Several times a year I visit friends in Essex and on one of the days Ken and I usually choose a new birding site to explore. Today’s excursion was to Old Hall Marshes RSPB Reserve near Maldon. Before your visit you need to apply for a visitor’s/parking permit, so visitor numbers are strictly controlled with the car park only taking about 10 cars. The site is coastal/tidal marsh similar to the North Kent Marsh reserves that we all know so well. On one side there is the picturesque sight of Bradwell Power Station and on the other tidal salt marshes, inlets and scrapes with cattle grazing.
This is not a site for those expecting a cafe and shopping experience, nor indeed for those requiring more than a “bush stop” and the only shelter to be found are a couple of rustic screens. However in the style of an old-fashioned “bird reserve” it totally fits the bill. The farm buildings house the RSPB offices and the staff are knowledgeable and welcoming, providing us with a map showing both the trail walks and also the sector divisions so that any interesting sightings can be reported in the correct area of the reserve. Armed with this information, we were off on the 6.3 mile walk (there is also a shorter 3.5 mile circuit). Our first obliging avian sighting was a delightful sedge warbler which gave us great views, if a little too camera-shy for Ken’s liking. After several attempts to capture the moment we gave up and left him to his singing. Several butterflies were seen including large numbers of skipper (still awaiting identification as I write), small heath, peacock, meadow brown, and a “blue” which we will have to put down to experience. There were also huge numbers of dragonflies and damselflies, the easiest id was the emperor, after that it was a constant queue of female ruddy and common darters – probably over 100 seen throughout the day, and common blue damselflies. Kestrel, Wood pigeon, chaffinch and cormorant were soon added to our list, then the first of at least 3 marsh harriers appeared. There have been up to 5 juveniles on the reserve this year apparently. First we saw a couple of females, then a striking male joined them, flying towards one of the females and doing a mock “food exchange”- this happened several times during the day. A family of whitethroat delighted us with their flying antics for several minutes before tiring of the attention and moving away. Reed buntings were also in abundance with several family groups seen as we continued our circuit.
On the first scrape we saw black-headed guil, mute swan, lapwing, black-tailed godwit, canada geese, greylag, a loan ruff, pochard, redshank and great crested grebe. On the sea-ward side huge numbers of shelduck were gathering against the rising tide – there must have been at least 60 of them. Several curlew were also moving between the rills in the inlets. Skylark were singing away as we stopped on the leeward side of the sea wall for a well-earned lunch.
Just over half-way round there is a sign “to the viewpoints” which we took. (N.B.You should be aware that if you take this option you will need to return to the main track to continue the walk as it is a dead-end – we learned our lesson the hard way!) However our reward for all that extra walking was common tern, spoonbill, little egret, little grebe, spotted redshank in full summer plumage, and reed warbler. Probably three-quarters of the way round and to boost our flagging spirits (well it was a hot day) bearded tits were heard “pinging” in a small patch of reeds, first one, then two, and finally three were spotted. One was a superb male who felt quite justified in showing himself off to best advantage just below the grass seed heads where it was impossible to photograph him. The cheeky devil flew several times, and always remained stationary in just the wrong spot for a photographer. After enjoying their antics for a while we moved on as our journey home and a cup of tea called us ever-onwards. On the final half mile swallow and house martin were swooping overhead and a common sandpiper flew low over our heads, calling as it went.