Cooling Marshes, Kent, 7th December 2014

Saturday, 29 September 2012

An evening with Sir David Attenborough

Sir David Attenborough and Errol Fuller in conservation with Daniel Finkelstein, 27/9/12 

Like a lot of other kids I grew up with David Attenborough's genial, khaki-clad persona accompanying countless memorable images and stories from his nature series on the TV; so I was really excited to have the chance to see him 'in person' at a Times event in Bloomsbury on Thursday evening.

The event saw Sir David in conversation with the chief arts editor of the paper, alongside Errol Fuller, with whom he has collaborated on a new project. The pair were talking about 'Drawn from Paradise' - a stunning new book that charts the natural history and artistic representation of New Guinea's amazing Birds of Paradise. After some endearing fumbles with a laptop, the pair discussed a handful of the 42 (or so) species of the endemic Birds of Paradise, recounting their own adventures en route and close calls with dangerous snakes and cannibals among other things!

It was interesting to hear how the birds achieved there familial name. When early explorers arrived in the area, they were shown the exotic skins of the birds that, for decorative purposes, were missing both wings and feet. Never having seen such dazzling items before and being confused by their appearance, they were apparently reported back as being from birds that literally 'floated in paradise', drinking sun dew from clouds (!). These incredible plumes have been able to evolve because the bird's forest habitat is relatively 'new' and being an island with fragmented populations means there are few mammalian predators to trouble them. As a result they have evolved to be as gaudy and showy as they like:

But conversely it is these magnificent, attention-seeking plumes that actually guarantee the birds some degree of safety in the forests. While some hunting does occur, the birds have important cultural value to local people and their plumes continue to play a role in decoration and status-wear. Before becoming a Hollywood star, apparently Errol Flynn tried his hand in the New Guinea plume trade before a series of dubious events saw him return to America. But it seems the main threat to these birds is from encroaching development on their rainforest habitat - something which even a an island as remote as New Guinea is experiencing. At the conclusion of the Q&A that followed, Sir David, with such characteristic verbal dexterity, gave an impassioned plea to preserve many such ecosystems around the world. Marketing conservation around a single species such as polar bears or pandas is all well and good, but it is protection of ecosystems that is key. Prompted to identify one, it was the loss of rainforests that "represents a real, real threat to mankind" in his view. The mountainous rainforests of Papua New Guinea are just one example of such threatened habitats, but in the Birds of Paradise contain one of the most stunningly vivid examples of evolution and biodiversity. In his words, "who could've dreamed them up?!".

Lawe's Parotia (Parotia lawesii) by Richard Bowdler Sharpe/WikiCommons

Donate Support Save the rainforests

Check out 'Drawn from Paradise' here, it's a beautiful book.

Monday, 24 September 2012

Season of the twitch

OK, I'll admit it, I've had that pun in mind for a while, I was just waiting for the right time to use it. That time is now:

"Showery with a chance of warblers" - winds this evening

Having been away for a few days it was great to check in tonight and see some of the birds that have been arriving in the last few days. There have been a smattering of amazing finds across the country, courtesy of those nice purple arrows from the east and from across the Atlantic too (what the image above doesn't show is the mass of low pressure building west of Spain, apparently the tail end of Hurricane Nadine which has been pinging around the mid-Atlantic recently). These autumn lows straddling the British Isles at the moment mean it's a great time to be a duck or a birder but not, uh, someone who hates shitty weather.

While I'm probably not going to get to see a Magnolia Warbler anytime soon (but best of luck to those sods heading north, what a beauty) I'm glad to say I've managed to get out and see a couple of great birds from across the pond in the last week or so. A trip down to Dungeness last weekend coincided with the arrival of a juvenile Pectoral Sandpiper on the RSPB reserve. After a fair few Baillion's-less hours at Rainham, it was nice to get an old fashioned tick and run with some good views. In fact it was so easy, even my tolerant-but-non-birdy friends enjoyed it. First hide, 100m from the car park and there it was - front and centre 20-30m away:

Crap photo, nice bird: digiscoped record shot of Pectoral Sandpiper (Calidris melanotos)
RSPB Dungeness, Kent, 15/9/12
If you squint, you can just about make out the streaking on the breast, curving inwards to leave the whitish, unmarked belly. The yellowish legs are more apparent and it shows the general appearance of the bird. It was an active, stocky bird, moving restlessly along the edge of the mudbank, perhaps in a more determined fashion than I have seen with Ruff. A regular vagrant from the states, it was nice to see my first Pec Sand. My friends thought it was pretty ok, although the nice male Redstart that perched on the fence at the back of Derek Jarman's garden got a more uniform seal of approval.

