Rainham Marshes

Normally when I head out into the wilds I like to get to somewhere where there is little or no evidence of humans, my benchmark for a good place is  the complete absence of human noise. And that’s not usually easy to do. But on this trip back in December I found myself in a place that was everything I’d normally avoid!

A view across the marshes to the hill in the background which is an enormous landfill site, full of Londan’s waste

I was at the RSPB reserve at Rainham Marshes which is in that part of estuary Essex I’d only normally visit if I had to, but apart from that it was bordered by industry on one side, landfill on another, a motorway and the Eurostar trainline on the third side and the River Thames providing the boundary on the fourth, southern, edge. But despite my original prejudice it turned out to be a brilliant place to see some great wildlife and bizarrely it was actually enhanced by the hubbub going on all around.

Stonechat (Saxicola rubicola, Dansk: sortstrubet bynkefugl)

On entering the reserve, just beyond the visitor centre a male stonechat was perched on a twig close by, and I like stonechats – they’re very smart birds – so I took it as a good omen that I would see lots more wildlife. And the little guy was indeed a harbinger of things to come. Despite its green conservation status and being a resident in the UK, I don’t see stonechats very often, so I was pleased to see this one so close by.

The terrain at Rainham is interesting. It’s a combination of marshy reedbeds, small lakes, grassy scrub and in the middle is a disused military shooting range which I think dates back to the world wars. But altogether it’s a little oasis of wilderness in the midst of the industrial devastation that dominates this part of the Thames estuary to the east of London.

Reeds, wigeon, lake, lapwing and in the distance a marsh harrier perched on a fence with an oil storage facility in the background

The marsh harrier (Circus aeruginosus, Dansk: rørhøg) is a magnificent bird of prey which I see fairly frequently as they quarter the low lying fenland that prevails to the north and east of Cambridge and the occasional one drifts through over the fields where I live, and here was a female showing her prominent golden crown, hunting over the marshes at Rainham. This species of harrier is another bird of prey which was virtually driven to extinction in the UK but has recovered in the last 40 years, presumably as the use of DDT ceased. And in the foreground on the island in the lake were wigeon (Anas penelope, Dansk: pibeand), lapwing (Vanellus vanellus, Dansk vibe) an unidentified gull and what I think may be starlings.

The lapwing take flight in  front of a pair of huge wind turbines

May be there were so many species and numbers here because they were hemmed in to a small area of suitable habitat, but further east along the estuary, deeper into Essex, there are huge areas of tidal mudflats on the Thames and other river estuaries, so this could be the western extremes of that expanse of habitat. Either way, the diversity of the birdlife here on the marshes was remarkable.

A male shoveller looking resplendent and with that enormous beak to the fore

I said further back up this post that the southern boundary of the reserve is the river Thames, and to make the point, beyond the dyke which provided protection from the coastal tides of the river, a ship headed out to sea…


It really is a diverse and fascinating place! And somewhere I’m hoping to visit again before the winter is over.

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10 responses to “Rainham Marshes

  1. What a great place and all the more special because of its industrial surroundings. I love the first image of the view across the marshes, and also the wonderful photo of the Stonechat; I don’t think I’ve ever seen one before – or I wouldn’t have known what it was if I had!

  2. You should have ample chance to fulfill your final thought, as the winter hasn’t even begun yet. It’s good to see that you had such a rewarding day with the flittering feathered folk. Your photo of the stonechat is my favorite, although the one of the shoveler is a close second, with that skeptical look in his little yellow-green eye.

    • I think it’s begun for real here in the UK now, but I’m hoping to get back there or may be to the other side of the Thames estuary at Cliffe Pools suggested below by Tony. Either way I’ll hopefully encounter some interesting wildlife!

      The stonechat is my favourite too, I don’t often see them, and even more seldom so close up!

  3. Interesting post. Some days the best birding is where you least expect it.

  4. RSPB Cliffe Pools is another place just like this, hubbub all around but a stunning reserve nonetheless.

    • Hello Tony, that’s on the opposite bank of the Thames to Rainham, but I’ve never been to that part of the world. I’ll add it to my list of destinations to take a look at.

  5. What a superb bird habitat and your images are wonderful (as usual).
    You’re lucky in being able to photograph the bird life without too many obstacles in this area. That male shoveller is a particularly fine shot.

    My recent move to a western suburb of Melbourne overlooking a Nature Reserve is proving to be very challenging to get a lens focal point through the thick undergrowth as well as thick upper foliage storey. With over 100 bird species in the area, I had high hopes of some fine bird spotting, but perhaps its too early in my new location to have such high expectations.

    • Thanks Vicki, it is a great place to see wildlife. My approach is to just wander around until something photogenic flits past, and occasionally I sit and wait to see what appears. Either way, something nearly always does, so I reckon with a bit of patience you’ll get there! Good luck.

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