Gulls, Gulls, Gulls… Rainham Marshes

21 12 2010

Sunrise Over East London

Back in good old blighty for the holidays I have popped out for a little birding locally and have already picked up a couple of nice birds including Little Owl and Firecrest a bird I hadn’t seen for years. Firecrests probably rate as one of many British birders favorite breeding birds. They are like a really exceptionally intricately plumaged and pretty Golden-crowned Kinglet. The local listserve (here) had come in particularly handy for finding some good birding spots nearby and working out what might be around and there seem to be enough helpful birders  wandering any likely looking spots in town that even out in the field you can pick up a few tips on what is around (thanks to Paul Whitehouse for some info about Walthamstow Reservoirs – contributor to blog here).

I have to say though that being so used to just being able to wander out of my house and find birds in Connecticut, it is a little weird being in London where one has to actively travel to go birding and even then the returns for effort expended can sometimes feel a little poor (perhaps a reason why twitching is so big here in comparison!) Not so much a knock on London but a realization that one has it pretty good being a birder in New England.  This is also coupled with the fact that most/all of these birds aren’t really totally new to me so there isn’t that excitement of being in a truly foreign land.

Still when Dominic Mitchell (who traveled with myself and Joe Bear on the Sunrise Birding tour of Colorado earlier in the year) was kind enough to take a day out of his London Big Year (see details on his blog here) and offered to let me join him at his local patch Rainham Marshes (RSPB Website here)  I jumped at the chance. Not only was it a site that wasn’t even open to the public when I left the UK, but also it was one that held the possibility of a potential lifer in the shape of a Caspian Gull.

I set off with the promise of a cold but sunny day (proof that weather forecasting is as inexact a science across the pond as it is in the US). Running a little late, it was already snowing when I arrived and Dominic informed me I’d just missed a possible highlight bird for the day in the shape of 3 (Bohemian) Waxwings. This is something of an banner year for these stunning birds here in the UK and I had seen reports of them showing up in small numbers across the London area in the last few days. I think these were the first that Dominic had ever tallied at his local patch, which was pretty amazing when I looked at some of the goodies he’d picked up here over the years.

The RSPB, who run Rainham have done a pretty spectacular job on setting up a really fantastic center with a great little cafe, store and some great views of the site and a multitude of feeders. Even on first arrival impressions it seemed like Dominic had picked a good day to meet, the plummeting temps were causing a rather impressive cold weather movement of birds. As we wandered out onto the property we were soon picking up some nice sightings including a Goldcrest, a bird I had seen a couple of times since I arrived here but that had been difficult to find at Rainham apparently so far this year.

Highlight for me though was picking up rather nice flight views of a Yellowhammer overhead. There was plenty of overhead action in general as we walked the wooded area at the start of the trail, including a pretty decent flight of Skylarks. It was then that Dominic heard the distinctive call of 4 Waxwings and along with a beginners birding group we managed to watch them in flight for quite a while as they streamed off to search out and plunder the next patch of berry bedecked shrubs they would come across.

The next stop, a rather rough and ready feeding station, produced our first look at some Reed Buntings (a bird that North American sparrow fans such as myself are bound to enjoy) amongst the usual tit species. Out amidst the muddy fields and pools there was an incredible wealth of waterfowl including a morass of Wigeon and Teal. We scanned through the birds in hopes of turning up a North American version of either bird, however the usual guide tips for identifying female Wigeon seemed to be somewhat confounded by the incredible variation exhibited by these birds in the field! Still we did have one interesting looking drake Wigeon, which seemed to show a very extensive greenish patch through the head, whether this was natural variation or some form of hybridization I couldn’t say for sure – it certainly gave the bird a very distinct appearance in the field.

After picking out a few of the less common waterfowl species we moved on, but by now the snow was coming down hard and the footing was becoming distinctly dangerous. This culminated in something of a disaster when both Dominic and his camera took a slip on the ice. I have to say he dealt with the camera mishap situation better than I would have, if it had been me there would definitely have been swearing and tears involved!!!


Gulls Over Rainham

Anyway, with the snow coming down thick and fast now, we decided to go out and see how treacherous the roads had gotten and make our way over to the landfill and see what was around in the shape of interesting birds. I have to say gulls are not my favorite birds but Dominic was doing his best to convince me that they could be fun. Actually it was all quite fascinating discussing how to separate British (argenteus) and Scandinavian (argentatus) Herring Gulls. We then moved onto full species as Dominic picked out a variety of Yellow-legged Gulls for my perusal and then finally he came up trumps with a rather nice looking (4th winter?) Caspian Gull. Once pointed out, the Caspian Gull was pretty distinctive: being pretty darker backed than the Herrings, essentially almost totally white-headed and with a pretty distinctive bill shape and bare part coloration. I even managed to relocate the bird a couple of times – although to be fair it was lingering in about the same area most of the time.

As we sifted through the thousands of Common and Black-headed Gulls and a good number of large white headed gulls I thought of the guys back in CT for who this would have been something of a dream come true – yes I mean you Nick and Patrick!!! I could also start to see some of the appeal of these birds – although their habits and the smell of the places they seem to most enjoy residing are certainly less appealing!!! I have to say the challenge strikes me as being a little more fun here than in CT where the main ‘rarities’ that you are likely to come across are the rather more obvious white-winged gulls and anything else is something along the million to one shot lines. Excuse my crappy digiscoped Caspian Gull below, you can see some better shots of the gulls that frequent Rainham on Dominic’s Flickr site (here.)

Caspian Gull - Luke Tiller

Being without my scope on this trip (always such a pain to pack), I was feeling like a bit of a fifth wheel while Dominic picked stuff out, so I started to scan for possible raptors on the Saltings behind us. No raptors to speak of, but I did manage to pick out the distinctive flashes of a passing Snow Bunting. Unfortunately my descriptions of where the bird was in the sky left something to be desired and Dom never quite got on it. He however did trust me enough to post it to the listserve – probably because they had seen one a couple of days before at Rainham (and I was particularly pleased/relieved that the bird? was relocated by a couple of other birders the next day!)

We ended the day scanning the shores of the Thames and picking up another few decent species for the day including one of my favorite British birds: Stonechat as well as a number of waders including a rather nice Curlew and a favorite duck of mine: Shelduck. All in all it was a fantastic day out at Rainham with a good number of decent birds, including a lifer, but more important for me personally was just to be out somewhere really birdy and to enjoy some really top notch company for the day. Thanks again to Dominic for a great day out. Just gutted we didn’t manage to find him something new for his London Big Year!



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