Anyway, so from one of the more common vagrant stateside waders to one of the rarest, a spur of the moment trip to Hampshire this weekend meant I was pretty close to another nearctic visitor...

Season of Do'witch:

Short-billed Dowitcher (Limnodromus griseus) RSPB Lodmoor, Dorset, 21/9/12

Yep, check it out - these are some dubious photos of the mega Short-billed Dowitcher that has been down at RSPB Lodmoor in Dorset for the last two weeks. The drive to Weymouth was fairly arduous, especially since I managed to do the last 25 miles on country lanes, but the views were amazing and totally worth it. After finding the site and the area where the bird was frequenting, I was pleased to spot it almost straight away. The place was quiet with just a handful of other birders milling about and as I wandered down the path and glanced out over the nearest pool, I could see something against the reeds on the far side - there it was, happy as you like. It soon ventured out further, wading into the middle of the pool and along the near shore, perhaps only 20m away at times. The light was good too and allowed for a comprehensive impression of the bird; in short it looked like what would happen if you crossed a Snipe with a Black-tailed Godwit. The head was very well marked with a clean pale supercilium and crown, a sturdy bill, widening at the base. The tertial feathers, which were given as being a crucial ID pointer, did appear to be well patterned, unlike those of the very similar (and more common vagrant) Long-billed Dowitcher. It's muted peachy breast and mottled/caramel back contrasted with its pale, mid-length legs. It was one busy bird too, the whole time I watched the bird, it didn't stop moving! It had its head in the water a lot of the time, jerking back and forth as it fed. Mind you, given the distance it's got to go, you can't blame it! I think this was only the 2nd or 3rd record for Short-billed Dowitcher in the British Isles so it's great to have seen this one so well.

Nothing else this weekend quite matched that that (!) but I did see my first flock of whistling autumn Wigeon, twenty or so birds settling on a shallow pool on the Hampshire coast. There were quite a few groups of Grey Plover on the Keyhaven marshes too. Alongside these archetypal 'winter birds', cheery yellow wagtails darted here and there as a steady stream of swallows passed purposefully overhead, heading south. It was wonderful to observe the comings and goings of these birds, like watching the seasons unfold in real time before my eyes.

Twitching birds like the Short-billed Dowitcher is a lot of fun but in the next month I'll be setting my sights somewhat lower and aiming to find something good myself closer to home. A Ring Ouzel would be good, or a Firecrest perhaps - Shetland can wait.

Monday, 17 September 2012

When it comes to badgers, it IS black and white...

Badger (Meles meles) source: 

When it comes to badgers, it is black and white – there is simply no excuse for the appalling situation we find ourselves facing today. Despite good scientific evidence in favour of vaccinations and widespread appeals, our dear government looks likely to press ahead with plans to start a trial cull of badgers in Gloucestershire and Somerset. According to reports this could result in the needless deaths of 100,000 animals or a third of the national population. 

It was interesting to talk to a few friends at the weekend about the Badger cull. They’re all good, smart, clued up folk, yet I was quite surprised to find some were not aware of the issue or the proposed cull. And that’s totally fine, I mean it doesn’t have to crop up in everyday life or interest everyone but rather than reflect a lack of interest, I think it’s more a sign of how well the media (and the government) have managed to keep this under the radar. Who can blame them though when there's more pressing matters to address (or undress?) like some women's pixellated tits. It was nice to see the issue make the front page of the Guardian this morning, rather than quietly filed under the ‘Environment’ tab (or on page17 of a Red Top).

I think this is a story deserving of every front page, heralding as it does a sinister dark pass in the government’s thinking on how to manage the countryside. Owen Paterson, Environment Secretary, even managed to spin it as helping badgers - by not allowing them to suffer the effects of bTb. And vaccination would do what? I’m having a pretty hard time getting my head around the chain of events.

