Trip reports

A trip to Oare Marshes

A trip to Oare Marshes
Black-tailed godwit by Gordon Langsbury (rspb-images.com)

Saturday, 29 March 2014

A trip to Oare Marshes might sound as if it was going to be a continuation of the water-logged theme of this winter, but it was, in fact, quite the opposite. The sun shone out of a translucent, hazily-blue and cloudless sky all day. It was warm enough to dispense with coats when out of the wind, though when in it by the open water of the huge estuary, it was still cool and strong enough to blow the dead reeds into a rustle and the bees to streak by with unusual speed.

In fact, bumblebees were a particular feature of the day. I, for one found it rather surprising to see them out over the open, wind-blown expanses of end-of-winter grass and reeds where wild flowers had not yet started to appear. The nearest flowers seemed to be just the blackthorn a long way back at the inland edge of the reserve. Many of the bees were large - perhaps queens prospecting for a nesting place in the dry grass, I thought, as I watched one going in and out of little hollow spaces in the tussocks of grass at my feet. The first birdsong proper we heard was that of a skylark high above - a perfect way to start an early-spring ramble round a beautiful nature reserve.

On the way, we had had to take a 'rail replacement' bus from Rainham (the Kent one!) to Faversham, (as we were doing our day out by train this time rather than by coach), but even that was pleasant - a sunny drive through some attractive Kent countryside. We passed immaculately-kept young orchards, and had the occasional view of a small patch of ancient orchard left to natures' devices in a sculptural tangle of gnarled and lichened trees, fallen branches and grassy undergrowth - little oases of nature doing its own thing.

While on the train I had realised that, for the first time on one of our trips, I had forgotten to pick up my bins from the kitchen table on the way out of the house. While initially rather cross with myself, I soon realised that, as it was such a beautiful day and a lovely place, it really didn't matter. In fact, I decided that not having them would make me freer to enjoy the sunshine and the landscape, and would also make me listen more - no bad thing for a beginner at birdsong identification. What's more, the main birds to be seen were waders and very many were not too far from the path, so there was plenty for a person without binoculars to enjoy, plus the occasional view kindly offered through telescopes by better-equipped members of the group.

The first part of our walk was along the road that divides the reserve in two and leads to the wide, estuarine vistas of the Swale. My first pause was to watch a little egret walking on dry land very close to the road, giving a perfect show of its bright yellow feet, and a coot on a large nest even closer to the road. A plop in the roadside field drain on the other side alerted me to a marsh frog, which then stayed with its head above water watching its surroundings until I think it saw me watching it and disappeared in the blink of an eye. These creatures always seem chary of being watched - and why shouldn't they?

A little further on, on mud banks and close-by islets in the lagoon, we watched a flock of black-tailed godwits looking light-brown and fluffy as the strong breeze ruffled their feathers from behind, lapwings flying over, two pintails standing in the water, meadow pipits passing with their bouncy flight and a tortoiseshell and a peacock butterfly. The sun was warm, but the fields and reedbeds were still looking wintry. It is at this point that my notes say, 'More big bees flying out here in the wind. What are they feeding on?'

When we reached the wide estuarine waters of the Swale, those with binoculars commented on a very large and very distant flock of birds. No hope with the naked eye of spotting that there were birds there at all, I thought. But I hadn't missed anything crucial - they turned out to be simply a very large flock of pigeons!

During the day we collectively saw a few raptors in the distance, including a marsh harrier and, a little closer, two kestrels, one female flying close above us and another landing to rest for a while on top of a telegraph pole. We heard dunnocks singing their 'squeaky bicycle' song, as Andrew described it, a Cetti's warbler, house sparrows and the quick, slightly buzzy song of a reed bunting. We had brilliant views of two or three of these later on.

Lunch was a relaxed affair sitting in a long row on the benches in a hide looking for all the world like a crowded-together row of roosting birds in a chicken-house with our noses in our tupperware feeding boxes! We had a stretch of grass and a large lagoon in front of us and watched shelducks and gulls, their white feathers looking very bright against the ruffled, indigo water. Three butterflies whizzed past and two of us happened to be looking in the right direction at the right moment to see a kingfisher streak by.

After lunch, we did a circuit of part of the reserve where we saw lots of greylag geese resting in the sun, all facing into the wind, spotted several open-ended mink-monitoring boxes floating in watercourses and, along the sea wall, heard an oystercatcher piping as it flew past and the lovely queee-queee-queee of redshanks calling as the tide was going down.

The highlight of the day was hearing the 'ping' of a bearded tit and then, with patience, seeing several as they dashed from time to time among the reeds on the landward side of the sea wall. It was impossible to see their colour as we were looking into the sun, though, because of that, the reeds shone a beautiful pale gold - just like a field of giant barley rippling in the breeze.

We stopped at a hide where the sea wall juts furthest into the huge estuary and my binoculared and telescoped companions scoured the water for seals. I was kept intrigued by discussions about a far blob which, according to the moment and the person, was either whitish-grey or very dark and was either a seagull, or a corvid, or a seal! In the end, the consensus was that we remained undecided. Still, it was fun to speculate and, from someone equipped with only unaided eyesight, rather an amusing conversation to listen to.

The other highlight on the way back to our taxi meeting place was a good view of two male bar-tailed godwits in handsome rust-red breeding plumage amongst all their pale buff-and-grey winter-feathered companions. Seeing them in their handsome breeding colouring is a relatively unusual sight in this country - these individuals had obviously got on with their feather-change before going to their summer breeding grounds near the coasts of extreme northern Norway and western Russia.

Just before we left, I heard a marsh frog calling. It sounded exactly as if it were laughing - maybe at the sight of a batch of humans with faces red from a day in the sun and wind, a fact that we only realised when we were standing around looking at one another while waiting for the train. Spring, it was obvious, had definitely arrived!

Many thanks to Catherine Day for this.