Posted by: Ross Gardner | December 7, 2015


The flight of gulls has graced these pages once before, but a close encounter warrants its mention once more.

At 2.16 kilometres (1.34 miles) Southend Pier is the longest pleasure pier in the world.  It strikes out from the shore from both the audial and visual cacophony (especially in winter) of the seafront and its entertainments at the point where it is reasonable, if somewhat arbitrary, to assume that the Thames Estuary ends and the North Sea begins.  Even before you are half way along the influence of the landward contrivances has faded and those of the sea have come to the fore.  The way up to the pier-head can on a good day offer almost a full range of coastal bird-watching.  The late-spring and summer months are of course the quietest, with birds away at their breeding grounds.  Come the late-summer/early autumn however, and the annual migratory passage may yield many a surprise, such as the odd Sandwich or Arctic Tern among the regular Common and even Skuas, of which the Arctic (or Parasitic) is the most likely while others are possible.

The winter-time is perhaps the richest.  It of course has its gulls, sometimes including rarer species, while thousands of wading birds scatter the spread of the exposed mud.  The vantage-point of the pier-head can provide views of many species of seabird, particularly if driven closer towards the shore by strong easterly winds and so unexpected with such a built-up environment on the estuary horizons.  Red-throated Divers are regular, while Black-throated and Great Northern are possible.  Echoes of the soaring cliff-faces, so far removed from the Essex coast, may be provided by the likes of Guillemot or the occasional Kittiwake and its always worth checking the gatherings of Turnstone on the off-chance of a Purple Sandpiper.

On my recent visit however, I saw nothing by way of the scarcities and surprises that I have been lucky enough to see here before.  I did though, see something of true beauty or which will rarely ever be surpassed.  A touch histrionic you might be thinking, but we must always be prepared to look past the ordinary and familiar to see the into the heart of nature’s greatest marvels.  One such marvel is the flight of birds.  It was a moderately windy day, but what there was of the wind was concerted and consistent.  I stood on the upper level at the end of the pier, scanning the water for bird-shapes among the waves, finding nothing but a solitary cormorant diving for fish.  Then a gull lifted itself without any apparent effort, seemingly up from nowhere.  It hung in front of me at eye level or just above with not a tremble of a wing, such was the perfection with which it utilised the stream of air.  It would sway outwards, still without a flap of its wings, and then swing back towards me, so close that I could have reached out and touched it.  Then suddenly, with its attention being caught, it would sweep down with great speed towards the swell, simply blading the air with meticulously angled wings, before arcing upwards to once again look me in the eye.

It was simply stunning to watch.

Mediterranean Gull (Larus melanocephalus).  Copyright 2015 Ross Gardner.

Mediterranean Gull (Larus melanocephalus). Copyright 2015 Ross Gardner.

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