We find ourselves on the verge of witnessing the needless slaughter of an iconic and much loved native animal. It’s a decision that flies in the face of sound scientific evidence and is instead fuelled by a bloody minded insistence that they know best. Expensive, unsustainable and destructive, the desire for action in a direct, physical sense has replaced all sane, compassionate thought. Forget the fact that this won’t work and will cause numerous problems for farmers, landowners, protesters and others, it promotes a way of managing the countryside that ultimately threatens something far greater than a single species. It perpetuates the image that nature and our countryside is something that needs to be battled and fought against with GUNS and steely determination. Midnight SWAT teams descending on woodlands and field boundaries, ruthlessly crashing through terminating THE ENEMY. What a message to send. THIS…this is the BEST we can come up with? Are you f**king kidding?!

So what happens next?

Well, it’s worth taking a look at this short video and signing the petition if you haven’t already. Then tell all your friends. Look, you couldn't say no to David Attenborough could you?!:

The petition is a long shot and unlikely to make any difference at this late stage, but it will provide them with an idea as to the strength of public feeling on the subject. With the Badger Trust’s judicial challenge failing last week, parliament not sitting until mid-October and the permits already flying out of Natural England, you’re guess is as good as mine as to what will happen. I’d like to think of them all sitting there as the door bursts open and a messenger runs in yelling ”WAIT, wait…have a look at THIS!”, before he slings a folder with 100,000 signatures across the table. But I’m not sure it works like that. Why not tell your MP what you think too? Check here for details. At the very least you'll get a fancy headed letter in the post.

Every nature lover in the country wants to see farmers make a living and bovine tubercolosis (bTb) eliminated, but this is NOT the way to do it. It's time we showed some respect. I feel sorry for the farmers who'll have to go through this, who have been put in this position by the government. For while I am sure there will be some for whom the cull is of little significance, another job on the list, there will be those who are saddened and shocked by the actions.

Apologies if this was a rambling, repetitive blog, one of those days. I'll leave the last word to Johnny Rotten:


Thursday, 13 September 2012

Excerpts from 'A Norfolk Diary, 1911'

“August 16th - Saw the 3 young Montagus near Blackfleet on my way to Horsey. They have shorter tails than the old bird, and look the colour of a Marsh Harrier...”

This diary excerpt comes from 'A Season of Birds' and what has to be the best charity shop find ever by my friend Joanne. We've been pouring over it for months so I thought I'd put something on here about it.

I would've paid £1.99 for the Wheatear cover alone

This beautiful book recounts, in diary form, the daily wildlife sightings of a Norfolk estate keeper called Jim Vincent as he tended to the Hickling Broad estate in 1911. Hickling Broad is a name no doubt familiar to many bird lovers and nature enthusiasts as one Norfolk's 'must visit' locations and it's amazing to read this insight into what rural life was like in the area during the early part of the century. According to the book, Jim Vincent was employed by a wealthy landowner, the Hon. Edwin Montagu (good name!) who was a keen shooter on the broads (he also went on to become a minister in Herbert Asquith’s government). Jim, an excellent local naturalist, was employed to keep the estate in good condition (thus ensuring waterfowl for shoots) and through this relationship, Montagu developed a wider interest in the birds of the area and ultimately in the conservation of the broads. He was evidently inspired by Vincent’s knowledge and enthusiasm enough to pursue publication of his diary of sightings in 1911.

Vincent's daily entries are generally brief recollections of the birds he saw that day but even in this, there is value as he provides a first hand account of bird species and numbers in the area over a hundred years ago. Although Hickling remains relatively untouched (it's a Norfolk Wildlife Trust reserve now) so much has changed across the countryside since then that it's hard not to be fascinated. 

"21st September - flushed 2 corn crakes and a spotted crake. A corn crake was bought to me by a man who thought it ‘an uncommon bird’"

Of all the birds he recorded in his diary though, the one that really struck me as being a signifier of such change and one which receives almost daily updates (during the season) is Montagu's Harrier

"9th May - have seen today an old male Montagu and female. These may be the pair that bred last year, as the male was not in good plumage and would have improved in plumage this year, but of this it is difficult to prove"

This is Jim's first record in the diary of the bird and he reveals that Montagu's were present in the area the previous year. Infact, 1910 marked the first year the birds had nested in Norfolk, after last being sighted in 1887. He goes on to report as many as seven pairs in the area that year - that's amazing to think isn't it?! His diary also recalls some of the lengths gone to to ensure breeding success for the birds, including raising a nest as floods threatened one of the areas and placing 'watchers' at certain points. He was obviously well aware of the conflict of interests birds like it bring.

