Friday, 1 October 2021

Why don't you turn off your mobile phone (and go and do something more local instead?) - October

 At the Medway RSPB talk I promised a series of monthly 'what to do' blogposts to supplement the revamped 'where to watch pages'. A teaser slide went down fairly well... let's see how the full suggestions go down:


A Medway October

> Wader numbers race up; stage-moulters from higher up the flyway start to arrive to over-winter.
> Wildfowl continue to use the Medway as a hub. Numbers might seem static, but turnover is high.
> Diurnal migration builds throughout the month. In the western basin the estuary and the southern shore's remaining patchwork of fields funnel birds west. In the eastern basin the Callum ridge from south of Chetney to Lower Halstow can offer big numbers at low heights, whilst at the estuary mouth Sheerness always provides in-offs.
> Cloud arriving in the two hours before dawn can ground nocturnal migrants.
> Pale imitations of larger seawatching totals are possible out towards the Deep Water Channel off Sheppey. For any chance for scraps in the estuary itself, pray for rain and low cloud.

Tide sites of the month

  1) A spring covering at Queenborough. A chance of a big Brent Goose movement, and Thames refugees as the Grain roosts go under.
  2) A neap high tide at Riverside saltings. With wildfowling underway elsewhere, duck numbers rise in the RCP, and a fair number of waders also sit the top of the tide out at binocular range - try just east of the main car park before Mariners slipway.
  3) An ebb off Nor. As the tide falls below the five metre mark, flights of waders start to probe out from roost to the southern shore, and a big surge day always causes extra flighting; waders have an inbuilt tidal clock that can be fooled by waters held up by low pressure, leading to much to-ing and fro-ing (all best watched from Horrid Hill)

My perfect October day would be...

 - Morning: Eastcourt Meadows/ Horrid Hill. Working the scrub for nocturnal migrants, watching the sky for visible migration.
 - Mid-day: Queenborough/Rushenden. Signs of estuarine migration, more scattered bush bashing.
 - Late on: High up on the Callum ridge, watching over Barksore 'til dusk - raptors, wildfowl/wader flights, checking out a favourite Stock Dove roost.

Brent Geese arriving, Oct '15

Top 10 tips for October:

General birding:

1) If trying Viz Mig (visible migration)- do be out watching over the golden hour - the second hour after dawn. Movement is usually at its peak. And remember viz mig improves as the month marches on. Keep at it.

2) Look for signs of 'winter migrant shorebirds'. (I like some Americanisms.) October means the end of the stay for many staging waders that have used us as a stop-over, replaced by a build of bird numbers here for the winter. Day-to-day counts help confirm patterns, but watch for flocks of 10s, 20s, 30s (or more) that show signs of being arrivals. Sleeping out on the flats early in the uncovered part of the tidal cycle, birds that show a hesitancy to follow others up with the, only moving when the waters reach their belly feathers, flocks that come down from height.    

3) Winds in the north but rain in the face? Bartons Point for lazy seawatching. Sure, never as much on offer as at the north Kent honeypots, but you can still park on the bank at the right angle to watch out the car window (remember to do an extra low-carbon walk in the month to cover your carbon costs).

4) Go teen dating. 13th-19th a prime time for sibes. And keep checking up on the calls before going out.

5) Late in the month, start searching out local passerine roosts

Tips for adding value:
BTO WeBS Alerts are issued for those species for which a site was nationally/internationally important at the time it became protected (the 'designated features'). Of our 15 designated features here, at the last formal calculation (for 91/92- 16/17) 10 had High Alerts issued, 2 Medium Alerts. 
All counts for any of these species can prove useful data. Check the excellent interactive webpage out for full details, species accounts and graphs:

6) Make your Ringed Plover count:
High alert (for long term trend)
Short-term (5 years) +72% Medium term (10 years) +42% Long term (25 years) -72%
Boat surveys are now picking up autumnal migrant flocks more regularly, but numbers around the shoreline remain low and any October counts of roosts will prove useful data, especially at those sites only suitable on neap tides.

7) Make your Redshank count:
High alert (for long term trend)
Short-term (5 years) +24% Medium term (10 years) +4% Long term (25 years) -77%
Although Redshank numbers usually peak in September, October is still an excellent month to obtain high counts as feeding remains relatively easy and so birds tend to still congregate together for pre-roost assemblies. Any October count over 100 is meaningful, especially if assigned to a specific creek.

8) Make your Wigeon count:
High alert (for long term trend)
Short-term (5 years) -37% Medium term (10 years) -30% Long term (25 years) -71%
Wigeon numbers can be easily overlooked in October. Often eastern basin birds remain out more central, off of Ham Ooze/ in among the islands. Often few counts are submitted other than the WeBS in the western basin, with few for loafing numbers at low tide. Any three-figure October count within a specific creek is useful data.

9) Count a 'non-bird': Little Grebe
'Non-featured species' on WeBS Alerts are those for which we do not hold 'important numbers' but for which trends can be monitored and black= bad - in this case, declines in all periods:
Short-term (5 years) -67% Medium term (10 years) -76% Long term (25 years) -77%
Another species where an improvement is being seen thanks to increased coverage, but still overlooked. Latest five year average for the whole of the estuary is just 15. Any site-specific October count should prove useful data. 

10) And this month's whacky suggestion is:
Befriend a bait-digger. Ask how the digging's gone and can you have a look in their bucket. We're two user groups sharing the same area, after all.

Hot off the press for 2021:

 - Sadly, someone's gone and stolen the Ham Green Little Egret roost. It should peak around now, but went missing about a week ago. If anyone sees 250-ish Egrets where they haven't had them loitering before, get that data in.

