We’ve had a very mild autumn so far, and after the passing-through of the Redstarts, Whinchats, Wrynecks, etc, the next step has been the influx of species that might want to hang around for the winter.
The first day out of note was a Sunday lunchtime/afternoon around the reservoirs next door in early October. A Black-necked Grebe had been reported on the West Warwick – the only one of the ten reservoirs in the chain that we’d never actually visited before – so we headed over to have a look for ourselves. There was plenty to see all along the trackside bank – Goldfinches, a couple of Great Spotted Woodpeckers, a Mistle Thrush, and at least three Stonechats. As we neared the southern end of the reservoir we noticed that some other birders on the opposite side were observing something – and that something turned out to be the grebe. A couple also told us of the location of a Goosander which I’d mentioned to them but didn’t know where exactly it had been seen. The grebe was watchable for some time before drifting out towards the middle of the reservoir, and then we headed back across the site to look for the Goosander. There was a fishing competition taking place which meant we couldn’t spend much time around the other reservoirs, but the Goosander was eventually located out near the eastern bank of Number Four, so we did a clockwise circuit and got reasonable views as it – of course – moved off towards the middle of the water as we got near.
The following weekend saw us head back over to Rainham Marshes. It turned out be a relatively quiet day on the RSPB reserve, but it brought us our first Golden Plovers of the year, along with several Snipe, and our first Pintails too. There had been reports in the preceding days of at least a couple of Short-eared Owls – though they had been mainly observed on the Dartford side of the river. After we’d had lunch and decided to head off, we though it might be an idea to do the long walk back to Rainham, just in case there was a Shortie over the Silt Lagoons. After a quick look at a Rock Pipit on the tideline we stopped on the Serin Mound for a few minutes to scan the marsh, and after a few minutes Jem frantically got my attention – just in time for me to turn around and watch a Short-eared Owl float up from the direction of the river and soar straight over our heads and up the landfill site behind us. After a few minutes it went out of sight, but then we relocated it back on the Wennington Marsh down below us, hunting over the grasses. We watched it for a full 45 minutes – unfortunately in only very poor light – during which time it came into aerial conflict with two Marsh Harriers. We saw the owl successfully catch prey on at least two occasions, but we think it dropped one rodent whilst avoiding a harrier attack. It was only when a third harrier appeared that the owl finally gave up, and made its escape back over our heads and over the crest of the landfill site. Just as the display came to an end the heavens opened and we made our retreat too, back to Rainham Station in the pouring rain.
Over the following week the reports of owls increased dramatically, with eight recorded at Rainham on one day. My issue is that I never seem to get to photograph them in good light – it’s always either under horrible grey cloud or when the light has faded too much at sunset – so I’m always extremely envious when I see people up and down the country showing off their beautiful ‘golden hour’ shots. The Short-eared Owl is my favourite bird to watch (the Long-eared Owl is my favourite bird, but in daytime they only seem to be roosting – and I’ve never seen one in the UK anyway), so it’s a big thing for me to try to get some good-quality Shortie shots.
The following Saturday was sunny, and so we made our way back to Rainham in the hope of getting a good look in better conditions. We arrived from the Rainham end, just in case there were any owls over the lagoon, but our only view was of a distant bird being mobbed high above the landfill. As we reached the Serin Mound I noticed groups of birders on the river wall, so we headed straight down to the car park where a line of birders was positioned above Aveley Bay. Straight away I noticed one owl sat on the grass near to the water’s edge. The other birders said it was only one they could see at that time, but that others had been seen briefly over the landfill. The owl sat there preening, and aside from a quick fly-around to a new position, did very little as the sun dropped at an alarming speed. Suddenly, a second bird that had been well hidden a few feet behind popped up and started to hunt, and then our owl did the same. We moved around the path to get better views as the owls hunted over the marshes. We watched – and talked to other birders – until the sun had gone and the night rolled in, still getting occasional glimpses in the gloom. I don’t know how many owls we saw, but there were reports of at least five that afternoon. I got better shots than I’d managed before, but still nothing of a quality anywhere close to what I’d like. I shall persevere.
And so to last week. I used up the last few days of my annual leave and had to stay in to receive some parcels and have our electricity meter replaced, but the weather was poor anyway. On the final day – the Tuesday – I decided to go out in the afternoon, despite the leaden skies and blustery wind, and head back to Rainham just really for the sake of getting out of the flat. I arrived from the Purfleet end at around 3pm and decided to spend my time on the river wall path. It was much windier than I would’ve liked, so I pretty much gave up any hope of seeing any owls. There was a Curlew feeding on a strip of mud and a few other waders – Lapwings and Redshanks mainly – dotted along the water’s edge. There weren’t many people around either – just one birder who passed me on his way back towards Purfleet (I assume he’d given up for the day) and a couple who were edging their way towards Aveley Bay. All of a sudden, I looked towards them and noticed that an owl was airborne and flying towards the landfill site, where it landed in the grass on the slope. I made my way over to the car park and waited, after it took off and started to hunt it was joined by a second owl. After a few minutes I lost sight of them and headed round to the Serin Mound, and one flew straight past me as I reached the mound. I looked across Wennington Marsh and noticed a third owl in the distance, in the company of two Marsh Harriers and a Kestrel. The original two owls were keeping to the landfill site, occasionally hunting low over my side, but then going over the crest and out of sight. After a while I noticed one had returned to my side and was perched on a fence post, but it was almost impossible to see in the gloom. When the second owl returned they hunted around the mound together, and gave me one good opportunity to get a decent shot as they both landed on fence posts and I was able to try a few longer exposures in order to get cleaner shots. Eventually one image came out fairly well – at least good enough to stick up on social media anyway. I also made a couple of video clips while the opportunity was there, but they won’t win me any Oscars. Eventually the light faded too much, I lost sight of the owls and it started to rain too. I headed back along the river wall towards Purfleet as night rolled in. On the way I had a couple of close owl encounters – perhaps of different birds to the ones I’d already seen – but in the darkness it was too difficult to see any more than enough to ID them as Shorties as their wings caught the light.