The shingle headland of Dungeness is really quite a strange place, dotted with fisherman’s shacks, old nets and rusting anchors right alongside modern, sleek and shiny and hideously expensive glorified beach huts erected by business executives from London as weekend getaways. Then there’s a miniature railway, old and new lighthouses, just one pub (!), a seedy cafe and artist’s studios all crowded together on the end of the point. Not to mention that all of this is overshadowed by the hulking form of a great big nuclear power station sitting with its toes in the channel, which I think everyone locally tries to ignore exists, as it’s best not to think of these things.
But it is the shingle that dominates everything at Dungeness, it is everywhere you look and it is only the loose, rounded pebbles that separate everything on the peninsula from the depths of the sea. Including the power station, which seems remarkable to me. Not that nature cares about any of this, as always it is very resilient and takes not the slightest notice of either the nuclear plant or the feeble attempts at tourism. Fortunately, a significant portion of this unique location is a national nature reserve, with one large area also an RSPB reserve (their oldest as it happens). So there is plenty of good habitat for both breeding and migrating birds, as well as lots of other wildlife.
John and I usually only visit here in mid-winter, often on New Year’s Day, as it is a long drive for us, but having a whole Saturday free we decided to give it a go in autumn for a change. The deep shingle pools that dominate the site are really excellent for duck, and we saw quite a few different species. Probably the best was a female Goldeneye, which with its smart dark brown head, neat black bill and eyes like neon-yellow lights is a superb bird. There were also plenty of Pochard, an increasingly scarce bird elsewhere, as well as Shoveler, Tufted Duck, smart grey-and-black Gadwalls, Teal, Wigeon and a handful of Pintail.
One of the star birds of Dungeness are the Great White Egrets, which are now practically resident and often in double-figures, indeed this is probably the most reliable place to see this species in the UK. We counted eight on our visit, and had good views of them as they stood around the edges of the pools stalking fish alongside the familiar Grey Herons, as well as getting a good view of one in flight as it passed the hide.
Migrants were much in evidence, with many Swallows scooting overhead in the stiff westerly breeze, as well as a few Chiffchaffs in the bushes and a lone female Blackcap too. There were some good waders about, either just moving through or settling down for the winter, with a few small flocks of Black-tailed Godwits about, a lone Common Sandpiper probing the surf, a bunch of Dunlin weaving in and out of the Godwits legs, a single juvenile Grey Plover minding its own business and a really nice Little Ringed Plover which was the first I’d seen all year.
A large, dark shape moving rapidly over the reedbed turned out to be a female Marsh Harrier, with dusky-brown wings flecked on their leading edges with gold and a gold cap to the head this is a lovely raptor and Dungeness is a good spot for them. Not too long later, and in the same spot, a male of the species appeared over the reeds for brief seconds before he dived down into a channel. Males are striking with grey, black and brown contrasting patches to the wings. Other birds of prey included multiple Kestrels and a Sparrowhawk.
After walking around the RSPB-managed part of Dungeness, we headed right to the southern tip of the headland, immediately next to the power station and onto the steep beach. Despite the wind, and occasional drizzle, we attempted a spot of seawatching (for birds of course, but most of the time ‘sea-watching’ is a painfully accurate description), which remarkably wasn’t a total failure. It was hardly thriving with seabird passage off the head, but all the same we did see large numbers of Gannets and a few passing groups of Common Scoter, which is an all-black sea-duck with a yellow bill, which was nice.
Three Sandwich Terns also passed close by the beach, these streamlined white feather-darts are impressive migrants and the largest of our breeding terns, they could be feeding off the coast of West Africa this time next month. We managed to pick out a Kittiwake from the hordes of Black-headed Gulls, which is a very pretty gull species and one of my favourites, although they aren’t as common in the south as they are up north, which is a shame. We also spent a bit of time trying to turn a pair of Meadow Pipits that were poking about the concrete grounds of the power station into something a lot more rare, but gave up eventually.
We got a final day total of a respectable 65 species, which isn’t bad considering there are no woods or mudflats on the Dungeness peninsula, so almost all of those birds were wildfowl or waders. I still reckon this place is best for birding in the winter, but it is certainly worth a visit at any time of year.