Elmley National nature reserve, situated in the Thames estuary, is an impressive place; it is as flat as Norfolk which means very wide beautiful skyscapes full of scudding clouds and brisk winds. The horizon is littered with signs of industry – cement factories, bridges, distribution centers, compact housing estates and huge cranes that look strangely like over-sized giraffes striding across the edge of London. Being on an island, with hills to the north and south and very few houses in sight, Elmley is an isolated place; few people visit so nature pretty much has the place to herself, and she really takes advantage of it. The reserve is positioned in an internationally important area for migrating wildfowl and waders, hundreds of thousands of birds flow through this reserve and the surrounding area every spring and autumn. But it is not all about the migrants; Elmley has some great birdlife that quietly sits out all the seasons in this expanse of grass and marshes, at this time of year the residents will have just about finished breeding and a slight lull in activity has brought a sense of peace over the meadows and ditches.
One of the very first birds John and I saw upon driving into the reserve was one which we were to have the joy of seeing throughout our visit for they were rarely out of sight – Marsh Harriers. With plank-like fingered wings held in a shallow V they were cruising low over the marsh and showing perfect control in the strong breeze, the dark and golden-headed females stood out from the grey and brown males but both are great looking raptors. In this land of grass Skylarks were super abundant, creeping through the swaying tussocks and along the paths or soaring vertically into the sky whilst enthusiastically pelting out their complex song. In the car park a large group of young Swallows skipped through the wind in ragged formation, they were joined unexpectedly by a number of tiny Sand Martins which John and I kept coming across all over the reserve – perhaps early migrants?
Being such a large reserve we had to walk a fair distance to get to the hides, however this allowed us to enjoy the landscape and the brooding clouds and some of the birdlife hiding in the sedges and pools. Boldly-marked male Reed Buntings chattered out their three-note songs from the safety of dense reeds – and they had good reason to hide, for we saw a pair of Kestrels further on hunting above the sea wall, they were living up to their country name of ‘Windhover’ as they hung on quivering wings in the stiff wind.
At the first hide we looked out upon a dry lagoon, the mud fissured from the recent hot days, it seemed at first to be deserted but as we well knew, a bit of patience goes a long way in birding. Firstly, it wasn’t completely empty for there were two sorrowful-looking Avocets trying to sift some food from the last wet patch, we saw at least eleven of these amazing birds throughout the day but these were the closest and showed off their ‘art-deco’ plumage very well. We then noticed a small group of Redshank pecking at the far edge of the lagoon, these slender waders breed at Elmley and the juveniles stood out from the adults with speckled-gold backs and dark bills. One of the best birds of the day then magically materialized in the middle of the mud, having been near-invisible due to their excellent camouflage; a pair of Ringed Plovers. These are cute, energetic and delightfully marked plump little waders that always seem to me to have permanently hunched shoulders, the male proceeded to do a bit of displaying but the female wasn’t having any of it. We later saw two juveniles pecking the mud further away, it was nice to know that this pair had successfully bred, we both agreed that this year seems to have been a good breeding season.
On the way to the second hide we came across the scattered gruesome remains of various birds and mammals, only the wings or feet left uneaten, these were probably the scraps left from Marsh Harrier meals, which were at that moment soaring low close by. The pool in front of the next hide had more water in it than the last and it had attracted a good few birds. Two minuscule Dunlin with black bellies were pottering about alongside many Redshank, Avocets and a very smart Common Sandpiper, all gorging on the myriad flies swarming on the surface. We were also pleased to see that Shelduck (that smart piebald fowl that is neither duck nor goose) had bred well this season as an adult was shepherding no less than ten fluffy goslings, each the size of a chicken, across the pool – they were methodically sweeping their bills through the rich mud for food.
A windy walk behind the sea wall, where we saw more Harriers, skylarks, gulls and keen-eyed Lapwing, brought us eventually to the last hide, overlooking a water-filled ditch and another shallow pool. I don’t think I mentioned but all of the ducks were in eclipse plumage, meaning that they are moulting their feathers and are temporarily flightless and the males look just like the females, a group of tiny Teal were sleeping and feeding on the pool and the males were lacking their usually resplendent head pattern. As we watched two noisome Oystercatchers fluttered in, disturbing the teals, they seemed to be there only for mischief for they soon flew off without having fed. It was then that the bird of the day made its appearance; diving down through the turbulent air and perching delicately upon a sedge stem it was a glorious Yellow Wagtail shining its plumage like a beacon. It soon flew back up and was joined by a second, in flight their short tails are strikingly obvious and not what you expect on a wagtail – they looked almost like Yellowhammers. This is a rare species of particular conservation importance, their favoured habitat is grazed pasture with plenty of insects (exactly what is found at Elmley) and are now difficult to find.
On the long walk back we peered over the sea wall but were met by a vast expanse of mostly empty mudflats, bar a few Curlew and gulls for the tide was very far out. We did manage to get a long enough view of a small brown warbler that kept disappearing into the rushes to identify it as a Reed Warbler and near the car park an out of place Common Tern passed overhead carrying a silver fish in its beak. This is a truly lovely reserve bursting with great wildlife in any season (it is particularly good in autumn though) which I encourage you to visit if you fancy the relaxing, wild, flat expanse of the Elmley marshes that seems so far away from our towns and cities yet lies only a short drive from the edge of London.