Oct '19

For those who keep score, this month's potential:

(Since moving back in 2013, checks at the end of each year have shown annual totals in the 180s, 190s. That's helped by my birding daily here, but a north Kent 200 should be on for someone willing to chase it. This might help incentivise.)

October? Though never reaching totals as high as September/May, 110 species for the month should be an achievable target.

If you're aiming high, but birding purely the southern shore through the year, based on my numbers you might be past 165 by now and if you've been cheekily been including that estuary extension of the Deep Water Channel, you could be topping 180.

And finally, something for the listers: what's Medway missing?

This month's top three dreams:
  1) Our north Kent neighbours Thames and Swale have both bagged Little Bunting. (The cover crops call.)
  2) Surely time for a Penduline? (Motney reed bed calls.)
  3) A stain on the list is the Oakham's American/Pacific Golden Plover. Time to get specific. (Chetney calls.)

That's it for this month. Time to get out there and look, so...

Wednesday, 29 September 2021

Part two of the 'Southern shoreline site guide' goes live

Part two of my 'Where to watch' guide has gone live today, covering the Ham Green peninsula in two parts; Otterham to Shoregate and Lower Halstow to Shoregate.

The pagelink can be found in the sidebar, or you can just click here.

Saturday, 25 September 2021

Listing to one side

After last Tuesday's talk to the local RSPB Group on the estuary I made a rash promise to someone that I'd expand on one slide I'd shown about the species recorded officially on the Medway. Because, as per norm, I'd tried what to many is unconventional. Instead of showing a species list total, when I came back I made a Medway list that instead looked at percentages in comparison to adjacent areas. And highlighted the blanks.

The slide shown is reproduced below.

Yellow column, the Kent list.

Grey, the whole of the north Kent marshes.
Then subdivided to Thames/Medway (light blue) and Sheppey/Swale (light green)
Both these sectors then subdivided again so I could find a Medway list and compare to the neighbours.

(Before anyone asks, I gave all land inside of the sea wall along the north Medway to 'Thames'. I'm sure the Hoo listers wouldn't have it any other way.)

I was after percentages. As a whole, north Kent has recorded more than 83% of the Kent list. We're good up here. Sadly, the artificial inland estuary that is the Medway has only scraped together some 61% of the county list. We're the poor relation, and I wanted my table to show me why.

Let's take ducks. So many missing dabblers. When the estuary was discussed at Ramsar in 1971, we had some pretty good habitat for dabblers. We were #1 for Teal in Blighty at the time. Exactly 50 years later, reclamation and development have done for such claims, as well as a lack of decent reserves and shooting levels. Yet you'd think someone would have turned up a Green-winged Teal by now? Are birders looking hard enough? 44 square kilometres with limited shoreline access? Perhaps you could say we deserve a break, but even so.

Similarly the waders suffer some big, obvious gaps. Give us a hide with a freshwater scrape and then maybe, just maybe, things will change. 

Choose any seabird group and the large gaps shine out. We're not a real estuary and we're inland, with only a tiny mouth. Of course we're never going to do as well as other north Kent coastal areas. 

And let's not get started on passerines. North Kent has always had a reputation of being the rump end of Kent for passerine migrants. We come out looking like a fistula on the rump of Kent. We're just not well positioned to receive many waifs and strays.

And yet...

There is still more than enough here to entertain, more than enough to study, more than enough to survey. Sure, we're never going to have huge numbers of rares/scarces. But if that really is your bag, then you can still make a name for yourself in north Kent. Sheppey calls.

I don't keep formal year lists. (I don't keep any formal lists.) But I can check my totals. And yes, mine might look high but that's because I'm out birding every day. However, first year I moved back, I didn't bird hard during first three months as sorted the house out, and only covered St Mary's Island to Chetney. Without trying for a high score, without rares/scarces, I still clocked up 193 species.

Never mind chasing around the country for a 'My' 200 list, 200 should be quite possible to achieve just in north Kent.

So many times down the years I've suggested to the county society that providing an official list for each of its recording areas might help provide additional data by encouraging recording area listing, plus in this day and age, perhaps help towards lower carbon birding. One day they might take me up on it.

In the meantime the ongoing Swanscombe is a prime example of what could happen without local focus. This year, with a little lockdown help, locals have produced a lot of additional useful data.

Here on the Medway we could, just could, get a sniff of that sort of percentage return if more birders focused in on the local. And the likes of JNCC and NE are still hoping more effort can be made in getting surveys done consistently here. Heck, they'd love us to manage the bare minimum.

The original question on Tuesday night related to providing a figure for a fun shorebird league table doing the rounds on twitter. Trust me, if we entered, right now we'd be mid-table mediocrity at the very best. If I'm brutally honest, for size/scale, we'd deserve to be relegated.

The tables that really matter are the ones that ensure our protection levels aren't likely to be weakened. They hold the data key to preserving our estuary, at national and international levels. If we still can't get manage minimum coverage for things like that, we deserve to be docked points and banned from all twitter Superleagues for now.

Positive news - things are getting better in the national/international departments. Saving that for some upbeat posts in the run up to the all-important January counts (the ones used for the international returns). Onwards and upwards.


Pedant's corner:

Of course, my silly percentage table, my silly rules. Someone'll spot the holes, so I'll get retaliation in first.

Take that one species in the first pic which shows as being on the Kent list but I've not bothered to show as  recorded in north Kent. Which some say it is.

Snow Goose.

I started work on that percentage list back in 2013, and I'd obviously had a reason back then for deciding no deffo records in north Kent, but of course staring at it now I'm reminded there's one very famous record, and it took me a while today to recall why I'd struck it off.

Snow Goose.

Category A and category C of the BOU list.Rare vagrant and established feral population.

