Despite it being a grey cold day with road diversions to contend with, the majority of the group arrived at the entrance around 9 am and enjoyed a leisurely drive to the car park. With many curlew, lapwing, over 50 mute swan, mallard, coot, black-headed gull, herring gull, crow, rook, starling, grey heron, kestrel, common buzzard and marsh harrier, there was plenty to keep us entertained. At least one car spotted a merlin and stonechat.
A group of 24 met in the car park, and after gathering some up to date birding information from the local wardens, we were off towards the seawall.
Several male pheasant fed in a field on the right of the track and black-headed gull flew overhead. A kestrel was hovering in the usual spot over the rough ground in front of the shepherds huts, and as we stopped just beyond the huts there was a a large mixed flock of golden plover and lapwing on the bank of a scrape. One turnstone was spotted behind the flock and a few redshank called as they flew over towards the river. In the pool in front of the flock were mallard, coot, teal and shoveler.
From the screen overlooking Elmley Reach on the River Swale there were huge numbers of wigeon and shelduck, but with the light against us it was hard to identify some of the ducks which were further away.
Common redshank and turnstone were feeding on a small sandy area on the edge of the water and seven black-tailed godwit flew upriver, showing their wing bars in the gloom.
At this point we started to break up into several groups, with some going ahead, others deciding to return to the car park and concentrate on the area near the brickfields, whilst others opted for another drive along the main track and back. A very helpful (as always) Abbie from the Elmley Team took a couple of people down to the hides in a truck – much appreciated by those who took advantage of her kind offer.
The walk to the hides added to the day’s bird list with Cetti’s warbler, meadow pipit and many more curlew feeding on the fields. We counted at least nine stonechat most of which appeared to be in pairs but there were a few that appeared to be young males without the full black head and white neck patches.
A wren called from a nearby hawthorn, a small flock of starling flew up ahead of us, and several more buzzard were seen perched on fences and gates. A group of nine greylag geese flew over and landed out of sight whilst several magpie were feeding with sheep and cattle.
Low tide was around lunchtime and large flocks of birds were moving off the marshes to feed on the newly revealed mud along the river and marshes.
The movement included wigeon, teal, redshank, lapwing and black-tailed godwit. A large flock of golden plover flew overhead, revealing at least double the number we had estimated originally, it appeared to be several hundred individual birds.
Male and female marsh harrier hunted along the seawall, and whilst watching the male harrier, a snipe flew up and away from us. Groups of greylag and brent geese were flying towards the back of the reserve where there were more mute swan. A reed bunting was spotted as the front of the group passed by and on the north of the track a hare was bounding away. More curlew were around feeding on the marshes in large flocks.
We split into two groups for lunch at the hides, one group seeing five snipe and a little egret. The second group added no new species but with a different view of the marshes both hides presented opportunities to watch the large numbers of wintering flocks as they moved around. Both hides had views of large flocks of lapwing, geese and a grey heron flying over.
After lunch we started our return journey to the car park, which gave better views of stonechat, and at least three Cetti’s warbler calling. More marsh harrier views and large flocks of black-tailed godwits, redshank and lapwing continued to fly around. At least seven buzzard were counted on the way back.
After a quick stop in the car park to use the facilities and drop bags off in the cars we went off towards the Brickfield area to look for little owl. On the way we found around 15 house sparrow gathered together in a hawthorn bush. They didn’t move as we passed by, and looked settled for the night. Blue and great tit were also seen, along with several blackbird. A flock of at least 40 fieldfare were also flying over the fields heading for large bushes along the field edges. After some concentrated scanning we (actually Hazel!) finally found the little owl. Perched on a fence post behind a hedge which gave it a sheltered spot from the cold north-easterly wind. We got great views even though it moved several times, but with some patience it was re-found.
The best treat of the day was saved to the end when we watched marsh harrier gathering over the reed bed overnight roost. Many marsh harrier that breed in the north of Europe and the UK migrate south in the winter. Some as far as Africa, whilst others seem to concentrate in south and east England, and we are lucky in Kent to have several good sites. The wardens at Elmley believe they travel up to 10 km from their day habitats along the North Kent marshes to come to several reed beds on the Elmley NNR Estate to roost overnight. The Elmley volunteer wardens are monitoring and counting several times a week at the various sites to see how many individuals are present and they are regularly seeing totals of between 80 to 100 birds coming in. They have also noticed short-eared owl and one male hen harrier coming into the roost site recently.
We counted over 35 individual harriers coming in to roost, but we had to leave before the main event, so I’m sure more would have come in before dark. There are other reedbeds on the Isle of Sheppey and in North Kent that provide vital safe overnight roosts. Research states there was believed to be only one breeding pair of marsh harrier in the UK in 1971*, which in 2005 estimated to have increased to 363–429 pairs producing 800 young birds**, let’s hope they continue to thrive in North Kent and we get to see this wonderful sight for many years.
On the drive out of the reserve at least seven hare were seen running around in the open fields, and the sounds of the marshes, with redshank and curlew made for a very satisfying end to a lovely day.
Thanks to all those who attended and made it such a great day out. Our combined efforts made for a good day’s birding. If I have not included anything, please feel free to add your sightings in the comments below.
Our next outdoor meeting, and the last for 2022, is on Saturday 17th December at Northward Hill.
*Underhill-Day, J. (1998). Breeding Marsh Harriers in the United Kingdom, 1983–95. British Birds. 91(6): 210–218.
**Balmer, D.E., Gillings, S., Caffrey, B.J., Swann, R.L., Downie, I.S. and Fuller, R.J. (2013). Bird Atlas 285857–11: The Breeding and Wintering Birds of Britain and Ireland. BTO Books, Thetford.