This article was first published in the Newsletter of the London Natural History Society, No. 240 February 2016
Halloween proved a good choice for our 2015 visit to the Thames estuary at Leigh-on-Sea. It was a mild, exceptionally calm day, though too hazy to see the Kent coast, and good views of a Kingfisher and a Short-eared Owl were highlights which we do not manage every year. The annual spectacle of large numbers of Brent Geese scattered across the mud at low tide can pretty much be guaranteed but there seemed to be even more than usual. If this is correct, perhaps it was because the early date meant that there was still plenty of Eelgrass Zostera for them to share.
As we arrived at the jetty at Leigh a young lady was being photographed against the moody backdrop of the estuary. We examined it for the detail rather than the overall effect. At first only a few Redshanks were obvious but we soon found a Curlew, two Black-tailed Godwits and further out groups of Knot and Dunlin. By the cockle sheds two Common Gulls were confronting each other and calling furiously.
I always hope we will find something to look at on the walk back past the station to the bridge to Two Tree Island. However as we walk in single file along the embankment it can be tricky to make sure everyone sees a bird on the path ahead of us. I think we were successful this time with a female Green Woodpecker. Views of Kingfishers can also be brief and difficult to share but the one which was visiting the old sewage works on the island perched for long periods on the concrete or vegetation. Four Little Grebes were on the water there.
The tide was coming in quickly as we ate lunch at the pillbox at the east end of the island, bringing Brent Geese, Grey Plover, Curlew and around 50 Little Egrets closer to us. We stopped at the hide by the reedy lake and appropriately saw at least three Reed Buntings. The tide was such that there was no mud at the slipway and we did not linger there but carried on to the hide overlooking the lagoon at the west end of the island.
There was already a good gathering of waders but they were almost immediately disturbed by a Short-eared Owl flying over. Our first view was perhaps the best but during our hour or so in the hide it appeared three or four more times over the sea wall on the mainland side of the creek. The most numerous waders this year were Dunlin and Ringed Plover with Knot only flying in later. There were also good numbers of Grey Plover and Lapwing.
Perhaps because of the owl the waders seemed quite jumpy though the 10 or so Snipe adopted the alternative tactic of hiding in the vegetation.
The regular rearrangements gave us a good chance of finding all the species present. Most of the Avocets stayed in a group of around 50 at the far end of the lagoon but a few more active ones were scattered around. There were at least 12 Greenshank, a single Bar-tailed and several Black-tailed Godwits. A few Golden Plover looked particularly handsome in the low afternoon sun.