Brown and Grice, in 'Birds of England', confirmed that wild vagrancy had been proven for Europe courtesy of a flock in the Netherlands in the spring of 1980 of which one bird had been ringed in Canada. But no claim of any acceptable vagrancy record for England.

Certainly no mention of Kent, yet our Society had said a 1980 north Kent sighting was that very Dutch flock. Seen over a month before, a flock of similar (but different) number/make up had passed through our Thames recording area. No ring seen. But these Snow Geese were counted as category A in that year's County Report.

A few years later one north Kent birder did an awful lot of research and found a feral population in the home counties from which, a day or so before the Thames sighting, a small flock had been recorded flying towards London.

The acceptance of the record as category A was queried, but they were told the record would stand as genuine vagrancy for our county. Does Snow Goose deserve to be on the county's A list? There really was no proof that the ringed bird was ever here.

Grice and Brown could have championed that ringed bird as being a Kent record, but chose not to, concluding "Clearly, unless ringed birds are involved, the origins of all Snow Geese recorded in England, even those consorting with other migratory wildfowl, must be suspect."

Who knows? Last KBR I have with a county status listing for Snow Goose still says 'rare vagrant', but where is a list of the accepted vagrants for the whole county? Nothing on the dropdown list on the website.

If anyone's bothered in Kent purity listing, they can check the rest of the county's accepted records; for my own personal fun and games SnoGo was deleted from north Kent calculations as that record (as well as any other here) could just as easily be E as A. One time a landowner had tried to keep a free-flying feral flock here. No chance to see if self-sustaining, the wildfowlers whittled 'em down.

Nope, circumstantial and unproven. Lists, eh? Snow Goose is gone. (Just until I get one.)

And no moans from the Hoo crew. As I said earlier, I'd already given them all the Medway's north shore land records in my calculations. You're so far ahead. Give us plebs a break.


Wednesday, 22 September 2021

Blog page updates - the 'How to' guide and the Shoreline Site Guide

The revamped 'How to Bird the Medway' has gone live this morning. Available from the 'other blog pages' menu in the sidebar, or from the link here.


The updated version of the site Guide for Upnor Reach to Motney Hill has also gone live this morning- available via 'the Shoreline Site Guide' list from the sidebar, or from this link.

(The remaining sections, covering Upchurch to Sheerness, will also go 'live' during the coming few weeks. Watch this space.)


Tuesday, 21 September 2021

Low-carbon birding: a Spotshank autumn

Continuing with 2021's Covid-driven low-carbon birding local focus, an early decision was taken to make this the autumn of the Spotted Redshank. Medway's nearest creek, fifteen minutes' walk from the front door, is Otterham, and the most regular site on the estuary for 'Spotshanks' in recent years.

Well, certainly well-known by local year-listers as a wintering site for a handful of birds, interest seems to wane for many observers after January, but the winterers do remain into April at least, from when there is a also a small spring passage seen through the creek. Then just a three, four week period without birds before the start of the slightly larger autumn passage. And this autumn I'd resolved to try to for daily counts.

It is generally accepted that Spotshank migration is on a broad front, mainly over mainland Europe. Big numbers moult stage in the Waddenzee, but the other European high totals in Greece and Turkey at the same time help confirm the use of overland routes.

County avifaunas a century ago all pointed to very low numbers of Spotted Redshanks here in north Kent. Even 75 years ago birders were struggling to find numbers. Things changed thereafter, with several sites coming up with three-figure counts for a few decades but, in line with the rest of the UK, numbers have dropped away since then.

One incentive for looking more closely was a paper published in the Essex Bird Report back in 1998, on autumn turnover through Abberton reservoir. Although daily counts that autumn were never higher than 36, Graham Ekins, thanks to clear gaps between obvious departure flights and arrivals, was able to ascertain a minimum of 159 birds had passed through.

Could something similar be experienced here?

He hopes, he 'scopes, he scores

From experience, once first birds back, Medway daily counts rarely fall to zero, so clear clear-outs would be hard to identify. Time for a scoring system to look for new arrivals. Birds would be marked on appearance of their body moult:

  5  =  complete (or near-complete) breeding plumage
  4  =  > 50% breeding plumage
  3  =  < 50% breeding plumage
  2  =  complete (or near-complete) non-breeding plumage
  1  =  juvenile plumage

This was never going to produce more than a trend, but what would be unarguable was evidence from the direction of moult- if daily total of birds present was roughly the same, and birds the same individuals, then daily plumage scores could only really drop as moult progressed. If the scores went up, had to be new birds arriving and replacing birds that had moved on; turnover in action. It worked well at the start of migration, and found able to track some individuals on a daily basis for short periods.

Ekins had suggested stopover rates as short as a day and, again, plumage scores were giving a hint of similar short periods, with some '5s' being one-day shows. There was nothing to suggest Ekins' findings were not being repeated here. His autumn maximum count was only a quarter of the number of birds he suspected had passed through Abberton. Could that be a reasonable score for here? 

(Should mention it is possible to record birds departing as Ekins had done. Spiralling up and away at dusk. Have experienced it from Windmill Hill in past years on dusk watches, usually just ones/twos. But I couldn't bring myself to spend every night up there. Sadly, some daily counts would have to be at the same time.)

With views to birds across the creek often being distant, my scoring system began to be less clear-cut as birds present became mainly 2s and 3s, but another interesting finding stood out- a lack of juveniles.

But perhaps to be expected when stopover birds here are more heavily reliant on estuarine waters? 'Handbook of the Birds of the World' explains how many wader spp. have a limited salt water tolerance, with many Scolipidae spp. having only poorly developed, or a complete lack, of salt gland bulbs. Even for those species that can deal with salt, the bulbs themselves are somewhat underdeveloped in juveniles early on in their first migration. Why juveniles like fresh water. And this year's heavy rainfall meant local fleets and pools were unattractive as feeding areas. Way too deep.

