was a remarkable seven days that showcased the sheer diversity of birdlife that calls our wonderful reserve home – even if it is just for a brief stopover on their way to distant breeding grounds.

1 comment:

  1. Great report Howard, thanks. Looking forward to getting back to the U.K. and Rainham Marshes