Marsh Sandpiper and Black-winged Stilt at Cliffe Pools, Kent – 31st July

Having followed reports of a juvenile Marsh Sandpiper on the north Kent marshes for the last few weeks, now seemed a good time to go to see it. This is an eastern European and taiga-breeding wader that I had recorded previously in Cyprus in 2012, so it would be a British list addition. But as most citations on RBA stated the bird was being observed distantly, I waited until there was more of interest at the site to make a day out worthwhile.

The RSPB-managed Cliffe Pools reserve (TQ721769), on the Thames estuary just east of Gravesend has a mixture of big salt water lagoons, fresh water pools and grassland; with a network of visitor trails. It attracts large numbers of waders and wildfowl and has hosted other scarcities such as Lesser Yellowlegs and Terek Sandpiper in recent years. This is one of three English sites where Black-winged Stilt have bred in 2017, and as the end of July approached Spoonbill, more than 1300 Avocet and 1700-plus Black-tailed Godwit were all present here.

marsh sandpiper.1201 akrotiri

Marsh Sandpiper, April 2012

Hence the time seemed right for a visit, but having dipped three out of my last four national birds – a female King Eider duck in mid-Wales being the most recent – I needed a talisman to change my luck. Ewan duly obliged, accepting an invitation to partake of a little Mediterranean birding in soggiest English July. We arrived on site late morning and set out to find “Radar Pool” where the Marsh Sandpiper was being reported on RBA.

I soon became distracted by the numerous Migrant Hawker dragonflies along our route, while Ewan strode on ahead as is his wont. When I caught up with him he was talking to three local birders who put us onto the Marsh Sandpiper: a talisman indeed and an immediate connect! Our target was associating with two Greenshank and somewhat resembled a smaller version of the latter. It is just about visible in this picture (below) along the shoreline, right of the furthest right Egret; but I really should have brought my digiscoping kit. For a comparison photo published on RBA recently see here.

cliffe pools.1703The bird then moved through a gap onto a larger lagoon to the east of Radar Pool and gave us good if always distant views. I recalled at once the species’ delicate jizz from my experiences five years ago at Phassouri Marsh on Cyprus’ Akrotiri peninsula. MS is between Wood Sandpiper and Redshank in size, with a very fine dark bill, slim body and neck, and long spindly legs. It has a dainty walk and rather deliberate downward dabbing bill movement. The species inhabits grassy lowland marshes and pools and migrates through eastern Europe to winter in Africa, the southern Middle East and India. There are typically several British records each year.

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From our second viewpoint large concentrations of Avocet and Black-tailed Godwit were indeed visible, as well as two Spoonbill and numbers of Little Egret and common waders. It now remained to find the Black-winged Stilts, and the local birders directed us to where they had last observed them. But as we walked around the reserve’s perimeter track a Peregrine put all the waders up, so a bit of a search ensued. Ewan forged on ahead again and when I eventually re-joined him he had located the family party of seven Black-winged Stilt from the northern edge of the marsh.

Two pairs have fledged seven chicks following long term habitat creation work (see here). This was my third British encounter with a rather special water bird that I have watched on numerous occasions in southern European wetlands. It would be difficult to tire of such a beautiful, even exotic looking species : tall, slim and elegant with those endless red legs that seem barely capable of supporting the body weight. As with the Marsh Sandpiper the birds were too distant to photograph, so here instead is my best archive picture from Tavira marsh in Portugal. For recent pictures of the Kent birds see here.

black-winged stilt.1410.tavira marsh

Black-winged Stilt, May 2014

This had been a very satisfying day out and the extensive marshland reserve of Cliffe Pools had not disappointed. The vast open spaces and untroubled environment for birds here reminded me of Alkborough Flats on the Humber estuary where I went to see a Purple Gallinule last October (see here). For me there is just too much going on at many Royal Society for Populist Birdwatching (RSPB) reserves for visiting them to be enjoyable. But today’s more tranquil site is how I prefer things to be and testimony to all the fantastic conservation work the charity undertakes, before the mass marketing that funds it all sets in and spoils everything. If only there was another and better way.

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Migrant Hawker (immature male)

Everywhere around the visitor trails today there were reminders of approaching autumn: flowering Buddleia, ripening Blackberries and newly flying Migrant Hawkers. I had gained one more bird on my British list and hope the summer’s bad run of form is now over and more new birds will be added in the shortening days of the passage season ahead.