(One other thing I really missed this autumn with fewer birds visiting the marshes; group fishing antics. Never as routine on estuary waters as freshwater, being usually only seen infrequently on calmer tides. Next year.)

Indeed, for this, my ninth autumn back on the Medway, the lack of suitable fresh water meant major changes in adult behaviour; fewer birds were high tide roosting inside the sea wall. In normal years this tactic allowed birds to feed right through a tidal cycle should they wish. And in previous years nearly all birds would do so, out of sight on inaccessible parts of the marshes.

A concerning change in behaviour for me to begin with, but soon clear in the early part of the season birds were finding enough food through the low tide on the flats to simply loaf on seawall rocks instead. They were staying in public view.

So, 2021 was the first year that other local birders could pick up on double figures daily easily, but from chats with them clear the distance to the favoured roost site was such that a high-powered 'scope was necessary to pick out the birds. You don't bring a knife to a gunfight. The Medway is hardcore birding and even with a Swaro' x70 'Crocodile Kev' struggled at times.

From the start their favoured roost was the uber-laziest site they could have chosen; right above their favourite freshwater outlet. Understanding the topography of this outlet was key to getting the high scores, as not every single bird remained true to a flock instinct - a handful would desert the roost early on to try their luck on the other side of the wall. To achieve maximum shankage, you needed to finish counting at the top of the covering. The half-hour before the covering was vital, as only at this point did all birds show themselves.

It was nice to be able to share this to the local WeBS coordinator on one tide this year. The fun with WeBS is that it is always just one very short snapshot once a month. No promises the chosen day will reveal anywhere near the true picture of core area usage, and without a drive to do so, no other local birders had got near to drawing out the complete picture in previous autumns, because the behavioural patterns hadn't been worked out by them. (Or in some cases, believed. Hey ho.)

And up to this year, behavioural patterns hadn't been publicised. Birder-wise, the more seawall traffic/ less fieldcraft, the higher chance a good number of the Spotshanks would be disturbed and out of site on private freshwaters.

How to see them well, and how to get a high count

Simple answer to first question- come in winter. Risk/reward puts the half-dozen or so regulars in a more approachable mood, but we'll focus on autumn for now (picture above from nearby Rainham Docks East in January).

On my return in 2013, the late, Owen Sweeney had confirmed birds still used the creek in good numbers. Like myself now, Owen then had access to several private sites, mainly for formal surveying, and was of the same opinion that the size/scale of core area adopted by autumn birds made public area high scores hard to come by.

And that's not a bad thing. Nearly every text stresses how secretive Spotshanks can be. Good news for the birds, the forthcoming Coast Path will only be opening a fraction of their core area here. This is a knock-on from considerations for local breeding/wintering populations. Discussions were held with Natural England at the highest levels to see if better viewing could be provided around the creek, but it was found to be impossible. Put simply by NE's Senior Ornithologist; 'If I were developing this area as a brand new nature reserve, I wouldn't put any of these features where they are.'

The thought does cross my mind that perhaps this site being so undisturbed is why it is one of the best in the south-east for Spotshanks. 'Secretive' is often just a birding shorthand for 'flushes easily'.

So, for the footpath only birder, making the best of a bad lot requires fieldcraft.

The Otterham Core Area

(Otterham at an odd angle- north is at 3 o'clock)

The existing public access is limited to the Saxon Shore Way long distance footpath (green). The two best viewing spots in 2021 (to date) are marked as red/white stars. (A third point, high on Windmill Hill, gives extremely distant views to the creek mouth (but only for those with x65, x70 zoom scopes and vivid imaginations like me).

The lime green line marks the agreed (but not yet opened) Coast Path. The chosen route will not provide good viewing onto the marshland. High ground remains between the CP and breeding/wintering areas as the species present do not take close approach. (Plus much of the high ground is an old contaminated tip from Chatham Dockyard days. Before anyone asks, the possibility of hides/screens was raised but the low-level contamination ruled such things out- for now.)

Within the creek there are three favoured feeding freshwater feeds (blue polygons). Running south from the mouth, the third is the most favoured (a significant feed from Horsham creek). A fourth, near the head, is mainly land drain fed so, not the freshest (anything that goes down the street drains in Rainham comes out around here), but often the most favoured (as more sheltered) in winter.

The birds are not limited to these favoured areas and will feed, spread out, along Otterham's main channel, especially at low tide (blue line). Dependent on disturbance levels prior to your arrival, you might get lucky and have a few feed close to the footpath on the western shore. But they spook easily and will usually make for the eastern. (Probably a good time to mention the 2-300 Common Redshank that also feed here all day in autumn/winter that will also make off taking the Spotshanks with them if you don't employ fieldcraft. The 400+ Teal that can also choose to loaf in the creek really don't help either.)

The pale blue flight lines lead to the roughly-marked roost areas. The whole of this side of teh Peninsula is 'out of bounds'. There are several landowners involved and we must accept the situation- it has been reviewed by Natural England in the past couple of years and we must accept it has been show the birds cannot take any additional regular disturbance.

Through to the end of August the favoured roost was opposite the most northerly public viewpoint on the western side. This needed to be reached before the three metre mark on a rising tide. Birds behave best if you get yourself down off the top of the wall, and there is a nice convenient set of concrete steps here. 

The bad news. Viewing from the steps is distant. Google Earth confirms you are watching for birds half a kilometre away most of the time. Take a 'scope. No excuses.

The 3.0 metre tide height for the feed is marked in blue, and the (up-to-now hidden) Spotshanks start to pop up into view. For the early autumn this year they simply followed the feed back and roosted among rocks above it.