"13th june – saw a black tern (good bird) on hickling broad. Saw 9 geese flying away w. About 20 yards high. they looked like Egyptians. These often occur in the summer months. No doubt escaped birds from somewhere. Have seen nothing whatever of the male montagu and have great fears he is dead"

"8th August - Lowne of Yarmoth (taxidermist) showed me a male montagu received from Martham, that was shot and sent to him. It is no doubt the missing male from Backfleet, as he has been missing the last few days, and corresponds with him in plumage."

Montagu's Harriers, which are named after a 19th Century naturalist called George Montagu, are very rare breeders in the UK now, with only a handful of pairs recorded loosley around southern England/Midlands, and have suffered in the last century through persecution and habitat loss. After reading this book, I saw this article from the RSPB appealing for information about Montagu's Harriers in Eastern England, it came about after a pair of Montagu's failed to return to their nest site in Norfolk in 2012. While the pair may have simply relocated elsewhere, it is sad how such a stunning bird has become so hard to find now.

The stunning illustrations in the book were done by an eminent conservationist and bird artist of the time - G.E Lodge. They are incredibly rendered and keenly observed from real life sketches showing each bird in its natural habitat. Here: Curlew Sandpiper (top) and Sandwich Tern (bottom) both recorded at Hickling Broad in 1911.

As well as Monties, the diary describes all manner of bird life around Hickling Broad across the year including Bitterns and Cuckoos. On 22nd June, the day of King George V's coronation, he reports: "saw a swift on Hickling Broad when crossing over to the village for coronation festivities, with a piece of red tape tied to its leg". Is it possible this bird could be an early ringed individual?

"20th December - calm in morning, gale sprung up from w. Raining all day. Saw the female Hen-harrier near Lodge. There were quite 600 Pochard upon Horsey today, also 2 adult Goldeneyes in company with dozen immature, several tufted ducks and a small grebe, which judging by its size might be an Eared (Black-necked) Grebe. There were hundreds of Peewits in the marshes, which i noticed some two hours before the gale went up to a great height and appeared as mere specks wheeling about into all fantastic shapes."

I wonder what Jim Vincent would make of the changes in bird populations today? A hundred years on from writing his diary would he be shocked at the changes in agricultural practices...and the ongoing desperate fight to protect birds of prey from illegal persecution? This diary is an important document of the natural history of a significant time and place. 

Montagu’s Harrier (female). Like all birds of prey, the female is larger than the male. The nest is composed of rushes, sedge or coarse grasses lined with finer materials, made on an open piece of ground surrounded by high vegetation. 

"It must be remembered that birds are not just passing migrants who suddenly decide to drop in for a season; they are reconnaissance experts who stay and continue to visit annually only when the habitat is to their liking" - Jim Vincent

Many thanks to Jo Mildenhall (the Kemsing birder) who is Norfolk-bound herself. All quotes and images from the book used with best intentions. I hope I did them justice.

A wild weekend

Last weekend was a lot of fun, here's a little bit about what I got up to...

Baillon Out...

Getting news of a juvenile Baillon's Crake at RSPB Rainham Marshes late on Friday night was a good way to start the weekend. I don't have the money or a working car stereo to make regular twitches that fun, but of course I love seeing new birds, especially if they are poking about right in front of a hide about 15 miles away, on a warm, sunny weekend. So this twitch was a no brainer.

And no brains is right, cos having got up at 5am on Saturday, I took a wrong turn en route to Rainham; I was still in the packed out hide by twenty past but missed a good showing by the blighter by <2 minutes. That wrong turn (sleepy auto pilot taking me onto the A2 instead of M25) cost me at least 5 minutes. Rookie mistake. I did see it briefly on two occasions around 7am as it flew between reedbeds down to the right, but while it offered an interesting size/jizz comparison, it was otherwise almost worse than seeing nothing really! So close, but hey, that's what it's all about. After that flurry of excitement I zoned out for an hour or two, blinking into the warm sun whilst keeping an eye on the reeds in front of the hide. I saw the backsides of lots of Moorhens and Coots and a couple of hobbies zipped about, dismantling dragonflies right in front of us, but at 10am I needed a breather so that was it for me. Looks like it'll be around for a bit so might give it another go this week. Some interesting talk of the origins of this bird - could it be one of the best signs yet that a few secretive Baillon's Crakes are now breeding here?

