Seconds after I had taken the picture of the dense oak-woods John and I were currently standing in, we both heard the woodpecker drum. ‘Drrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr’ – the hollow noise came from the woods ahead, not close, but not far either. I was certain it was the drumming of a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker (or LSW for short) and excitedly gave John a double thumbs up along with a schoolboy grin. We rushed along the muddy path, drowning out all noise but the rustle of our waterproofs. We paused and the LSW drummed again – still ahead. We stopped around the point we thought the noise had come from and stood in silence with ears gaping. Nothing. Nor did we hear it again or see anything but a goldcrest silently fluttering around a holly bush. Two hours walking around Blean woods yet the LSW evaded me once again – my relationship with this enigmatic bird has now reached the level of a vendetta.
But enough of that painful memory – John and I more than made up for our disappointment by spending the afternoon at the superb National Nature Reserve of Stodmarsh in Kent. This reserve has several important habitats including alder carr, fen, ditches, wet grassland, large areas of open water and the largest reedbed in the south-east. The reeds really are extensive at Stodmarsh; being in the valley of the river Stour one can look east from any high point in the reserve and see nothing but endless golden reeds right to the horizon.
From the first hide the view is wide and simple – just reeds, water and sky. Marsh Harriers, both male and female, drifted low over the marsh or soared high on thermals – a golden headed female came close to the hide and gave stunning views. The weather was most interesting; there was a thick haze in all directions that blurred the low sun and fused the colours of the reeds with the colours of the sky, there was barely a sigh of wind.
We walked casually along the main reserve trail, spotting a male siskin feeding on alder cones and a group of very smart Gadwall (Secretly the prettiest of all ducks) in one of the many ditches. It was around now that we heard the first explosion, only one of many we were to hear around the reserve, it was short, but improbably loud and quite distinctive. I am talking of course about the remarkable song of the male Cetti’s Warbler – a bird more difficult to see than a nun in a penguin flock, but impossible not to hear. This little bird is doing quite well since it colonised in the seventies and at Stodmarsh particularly is very common – I counted 14 singing males on our trip.
The only thing of consequence that we got from the second hide was a crippling view of a Cetti’s warbler that had made the mistake of singing from within a small bramble patch in front of the hide. The bird was constantly moving through the brambles, singing occasionally; we could clearly see its chocolate-coloured plumage and creamy eye-stripe that are its only defining features. Though it was remarkable how the bird would ‘melt’ into the vegetation, almost invisibly, and we lost it several times despite following it closely through our binoculars.
Further on we stopped to scan a flooded meadow on which twenty Teal were milling, I was busy counting them when John proclaimed he could see a pipit, I immediately left the Teal and followed John’s directions to the bird. The reason for the excitement was that before heading out into Kent I had checked online for recent sightings and noted that a couple of Water Pipits had been seen at Stodmarsh – a scarce vagrant that I was yet to see for the first time. I had not seriously thought we would find one though – yet after careful consideration of the birds features (strong eye-stripe, grey back, pale underparts) we eliminated Meadow pipit, the only possible confusion species in this location and agreed that it was indeed a water pipit (it did help that it was actually in water too). Not exactly an eye-popping bird but I was happy.
An attractively coloured posing male Kestrel greeted us as we approached the next hide, though we did not see much from here apart from more teal, gadwall, grumpy coots and several harriers. The penultimate hide was only a bit further on through the reedbed and at first (even 2nd) glance had a view of absolutely nothing. Not a bird twitched in the whole vista. Then as I scanned along the far back edge of the large open area of cut reed I saw something tall, brown and moving. I double checked what I was seeing and then called to John; “Bittern!”. For it was indeed our reed-loving friend, right out in the open, striding around with his head in the air on the end of that giraffe-like neck. We enjoyed this fantastic view for about ten minutes before it decided to fly off into the reeds. Cracking!
We then had to rush a bit through the fields back to the car park as we had an appointment that evening, however we still saw a Yellowhammer and Linnets singing in a hedgerow, three Lapwing scurrying around and a single glowing-white Little Egret in a ditch. As we got back to the car the sun was very low and a deep burnt crimson, barely visible through the golden vapour. Despite being in a busy, built-up county, only a few miles from the hum of Canterbury and surrounded by intensive, cluttered farmland, Stodmarsh feels totally isolated and calm – an island in a sea of human flotsam, one can almost imagine that you have traveled to a thousand years ago.