In my mind, Elmley National Nature Reserve is the premiere location in the South East of England for seeing Marsh Harriers. These once-rare birds of prey are now easy enough to find around the country if you go to the right habitats – chiefly reedbeds and coastal grazing marsh – but few places hold the numbers that Elmley has, nor is there anywhere that offers such wide open views. John and I spent much of Easter Monday at the reserve and in total saw at least 14 Harriers, probably more, and at one point we had seven in view at once.
The Marsh Harrier highlight of the day took place while we sat in one of the hides overlooking a pool that was occupied largely by hundreds of very noisy Black-headed Gulls. A reedy ditch ran out from one side of the hide into the distance and this ditch was the focus of activity for two male harriers. As we watched, these stunning birds – in their attractive plumage of grey, black and rusty brown – hawked up and down the ditch, back-and-forth and occasionally dropping down into the reeds. It seemed they were trying to flush prey, although we didn’t see them catch anything.
These two males tolerated each other for the most part, but they often interacted; flying close together, one sometimes chased the other for short periods and even gently knocked into each other with orange legs dangling. Several females passed close by the ditch on occasion and were either ignored or chased off by one of the males. Whatever they were up to, it was an absolute joy to watch these masters of the air swoop and dive and bank in the wind, cruising effortlessly over the grass at one point then battling up into the sky another, only to drop down with wings held acutely over their bodies and tail fanned out, braking for impact.
The fields were very wet and the ditches were high, so the reserve was bustling with a smorgasbord of duck and geese species; all whistling, cackling, grunting, sifting, babbling and quacking. The names of these wildfowl hold a magic of their own and their diversity pleases the tongue – as their varied plumages please the eye. Pochard, Mallard, Tufted and Teal, Shoveler, Wigeon and the refined Gadwall, Shelduck are the harlequins, then Brent, Greylag and Canada make up the gaggling geese.
Two passing Spoonbills spiced up the day, high and distant they were but glowing white against the grey clouds and with long spatulate bills stuck out in front like metal detectors – except they scan for worms rather than silver. At this time of year the many Lapwings that inhabit the sodden fields are jumpier and more paranoid than ever; squealing electronically and mobbing any large bird that moves within half a mile of them. A solitary Raven that we saw several times around the reserve probably wished he was somewhere else as he was constantly accompanied by an enraged mob of Peewits.
As the tide in the Swale pushed upwards through the muddy runnels towards its peak, many estuarine birds were forced to move onto the pools in the reserve – including at least 60 of everyone’s favourite wader, the Avocet. The exotic and frankly ridiculous appearance of the Avocet is something that never fails to give a slight shock to my Anglo-Saxon brain, which is far more used to more reasonable brown and grey birds. Why they have blue legs I do not know, but it is a most becoming look on them. Their needle-thin up-curved bills would seem impractical at best on any other bird, yet are somehow perfectly natural and attractive on the Avocet. Then there is their porcelain, pied plumage which doesn’t appear to offer camouflage of any kind – overall these are birds that appear perfectly designed to exist as objects of beauty and wonder only.
Nothing sets a birders pulse racing more than seeing a species for the first time ever – it will only happen once for each bird so it is certainly an experience to be savoured. There is something very special about seeing in the flesh an organism that previously you had only ever read about in books or seen illustrations or photos of – to see the living, breathing, moving animal in the wild and prove to yourself that it really does exist. This happened to me when I spotted the flock of ten Shore Larks rummaging through the grass on the sea wall, barely ten metres away.
Shore Larks are complex creatures; they have a distribution that spans the entire Northern Hemisphere, consisting of over forty subspecies, some of which are migratory and some sedentary, they do not breed in the UK but appear in winter in small numbers around our coasts. We call them Shore Larks because in Britain they are most regularly seen on quiet beaches – but they actually breed high up mountains or on Arctic tundra, a fact reflected in their binomial name – Eremophila alpestris – with Eremophila meaning ‘desert-loving’ and alpestris being Latin for ‘of the mountains’. The alternative name of Horned Lark is more suitable and descriptive, although the long head feathers or ‘horns’ are only seen in breeding plumage.
Long have I dreamed of seeing this scarce lark; it always captured my imagination when I was leafing through bird books and saw illustrations of its unusual head colouring of yellow and black and those two head streamers – it seemed so exciting and weird and so different from any other lark. And here I was at last, staring at a whole group of them. They flew a short distance down the sea wall when we stopped to look at them, but we managed to get closer and had really superb views as they nuzzled through the thick grass. At one point they all flew over the path and landed on a patch of chalk by a ditch, allowing us to view them without the grass blades obscuring their hunched bodies.
It’s hard to know what else to say about them, they are such remarkable looking things with those black mustaches, black collars and yellow faces and throats – they kind of speak for themselves. A memorable day indeed, and it was refreshing to get out to Elmley again after so long – those vast skies and pancake-flat marshlands are unrivaled in the South East in my opinion.