Little Grebe - definitley NOT a Baillon's Crake. 

"The game is never over"

After arriving home for a late breakfast I headed off again to Barnes Wetland Centre on the other side of London. It's been a while since I visited and I thought again how good it was to see children and families mixing it with a few groups of birders, all out enjoying the glorious weather. My friend Kelly and I saw a pair of Kingfishers zipping along, a Sparrowhawk soaring overhead and a fresh brood of the littlest grebes I've ever seen. We also saw the otters! But my main reason for visiting was to see a talk by Mark Avery. I guess most people reading this know who Mark is but for those who don't, he's a conservationist who spent 25 years working for the RSPB, including the post of Conservation Director for over 12 years. He's now a freelance pain in the arse to many politicans (probably), relentlessly campaigning for and promoting nature conservation through his excellent blog among other things.

I really enjoyed the talk which was followed by a Q&A session covering a range of topics from Cormorants, people power and yep...Buzzards! Mark shared his thoughts on current conservation issues, some successes (the legal designation of protected nature sites such as SSSIs, SPAs etc)  and some "not quite successes (yet - Hen Harriers)" as well as some personal anecdotes from his new book, which I have just started. His insights into the political side of things were really interesting and most of all, encouraging. "When it comes to nature conservation, the game is never over" he said, a thoughtful comment highlighting the ongoing struggle to preserve it and hopefully the ever-rising voices defending nature and attempting to influence political will.


On Sunday I jumped in the car again and headed down to RSPB Northward Hill in Kent, for an always welcome trip down memory lane. The 10 months I spent there as an RSPB Residential Volunteer (until May this year) were among the best of my life. What I saw and learned there still makes me smile today. I got to know an incredible area of open, wild land, biologically diverse and always full of surprises. It's a special place and the annual Wildlife & Countryside Fair was a great way to celebrate it. It was nice going back as a punter this year. The new cover crop was full of bright, blooming sunflowers and there was lots to see. A Yellow Wagtail shot overhead as I queued for an ice cream and from the viewpoint I saw two Marsh Harriers patrolling ditches in the distance. It was also great to finally meet Gill and Joan - the two incredibly passionate and hard working women behind The Friends of the North Kent Marshes. I love what they do and if you're at all interested in some of the challenges this area (and by extension the whole country) faces, please check them out here and follow them on twitter for regular updates.

I whiled away the dying embers of the afternoon sat on the steps at Grain beach, watching the creeping tide prompt hundreds of curlews and oystercatchers into flight, a good flock of mixed sandwich/comic terns wheeling away in a fit of hoarse yelps.

Grain beach, North Kent 9/9/12

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Buzzing about Batumi

I couldn't resist posting this amazing story that I heard about last week.

The Batumi Raptor Count group, based on the south eastern coast of the Black Sea in Georgia, posted their figures from a couple of incredible sessions held early last week. I'll let the numbers do the talking:

Batumi - Saghalvasho
Monday 3 September 2012   

Counting period: 6:30 - 19:00
Weather: Cloudy
Observers: Mael Sinoir, Johanna Yourstone, Guillaume Peplinski, Jan Hullen, Erwin Booij, 
Black Stork6Hen / Montagu's / Pallid Harrier1145
Honey Buzzard165080Common Buzzard1
Black Kite7150Booted Eagle37
Marsh Harrier282Osprey2
Pallid Harrier18European Roller277
Montagu's Harrier479

Totals: 174477 individuals, 11 species, 12:30 hours

Bold = Remarkable observation (scarce or rare species or large number)

Yep, you read that right - 165,080 Honey Buzzards in just over 12 hours! And that's not the end of it, here's a bit of a summary too:

"However our observations of two days ago on August 30th surpassed the expectations of even the most experienced counters currently working in Batumi. After one day of continuous hard rain on the 29th, where hardly a migrating bird could be spotted, a record-breaking number of 99,038 Honey Buzzards out of 102,293 raptors appeared out of nowhere above our observatories; an astounding number by any measure. The count was even more astonishing as in the week preceding the rain event we had already observed Honey Buzzard migration exceeding 150,000 birds. It is hard to put to words the awe that overcomes you when confronted with such a tsunami of birds. Quite frankly, one should just be here to have any sense of what such numbers really mean. It is  magical to feel excitement build among the observers with the ever increasing numbers collecting in vast kettles over the Kobuleti plains to the north … Huge towers of raptors, growing up to several 1000's of birds strong and several 100's of meters in height. And when finally the never-ending stream of birds arrives overhead, and when you hear the tally counters clicking like mad and see your fellow observers laughing -nearly hysterically- with hardly any time to eat, that's when you know what the Batumi craze is all about. As far as natural spectacles go, the migration in Batumi must be one of the most thrilling in the world".