The timing will now be right for you to move to the southerly viewpoint (gets good from 4.25 metres plus) by following the seawall, but you might wish to cut below the wall (in accordance with the Bird Wise Code) for several obvious short stretches where main channel comes close to the wall and the tide pushes birds up early; many will still be trying to feed close to shore along this stretch now, and you will flush them. (Here the lone birder with tripod silhouette, out in the full, along a part of the wall close to a wildfowlers' shooting pool, will scream 'predator' at the hundreds of 'shanks and duck in the creek.)

The best viewpoint is just shy of the bushes atop the wall as the creek ends. Again, planting yourself in quietly gives best results. The areas marked in light blue are the preferred pre-roost assemblies for several species here, and may even be used as high tide roosts on neap tides - when undisturbed.

Please do not be tempted to venture out along the old concrete land drain (red) as you will risk flushing birds present on a covering/high tide. And they will take any Spotshanks with them. The more approachable Black-tailed Godwits might stay, but you will deny the Shanks their last hour of feeding. 

The Spotshanks favour the white circled areas, moving up with the tide. In normal years most will eventually head north for the main marsh roosts, but one or two might stay with any pre-roost assembly or sit throughout a neap high tide out on the blue-marked saltings.

A dropping tide never produces the highest counts. If any of the birds have jumped the seawall to roost on the marshes, then in normal years they are often very content to stay there when feeding is good. (By the way, Greenshank do exactly the same here, why their true numbers are often never reflected by once-a-month counts.)

2021 is unusual, c/o the Lack of safe onshore roosting for the 'shanks. Plus daily human disturbance on the RSPB Motney Hill reserve just west of the mouth of Otterham creek has made problems for the 500+ Godwits. They have risked high-tide roosting on the saltings alongside the mobile home park, right where the new Coast Path will go (part of the area was confirmed as important for feeding, but never roosting. Trust the birds to do something different). 

Things to bear in mind:
Early morning covering tides can be really hard work due to the sun.
Mid-/ late- morning covering tides also not best for full numbers- over the years shown that if birds have fed well in creek in first few hours, more inclined to wall jump out of sight early.
Afternoon/ evenings much better for viewing. Highest day counts often picked up then as new birds tend to arrive during the day.
Weekend general public footpath levels can be high. Many very regular users are now aware of the birds and try to follow the 'Bird Wise' code, and there is an ongoing effort to educate/inform the public, but disturbance flights are highest Saturdays/Sundays.
After high level disturbance, it can take two, three days to settle back into using close-by public areas.  Coming later in the working week tends to increase your chance of an ad hoc reasonable score as weekend disturbance effects have worn off.
Be prepared to put the time in. Getting the full count by combining both viewpoints can take a good couple of hours.
(And did I say, bring a 'scope?)

Picking at Spots

Working through 300 or so Tringas, sometimes in poor light, often at considerable distance, is not everyone's cup of tea. So here are my top five tips for those not too familiar with distant Spotshanks.

1) My favourite early in autumn? The Common Redshank adults start wing moult. When their wing is closed, they nearly always show a whacking great white patch (the secondaries shining through). That quickly eliminates a good three-quarters of Tringas present.

2) 90% of feeding time for Spotshanks is in the shallows (some do, Avocet-like, sweep their bills in fine silt, or peck at the mud, but not many at all. So always work through birds in water the hardest).

3) Pre-roost assembly is nearly always in water, or alongside the main creek edge. The Spotshanks tend not to approach the shore anywhere as near as the Commons.

4) Because of liking to keep their feet wet, the Spotshanks can often be caught up among the Black-tails. Don't skim any of their tightly-packed assemblages.

5) Learn the bill silhouette. Get to know the ratio to skull- only the longest billed Common Reds will start to come anywhere near it. Plus Commons rule themselves out by having a stockier feel at their base - Spotshanks are more needle-like for their whole length and then there's that little 'droop' at the end.

Peaky blinders

Monthly shallow peaks are often difficult to detect here, but regular coverage will reflect known behaviours. Or for Kent's historic trends, some of them.

June: First failed breeders. Just a few. Plus short-staging first summer non-breeders.

July: The females arrive.

August: Males first, juveniles slightly behind them. But here, not that many juveniles.

September: Longer stayers complete moult.

October: Ummmm, never seen a peak here these nine autumns been working the creek routinely, and 

November: Nope, never a peak nowadays. Seemingly just the handful of over-winterers in situ by this time.

Numbers: what's happened on the Waddenzee?

2004-2014, Spotted Redshank numbers dropped by some 40%, from 22,222 (oh that figure does my OCD heart good) to 13,228. We have also known for some time that a delay to autumn migration is slowly revealing itself. But our late October peaks in Kent were historic.

Rewriting history

In researching this blog, a pedantic error was discovered in Taylor's 'Birds of Kent'. That avifauna states the massive 220 count in October 1972 was at Grovehurst, which is on the Swale (north of Sittingbourne). But if you actually read that year's Kent Bird Report the count was made on Stoke saltings by Jeffrey Harrison. Another famous old name, Billy Buck, did have 80 at Grovehurst around the same time, and the question was raised in the report as to whether these were a part of the Medway flock (oh look, we were already hankering for coordinated counts a half-century ago!). So the county monster high score is something the Medway can rightly claim. Just not where the avifauna says.

Because the avifauna already gives it to Medway, as wrongly implies Grovehurst is within our boundary. It is not - it is just outside both SPA/Ramsar boundaries and the Swale Channel tidal boundary. The table in the 1972 KBR clearly places Billy's Grovehurst counts under Swale. (What a pedant I am! It gets worse.)

