The last few days have produced some ideal conditions for those birdwatchers who enjoy the art of seawatching. I say art deliberately, because it's not to everyone's taste and requires a lot of practice to get it right, but the rewards can be worth it - sometimes!
Seawatching is just that. It requires hours spent sitting and staring out to sea. A telescope is an essential item, as many of the birds will be passing close to the horizon. Warm and waterproof clothing are a must, too, as the best conditions involve stormy weather, an onshore wind, and often (but not always) rain. It also requires patience, luck, and an acceptance that not everything will be identifiable - the birds could be a mile or so offshore, so it's not always possible to confirm the identity.
I will admit that I am not a great seawatcher. It doesn't help that I don't bring my telescope to work, or get up early enough to enjoy the best conditions - which are generally in the first few hours of daylight. Consequently, I have to make do with whatever birds are passing close enough to see with binoculars in the five or ten minutes that I may spend staring at the sea on a lunchtime wander. I'm usually happy enough to find a few gannets, common scoters, red-throated divers (in winter) or terns (in summer).
For those with the dedication to put in the hours required to really learn the art of seawatching, there will be many disappointing days, some exciting ones, and occasionally the bonus of seeing something very unusual. I have in the past, for example, been lucky enough to see humpback whale, king eider and great northern diver , as well as a grey seal that caught and killed a harbour porpoise just offshore.
One of our wardens spent a couple of hours seawatching on Saturday morning and counted an incredible 1042 red-throated divers, as well as 13 gannets, both pomarine and Arctic skuas and a grey phalarope. The latter was the second of these tiny waders that had been seen passing by this week. Today's highlights, as seen by a couple of our regular seawatchers, included three great skuas, a pomarine skua, a female long-tailed duck and two velvet scoters, as well as more gannets.
Even if seawatching doesn't float your boat (sorry!) is there a better way to spend a winter day then walking along a quiet beach, listening to the waves crashing onto the shore and the sound of shingle crunching under foot. I find it mesmerising just standing and watching the sea, while the child in me wants to follow the retreating waves down the beach then running back before the water washes over my feet. I find that getting a camera out is often a good way to ensure that you do get wet feet!
Another benefit of seawatching in the autumn is that you can often watch birds arriving on our shores from the continent. Small flocks of starlings, thrushes, finches or pipits may be arriving, or perhaps a bigger bird such as short-eared owl, Bewick's swan or even rough-legged buzzard.
One of our visitors watched three snow buntings arriving this morning, while a small flock of up to eight of these beautiful winter visitors were seen feeding among the shingle. As usual, they can be tricky to pin down as they scurry along the beach, utilising their camouflage to the maximum.
In case you're struggling to spot the bird in my photo, above, here's a better one taken by Jon Evans a few years ago.
There's still loads to see around the rest of the reserve too. Hundreds of wigeon, gadwall, teal, shoveler, mallard, lapwing and great black-backed gulls can be seen on the Scrape with smaller numbers of shelducks, greylag geese, herring and lesser black-backed gulls, up to 17 avocets, five black-tailed godwits and several snipe among them. Careful scanning through the gulls may reveal a few yellow-legged and Caspian gulls to really test your ID skills.
A highlight today was a cattle egret that flew low over the Scrape before being lost to view, while a great white egret remains in the Island Mere area. Bitterns are keeping a low profile at the moment, but both they and otters are seen at least once each day. More reliable sightings in the reedbed include marsh harriers, bearded tits and kingfishers, and Cetti's warblers can often be heard.
In the woods and around the visitor centre, sightings over the last few days have included a few bramblings, one or two firecrests, small flocks of siskins and the more regular long-tailed, marsh and coal tits, bullfinches and treecreepers. There were even a few waxwings on Saturday - flocks of two and twenty briefly at the work centre, then one for about 15 minutes in the North Bushes.
Brambling (above) and waxwing, both by Jon Evans
Finally, after all of the recent rain, you will require wellington boots to access the path from the sluice to South Hide.
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