Posted by: Ross Gardner | January 23, 2012

Sunrise to sunset

There’s nothing like day spent outdoors from daybreak to dusk, in the company, in the most part, of wild things.  Today was the day my brother and I embarked on our Birdathon!  Yes, that is unnecessarily corny, and no, we most definitely aren’t twitchers.  The Birdathton is a bit fun and an opportunity to pit our wits and our knowledge of the places that we grew up with, against an arbitrary, but challenging target.

A few years back we thought it would be interesting to see how many January species of bird we could see on ‘our patch’.  The next year we made a more concerted effort and achieved a total of 69.  Obviously, after a couple of years without an attempt, 70 should therefore be the hallowed number on our return to action!  We figured that a theoretical maximum, if luck was with us all the way and everything that could reasonably occur did, would be around 80.  70 then, was a challenge.

Southend Pier from the shore. Ross Gardner

Our patch is what I term as the ‘North Thames Estuary‘, extending from Shoeburyness to South Benfleet and taking in Southend Pier, Two Tree Island and the Hadleigh and Benfleet Downs (including Hadleigh Castle Country Park) and adjacent areas.  A reasonably large area, but entirely contiguous, with a good variety of birds to be found within.

Having started at Shoebury Common, scanning the strand line for Sanderling and picking out a few Bar-tailed Godwit on the diminishing mud it was off to Southend Pier.  This is perhaps, to some, an unlikely location for a birdwatching spot, but it can be excellent, especially for wintering maritime birds that one might not readily associate with the Southeast Coast.  Today was a good day.  For the initiated, Southend Pier is the longest pleasure pier in the world (about a mile and a third, or two and a bit kilometres) and even has its own railway.  We were still on the platform at the pier-head when a couple of Eider were seen and a Black-throated Diver picked out as it flew low over the water, before settling to fish.  A handful of not enitrely unexpected Mediterranean Gulls and a few Kittiwake would soon provide something extra to the more usual selection of gulls, and a Purple Sandpiper was a glimpsed treat as it scampered about the wave-splashed lower reaches of the pier structure.  A Guillemot and a Great Crested Grebe later and we were back on the train.

The borrow dyke and Hadleigh Marsh - part of Hadleigh Castle Country Park. Ross Gardner

By the time we had driven to Two Tree Island to begin our walk along the seawall and across the grazing marsh and grassy scrub of the Downs, we had reached 45 species.  Not bad at all, but 25 more birds seemed a lot, especially having seen many of the more common small birds among the sloping parkland along seafront at Southend while we waited for the pier to open.  We struggled along to the mid fifties, with the likes of Avocet and Ringed Plover on the lagoon at Two Tree Island.  Then everything fell into place.  We were delighted by a close view of the elusive Water Rail on the grazing marsh, to be quickly followed by a snipe.  With a few more of the common, but certainly not guaranteed passerines, such as Fieldfare, Redwing and Goldcrest and we were in the high sixties.

On reaching Hadleigh and the end of our Odyssey, the 70 had been reached and surpassed.  A brief flurry at the end, with female Bullfinch (a much declined bird and always a treat), Stock Dove and Sparrowhawk, meant that 77 was the final and glorious total!  It was the successful end to an unashamed exercise in list making, in pursuit of an enjoyably arbitrary goal.  But always we had the time to enjoy those familiar and essential experiences, which we have had the privilege of growing up with; the crackling sound of the wing-beats of hundreds of Knot as they pass in a flock overhead; the stunning beauty of a Green Woodpecker perching obligingly and un-woodpecker-like on a fence post; the abundant and endless fascination of wild things in wild places.

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