Oare Marshes is a Kent Wildlife Trust reserve situated on the shore of the Swale in the Thames estuary; it has a few lagoons, reedbed, scrub, marsh and good views over the mudflats. At high tide many of the waders and ducks are pushed off the huge area of estuary and into places such as Oare Marshes where there are pools for feeding or roosting, this makes it very convenient for birders such as myself to observe them in a concentrated area. At this time of year there are all sorts of species passing through Britain, as well as increasing numbers of wintering birds and even a few late summer leavers. Places like Oare Marshes can attract all of these – plus John and I had never visited this site before so we set off with excitement and anticipation.
As we walked from the car along the small road that splits the reserve in two, heading towards the large shallow lagoon that lay just a few metres to the left of the road, a lazily flapping Buzzard nonchalantly drifted low over the water – instantly putting up rippling flocks of waders as they recognised the outline of a predator. Bit annoying actually as we were just about to stop at this excellent viewpoint and scan the resting birds – which were now darting about in close flocks, flashing their pale bellies in the sun – rather like schools of small fish when a shark swims through their reef.
We picked a good spot on the roadside anyway and John set up his scope, at which point a Cetti’s Warbler let out a rather feeble version of its explosive song from a patch of scrub. When the birds had finally settled down John and I set about sorting through the smorgasbord of bird species that had chosen to settle on this silty patch of grey water – there were quite a few so it took a while before we moved on. John and I were hoping we might see our first Jack Snipe sitting among the reedy margins – alas 2 or 3 Common Snipe taunted us instead. A lovely Whinchat that John spotted flitting about in some dead vegetation took our mind off those tiny snipe for the time being though.
Teal, Shoveler, Mallard and a few Pintail made up the bulk of the ducks; almost all in brown eclipse garb so that they seemed to merge together into a seething, dabbling rug of brown feathers covering half the pool, only their bills distinguished them. The waders were more interesting; in their hundreds were the lemon-sized forms of Dunlin, huddling together on a gravel spit, some with their short liquorice bills tucked under their back feathers and others preening delicately. On the short turf next to the water sat a large number of buff-coloured pebbles, pebbles with black bands around one end – Ringed Plovers of course, rather more obvious when they strutted their fabulous orange legs.
Then I spotted a few larger waders scurrying along the shore; I saw thin black legs, stubby bills that looked like used crayons had been stuck into the birds faces, dark marble eyes and a sparkling, spangly plumage as though they had just rolled in golden glitter. These birds are best seen in flocks – like the ones we saw later on as 20 or 30 of them flew in on sharp-angled wings, close together like the red arrows and with lightning-bright white underwings which switched rapidly to the gold uppers as these Golden Plover twisted in flight for landing.
By far the most abundant wader present though were the Black-tailed Godwits, all in close rank formation in the centre of the lagoon, mostly asleep but a few were preening or feeding. Largely a soft grey at this time of year, but a few had the vestiges of their red breeding finery left around their necks, which they plucked and ruffled with their very long and slightly upturned bills. Their dull outward appearance changed abruptly every now and then when one of them stretched a wing or flapped after a wash – revealing with a flash their bold white and black go-faster stripes that run along their wings and tail. Almost hidden by the swarm of Godwits, sleeping quietly at the back, stood (on one leg) a small group of Avocets, clearly unphased by the recent Buzzard flypast.
Seemingly everywhere and far from asleep were Redshanks; flying to and fro, probing the mud avidly, calling loudly to their mates across the pool, flashing their white armpits and wing bars, generally making a nuisance of themselves. Another orange-legged bird which was in good numbers and far less noisy were the Ruff, distinguishable by their pale plumage, scalloped backs and short bills. Also present was one of my favourite birds; the Lapwing, these may seem a tad dull when on the ground but in the air they transform into beautiful masters of flight, swooping, looping and darting about with ease – all the while making noises like an excited dolphin.
After hearing nearby birders talking about Little Stints, a diminutive wader not unlike a Dunlin but more the size of a small lime, John and I set about scanning the muddy edges for this gem of a bird. Fortunately in not too long a time I picked one out half-asleep on a nearby patch of gravel, its delicate pearl-white, black and grey plumage standing out among the more dun Dunlin (see what I did there?).
It was about this time when someone located the bird most of us were really here to see; an American visitor from across the pond (not the pond in front of us silly, the huge salty one) called a Long-billed Dowitcher, a wader that resembles the child of a Godwit that got really drunk one night and did something it later regretted with a handsome Snipe. This is a rare but annual species, and not the first I have seen, but a jolly good spot nonetheless, even if it wasn’t much to look at.
We then had a nice walk to one of the hides, during which a few Swallows and a scattering of House Martins drifted past, probable the last I will see this year. Stonechats, Goldfinch, a Mistle Thrush and a Green Woodpecker were enjoying the afternoon sunshine on the marsh too. From the hide we saw practically nothing, save a distant but welcome male Marsh Harrier and a Kestrel that briefly alighted atop a dead tree on which a few Woodpigeon also sat – they did not bat an eyelid at this deadly raptor (not that it is a threat to them).
The sun was getting lower, as was the tide, meaning that the waders on the pool began trickling back over the sea-wall out onto the increasingly exposed and refreshed mudflats to take advantage of the plentiful invertebrate menu on offer out there. The cloudscape I should mention, as it was gorgeous. High up in the dome of heaven spread the icy sheets of Cirrostratus, some roughened like fabric and some smooth as cream, much lower down drifted the ever-changing Cumulus, lit up beautifully, contrasting with the soft blue atmosphere, some were like turrets and some like a cold breath on a January day. The mixture of clouds, peach-tinted sunlight and pastel blue sky made the most divine painting above us.
Lastly we stopped in a hide overlooking a portion of the estuary, the view at first seemed almost empty of birds but looking closer we could see that the mud was swarming with little and big waders needling the gooey grey silt with their many-shaped bills. Curlews, Dunlin, Redshank, Grey Plover (the silver cousin of the golden), Shelduck and a few Knot were all feasting together. Not far off a group of Black-headed Gulls sat motionless on the mud all facing the same way, a scan of the flock revealed most satisfactorily a Mediterranean Gull secreted among them but told apart by its heavy red bill and pure-white wing tips. 50 species in all (one a nice rarity) most of which were lovely waders seemed like a grand day to us so with the sun inching its way towards the horizon already (at 5:30pm!) we hopped back in the trusty bird-mobile and set off home.