Tag Archives: stonechat

More Rainham wildlife

The terrain at Rainham Marshes is fairly varied with beach, river, lakes, reedbeds, scrub and grassland amidst the industrial conurbation of the Thames Estuary.  And with varied terrain comes varied birdlife including wader, ducks, birds of prey and passerines:

A lone black tailed godwit (Limosa limosa, Dansk: stor kobber-sneppe) amongst a group of teal (Anas crecca, Dansk: krikand) at the lakeside with reedbeds in the background

As well as godwit a small flock of lapwing (Vanellus vanellus, Dansk: vibe) would occasionally lift of the ground as an alarm was raised over some perceived threat, circle around for a minute or two before returning to where they were flushed from. I’ve seen that kind of behaviour before in response to the sighting of a predator such as a peregrine falcon, but I didn’t see any predators of that ilk so maybe an unseen ground predator such as a fox was in the vicinity.

And across another section of reedbed was the raised Eurostar train track and a transport depot full of trucks just beyond

And I love this image of another stonechat craning from the top of a bulrush to keep a wary eye on what we were up to:


We had heard a report that at the far end of the reserve toward the landfill hill there were short eared owls in the area, and later on in the afternoon we decided to wander down that way to see if we could find them. And it didn’t take long…

Short eared owl (Asio flammeus, Dansk: mosehornugle) patrolling the reedbeds

And that heralded the start of probably the best display of owl activity of any species that I’ve ever seen. And I’ll post some more shorty pictures next time. But isn’t this guy a beauty?!

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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.

The frozen Fen

The winter frost finally arrived in my corner of Cambridgeshire in the last week and it left the landscape with a thick coating of pure crystalline whiteness. So I was able to indulge my recently discovered fascination with more abstract nature photography:

Ice needles formed on horse hair snagged on barbed wire scattering the sunshine

My trip out to Burwell Fen, east of Cambridge, early last Saturday morning was spectacular as a result of the frosty weather. I set off with my friend, David, around 8am with a view to catching some more sightings of short eared owls, and at that time the temperature was well below freezing. But it was one of those beautiful misty mornings where the mist is thin and lets through lots of light but the density waxed and waned, creating constantly changing, ghostly conditions. Which is lovely to look at but not so good for finding wildlife.

As we approached the Fen, driving out the back of Reach through Tubney Fen (which, incidentally, has had nesting avocet in previous years), roe deer and red-legged partridge were in abundance (no exaggeration!) . I like partridge and I see them quite often around Histon, but I usually flush them before I can get close enough to photograph them, but on this instance the car made a great hide.

Three of a small flock of red-legged partridge absorbing the heat from a huge pile of dung. Splendid birds,  bizarre that people want to shoot them rather than just look at them.

Red-legged partridge (Alectoris rufa, Dansk: rødhøne) were introduced to England from Europe and alas for them they are a game bird.

Roe deer (Capreolus capreolus) were also much in evidence, we counted 43, and at one point on the Fen they were flushed and moved en masse and we counted 31. I don’t think I’ve ever seen that many in one go and it was a terrific sight. We think the four below were part of a family of five, the fifth just out of shot. The big one on the right is the female, the horned one in the middle is the male and the other two are youngsters, the third youngster is the one out of shot.


Four of a family of five roe deerRoe deer tracks with a 2p coin to show the size. They were mixed with muntjac tracks, but could be distinguished by the larger size:

Muntjac deer tracks

Roe deer are native to the UK but muntjac, also known as the barking deer, were introduced from China to Woburn in Befordshire where escapes and releases, and their obvious liking for the Home Counties led to a rapid expansion of their population. I regularly see and hear them in Histon, and the barking sound they make is quite unlike anything likely to be heard in the English countryside.

Whilst scanning for owl, I spotted a stonechat in the grass (Saxicola torquatus, Dansk: Sortstrubet bynkefugl):


Male stonechat

The stonechat is a resident breeder and a migrant to the UK and frequents the kind of scrubby countryside found on Burwell Fen.

Then when the mist lifted and the morning developed into a very cold but very sunny one, the owls appeared, and we had lots of sightings. We chatted to a BBC camera man in the car park who had come to film the short eared owls and he must have captured some good footage by the time he went home.

They are great to watch, they hunt low over the scrub for rodents and regularly get chased up in the air by crows and on one occasion, a kestrel.


Short eared owl

Short eard owls (Asio flammeus, Dansk: mosehornugle) have a small breeding population in the UK, but also migrate here in the winter from northern Europe. I’ve heard that they are here in larger numbers than normal this year due to last year being a good lemming year in Scandinavia. Whatever the reason I’ve heard a number of reports of sizeable groups in Essex, Cambridgeshire and Northamptonshire. They are diurnal and therefore easier to see than most owls and they are very distinctive. The underside is largely white, the winspan is around a metre and the pale brown spot toward the end of the top of the wing is also easy to see and differentiate them. They also have bright yellow eyes which I’ve heard is characteristic of owls which hunt in daylight – but I’ve not found any hard evidence for that.

Lastly, we had several encounters with this group of nine grey partridge, also known as the English partridge (Perdix perdix, Dansk: agerhøne). The numbers of our own partridge have plummeted catastrophically in recent decades, by up to 90%. I see the occasional one around Histon, but it was good to see this group on the Fen.


Six of a group of nine grey partridge

The red/brown head and lack of white face, black eye stripe and white wing markings clearly distinguish the grey from the red-legged partridge. The difference in demeanour was remarkable, the red-legs seemed relatively unfazed by our presence and were easy to see and photograph, but the greys sat tight, very low to the ground, and flew away at the slightest disturbance.

In one trip we saw all the UK partridge species, and lots of short eared owls, and more roe deer than I’ve ever seen before in one go. Well worth the early start on a freezing morning!