This is a unique place; not a hill in sight and flanked by the sea on three sides, we stand on shingle – billions of tons of the stuff in a vast undulating expanse as though the ocean waves themselves had been transformed into stone as they crashed onto the shore. Dungeness is a fascinating place; its flora and fauna are interesting, its geology is interesting, its history is interesting, its people are interesting; every aspect of this enormous triangular spit of land is interesting and in many ways unique in all the world.
John and I set off one Saturday morning, undertaking the hour and a half long drive to the RSPB reserve that was created around a patch of water-logged gravel extraction pits; we did this because we knew it would be worth it. As we drove down the entrance track the birding had already started as we saw a Green Woodpecker gracefully alight in one of the only trees on the reserve which was leafless and stunted – hardly the sort of habitat one would associate with this bird! The largest stretch of fresh water on the reserve is the Burroughs pit and it has four hides along its length in order to take it all in; John and I gradually worked our way around them and were more than pleasantly surprised by what we saw. Dungeness is great for wildfowl and on this day we saw nearly all the common duck species; Shoveler (one of my faves), Pintail (my favourite), Gadwall (a subtly beautiful duck), Tufted duck, Wigeon, Teal and of course Mallard. Marsh Harriers swooped and banked in the air at the back of the pool, barely flapping their wings as they did so, their presence scattering the uncountable numbers of Coots across the water. Cormorants and gulls were in abundance; either squatting in clumps on pebble islands or flapping and squawking in swirling flocks above, they included Common Gulls (not really common at all), Great and Lesser black-backed gulls, Black-headed and Herring gulls.
As we walked between hides John spotted a lone Swallow that appeared to be flying inland, it was behind on its migration but with the recent mild weather I didn’t blame it for putting off the unbelievably long haul to southern Africa. I was pleased but felt slightly melancholic at seeing this symbol of the summer gone by.
At the next hide on this long pool we walked into a bit of a frenzy both in and out of the hide; I could see through the windows that the islands and water were alive with birds, it would take some time to sort through them all. The other birders in the hide were getting a bit lively too because as it transpired several rare and interesting birds had been spotted; Black-necked grebes and a Long-tailed duck. I waited for things to calm down and patiently scanned the pool through my scope; a lovely flock of Golden Plover had just fluttered out of the sky and were showing off their gorgeous speckled gold plumage, amongst them and half-hidden by vegetation were some Snipe and a few small Dunlin. The hide cleared a bit and I joined John on the bench to look for the aforementioned rare birds, alas the sun was obscuring our view; setting fire to the water surface and turning the birds into silhouettes. However I did glimpse a bird that might have been a long-tailed and also spotted a Great White Egret – not a common bird by any means but a lot less shocking than it used to be.
We decided to try our luck at the next hide along as that was facing out of the sun and we hoped to get better views, and what views we did get! The Long-tailed Duck is a beautiful bird with white, black, chocolate brown and grey plumage which it changes three times a year to confuse birders. It breeds in the arctic tundra and winters in the North Sea and Baltic, it is difficult and rare to see one off of the English coast, though commoner in Scotland. So to see one on an inland lake (okay so we weren’t that far from the sea) which is even less likely than seeing one at sea, is quite impressive – and we were looking at two of these beauties close-up and in good light. We also located with some help the two Black-necked grebes that I was particularly keen to see (as I had not seen one before), they had luminous-red eyes, a peaked forehead and a ridiculously round and fluffy body that made them resemble a Russian fur hat.
The rest of the reserve showed off the wild and barren-looking landscape of the place, all back-dropped by the massive and imposing nuclear power station. A gem like Kingfisher darted past us on the path making very piercing ‘peeep’ noises that made it resemble a fast flying blue whistle. Kestrals must have had quite a good breeding season for the whole area was alive with them; hovering and gliding above us at every turn of the path, they seemed to have replaced all other birds of prey as we only saw a single Buzzard and a few Marsh harriers.
As for non-avian wildlife we did notice quite a few Clouded-yellow butterflies, the latest that I have seen them, flying in the afternoon sun as well as a good number of Common Darter dragonflies – John also spotted a Stoat who briefly appeared amongst some scrub in a ditch before disappearing completely.
Finally, at the end of the day we walked along the shoreline behind the ugly cube shaped buildings of the power station to a spot known as ‘the patch’ which was actually where hot water from the power station is pumped into the sea; creating a broiling up-well of water that attracts lots of fish, which in turn attract birds. So we scanned the sea in the chill wind, desperately trying to pick out something interesting from the large flock of gulls that excitedly swarmed over ‘the patch’, we did see a large number of Gannets near the horizon and somehow managed to spot a few Sandwich Terns amongst the gulls, even more impressively we spotted a Mediterranean gull (which looks very similar to a Black-headed gull except for having white wing tips) to finish the day.
So in the dying light we headed back, after having been greatly disappointed by the local café that shut just as we were walking up to it for a cup of tea and cake. We drove past the quaint light railway that runs along the shingle coastline and past the famous Derek Jarman’s cottage (more a beach hut) saying goodbye for now to a truly amazing part of the world.