This article was first published in the Newsletter of the London Natural History Society, No. 240 February 2016
Our first bird walk of the New Year was just outside the LNHS recording area. The forecast was for rain all day, but five people braved the forecast to join me at the railway station. While we were waiting for the last connecting train I spotted a Rook flying over; there is a Rookery in the trees NE of here.
Leaving the station we walked east through the park, where Francis found a Fieldfare in the hedge, although it quickly vanished. At the path beyond, there were several Redwings calling in the trees but these also quickly flew off through the trees.
We stopped at the pond at the south of the old tip, where we found two Gadwall and two Teal, then Nick found a pair of Stonechats on the vegetation beyond the pond. We waited a while in case any raptors appeared and were rewarded by a Marsh Harrier appearing. It was the other side of the tip mound and just giving glimpses as it came up, but then it hunted nearer to us. It was a cream crowned bird but with all dark wings. The harrier also put up some Skylarks and a Stock Dove flew over.
We then walked on the footpath south of the tip towards the Thames. There are trees on both sides of the path here so it isn’t easy to spot birds when you’re in a group, but we flushed 13 Stock Doves, had a Green Woodpecker fly over and about fifty Lapwing over. After hearing Goldcrest calling, we managed to find two Goldcrests in the hedge and then a Cetti’s Warbler sang near us. As often happens with these birds, although it sounded like it was just next to us, there was no sign of the bird.
As we reached the sea wall at the Thames, it began to spit rain and remained damp for most of the day. In addition the tide was a long way out, so seeing birds wasn’t easy. This was where I usually see all the waders (including Avocets) but numbers were low today, with only Grey Plover, Curlew and Dunlin showing.
We walked south along the sea wall footpath seeing a flock of Linnets just west of the wall and more Stonechats. Some Meadow Pipits flew up calling and I asked people to try and remember their call (which I hear as ‘pip, pip, pip’) to compare with hoped for Rock Pipits.
At the saltings there was one Little Egret feeding and a Reed Bunting was seen; there was also a Shelduck on the mud. A pipit flew up with quite a different call (which I hear as ‘feest’) which I thought was a Rock Pipit but it vanished.
On the old lagoons we had more views of Reed Buntings and Stonechats and an adult Great Black-backed Gull flew east. I then suggested we walk further on past the fort in search of Corn Buntings. This proved to be the right thing to do because we soon had 11 Corn Buntings fly over us giving their characteristic clicking call before dropping down into the saltings to feed and out of sight. We weren’t able to see much of the plumage of these birds so it was nice to then find 14 more Corn Buntings sitting in a tree south of the fort. We got the telescope on these so people could see what we were looking at. They are very much ‘brown jobs’ with not much in the way of distinctive features, but clearly larger than House Sparrows and smaller than Skylarks.
We now retire to have lunch and shelter from the wind at the fort, where we discovered that there are now toilets – a nice bonus.
We then made our way back north along the sea wall although it became damper now. A group of thirty Corn Buntings flew up from the saltings, clicking away. A little late I put my binoculars on eight gulls flying SW over the land just west of us and realised they were Little Gulls! Those I managed to get a good view of were adults, showing all grey upper wings and all black underwings. Andrew then said he’d seen an odd gull earlier but I was too far in front of him to get my attention but he wondered if it was one of these.
Soon after, a first-year Little Gull flew south over the mud east of us giving much better views, and showing the distinctive black W lines on the upper wing, which was probably Andrew’s bird. We also managed to find seven Black-tailed Godwits on the mud and hear another possible Rock Pipit before heavier rain made bird watching difficult.
It was drier by the time we reached the north end of the sea wall but we couldn’t find any Avocets. This site usually has 200 or more Avocets in winter and this is the first time I’ve visited the site without seeing them. Perhaps they were all over on the Kent side of the river at the Cliffe RSPB reserve which is just opposite.
The walk back to the station added Long-tailed Tit and Greenfinch to the day list, plus a pair of Shoveler at the pond. Here we also saw a male Sparrowhawk, which Jan spotted flying towards us over the tip and which obligingly perched on a post for us all to see.