Average Birding

An Estuary Excursion

The week rolls round, and another weekend brings another birding scheme. The traditional Spoonbill sighting has been reported at Cliffe Pools, so it's time to get the scope in the mulepack, and stuff myself and my bike on HS1 to Gravesend.

Pronoun guidance: AB1's on his bike. This post covers the events of April 14th, 2018. Front page photo is, hilariously, of a Spoonbill on Fuerteventura.

Decisions, decisions

At Gravesend, I've a choice to make; do I bike from here or wait for a connection to Higham? I opt for the former; it looks like a pretty solid bike path with a chance to link up with the Saxon Shore Way.

This is...a mixed choice. Getting out of Gravesend on the bike is difficult. The cycle path is, indeed, excellent. The option to join the Saxon Shore way is a foolish one; it's a dyke between the Thames and the farmland, and the surface of it is immeasurably keen to get stuck to all the surfaces of my bike.

When I get nearer the reserve, I turn off on a footpath to escape the mud hell. In fact I replace it with a twisty bramble hell, followed by a sandy hell as I head through the arse end of a quarry. I then proceed to attempt to enter the reserve by another tiny path that isn't suitable for bicycles and then, having entered the reserve, start trying to go round it the opposite way to which I'd planned.

Cliffe Pools

I pause to take stock. Am I hungry? It's a possibility. I trundle up to the top of one the reserve's marked mounds and take a seat to eat a snack. The islands visible from here are flooded with gulls. They make a phenomenal racket. Among them a few Mediterranean Gulls give the distinct impression of being deeply unimpressed by their noisier black-headed cousins.

Refuelled, and redirected, I head to the causeway that cuts through the reserve's multiple pools. A couple of folks are giving the second pool on the right a good staring at. I dismount so I can have a look at whatever they're looking at. As I do so, there's an explosive bit of song from the scrub on my left. A brown bird with a tell-tale rufous tail flits back into the undergrowth. Nightingale! I wasn't expecting that! Although, according to the others, I should be - Cliffe is supposed to be a reliable place to find them. This specimen pops up from the bushes to sing for us once or twice more before reverting to type and becoming invisible but still audible.

A view of the Flamingo pool in 2014; Nightingale alley is behind and
     to the left
A view of the Flamingo pool in 2014; Nightingale alley is behind and to the left

I have a good stare at the back of the Flamingo pool; the usual flocks of Avocet are there, and one or two Ringed Plover, if I look very carefully. No sign of any Spoonbill; there are a few Little Egrets spotted around that are doing a reasonable job of not-quite-resembling them just far away enough to cause some doubt. Spoonbills they aren't.

I continue on towards the Thames; I'll do my usual route of causeway, and then the potholes of death around the back of the reserve, past Black Barn pools. There are much better Ringed Plover views from the Thames end of the Flamingo pool, so I tarry there for a while. Love a good plover. Still. Must be going. Spoonbill to not see, potholes to be terrified by.

The return leg

The potholes are as a I remember them; everywhere. I weave a winding trail between them. Mostly. At one point a tractor appears behind me to add to the pressure; I find a wider bit to take refuge in while it goes past. A few reed warblers chirp at me while I wait. I consult the RSPB trail map; apparently there are two more viewing mounds on this path that I've somehow missed. There is a gate that looks like it might offer decent views of a bit of radar pool that I neglected earlier, so I poke my nose over.

There are those Little Egrets again. Only this time, one of them is a Spoonbill! It's even putting on a show of typical Spoonbill behaviour, sweeping its bill from side to side in the water. I get set up with the scope to take a proper look, but it's too close to the bank and is obscured from view. I try to get a better angle on where the bird should be from further up the path, but by the time I get there, it's disappeared. Oh well, it was a good view while it lasted.

I successfully navigate the remainder of the potholes and exit the reserve via a more sensible route. I decline the option of pub on the way out, I remember being looked at kinda funny in at least one establishment along here in the past. Instead I head straight for Higham station to pick up the next train back to Gravesend.

Typically, I miss the half-hourly service by about five minutes. Angrily glaring at the common or garden species in the trees behind the platform opposite does nothing to transform them into anything more exciting.

Gravesend Ferry

Still, the day is still young. Not for nothing did I start early; it's only just approaching 3pm, and some top level google maps sleuthing in the week revealed a handy little birding trick; there's a ferry from Gravesend across the Thames. From there, it's a short train trip (or, assuming I miss the connection by the usual few minutes) a twenty-minute cycle to Rainham Marshes. After a brief stop in Gravesend for what is, even for Mcdonalds, a pretty average quarter pounder, I board the ferry for Tilbury.

It's a genuinely excellent little boat ride, even if the banks of the Thames aren't at their most picturesque at this point. The river is a good width, so there's enough time to relax into the feeling of being (almost) at sea.

We arrive at Tilbury and I immediately miss a train. It turns out it's a twenty-minute cycle... if you know where you're going. In the end, I bodge my way to Grays just in time to pick up the connection to Purfleet (saving all of five minutes). I arrive at Rainham with around half an hour to find the Black-necked Grebe that's been reported on Aveley pool (side note: wouldn't it be great if we lived in a world where these urban reserves could open up unstaffed?).

Rainham Marshes

The volunteers in the visitor centre doubt my claims that I can appreciate the reserve in under half an hour, but I put on my most charming face and convince them otherwise. I try not to get distracted by a very showy Chiffchaff as I set off; I've got ten minutes to get to the back of the reserve, ten minutes to find this grebe and then a further ten to get back.

A brisk walk gets me to a good viewpoint in eight minutes (hah - I reckon I could do a full circuit in half an hour if I were so desirous). The light could not be any less helpful; it's right in front of me, transforming everything in my view into a silhouette. All is not lost - even in profile, I think I can probably pick out a BNG if it's visible.

Which, water pouring from my eyes, it most certainly is not. The clock on my phone tells me my time is up, so I head back to the visitor centre. We're not quite done yet - there's still a good hour of daylight, and the path alongside the reserve next to the Thames is a cycle path. I come across a bunch of fairly serious birders a kilometre or so down the path. While most of them are now heading off, one is hanging about in the hope of Short-eared Owl.

We discuss our various birding days: they've been in the area all day, checking out the gulls at the nearby barges, walking the reserve and have just been checking out the river area for Wheatears; and, you know,
there's one just there. Introductions are made, names are immediately forgotten. Even worse, I'm pretty confident I've met this chap before.

We hang about for a while; I briefly entertain the possibility that from this angle the light will be good enough to discern the grebe. It's a ridiculous notion; it would be a dot from here, even if it was playing ball. A Short-eared Owl does, as predicted by my new companion, float over the reserve within fifteen or twenty minutes.

We head further down the river to have a good stare over the reserve from a slightly different angle. On the way, my memory is jogged by my companion's deep knowledge of Rainham, and his attachment to his camera; I've spoken to him on the reserve before, in the hide where you can see the Kingfishers. Well, that's a relief. Perhaps I might remember his name the next time we cross paths.

Two further birders are at this watchpoint. I feel in danger of being the odd one out, but it turns out that honour has already been given to the slightly less reserved gentleman of the two we've just encountered. This is getting a bit weird. A few straggling raptors drift over; a couple of Marsh Harriers and a Buzzard. A consensus is reached that it's probably about time to head home. Rainham station is slightly closer from here and the way is almost entirely segregated cycle path, so that's the way I head. A brief change on to the overground at West Ham and a solid day of birding is done.