As pictures like the ones here show, bird migration is surely one of the greatest spectacles in the natural world. It is confounding, mysterious and exciting to ponder; from Chaffinches suddenly arriving en masse in urban gardens in autumn to raptors heading south - an absolute joy to witness. While everyone's heard of Falsterbo, Gibraltar and the Bosphorus, it's great to see Batumi on the map, literally - I had to look it up (just north east of Turkey FYI). Worth a visit I reckon?!

BRC are a nature conservation NGO, working to monitor and protect the hundreds of thousands of birds of prey that migrate through the Republic of Georgia every year. Check them out here. Fantastic work.

Thursday, 6 September 2012

Reshuffle 2012

Just a short post about the cabinet reshuffle this week. Cheerier news to follow soon I hope (!)

Makes no sense at all

There was a bit of banter in the office yesterday about Cameron's cabinet reshuffle. I noticed a few people had the event scrolling live on their screens and every now and then there were a few 'hmms' out loud. The main response came when it was revealed that Owen Paterson was going to be the new Environment Secretary. His name didn't stick in my head so I looked him up and predictably, it wasn't great news. According to what sources you look at Caroline Spelman's replacement looks like an ideal fit for Cameron. Among other things:

  • He hates badgers (apparently he's an 'expert' on Bovine TB) 
  • He loves horses
  • He likes the possibilities of shale gas exploitation
  • He hates wind farms

With a background in rural issues (he was Shadow Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food between 2003-5) you might hope he's got good, well-informed opinions on things like farming, wildlife, hunting and sustainable food production. But when the Countryside Alliance are one of the first groups in to show support for his appointment you probably get an idea of what kind of Environment Secretary we're going to be dealing with. Oh and apparently, he's got £2.2 billion of Defra money to play with. I bet him and Richard Benyon are going to get on like a house on fire. 

I'm not an expert on these things but I would've liked Caroline Spelman to stay. She seemed like a good sort, a generally reliable voice in the ranks. But there's no doubt Cameron is closing ranks around himself now, like a general readying for a siege. It's long been known how this government feels about the environment and how with a total absence of foresight, innovation or reason they see no other way out than to attack it relentlessly. The desperate measures of a desperate man. I guess we'll have to see how things play out. I hope I'm surprised and Paterson et al gives our countryside and the wider environment the respect and support it desperately needs.

Apart from the re-shuffle there was lots of talk about Heathrow too, with the government set to make a U-turn on it's no third runway policy. What do you think about that? Here's what George Monbiot thinks and as ever he really nailed the whole issue in his Guardian blog this week. It's a great piece - short, articulate and powerful. Read it and weep:

The sound of silence

There have been a lot of interesting stories going around this week. I was going to put up a whole load of links but thought maybe that would be kinda dull. Instead here's just one that I found really moving and I really wanted to share. It's from the Guardian again:

Wow. How to follow that?

Sunday, 2 September 2012

Wader heaven: Cliffe Pools 1/9/12

RSPB Cliffe Pools, an Airport-free North Kent 

I was looking forward to yesterday. I really felt like spending some quality time with the scope and bins, having the kind of day where if I wanted to spend an hour contentedly scrutinising a distant muddy pool, I could.

I haven't done the full circuit at Cliffe for a while, but it's really one of my favourite places in the country I think. I guess it's a marmite site, you love it or hate it. Sure, if you go for the birds, you need good optics because they can be pretty distant in places, but there's always a chance you'll get lucky. If you just want to get away for a bit, get pummelled by winds off the Thames and stare at an expanse of gloriously scruffy marshes, grazed fields, lagoons and ditches, then it's a goldmine. 

I fancied it yesterday, conditions were good - warm but overcast, a slight (north) Westerly to start, and it turned out to be one of the best day's birding I've had in ages. 

