Average Birding

The Five Ds of Birding

Dodge, duck, dip, dive and dodge. Dodgeball's a great film. Don't @ me. This weekend, a bit of all five things is in store.

This post covers the events of May 12-13th 2018. Pronoun guidance: AB1 is well dodge.

Saturday: The dip, and some dodging

The short week rolls by, and news of Black-winged Stilts in the Thames Estuary trickles in.

They've been seen at Bowers Marsh RSPB; good - the other options on the North are less accessible by public transport, or just a bit of a sod to bird (I'm looking at you, Vange Marsh). I can string a decent walk out of a visit to Bowers as well; from Benfleet station back to Pitsea.

Duly kitted out with the scope bag, I set out from Benfleet. The public footpath is well marked, but not so well maintained. Once again, I am made to regret my choice of shorts. This time, unfortunately, thorns are involved and even at my advanced age and with noticeable dodging skill, they manage to cause me some damage. I take out some of my anger by swearing at some Black-headed Gulls for being insufficiently interesting.

The rough ground between the station and the reserve itself is sufficiently scrubby to hold boatloads of Whitethroat. Are any of them Lesser? Probably, but the ones I can see are all Common. I stride onwards; these brambles aren't going to give up a tick today.

Crossing under the road to Canvey Island, one enters the reserve proper. I transition from an OS to an RSPB map and head towards the reserve's viewing area where the Stilts have been seen. The omens are not good. Birders are making egress from the watch point, and they are stony-faced, taciturn; paying attention to a stray Linnet or two, as if that's the only thing of note they've seen all day. Hmm.

A definite dip

I reach the viewing area; the primary mood is frustration rather than excited; no-one's clapped eyes on a Stilt all day. There's not exactly that many places I'd expect a Stilt to attempt to hide on this series of scrapes either. Still, plenty of other waders. Is there something of interest hiding amongst them? Half an hour of scouring with the scope has the answer: no. Still. Nice Avocets. A few minutes later I become the same bad omen others were for me on the way in; the Stilts aren't here, it's time to explore the rest of the reserve.

Some patchy rain follows me around; pesky, really - I'm not dressed for it. Evidently no-one else is either, though; I don't see another soul as I traverse the reserve's boundary path clockwise. A visit to the saline lagoon provides an opportunity for a covert wee, but little else. I return to the circular path and head towards what, from the main viewing area, was the rear area of the lake.

There's a neat little reedbed channel alongside the path; a few Reed Warblers are squawking in it. And, if my ears don't deceive me, at least one Bearded Reedling. Oho. Now I just need to clap eyes on it. In this channel, that seems hopeful; there's only three to four metres of reeds and they aren't dense - oh, in fact, there they are; a pair of them, to be precise. They're in a confiding mood; almost getting close enough for a photo from my phone, but then flitting back to the end of the channel and then starting back towards me.

I spend a good ten minutes watching this performance; it's the most interesting thing to happen since the thorny path at the beginning, and I am restored by it.

It's a good job - the next twenty minutes of walk is fruitless; an opposite view of the scrape yields no further interest, and the lumpy parts at the back of the reserve hold nothing of note either. There are some vocal cuckoos in the distance but, I suspect, in the distance is where they'll stay.

I am wrong. As I walk into Great Pound viewpoint, there's one sitting not ten feet away from me in a spiky bush. It cuck-coos at me angrily and flaps off. I instinctively cuck-coo back at it. A second bird, further back, responds in kind (to whose call, it isn't clear; it's not like I can ask). A little further round the walk, my presence disturbs what I can only assume is the same two birds; they flap off West in search of even quieter pastures (I still haven't seen anyone since leaving the watch point).

I pick my way around the remainder of the path, clap eyes on the first humans I've seen for an hour and a half on the road out of the reserve, and then turn left to pick my way through some very soggy fields on the way to Pitsea.

In a fit of madness, I don't get on the first train home from there, but plough on to have a look at Vange Marsh. This is a mistake. The lagoon, previously a mixed area of scrape where I've seen Wilson's Phalarope and Little Stint, is covered in algae, and the only thing alive on it are Mute Swans.

I head back to Pitsea for the train home with an increased amount of respect for the birders whose patch Vange Marsh is. And I wonder where those stilts went.

Sunday: a duck; it dives

The next day brings news of a hopefully more reliable bird. Birdguides is showing a female Smew on a lake near Cheshunt; the description has 'still' in it, and if I look on the website, it's been sporadically reported for some weeks. It's quite surprising for this bird to still be in the UK at this point - they are typically winter visitors only.

This ought to be a slam dunk tick. The instructions are detailed; the bird is always found on the same lake on a nature reserve of what I can only assume is old gravel pits (it's always old gravel pits). The lake is a pleasant ten-minute walk from a well-serviced station nearby.

In addition, it's a duck. So a) it should be big enough to see, even at distance and b) the opportunities for it to disappear into a bush forever are small. Wildfowl are often the gateway to birding as a result of these two features, I feel.

We perform the necessary transport dance; the change at Seven Sisters on to the National Rail network is as under construction as it always seems to be. We alight at Cheshunt and spend a moment getting our bearings. A nearby family is off on the same walk as us. Their youngest daughter has other ideas though and is protesting loudly about it. As we finally get underway, it turns out she was successful - the same family have turned around and we pass them in the opposite direction. Either that or they forgot something, or this walk is much shorter than we thought. Tears before bedtime, we expect.

A five-minute walk down the River Lee Navigation, we reach a bridge, and cross over. The path continues between the lake on the left and the river at this point, but it's the lake on the left we're here for, so we make a stop in an angler's spot on the shore to see what we can see.

The answer is a lot of Coots, and a few Great Crested Grebes. Unexpectedly, it appears some patience will in fact be required; the Smew is not immediately visible - I think I was expecting it to be putting on a performance within ten or twenty metres of this little viewpoint. AB2 and I both put on our serious birder faces and set about making a more concerted examination of the more distant parts of the lake.

There is a hint of something Smew-like at the back - something non-grebe and non-coot is swimming about and occasionally diving. Its colouration rules it out from being a Tufted Duck; but is the level of detail with binoculars good enough to rule it in to being a Smew? I think it probably is; there's nothing else that really looks like them, and I'm pretty confident I can see the chestnut forehead that gives a female Smew its 'redhead' nickname.

Now I just need to tell AB2 where it is. This is unexpectedly tricky. The border of the lake's vegetation is too homogenous to offer landmarks, and the Smew itself is unhelpfully spending at least half of its time underwater. In the end, I daisy chain a description from the front of the lake to the back, via some very specific Coots and a very helpful Black-headed Gull. No, no, to the left of that grebe. The other left. No, not that far; wait a bit, it's underwater. No, I'm not making it up. There, it's there. Got it? Excellent.

Having successfully exited the making it up phase, we set the scope up to have a better look and generally preen a little at having achieved this trip's tick without having had to spend too much effort, get rained on, or have an argument about food or directions.

What now, though? We're reasonably confident that our Smew will be the only tick of the day, so we meander around fairly aimlessly. We manage to find a couple of hides that look over a scrape; not a lot is about - a Pheasant is the only bird worthy of comment, despite some stolid searching for sandpipers. Some attractive grassland provides some pleasant walking; much scanning of fenceposts for migrants comes to nothing.

Further discoveries: a disc golf course (one for another time), a deeply annoying dead end and, finally, a rather dilapidated route to Waltham Cross (the nearest station after reversing out of the dead end). Not a bad trip; at a different time of year this might be worth a more serious visit!