Average Birding

An Excuse For Essex

A pair of our friends from the North have roped AB2 into some charity dinner and raffle. In Chelmsford. At the cricket club.

This looks above and beyond the call of duty. Unfortunately, the trains out to Chelmsford that weekend are utterly hosed, and AB1 is unsure he can consign AB2 to waking up hungover in an Essex Travelodge with a two and a half hour journey home to look forward to.

Pronoun guidance: AB1 came to the rescue, and hired a car. Conditions were attached, however. This post covers the events of March 24th-25th, 2018.

The journey out

The middle of March was quiet; a short visit to WWT London in an attempt to find Jack Snipe failed, but did contribute a reasonably early Sand Martin (March 18th).

Several motives align; a persistent series of complaints from AB2 about having to go to this dinner on her own. The total absence of transport. The increasing absence of year ticks. Suffice to say: my motives for hiring a car and attending this dinner are not entirely altruistic. Some of them are self-preservatory, in addition.

This thing in Chelmsford is, handily, in the evening. And I can think of no better way to spend the rest of the day than touring a few select birding sites in the nearby. Not least because I have absolutely no intention of trying to drive in and out of London anywhere between the hours of 9am and 9pm, and that's going to give us a fair amount of day to play with.

Walthamstow Wetlands

A spanner is thrown into the works late on the Friday afternoon; someone's found a Bluethroat at Walthamstow Wetlands (nee reservoirs). It's just about on the way to where we're going, and, handily, is on the Victoria line, so, after a brief negotiation with our Northern friends, we agree to pick them up from there. That should give us a good hour to see if the Bluethroat has decided to stick around.

It hasn't. We do catch up with the Little Bunting (yes, the same one) on our way round (it's hanging out with its Reed Bunting friends, and additionally, the first Linnets of the year), and, to my surprise, I manage to pick out the Scaup (again, the same one) at the back of reservoir number four without needing a scope. Smug. A tinkle of phone noise informs us that our friends have arrived, so we return to the car, and after a brief wrangle with the payment machinery at the car park exit, we set off towards Essex proper.

Hanningfield Reservoir

Our first stop is supposed to be Hanningfield reservoir. We get nearby, and quickly realise that our first stop is lunch. We sit at a table in a pub making poor attempts at small talk (I mostly give these attempts a thousand yard stare, as if to suggest my level of hanger is everyone else's fault). Food eventually arrives and the collective mood improves. Well, mine does. Everyone else is rather better balanced.

Back to Hanningfield. There's an extensive set of nature trails with hides attached. There is also some sort of deal on plastic animal masks in the visitor centre. I heave a deep sigh as I realise these are going to prove distracting to everyone other than me, and decide that my best option is to head out and have a quiet bit of solo birding before anyone realises where I've gone.

Hanningfield is a big old reservoir, and, typical of all birding I have done at reservoirs, all the interesting birds are as far away from the hides as it is possible to get. On the side near the hide, a mallard or two perform within ten metres or so.

On the far side, huge numbers of wildfowl are bobbing about. Among them I am hoping to find Slavonian Grebe; a Winter visitor to most of the UK that often turns up on reservoirs of this size. This shouldn't be too tricky a bird to find if it's here - it has a very different profile in the water to the other grebes (Great-crested, Little) that might be here; someone's already done the tricking part of divining that it is Slavonian and not Black-necked.

There's definitely something on the far side of the reservoir near the causeways (no public access :-/) that fits the profile, but even in the scope, it's barely more than a dot. There are no other scope toters present, so I'm a bit stuck; "there's not much that could be other than slav grebe" isn't enough to tick it. Humph.

Complaints from my phone tell me my disappearance has been noted; I send word of my whereabouts and then try to give the other difficult sods on the wrong side of the reservoir a bit of a look at, in case they're of interest. Remarkably, some of them are - a little clutch of ten of them have the detergent level pink-whiteness that only Goosanders possess. Well, that's a nice bonus.

The remainder of the hides don't offer a great deal on top of that. It's interesting that, for what I'd pegged as a 'wet' reserve, most of the quality is in the woodland; we're spoilt for Treecreeper, Goldcrest and the usual suspects all the way round. Besides a little group of folks on a photography course (we guess the theme is 'small stuff', as many of the hapless participants are spending a lot of time staring at featureless branches in the hope of sudden insectile appearance), it's also remarkably quiet. When I'm next wrangled into Essex we'll probably pay this place another visit.

Wallasea Island

At this point, we need to drop our friends off in Chelmsford so they can help get this event set up. Our arrival isn't due for another three hours after that though, and I've got a bee in my bonnet about getting to Wallasea Island. I've been planning a visit to this place for years, and I've been stymied by illness, lack of trains, sudden work commitments; you name it. Not today, though, I steely declare.

It's quite a pleasant drive from Chelmsford - the parts that aren't Essex countryside idyll are mostly quiet bits of well maintained dual carriageway. Just before you arrive at the reserve, the landscape changes quite dramatically; someone takes the bleakness level and turns it up to eleven. What was rolling, vivacious farmland becomes flat, treeless wilderness, laced with muddy streams and bordered by slowly salinating estuary. The road thins and develops some of the most violent ramps known to mankind; rivalling even Minsmere's bone-shaking quality. It's quite a relief when we reach the car park.

The car park has room for perhaps fifteen vehicles. We are the third. A solitary Corn Bunting is playing security guard; it proudly sits in a sapling off to the left. Tick.

We've probably got an hour of daylight left - that should be enough for a quick explore along the sea wall. A bundle of Black-headed gulls to the South has some obvious looking Mediterranean Gulls amongst them. There's a raptor sitting near what we suspect, on a warmer day, would be a pleasant picnic area. We try and turn it into a Merlin, but it stubbornly remains a Kestrel, despite our aggressive surveying of some serious-looking birders with more powerful optics.

The North of the sea wall has decent number of waders poking around on it - some nice Curlew and Redshank. Some Shelduck float about amiably. We scan a few distant landmarks for raptors (there's a huge haystack in the distance that's supposed to be good for this, in particular) and find nothing.

AB2 retreats to the car (it's getting colder, and the wind is borderline unpleasant) and I hang about in the hope of a last-minute owl. This ought to be prime Barn Owl territory. Unfortunately, no one's told the Barn Owls. And now I too am also starting to feel the cold. I return to the car empty-handed and steel myself for the return journey over the ramps of doom with a biscuit.

The charity dinner is no worse than I'd imagined (we win some Odeon tickets in the raffle, and some of the people we meet are borderline entertaining. Also, we have two good friends there). I pay the sober price for deciding to drive home immediately afterwards, but it pays off; we wake up in our own house the day after, and it feels great. I celebrate with a visit to Regent's Park, where I fail to find a Firecrest.