Cooling Marshes, Kent, 7th December 2014

Thursday, 26 June 2014


NW Kent, June 2014

I am alone in a forest clearing at dusk. It is quite plausible to think there is no one else around for a mile in either direction; it could even be that the blinking lights of the slowly groaning planes streaking over head are the closest thing I have to human company at this point.

But there are signs of a presence here. Across the clearing in front of me are the stubby shoulder-height tufts of coppiced sweet chestnut trees and, in the corner, a pile of machinery waits quietly next to the coppiced trees latest incarnation – a neat stack of sharpened fence posts. This is a working forest like many used to be. It partly explains why I’m here now.

From my vantage point in the middle of the large clearing I can see the line of trees, living and already fence-like, encircling me. Or rather I can pick them out against the sky - a ghostly shade of blue and dimming quickly. There is no wind to distort the scene and so a dusk chorus, that overlooked lament, resounds with the same fervour of a dawn. A bold, shrieking song thrush nearby is the undisputed winner and has its song echoed by another some distance away. Robin and Blackbird chime in too. High overhead, unseen, a party of swallows chatter by like late-night revellers. Otherwise the only sound I can discern is the occasional patter of moths as they flick against my jacket. I don’t know why they’re doing that.

And then in the half light, I spot some movement to my left. Silently, a smallish, long-winged shape glides from one of those chestnut stools and descends effortlessly to the ground, out of sight (and out of sheer chance) only 20 metres away. Though a fleeting glimpse, there is enough light to make out some subtler features of the bird, chiefly its mottled colouring and distinct shape.

Then it starts, a sort of gurgling sound, like a small engine ticking over. For a second I can’t work out if it is a sound carrying from miles away, but then I realise I am very close and this is akin to listening to a warm up behind closed doors. After several minutes there is a further flurry of movement – there are two birds – but I can only follow the path of one as it glides off towards the trees on the far side.

“Uuuuuuuuuuuuuuurrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr errrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr”

Over the next 20 minutes the sound continues, at first like a door creaking open, then an unearthly hum. It moves around invisibly in the near-darkness and reveals two males sparring from different sides of the vast clearing. I can see the silhouette of one perched in a tree some distance away. Then, I have a strange feeling that something has brushed past me or that there is something near me, I’m largely helpless to determine what, until I glance up and stare straight at the outline of a Nightjar hovering just feet from my face. It is an incredible moment and I sort of gulp with equal parts surprise and delight. There is a moment as it moves and whatever pale light is left flicks across, illuminating it - and I think it’s something I won’t forget for a long time.

Read about this fascinating bird here

Friday, 13 June 2014


In another poor week for environmental news it's nice to have something to cheer, however small it may this case small, fluffy and awkward looking. It was great to hear the news today that at least two (out of three) pairs of Black-winged Stilts have successfully hatched young - the first in the UK for 27 years. One of these sites is Cliffe Pools - a favourite local site of mine, which makes it that bit more special perhaps. On one of my first ever 'birding' trips abroad, to Portugal a few years ago, Black-winged stilts were the bird that caught my imagination most as they strode elegantly around some Algarve saltflats. On that occasion I watched a nesting pair too and was struck by their diligence and care, and their defiance in the face of prolonged mobbing by gulls. It's always stuck with me. So to have been able to watch something similar unfold here is great and if you get a chance to go and have a look you should.

Of course there is still some way to go, in reality life just got harder for those birds but fingers crossed that in a few weeks we'll have several more gangly and beautiful reasons to be cheerful.

Black-winged Stilt, Cliffe Pools RSPB, (Himantopus himantopus) 24/5/14

Well done (and thanks) to the RSPB staff and volunteers who worked all hours to help them get this far.