How often have you heard the phrase, "You should have been here five minutes ago?" Such comments are frequent among birdwatchers, and are always infuriating. Do I need to know that the bittern that has been feeding in the open for two hours has just returned to hiding, or that the rare bird has just put in it's once every three hours appearance? Hearing such comments invariably leaves birdwatchers feeling frustrated about what they have missed, rather than rejoicing at what they have seen.
Two more phrases that I find annoying are, "It's very quiet," and, "There's not much about today." That all depends on what your expectations are. All too often, when we hear such comments it means, "There's no rarities," or, "There's nothing I didn't expect to see." That's all very well, but if you are beginner, or first time visitor, then your expectations may be very different, and to be told that there's not much around can be very off-putting.
This is especially when you then look out of the hide window and see large flocks of birds close by, as is usually the case on the Scrape. You only need to sit in East Hide for a few minutes and you are likely to have amazing views of gadwalls, shovelers and teals just a few metres from you. You won't even need binoculars to appreciate their amazing colours at this time of year.
Drake shoveler, by Steve Everett
Take a few minutes to scan farther out across the Scrape - binoculars will be needed now - and you should find mallards, wigeons and gleaming white shelducks without too much difficulty. You may choose to skip past the gulls, for now, and concentrate on the ducks as you try to work out which females go with which males.
Female shoveler by Steve Everett. The massive bill certainly helps you to ID this female duck!
A cluster of black and white birds catches your eye. Avocets! They've usually left us by now, heading to the estuaries for the winter, but this year a group of up to 16 have remained. Once temperatures drop they may leave, until February, so let's enjoy them while they're here. Another elegant, long-billed wader feeds close by. The identification of this one is a bit more tricky, so you pluck up the courage to ask for help from the RSPB volunteer in the hide with you. It's a black-tailed godwit. What's more, the volunteer then points out the turnstone probing among stones on the edge of a nearby island. It's so small that you'd missed it.
Turnstone by Jon Evans. If they're not on the Scrape, then check the concrete sluice outfall, where up to ten have been seen this week.
As you chat to the guide, they mention a bird that you've possibly never even heard of - Caspian gull. You look it up in your fieldguide and can't find it. Puzzled, you ask why it's not there. The volunteer guide calmly explains that Caspian gull, and the closely related yellow-legged gull, are relatively new species, that used to be considered races of herring gulls. Ah, you've heard of one of those. They're the gulls that steal your chips! Big brutes. The guide patiently points out both a Caspian and a yellow-legged gull (or two), though you're not sure whether you'll ever manage to identify those for yourself. Then you realise that many of the gulls are even bigger than the herring gulls, and the guide explains that these are great black-backed gulls.
Enthused by seeing so many birds, if a little overwhelmed by the intricacies of large gull identification, you wander on around the Coast Trail. The guide suggested that you keep an eye open for stonechats and Dartford warblers in the dunes. They may be eluding you today, but a few dunnocks and robins get the pulse racing fora moment. Then another birdwatcher calls you over to show you a couple of snow buntings feeding along the edge of the dunes. It takes a moment to spot them on the shingle, such is their camouflage.
Snow bunting by Les Cater
As you walk back through the reedbed, enjoying the tranquillity of a winter walk through a beautiful wetland, you're woken from you daydreams by a sudden burst of repetitive song as a Cetti's warbler proclaims it's presence. You probably won't see this bird itself, but the song is unmistakable - though you have to wait until you're back in the visitor centre to identify it when you relate your experiences to our reception volunteers. If you're lucky, a bearded tit may ping from the reedbed or perhaps even pose briefly alongside the path.
It's been a great day so far, so after treating yourself to a cheese scone and cake in the cafe, you decide to wander down to Island Mere to watch the sun set over the reeds. With such an amazing landscape before, it really doesn't matter whether your luck is in or not. If it is, then you may glimpse an otter swimming across the mere, or a bittern may wander out of the reeds to feed. If not, you're happy to "make do" with a marsh harrier quartering back and forth across the reeds and a couple of cormorants disappearing beneath the water in search of fish. As the light fades, and more harriers arrive to roost, your day is completed by a barn owl hunting in the distance, before you return wearily to the car.
Otters are most regularly seen at Island Mere, but may also be glimpsed crossing the North Wall
If that sounds like your ideal day, then why not visit us this winter. Don't forget that you can also book a place on one of our guided walks to really pick the brains of our excellent volunteers.
If it sounds quiet, and you decide to give us a miss, then you won't have a chance to spot birds like yellow-browed warbler, whooper swan, Bewick's swan or goosander, all of which have been seen in the last couple of days.
The choice is yours.
PS we were treated to a starling murmuration on Thursday evening but they didn't show on Friday. Hopefully they were just checking us ready to spend longer with us later int eh winter. Watch this space!
I do agree. If people can't appreciate just being in such a landscape then it's time they learnt. Would you rather be at the Hanger Lane roundabout?
We spend 90% of net income on conservation, public education and advocacy
The RSPB is a member of BirdLife International. Find out more about the partnership
© The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) is a registered charity: England and Wales no. 207076, Scotland no. SC037654