Trip report Elmley NNR 23rd March

Nine members of the group met up at Elmley’s car park after a slow drive along the main track birding along the way. We had all seen different birds along the way including kestrel, red-legged partridge, common buzzard, and ruff.

Several marsh harrier were seen from the track, including one with wing tags with X6 on them. Speaking to one of the wardens later it is apparently a well known individual, originally ringed and tagged in a nest of three males in Hardley, Norfolk. It was spotted at Elmley earlier this winter and has been seen regularly on the Elmley estate. It’s presence at Elmley was the first sighting of any of the nestlings to have been seen since they were ringed on 17th June 2023, so the ringers are delighted to know it successfully fledged. Apparently it actually as a dislocated/deformed leg but that wasn’t apparent in the photos I took or whilst watching it and it doesn’t appear to have impeded its ability to feed, so here’s hoping it continues to flourish. My photograph below isn’t the best quality, but you can see the X6 clearly.

A distant view of X6 marsh harrier © Sue

Huge flocks of starling swirled around as the harriers and crows flew over, whilst the sound and view of displaying lapwing added to the overall thrill of the drive in. Redshank were piping from the wet marshes, their evocative call showing why they are often known as the “warden of the marshes” as they are often the first bird to alarm when danger is spotted. Shoveler, shelduck, mute swan, and teal were also seen with a distant cormorant perched on a post trying to look like a bird of prey.

Skylark were singing as we continued up the track and continued throughout our day and their territorial display gave us another sign of spring. Pied wagtail was strutting around in the car park, with house sparrow chattering in the bushes near the buildings. Cetti’s warbler sang out from the scrub by the pond near the car park, and at least one little grebe was diving here. Despite scanning at this point we could not see any short-eared owl in the plantation area, we just hoped for more luck later in the day. More marsh harrier were seen however, with one particularly striking male in bright plumage which almost shone in the sunlight.

Male marsh harrier © Bruce

As we walked down to the hides the tide was rising and we wanted to take advantage of birds being pushed onto the land and pools in front of the hides at high tide. In the ponds along the path we found little grebe, moorhen, coot, mallard, tufted duck, and on the marshy edges oystercatcher, and a dozen or more turnstone were found roosting. Red-legged partridge were seen scurrying away into long grass.

In the fields we could see many greylag geese, with a few distant Canada geese. Whilst scanning the fields a huge flock of starling took to the air, followed by another and then a peregrine was spotted. Everyone watched with binoculars and naked eyes as it flew around, showing itself very well then it started to gain height and flew away from us, little egret were feeding in some of the ditches, and at one point a lapwing decided it was too close to their territory and started to mob the egret with dives making contact several times as the egret cowered away from its attacker. Eventually the lapwing won and the egret flew off. Later in the day we met one of the Elmley wardens who showed us a photograph of four lapwing eggs in a nest, so maybe the lapwing was protecting more than territory and had a nest nearby.

Little grebe © Bruce

A group of at least 157 curlew were feeding on one of the fields but we couldn’t find one with any colour rings denoting it being part of the Elmley re-introduction from last year. As the project continues though I am sure we will see them in Kent in the future.

The path to the Wellmarsh hide was wet and muddy but we all negotiated it without incident. Black-headed gull were on the islands in the pool in front of the hide, in the distance we could see a flock of avocets. A group of around a dozen dunlin flew past but didn’t land in view. A very cryptic brown hare was found which was just viewable with a telescope, but it is amazing how they can hide themselves by hunkering low down in relatively short grass.

We walked to Southfleet Hide for a different angle and lunch. The angle helped well with the avocet count as soon after we arrived a marsh harrier flew over and put them all up. They then landed in a string rather than a close group – hence we estimated the number at 370. At the back of the pool were black-headed gull, one of them appeared to have a rosy hue to the neck. This is a well known aberration in some gulls and is thought to relate to their diet, some birds eat a diet which contains carotenoid pigments, similar to the pink of flamingos which eat algae containing carotenoid pigments. I tried to get a photograph as the difference showed well through binoculars and telescope but the distance was too far for the camera to register a defined difference.

Avocet group © Sue

After enjoying lunch in the hide we made our return journey. The helpful local Warden pointed out a spoonbill which had hunkered down in a nearby reedbed – it really looked like a sleeping mute swan, but with the telescope you could see the face and top of the bill. The ‘spoon’ was defiantly hidden from view however.

Walking into the wind with heavy grey clouds gathering, our return walk was rather swifter than the journey to the hides. This gave us time to look for and successfully see a short-eared owl. An individual which had perched on one of the posts in the ‘usual area’ by the car park. After a few minutes it took off and was hovering for several minutes about four feet off the ground completely transfixed by something in the grass below it. A stunning bird with such control as it was hanging in the air and a delight to see.

Short-eared owl © Bruce

At this point it was almost time to leave as we needed to be off the Elmley estate by 4 pm. Some of us took a short walk to the schoolhouse were little owl are known to be seen, but they eluded us today. We did however see a group of blue tit and some cowslips in flower – the first I’ve seen this year. A couple of brown hare were also seen here.

We had a great day, and managed to avoid the storm clouds that gathered around us, with a few light showers and a bit of hail – nothing compared to that experience in Gravesend that afternoon.

Cowslip © Sue

I’m sure there were other sightings on the day that I have not mentioned so please add yours in the comments below this post.

Thanks to all those who came along and especially to Bruce for his excellent photographs.


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