It was cold, wet, grey and we got stuck in traffic on the M2, but we had a great day at Oare on Wednesday. Although it was throwing it down with rain when we left Gravesend, by the time we got to the Faversham exit the sun was just visible through the grey cloud and the rain had stopped.
On the drive into the reserve we noticed a couple of pintail on the East Flood and a group of around ten goldfinch feeding on the teasel seeds in the field to the left of the path. Luckily we didn’t have any cars behind us and we were able to drive slowly through the big puddles taking time to birdwatch on the way. At one stage in the rear view mirror, I noticed a small dark bird cross the track behind us, and walk along the track then back again. Malcolm and Sally (we were unfortunately without Irene this week) twisted around to try to get a better view. It looked suspiciously like a water rail to me, but after wandering along the fence it ducked into the field and was not seen again. Wigeon, and little egret were our other sightings before we got to the end of the road. After negotiating a small lake and deep potholes, we finally came to rest in the driest part of the car park that I could find.
After donning all our wet and cold weather gear we set off to look at the Swale. With a high tide imminent, it was only to be expected that the wind was whipping the tide up so that it lapped around the sides of the slipway. The choppy sea prevented anything other than a few distant brent geese and some hardy gulls – great black-backed, black-headed and herring – from remaining in the area. Indeed, as the cold easterly wind blew, it prevented our staying on the exposed sea wall for very long.
We walked back towards the main part of the reserve where a female marsh harrier with huge swathes of cream on its shoulders and head spooked the lapwings which had been settled on the field to the west. As they flew up we watched as they circled around only to land back in the same area minutes later. Here teal were feeding in the deep pools created by the recent heavy rains. The depressions (or scrapes) in the fields where the water is collecting at present, are just the sort of habitat that lapwings need for nesting. As the wintering flocks start to disperse to their breeding grounds in February, it will be interesting to see if the land dries out enough to provide them with sufficient nesting areas this year. If you have read your copy of Nature’s Home you will have read that “2013 was a bumper year for wading birds on our reserves across the UK. At Rainham and North Kent Marshes, lapwings reared the highest number of fledglings per pair ever recorded” . Luckily nature has a far greater ability to adapt to changing circumstances than man and I am sure that the birds and other flooded out species will move to other suitable locations if necessary.
Further back a few greylag geese were partially hidden in a ditch but there appeared to be around half a dozen. Crows, magpie and a couple of dunnock were also seen along this part of our walk.
A great spectacle of hundreds of black-tailed godwit swirling in an ever-moving cloud was great to see. They appeared to be looking for a suitable place to land, as they turned above us they came so close that we could hear their wings in the air. They finally settled at the far side of the pool. We sauntered along, distracted by huge numbers of shoveler, teal, mallard, coot, and shelduck. Every time we realised we were getting cold, we tried to move swiftly along, only to be slowed by yet another sight. A large group of dunlin had settled on one of the islands and were so cryptic that at first glance they looked like the rough ground under lapwings rather than more birds amongst them!
For a rather amateur video of the waders, click here. Waders at Oare
We arrived at the hide and the first birds I saw through the telescope was a group of around a dozen snipe. Huddled together at the base of the reeds on the far side of the pool, they were beautifully camouflaged. Sally found one lone avocet, standing in the midst of a small group of lapwing and teal. On one leg with its head tucked under it’s wing, it rested up awaiting the retreat of the tide and the return to the hectic feeding that would follow. My next sight through the telescope was a group of several waders, including three different species, all asleep, all with heads under their wings, but differing sizes as well. Always up for a challenge Sally and I tried some identification.
The bird at the front of the group was relatively large, even coloured on the front and had dark legs. The second (with only a small amount showing behind the first bird) was much smaller, had a rather scaly back in brown hues, and bright orange legs. A third was between the first two in size (and partially hidden behind the others) and had a more black/white hue to its plumage. The belly was white and the legs were black. So, given that we had an excellent talk on Tuesday by Chris Ward on Waders, all those who attended would know straight away that they were: Black-tailed godwit, ruff and grey plover.
Of course you did – my descriptions were spot on! Needless to say, Sally and I spent some time deciding on the identifications, until a kestrel flew overhead and spooked all the birds in the area. In one movement all the waders’ heads shot up giving confirmation thank goodness.
Around 30 starling fed between the larger group of black-tailed godwits which had settled in the south eastern corner of the pool – Malcolm reckoned that we saw around 500 in all. We did scan as many as possible when they flew up but couldn’t see any without a wing bar . . . several common gull, shelduck, tufted duck and one little grebe . We continued to scan the scene and enjoy this lovely collection of wintering birds as we had our lunch. Once that was over however, we realised that we had started to get quite cold with the bitter easterly wind so started back to the car. Along the road Sally and I found one male and two female stonechat. They were extremely active with the male sitting high up on teasel and thistles ever watchful, the females a little less colourful and less gregarious. Behind the male a green woodpecker was feeding on insects on one of the banks across the field. Several reed bunting were sheltering in one of the dense bushes by the car park.
As the tide had receded somewhat we had a quick walk to the hide on the end of Faversham Creek. Here we counted 78 avocet feeding, several turnstone, and more grey plover. Many Redshank were enjoying the freshly uncovered food source by the slipway, as were curlew and gulls.
With time on our side we took the decision to come back via Funton Creek and Riverside (when I say “we” I actually mean Malcolm of course!). Just off the A249 the fields were flooded so we stopped to count curlew – 10, marsh harrier – 2, mallard – 6, and a magpie and grey heron. Further along with power lines down and contractors and flooding closing off roads around Iwade, we ended up diverted through housing estates and narrow lanes (fieldfare – a dozen?), but eventually managed to get to Lower Halstow and then on to Riverside. We arrived just as the cafe was closing, but Sally negotiated much needed warming teas. A final wander to look at the water gave us woodpigeon, two song thrush singing beautifully, dunnock, robin, and blackbird.
Just for the record – it will be a long time before I attempt to do one of Malcolm’s “pretty route” diversions again!