Posted by: Ross Gardner | November 4, 2019

When the Arctic comes to Town

The seafront at Southend-on-Sea is, while not necessarily in a geographical sense, about as far from the Arctic tundra as you can get.  Where one encompasses a treeless, boulder-strewn wilderness, the other has a funfair.  Where one spends a good part of the year clenched with ice and where the ground can freeze to nearly a metre deep, the other has amusement arcades open year round.   Yet here, despite all of this, is to be found the meeting worlds so very far removed from each other.

It is the birdlife of each that brings the two together.  What Southend also has at its disposal is many, many hectares of tidal mudflats, comprising part of the wide, muddy, low-tide expanse of the Thames Estuary.  For each square metre of this oozing subsrate (of course with some depth implied) there could, by all accounts, be a quarter of a million invertebrates, with many tiny snails and crustaceans and burrowing worms.  The tidal estuary really is an astonishingly productive habitat, a fact certainly not lost on the hosts of birds – the waders and wildfowl – that descend here and all around the UK coasts for the winter.  Many of these are high-Arctic breeders and to which the British winter is a piece of cake by comparison, making the huge wealth of food awaiting them well worth the journey.They are all special in their own right of course, but there is one sound and one sight that brings a certain warmth and sense of wonder at the ways and rhythms of the natural world.


Brent Goose (Branta bernicla).

By early October the Brent Geese are coming in.  Come November and their numbers here are thousands strong as the UK population as a whole ascends to 120,000 birds.  Aside from invertebrates many of our estuaries also have eel-grass (Zostera), a uniquely exclusively marine flowering plant and a favourite food of the Brents.  And like many of the little sandpipers that scurry about the mud they have flown in from the far north of the Arctic Circle.

High-water and the spreading flotilla of these little black geese is a fine sight indeed.  When they take to the air in one great skein, circling briefly before setting down again is one of the most wonderful sights in our natural calendar.  And whether on the water or in the air, always that comfortable murmur of their soft, babbling, alomst conversational calls.

What they all make of the seafront on a Friday night is anyones guess.

Brent Geese on the wing (scaled)

The Brent Geese take to the air with Southend seafront and its famous pier as a backdrop.

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