Nine members of the group enjoyed the delights of Swanscombe this weekend. With windy weather forecast it was always going to be a challenge to get good views of the birds, but we managed a creditable selection of birds and plants from this excellent wildlife site.
Before we set off some had seen kestrel, jay, and chaffinch and heard common whitethroat, Cetti’s warbler, and chaffinch. Common whitethroat song became a constant with their calls and display flights from nearby trees and shrubs throughout the day, I stopped counting at 15, but there could have been at least 25 …. or maybe more.
As we wandered towards the coastal path, we saw kestrel hovering, house sparrow, collared dove, magpie and crow. Chiffchaff, reed warbler and a rather agitated wren were also heard. Grey heron was found in one of the ditches.
As we continued we looked at the plants and flowers along the site of the path. With many colourful patches of different flowers, we made slow progress as we photographed and tried to identify them.
The yellow goatsbeard and the very similar purple salsify were seen, along with many of the most numerous plant family, the legumes, which includes the bright purple of common vetch and Lucerne (also known as the fodder crop alfalfa). The pink and white of hairy vetchling, red and white clover, delicate yellow vetchling, common or melilot the yellow and orange mix of birds foot trefoil (also called eggs and bacon) and kidney-vetch, it was a delight to see so many flowers colouring the landscape. In some areas we also found goat’s rue, a legume originally from Europe, Africa and Asia, this has a wide variety of petal colour from white through various shades of pink to purple and seems to have proliferated over the last few years.
Thanet cress (also known as hoary cress) with its delicate pillows of white flowers was a delight to see. It creates a beautiful swathe of white along much of the Swanscome peninsula, a great balance to all the colourful flowers around it.
Originally from south east Asia and Europe, some say it was first recorded(*) in the UK in 1627, but there are many stories surrounding its arrival in Kent. One states it was introduced as a food source to prevent scurvy, another that it was in ships ballast arriving from abroad and when the ballast was emptied out at the end of a journey the seeds of this and other plants would be spread. Others suggest it arrived in Ramsgate in 1809 when troops disembarked their ship after the Walcheren expedition, throwing the straw and other litter they had slept on during their journey into a nearby chalk pit; yet another describes its arrival during the First World War when seeds came in with animal fodder to feed the horses in an area near Whitstable. It seems apparent that around the UK this plant was seen near the coast initially. The general consensus that it arrived on ships either in bedding, straw or ballast from abroad holds good whichever story you prefer. It is now a widely found plant which is considered a nuisance in some areas. For more information see below (**).
As we neared the bank of the River Thames, our attention turned back to birds with herring, black-headed, lesser black-backed and greater black-backed gull all putting in an appearance.
By now the grey clouds were clearing and the sun brought a whole new view to the scene. Butterflies appeared including, small tortoiseshell, common blue, red admiral and small heath.
Just after midday we stopped for lunch by the river with cormorant, mallard, oystercatcher and shelduck, most feeding on the mud revealed by the tide. Mute swan preened nearby, then floated down river.
Overhead house martin were feeding, some of them almost skimming our heads as they swooped for the best food. This was the first time this year I have seen house martin in numbers in Kent. It was lovely to watch them and hear their lovely twittering above us. After a while we saw a few swallow, and then swift. The swift were higher up, flying fast and swooping in quick arcs, again feeding over the reedbeds for any insects they could find. At least two sand martin were also seen, the first I’ve seen in Kent this year. Juvenile starling were gathered on the top of an old mooring post.
Along the inside bank of the seawall there were more vetches along with some superb broomrape, tall spikes of flowers with no chlorophyll to give them the usual green hue of other plants. Along the side of the wetland and reedbeds we saw peregrine falcon flying and towards Greenhithe a hobby put in a brief appearance. There were also several groups of blue tit with young mixed in, and goldfinch.
On the blocks of flats in Greenhithe we have previously seen several balconies with house martin nests. Sadly not many were in evidence yet this year, but hopefully more will arrive and set up their nests in the next few weeks.
We scanned the lake which had tufted duck, little grebe, gadwall and pochard. We had great views of a male marsh harrier as it hunted over the lake and reed bed.
We took the more direct inland return journey, and some were lucky enough to see a single bearded tit skimming through the top of the reeds. Reed bunting were calling and it was a good opportunity to try some song identification, not aided by the wind whistling through the reeds and distorting the sound, but we gave it our best shot. A burnet companion moth was seen by some – I unfortunately managed to flush it before everyone had chance to see it – apologies!
For me one of the real highlights of the day was the orchids on this last part of our walk.
Pyramidal orchid were found in patches with many spikes still to flower, and our wish for the day was complete when we found a group of man orchid. Some were beyond their best, but we found several fresh spikes. A single spotted orchid was also found amongst grasses.
After a windy grey start we had a great day out, with over 50 species of birds, some of them in good numbers, and some great flower species.
Thanks to those who attended, to Paul and Terry for the photographs and to Malcolm and Sally for sharing their knowledge and identification skills.