I parked up and headed down the ash track for a bit before joining the old sea wall to check Shrike field. A nice skein of two hundred or so Black-tailed godwits flew over and dropped dramatically into the far pools but the field was just pigeons so I kicked through some rough towards the hawthorn scrub. While I was checking the old foundations for adders I saw a couple of birds flash from nowhere into a hawthorn nearby. Looking over I could instantly see a smart looking female Common Redstart perched on an outer branch. I got some nice views in the scope and a closer look also turned up a Lesser Whitethroat, a Common Whitethroat, a Blackcap and a pretty miffed Robin (which eventually pushed the Redstart out) all in the same bush!  

Round on Flamingo beach, it was still an hour or two before high tide so it was quiet; but there were a handful of Ringed Plovers, one or two juvs and adults going into winter plumage I think, a couple of terns and best of all, a ripping Bar-tailed Godwit in full summer dress. Best I've seen. Nothing on the river and the back track was quite too. I had hoped for Whinchat, but not this time. Nothing doing at Cuckoo bush either so I carried on to the Black Barn pools.

I spent best part of a year working out here and this spot was always one of the best. But for a lot of that time the pools were dry, they are much less saline and rely more on groundwater reserves than the others. So it was good to see them full (not surprising given our wet summer) and teeming with a stunning range of wading birds. Redshank were most abundant, feeding alongside Avocets, Lapwings and Black-tailed Godwits in the muted pinkish plumes of post-breeders. A single Snipe waddled among them, preening and scurrying for cover. On the near pool Dunlin and Ringed Plovers mingled and inevitably a couple of Curlew Sandpipers popped up amongst them. I was grateful for another birder giving directions for a Little Stint, think it was only the second I've seen and I'd forgotten how small they are! Best of all though came last. As a restless flock of Lapwing switched pools, put up by a Hobby overhead, a Wood Sandpiper appeared with them and at possibly the nearest point to me. It fed on its own, staying close to vegetation at the edge of the pool, where it was joined by a Green Sandpiper. Never had those two in one scope view before! It was my best views ever of Wood Sandpiper too, a really nice little bird on its way south.

After that I was starving so decided to start the walk back. An incredible flock of Avocets coloured the distant sky for a few moments, huge numbers shifting off the Essex mud with the tide. It was a nice way to finish a great few hours birding.

Want to see a useless digiscoped effort of a Bar-tailed Godwit? Of course you do:

Bar-tailed Godwit (Limosa lapponica) Male in deep red breeding plumage.
Note the  extent  to which it extends across underside, the thin, upturned bill and the squat posture in the water.

Some more photos:
An excitably annotated pic of the Wood Sandpiper (and a Green Sandpiper's backside).
What, you can't see it? It's right THERE.
Avocets feeding in the shallows, a lone Black-tailed Godwit with them.
Great Crested Grebe (Podiceps cristatus) starting to moult into winter plumage

Ringed Plover (6 rising to c50 on high tide later), Turnstone (6 briefly), Little Egret (10+), Oystercatcher (2), Bar-tailed Godwit (1), Black-tailed Godwit (c350), Common Tern (3), Black-headed Gull, Dunlin (2 rising to over 100 HT), Lapwing, Avocet (c1000), Snipe (1), Little Stint (1), Curlew Sandpiper (2), Green Sandpiper (3), Wood Sandpiper (1), Teal, Mallard, Wigeon, Shelduck, Ruff (14), Knot (2), Redshank, Spotted Redshank (4), Greenshank (2), Little Grebe, Great Crested Grebe, Coot.

Common Redstart (2 females - 1 in hawthorn bush between top of Flamingo and SSW, another later on bridleway close to Allen's Pond), Lesser Whitethroat (1 briefly in same bush as first Redstart), Common Whitethroat (2), Chiffchaff, Blackcap, Robin, Blue Tit, Great Tit, Reed Bunting, Woodpigeon, Collared Dove, Greenfinch, Chaffinch, Song Thrush (heard), Goldfinch, Starling (c200), Linnet (6), Wren, Magpie.

Hobby (1 over Black Barns before drifting and hawking dragonflies over river wall), Kestrel (1), Marsh Harrier (1), Sparrowhawk (1 female, across back track), Cormorant (multiple groups over), Pied Wagtail, Yellow Wagtail (1 over Flamingo, 1 later on BB3), Common Gull (19 on jetty), Herring Gull (1), Great Black-backed Gull (over), Meadow Pipit, Swallow (over pools throughout, generally moving south), Sand Martin (3), Jackdaw