Posted by: Ross Gardner | January 27, 2019

Estuarine Dramas

Yesterday was a cloudy but calm day over the estuary of the River Crouch.  It was though, a sense of benignity that obscured the many dramas of estuary life, enacted every day, but so often beyond the human gaze.  They are dramas however, that may on occasion be brought to the fore.  As I walked across the marsh along one side of the river I was afforded a fine view of the wading birds flocking in their hundreds across the low tide mud.  There were maybe 400 little Dunlin, scurrying and probing, half as many of each Golden Plover and Lapwing, a liberal scattering of Redshank and a few dozen Grey Plover.  All were foraging in the invertebrate rich mud with an air of purposeful contentment.

redshank (3) (scaled)

Redshank (Tringa totanus)

And then to a bird they were airborne.  A swarm of wings swept up-river, others scattered across the grazing marsh on the far bank.  Surely my arrival hadn’t put them to flight; I had walked this path many a time without so much as ruffling a feather.  I looked upwards for sight of a predators wings, a Peregrine perhaps, but saw nothing but the apparently panicked waders.  Then a pair of wings stood out from the rest, barely larger than the masses filling the air, but different.  It was a Merlin, that little marauder, Europe’s smallest falcon hardly bigger than the plovers it pursued, but enough of a menace to them to trigger that wave of panic across the mud.  Perhaps more familiar to some as that flash of grey hounding its quarry low across the ground, this one had singled out its target and had followed it higher into the sky.  I had seen this once before, when I watched one Merlin almost taunting a Skylark climbing desperately upwards in an effort to shake its attacker off.  This one had squandered its element of surprise – the plover survived and the frustrated predator sloped away.

I continued my walk and everything was calm again.  The birds had settled, just a few hundred metres upstream to resume their own predations.  Then another shape appeared over the marsh as the sleek form of a Kestrel sped by overhead.  It didn’t seem to be making a concerted play at the waders on the river, but its appearance was enough to the send the birds skyward once again.  Little rest it seems for feeding masses, but equally little joy for hungry falcons.

kestrel hovering 5 (scaled)

Kestrel (Falco tinnunculus)

As I walked further up-river everything, once again, was calmness.  Oystercatcher were picking their way diligently through the more stony stretches of the estuarine mud, while Black-headed Gull loafed lazily on the wing or standing along the water’s edge.  The gulls though, we also ever-watchful.  I noticed the more purposeful movements of a pair of those clean, white wings.  A Redshank had evidently founded itself some desirable morsel and the gull aimed to have it.  The chase was on.  The smaller Redshank zig-zagged low over the river, reluctant to gain too much height.  The gull matched every twist and turn, showing no sign of being discouraged.  The wader banked sharply, gaining a few metres on its pursuer.  The gull gained them back, anticipating the next evading swerve of its bewildered target.  I watched as the two birds wrote their own, contorted lines into the drama of the estuary, as if tethered to each other, invisibly, elastically – exchanging their gains and losses, all for the small prize held within a Redshank’s beak.  Then the gull made a decisive lunge, perhaps even making contact with the wader and the prize was dropped and within an instant claimed.


A winter plumage Black-headed Gull (Chroicocephalus ridibundus).

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