The text also hints at Harrison routinely counting the Stoke birds. First (five) mid June, then '50 by July 8th. But the peak monthly count table has nothing for Medway in July - 50 under Thames instead. It is messy. August in n. Kent '72 may have seen a total just under that, but only a clear increase (somewhere) to 130 max. in September and then over 200 in October. Kent numbers were bucking trends.

The previous year, 1971, Harrison had seen an autumn October peak (of 150) not on the north shore at Stoke, but here on the south at Chetney. Birds were present throughout the autumn, with peaks in late August and early October.

This trend had already been established. 1970: "..marked predominance (in) North (Kent) for the species which continues to build up, particularly around the southern shores of the Medway Estuary in autumn, where the adults have established an important moulting area.."

That quote almost works today. Almost. A small number of adults seem to still have an important moulting area here.

But today's smaller numbers are never as late as back then. Harrison authored his own county avifauna some two decades prior to his peaks and had then concluded Spotshanks were perhaps never as rare as it was believed to have been in the past, concluding "I feel that in all probability this species has always been a tolerably regular passage migrant on both passages in small numbers".

Why so late?

Well, first off, like Mulder and Scully, I want to believe. Peaks in October and November on the Medway and the Swale look pure Kentish behaviour, f'sure. But before nay-sayers say nay to the records, the observers involved were among the best at the time. Heck, Harrison even had his own mounted specimens on a shelf at home (that went into the Harrison Museum at Sevenoaks and were still on public display at the Sevenoaks Field Centre a year or so back - gotta love the cobwebs) so let's not doubt, but look for theories.

For my musings, three combine. Moult behaviours. Kent's (and Essex's) position relative to the Waddenzee. And shifted baseline numbers.

A role for moult strategies

There's some clues to stopover behaviours in the moult strategy of the species. Juveniles have a 'partial post-juvenile moult starting mid-September'. Partial usually means body feathers only- not the vital flight feathers. They're simply growing a stronger set of body feathers than the first that came as they dashed around learning how to feed. Why, when a juvenile drops in on a freshwater pool well inland, it might stay for days or weeks, if feeding safe and good.

Adults, like many non-passerines, have complex strategies that can vary between populations/ individuals. In general, they have a complete post-breeding moult (so, body and flight feathers), but they do it in a fashion uncommon to some birders.

They start on the breeding grounds around the time the young hatch - a small amount of the body feathers, while a few might also start to moult their primary flight feathers. If they do, they drop just the inners; they then 'suspend' the full primary moult until they reach their stopover site where, once settled, they will resume the moult from the next old primary. This way they spread the cost of moult. When they reach the wintering grounds, the flight feather moult will be finished.

So, this means they have to use a safe stopover site. Why adults tend to use the same spot year after year - tried and tested. The nearest large stopover site is, as mentioned above, the Waddenzee.

Let's think about those Abberton birds. Adults arrive, after perhaps a long-ish hop from the Arctic circle. Spend a few days refuelling, then reorient to their preferred moult stopover site?

Might some adults have made a part of a moult stopover there? Well, possibly not, because of the 'gaps' of days seen in recording, but can't say 'no'. Suspended moult gives a boost through fighting-fit flight feathers so a bird might just be able to switch sites. Not like they suffer a flightless period. You'd need to track individuals to confirm.

Are birds moulting here? There is usually a drop early September, just like Abberton, but we don't usually go down anywhere near zero. Fewer birds left on the breeding grounds and sites north making a hop now and some early movers completing their primary feather replacement and off with a skip and a jump towards wintering grounds? Possibly. Could species using the suspended moult strategy switch staging sites more easily? Not by huge distances, but when you track the switches in favoured spots around the Medway/Swale you could argue for a larger, more transient core area.

There is one good way to study adult moult. Ringing.

A moult score is an indicator of how far moult has progressed through their change of primary flight feathers. You give each feather a score. 0 = an old feather, 5 new, completely grown, with numbers in between representing new feathers at various stages of replacement/growth. We've ringed a half-dozen of the Otterham Spotshanks in the past few years. Placing the moult information into calendar order:

July 16th wing score: 5553210000
July 16th wing score: 4443210000
- (early adults, hinting at dropping the 3 innermost, regrown all at once. Now restarted, dropping one consecutive feather at a time so a gap that reduces flight efficiency is never that big. Clearly staging?)

July 25th wing score: 5555542100
- (indicative of an adult further along in the moult?)
Aug 8th wing score: 5555553100
- (ditto)

Sep 17th wing score: 5555555555
- (adult, completed moult. This could now be readying to move. Or could have just dropped in from who-knows-where?)

Sep 17th wing score: 0000000000
- (juvenile bird, still stuck with the primaries it was born with.)

Weights then give some clue to situation. The adult that had completed moult came in at 177.6 grams. Adults of a similar build (similar wing lengths) 163g 168g, so perhaps building for the off. Then again, heaviest birds just prior to flights can be as much as 50% of  'normal' body weight.

That juvenile, same night? 161.0g. Juveniles usually come in on the low side, they're still learning, but a low weight. Perhaps going nowhere for another week or so.

These scores perhaps point at adult birds moult staging. Sadly, there isn't a dataset big enough to quantify. Nationally, internationally, we simply haven't ringed enough Spotshanks. We can guess this hints at a turnover nowhere near as high as Abberton (but clearly some do turnover). A species I always mention when someone says 'Do we really need to keep ringing birds?".

Perhaps we should now start to appreciate Medway (and at present, specifically, Otterham) as being an important site for a small number of adults to moult safely?

And those late October, early November arrivals? Well, they really should all be off their breeding grounds by October. No way we should be seeing a late build-up to stage here. Not enough time. To me, still hints at birds that have stage moulted elsewhere now starting to move on (if they hadn't in fact arrived a little earlier than their count dates). But what if there weren't enough daily counts being made? Might a generation of 'shanks decided to stage moult here for their lifetime. (7 years, 5 months 16 days the longest on BTO records, but with very few ringed. With a higher total their nearest sister species, Greenshank comes in at 16 years, 0 months, 3 days).

