After a busy week, I felt in great need of some wide open space today so I headed to Cliffe and the marshes. I know of few landscapes more soothing to my mind, or more rewarding for the nature-lover than this expanse of estuary and today it delivered on both.
With the heavy morning haze burning off to leave a bright, simmering autumn day, I started in Cliffe church yard amidst a din of whistling starlings. A few goldcrests called from the boundary oaks along with two handsome, fresh chiffchaffs. Several dunnocks peeped and, as I glanced up in the direction of a rattling mistle thrush, two swallows zipped by the tower.
Down on the rspb reserve it wasn't long before I spotted the long-staying, immature spoonbill roosting on one of the ski pool islands. Further scanning brought my first two pintails of the autumn, along with a single ruff and greenshank. The pools were ruled by fleets of coots. With high tide some way off there was little of note on Flamingo - a few more pintails sailed serenely by and dozens of little egrets strutted along the weedy edges, but lapwings were conspicuous once again. Even relatively early in the day, the air was thick with insect life and crane flies and flies of all sorts continually bounced off me. Dragonflies and darters buzzed through the scrub and a clouded yellow butterfly kicked up and charged past me on the track down to the river. The butterflies it seems were enjoying the balmy autumn weather with clouded yellows abundant along the river wall. From a personal perspective, it seems to have been a good year too for wall butterflies and another one lived up to its name today, flitting amongst the grass in the sunny seclusion of the river wall at the Thames View Point.
With only the slightest easterly breeze I expected the river to be quiet, so it was nice to see two juvenile kittiwakes flying up and down mid-channel between passing ships. While watching these my eye fell unexpectedly on the large, dark shape of a juvenile gannet flying low over the water, down river away from me. Walking east along the wall, black-headed gulls and several common gulls made up the throng, hawking high over head for the insect bounty. At Lower Hope Point, utilising an upturned bucket, I was happy just to sit and watch the river flow for a while. At one point I head a distant, hoarse tern call and managed to pick out a small bird with discreet black head markings mid-river. With a good view difficult due to the haze, a black-headed gull did me a favour by flying along side it and dwarfing my bird in the process - revealing a presumably juvenile little tern.
Plodding on, I passed a family sat quietly on the bank and a fisherman on the saltings doing little more than I had been, minus a bucket. Beyond him I could see birds scurrying back and forth on the sea wall and, edging closer, saw eight of them were stonechats, hurriedly feeding on the swarming flies. They were joined at the banquet by four wheatears and yet more meadow pipits. I could watch wheatears all day long and maybe, because I knew these might be the last ones I see this year, they looked extra smart. Walking back, I met the fisherman again and stopped to ask about his catch. Not good, nothing in fact. He told me how he used to catch cod there years ago but not any more in this part of the estuary. I wondered if this was due to disturbance and the new port development but he thought it was overfishing. He went on to say how he'd been visiting the same stretch of river for 45 years and some of the things that had changed on the marshes. He wasn't hopeful but it was interesting and I liked hearing about it.
Heading back around by Allen's pond, I heard the shrill whistle of a kingfisher and crept round in time to see a bird perched in some dead, overhanging buddleia. It was gone in a flash but I stayed and waited and it soon returned. Again, I was happy just to sit and stare, surrounded by the sweet, slurred calls of chiffchaffs as they pinged about the dense undergrowth.