Posted by: Ross Gardner | July 18, 2011

The Wonderful Essex Coast

Blackwater sunset. Copyright 2011 Ross Gardner

Occasionally contary to popular belief, Essex from a natural history perspective has much going for it.  It has a share of rare creatures and plants that find home in the fragments of heath and grassland, ancient woods and freshwater habitat that have escaped agricultural ‘improvement’ and development.  Its coast though, is really special.  It is a place, as you can see, where the sunsets are as spectacular as anywhere.  It is somewhere that real wildness can be experienced by those willing to trudge along the footpaths to the more remote areas of creek-wriggled salt-marsh, shining smooth mudflats and the remaining stretches of lonesome dune-backed shingle beaches.  These are places that at times will heave with activity, with winter birds massed onto the low tide expanses of inverebrate rich mud, while at others, they will convey a calmness that can fill the summer air, where flowers colour the salt-marsh and the chattering of terns and the mewing of gulls fill the open spaces in where the bustle form before is missing.

There are parts of the Essex coast that are very wonderful indeed, some of which I have just had the great privilege to enjoy aboard a beautifully restored (and very comfortable) Dutch sailing barge.  A four day trip allowed the intimate exploration of the Blackwater Estuary, where many of Essex’s most remote and wildlife rich areas of coastal habitat are to be found.  The boat is Volharding and the trip was the first of many fund raisers, organised by my partner Lola and I for Wildlife Sailing, for the use of this splendid boat for her charitable uses.  The profits raised from the trips currently provide groups of young carers with the opportunity to experience the space of freedom of the open sea and the beautiful coast.  It was the first of two scheduled trips this summer; two of many more that are planned for the future.

Black-tailed Godwits along the Colne Estaury. Copyright 2011 Ross Gardner

Even before leaving the mooring at Hythe Quay in Maldon, the natural richness of the Blackwater area in general echoes along the quayside, with the piping calls Oystercatcher and Redshank.  A few Black-tailed Godwit were also there to welcome us aboard, looking very handsome indeed, still bearing their attractive orange breeding plumage.  The main autumn passage (to us it’s very much summer, to birds its nearly autumn!) is still a good few weeks off, but we would see a number of these birds scattered all around the estuary, even also a few early Turnstone.

Birds are always a feature here, not only when the hordes of winter waders and wildfowl crowd onto this internationally reknowned Estuary.  There always seemed to be the odd Common Tern, bobbing elegantly over the water, hanging themselve up on a hover, before arrowing to the surface for fish.  And Little Terns too, rather scarce seabirds these days that still breed on parts of the Essex coast.  We would see Avocets sifting the along the tideline,  Shelduck ushering their chicks through the water along the edge of the saltings and Marsh Harriers quartering the bordering grazing marshes and reed-beds.

Common Sea-lavender (Limonium vulgare). Copyright 2003 Ross Gardner

As you might expect there is more to this coast than birds.  There is always the chance of seeing seals, of course, and many areas still support healthy communities of shingle and salt-marsh plants.  These are so specialised due to the challenging environments in which they live that they are often limited to such conditions.  The yellow flares of clumps Golden Samphire flash on along the shore, where the sea-lavender daubs its purple wash among the ubiquitous Sea-purslane.  Shingle supports the likes of Sea Holly, Sea Spurge, Sea-rocket, Sea Mayweed and Sea Wormword, alongside the low thickets of Shrubby Sea-blite and wind hardy grasses.  The vegetation twitched with the springing legs of Lesser Marsh Grasshopper and the doings of little bees that mine their nests in the sandy soil behind the shingle ridge.

The Essex coast is special for so many reasons – its plants, its birds, its insects.  But to just enjoy the space and the fresh, sea air is just as important a motivation as its wonderful wildlife.

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