Questions, questions. Could Kent have once (routinely?) receive continental moulters just restarting their journeys?

Perhaps. Again, perhaps more birds making their first hops away from the Waddenzee? Why never seen nowadays? Perhaps that estimated 40% crash in international populations has had an effect, 'our' autumn birds perhaps always outliers from a bigger population that is now shrinking?

Questions, questions, questions. Back to the 1970s and those north shore Stoke saltings birds that dropped in number and were suspected to have switched areas. Perhaps some simply moved a short distance along north shore to adjacent Kingsnorth/Oakham? Seems odd until you remember the power station had only recently been built and shooting suspended out around Oakham. Stoke has always been shot. In the years that followed Station employee Bill 'The Reverend' Jones persuaded the management to fund repairs to the island walls, and encouraged new freshwater sources out on Oakham island (mainly c/o a mains water  pipe), doing so well he ended up with a small reedbed in the southwest corner of the island and ensured a large brackish scrape was available in the autumn. Why his numbers there were good. The Power Station outfall in the adjacent Damhead Creek ran at some four degrees above estuary temperature meaning a draw for many species.

Then at some point did birds perhaps switch to the south shore? The Reverend confirms they dropped away in the late nineties. So they could have gone south. Infamously difficult to count the Kingsnorth area in recent years, so no idea of numbers there now.

One other spot still turns up the odd bird or two on the flats routinely through autumn seasons at the moment; Queenborough. Just odd birds wandering out of the Otterham 'core area'? Who knows what might be lurking next door up in the Tailness corner of Chetney? Again, a private area, with just WeBS access once a month to take a snapshot of the whole of that northern end of the Peninsula (which is not opening under the Coast Path for similar reasons to those around Otterham).

Questions, questions, questions.

Feel the cold

The heat map of monthly peaks I put together from WeBS/KBRs just after my return is worth a revisit, especially if I rescale the heat (originally set to match other wader spp. totals and thus just a cold blue tone throughout) to make old peaks shine out:

A 1990s collapse now more apparent. In line with nearly every wader species on the Medway, shown in previous blogposts to correlate with observer effort, that continued into this century. As seen with many of the common species, the drop was down more to incomplete survey coverage of the estuary than an actual full-scale loss. (Thankfully, things are slowly turning around now but our WeBS coordinator still welcomes more help.)

We've had our eyes off the prize for decades here. In 1971, when the Medway became the first UK estuary to be recognised by Ramsar, we were in the top five for the country. Nowadays, looking at BTO Alerts, we're in the bottom ten. Yes, piecemeal development, marsh reclamation, urban sprawl and rising tides have hit us hard over the last half-century, but getting a true picture of numbers wasn't a strong point for a quarter-century. Thankfully things are getting better.

One final observation on that old Essex article that stimulated me into working a little harder on SpotShanks this low-carbon autumn:

"Archive data from Kent... showed that in 1998 peaks occurred in late August and mid-October with high numbers also present in September... interestingly, the 1998 Kent passage followed a similar pattern to that in Essex..."
Back then, Essex printed Bird Reports promptly but Kent lagged a little behind, and that info came directly from our county Archivist. When the KBR did come out, tabulated peak monthly counts showed vast percentage of birds reported that year were from the Swale -

Jun: 33, Jul: 57, Aug: 82, Sep: 66, Oct: 67, Nov: 11.

In this form, the Archivist's totals do not resonate well with the county totals published. A one bird difference does not make October stand out from September. The Archivist may have been correct to data available at the time he commented. But an example of why more data, more behavioural evidence, more analysis always needed/welcomed. As Ekins concluded:
"In order to understand more fully the complexities of Spotted Redshank migration, it would be useful to coordinate autumn counts on the same dates at prime wetland locations in (Essex,) Norfolk, Suffolk and Kent..."

Coordinated counts of waders? Regular readers will know which rabbit hole that takes me down! But we won't go there today.

Birding bad

Not many birders really work the Medway. Which is fair enough in this 'century of the self'? Too many other honeypots close-by. Too many other distractions. Why work hard at common waders when you've got the same species ten, fifteen miles' drive down the road? You've got a moth trap to check, dragonflies and butterflies to chase for the year or an urge to find a scarcity that pulls you to Sheppey and Thanet rather than work hard for low-scoring goodies on what you call your own 'local patch'? 

We consume wildlife for our own personal reasons. This is the modern mindset of Western consumption and we have to accept it.

Oh, and one reason you might not see the birds yourself if you stroll on down Otterham; you're a birder, birders are good at disturbing them. 

Grrr, wait, what now, isn't that all a bit overdramatic Kev? Probably, but it got your attention. Part of the reason the birds have been here in good numbers for couple of decades or more here is they haven't been disturbed routinely. But right now other disturbance levels are increasing, with more commercial disturbance on the eastern shore (an application for a new houseboat marina was withdrawn last year, but could possibly come back at any point), and the forthcoming Coast Path will be close to the eastern shore through the existing mobile home park tempting even more general public into the shoreline orchards.

So what happens when we birders keep flushing 'em? The risk/reward acceptance level, thanks to other users  -  wildfowling/ game shooting disturbance around the creek, will not drop and this 'secretive species' will stay on alert. Not much room for any habitualisation. They'll move to the quieter private areas more when available, where we can't see them. Could they eventually give up? We don't really want disturbance levels testing their tolerances.

(Did I say 'Oh for a reserve on the Medway?')

