“The best views of Hobbies this year” – said one of our group as we stopped again to admire the aerobatic display of three Hobbies and two Kestrel. The weather was fine and fairly warm with a moderate breeze in open areas. The air was crystal clear, making the most of long views across the marshes.
Our group, 15 strong, started out anti-clockwise from the visitor centre and enthusiastically searched the feeders for something unusual. A Whitethroat hopped about the brambles in clear view. In front of us an immature Cetti’s warbler was singing its song – it got some of the phrases almost right but we agreed more rehearsal was needed. This led to a debate about the dialects within species – did you know a chaffinch in Scandinavia will not recognise the song of one from England?
The ponds held Gadwall, Teal, Mallard, Wigeon and a solitary Greenshank. Grey Heron and Little Egret also putting in an appearance. Our first view of several Hobbies was from the boardwalk across the reedbed – wonderfully aerobatic in the breeze – rising and falling rapidly and their scimitar shapes cutting through the sky. Through the woodland we observed that the Horse Chestnuts are already almost bare – the caterpillars that have affected them in recent years seem to be having a dramatic impact. However, at the top of one bare tree we had good views of several immature Goldfinch.
The cordite store had lots of promise, it was much warmer and more humid than outside and we saw a magnificent Wasp Spider sunning itself along with a variety of other insects. Rumours of a recent sighting of a Pied Flycatcher drew our eyes to movement in the trees and several Long-Tailed Tit made their appearance. Crossing a ditch there were three frogs basking – two with bright green flashes and one brown in colour – were they Marsh frogs or a cross with another species? Did we know that Grass Snakes have recently been split into two distinct species? How do you tell the difference? What’s the point? Well – it gives the scientists something to do!
Through the reedbeds at the back of the reserve we enjoyed close views of a Migrant Hawker – the dragonflies were all around – the Hobbies had chosen a good day to stop by to refuel. We also had good views of a Buzzard being mobbed by a Carrion Crow. The Aveley ponds held a huge number of Coot. A group of Black-tailed Godwit – sitting as far away from us as it was possible to get, and among them, another solitary Greenshank. A couple of Little Grebe were also seen. On the way to our lunch in the main hide Sally found a baby Common Lizard – no more than 5cm in length. Over lunch a raptor was spotted in the grass – Peregrine – definitely (ish). Then another birder said they saw this bird fly and it was a Hobby. The books came out and we compared the markings, colour and shape of Peregrine and Hobby – yes, we were certain our initial diagnosis was accurate (ish).
After an unproductive stop by the Dragonfly pool several of us waited patiently hoping to see a Bearded Tit by a reedbed where the wardens had put out some gravel for the birds to aid their digestion of seeds during the winter. Sadly it was only heard. After a debate about whether to return to the visitor centre in the reserve or on the sea wall, as we had time we agreed to walk to the Discovery Zone hide and then decide. The hide yielded one Coot, one Little Grebe, some dragonfly and spiders and it was decided we should try the sea wall. On the way a kingfisher was seen flying fast and straight across the reedbeds. Almost no birds on the foreshore or river, however, the sea wall did give us good views of the reserve over which the Hobbies continued to display for us and flocks of Starling were imitating all kinds of other birds in our imagination.
As it happened taking the sea wall had one final bonus – excellent sighting of HMS Argyle, a Type 23 Frigate, going up-river with an escort of 3 police boats and its own armed sentries posted. Googling the ship later, it seems HMS Argyle has the latest air defence missile system installed that was first tested only in early September and is due to be sent to the Pacific in the New Year – so maybe that accounts for the security! [Decided against a picture of HMS Argyle! – used Sally’s picture of marsh frog instead – Malcolm]
An interesting and full day – 50 bird species on our list and a good range of invertebrates. Timing was excellent as shortly after getting back into Kent the heavens opened!
Jim and Claire
Thanks to Jim and Claire for leading and for the trip report. Thanks to Claire, Steve and Sally for the photographs. No-one photographed a hobby! Without doubt the stars of the day.