Our first trip in December found us at Shellness at the extreme east end of the Swale. As is quite usual now, I bought a loaf of “Mother’s Pride” from a shop in Leysdown, and tried feeding the black headed gulls on the seawall. Of course, this is a purely scientific venture. The aim is to bring the birds close enough to read any BTO rings on their legs! Today, for some unknown reason, the gulls failed to understand their part in this investigation, Sue’s camera died, and we left none the wiser. As we approached Shellness itself, we realised that our luck was changing. The Sun was shining and the incoming tide had pushed thousands of waders to roost on the shell “ness”. The birds were mainly oystercatchers, dunlin, knot and bar tailed godwits. Their different colours made contrasting patterns of black and grey on the shingle as each species clustered together in groups. The low sunshine really picked out the colour of the legs of the redshank but the stars of the show were the sanderling. Unlike the others these continued to feed frantically on the incoming tide, running first this way and then that, before flying a few metres and repeating the whole process again. We had our picnic lunch with our backs to the concrete seawall, with the sanderling coming ever closer. I asked Sue if she would mind going back to pick up the unwanted Mothers Pride but she declined, and momentarily I thought about sharing my lunch with the sanderling. But reason prevailed and we just enjoyed watching the birds.
The following week we were back on the Swale, but much further west and on the south shore, at Conyer Creek. Here the extensive mud flats and remnants of saltmarsh make quite a different a habitat to that at Shellness. Although we saw some of the same birds feeding on the exposed mud of low tide, the big difference was the number of wildfowl present. We saw good numbers of teal, mallard, shelduck and brent goose but wigeon seemed to be everywhere! We counted over 1500 along the waters edge and they made a grand sight when put up by a prospecting marsh harrier. We could see none of the birds really well because the light was so poor but somehow that seemed OK and just as it should have been.
Finally our efforts to find ringed birds paid off and we found this black tailed godwit – 6 colour rings above (and possibly an unseen metal ring below) the “knee”. Easy! Back home, I discovered that there are many colour ringed projects for black tailed godwits. Some schemes use 2 colours on each leg, some 3 on the left leg and two on the right, some 3 on each leg (with or without a metal ring), some have 3 fixed colours on one leg and 3 variable colours on the other, some with all rings above the knee, some with colours above and below. In the end I was not even sure the bird was a black tailed godwit – so I have left it to Sue to work out.
Probably our final birding trip of 2013 (with Julie and Chris) was to the Thames shore at Mucking in Essex. Formally a landfill site and now a nature park run by Essex Wildlife Trust (Our group will be visiting this reserve in 2014). The site is directly opposite the RSPB reserve at Cliffe Pools but the mudflats exposed at low tide are much more extensive on the Essex shore. Although a small hide gives views of the mudflats and birds, the best view is obtained from the roof of the visitor centre (perhaps I should point out that this is “easy access”). On the opposite shore we could see familiar bird watching sites such as Higham Bight, Cliffe Pools and Northward Hill. On the low hills behind them we could see Higham and Shorne and even the triangular roof of the Darnley Mausoleum at Cobham. Looking down river it’s possible to see beyond Herne Bay!
We had already seen lots of birds – curlew, redshank and turnstone and we had seen 1 avocet. As we watched from the roof it slowly dawned on us that the numbers of avocet were increasing as the tide receded. In the end I counted about 700. These must be the same birds that roost on Cliffe Pools at high tide. Now I know where they go to feed! They were too spread out and far away for Sally to get a good picture. But there were lots of teal just a little bit closer.
I know I have said it before – but the Thames, Medway and Swale estuaries are such amazing places for wild birds. Birds that have come from all over the Northern hemisphere to winter with us. Now where did that black tailed godwit come from………?
Wishing you all a Happy New Year.
Malcolm and Sally