Birders need to avoid temptation. This chap walked the land drain out and stood on the saltings for a covering tide. The Godwits stayed, so he was happy because they were what he was interested in (they have a shorter flight initiation distance, happy to standing in the deeper water as they do, but still many stopped feeding). The Spotted Redshanks don't take as kindly to such close approaches.

"How many Spotshanks did you get?" I asked him when he finally retreated from the waters.

"Two" came the reply.

I pointed out there would have been ten times that if he'd used fieldcraft that day.

He's an example why all we other birders need to be 'BirdWise'. Show consideration/empathy for birds, for other birders, for other user groups.

September slump

Numbers crashed after the high levels of disturbance in late August this year. Yes, historically, numbers do drop (slowly) from late(-ish) September and they could have moved on early this year through choice. But some of those that remained have been exhibiting a behaviour that indicates they have been scared from their favourite spot. They were doing their Rainham Docks East/ Bloors switch trick - choosing to feed over in RDE on the low (not as nice, more people, less fresh water) and then flying back over the Motney reedbeds on the covering to use Otterham's safer roosts.

Overwinterers do this quite often, sometimes in relation to disturbance, sometimes in response to other factors (such as weather). A flexibility to their core area.

Only if we make them do this right now in autumn we're making them work hard when they need to be resting/replacing feathers. Some might adapt, some might depart.

All why we birders need to be both 'Bird Wise' and follow the 'Birders' Code'. Not all will do so; the Pareto Principal of 80%/20% is a good rule of thumb. This is really a shout-out to the roughly 80% of us birders who would like to avoid disturbing birds if possible. Please, please follow the codes.

Disturbance - other user groups

"Oh shut up Kev, it's not us birders, it's everyone else. C'mon, own up. What other disturbance have you recorded this autumn? '

Well, quite a few of the different groups monitored back when Bird Wise was set up did initiate flights, and several have caused disturbance flights this autumn.

These can be really majorly problematic, but if anyone's going to follow speed limits, it's our boys in blue, bless 'em. One incident, no major flush.

Major disturbances if roosts near the head; the navigable channel runs too close to shore- but birds simply switch to mid-creek seawalls, or the creek head. 
Roosts at the head can, but not always, be flighted. The dock here is small, and not every tide sees boat traffic. Just four incidents seen to date. But when there is, then the birds prefer not to move back up towards the creek mouth, or even flight to another creek; in 'normal' years they'll simply disappear over onto land, and may well then use those pools for several roosts.

Not too many of the main estuary 'yakers make their way up the creek, but a new trend has developed this year, with semi-residential occupants of a commercial site social launching from near the head, roughly every three or four days early in the season, causing major flights to land, but volume of incidents decreased as summer progressed/(as conditions deteriorated?)

Two events here, as 'larkers ventured out over the flats to one of the offshore roost sites. Both times I had a chat, introduced them to the Bird Wise Code, and pointed out the several hundred Godwits waiting offshore to try for a last feed on the cover.
Both sets of 'larkers more than happy to move off, and now appreciate a need to lark nearer to the low tide timings if want to avoid disturbing a majority of the birds (I couldn't bring myself to explain how better if not out there at all as some birds don't follow tide out, but hold territories. Will do that next time if see same people).
For now, both sides happy(ish). This is a fast-growing hobby. They didn't appear in the consultation papers a decade ago.
Time for a Code of Practice perhaps?

Lots of regular dogwalkers are 'Bird Wise' now. At Otterham, Many recognise me, and slip their dogs back on leads (even when already under effective control) because they know me as the birdwatcher with the really bad allergies. (I love dogs, they just make me stop breathing). We get on.
Only two instances of dogs in water, and in one, dog placed back on lead immediately. Much, much better than in previous autumns. Better all along the southern Medway. The Bird Wise North Kent staffers are clearly making inroads.

One interesting uber-jogger incident. Ultra-marathon. A very circuitous 100 km route from London to Canterbury avoiding the official Pilgrims Way here (Chaucer didn't write a 'Birderer's Tale', did he?). As I sat quietly one contestant felt the need to start screaming motivational obscenities at himself as he ran, clearing the flats. I helped encourage him by screaming a few myself...

Special mention for one section of closed seawall up near the mouth of Otterham creek. We may go around thinking closed sections mean little disturbance, but not always the case. You turn a local property into a holiday let and throw in walks along your own private stretch of estuary, you're going to see an increase in disturbance. Not too much, but holidaymakers like to see water instead of mud meaning enough disturbance to help counter those who tell me 'Why does it matter if I flush the birds from here, when they can go over there?' (Again, oh for a decent reserve on this internationally important estuary.)

No activity in the Motney reedbeds until clearance work late August. They only shoot the flight pool there twice a month during wildfowling season, but means any Teal in the creek (which can be several hundred) will respond to shots fired and can take a lot of birds away from the head further up the creek or onto the private marshes. As explained in many previous posts, the Medway is one of the best estuaries for wildfowling in England, and birds will always be wary in areas close to shooting. Why...

Birders (again)
...lone birders carrying tripods/long lenses prominently on the flow nearly always elicit flight from the creek if carry our gun-shaped tripod 'threateningly', if with stalk like a predator or if we stare the birds out. Yes, we're not too much problem sticking out on top of the wallswhen the tide is out, but there is a big need to be 'Bird Wise' as tide covers. Simply drop down behind the seawall, and pop up again to pass any close-in birds. That way they won't take the whole creek with them.

Game shooting
That's on the fields on the eastern side of the creek, but doesn't start until October. Usually twice-monthly, usually at weekends, so at a time when footpath user disturbance high (wildfowlers are usually weekdays). The shoot is mobile but covers a large circuit starting in the morning. Our spring tides are afternoons, so if tide and shoot collide, neap alternate roosts usually available.

Even though there is a National Cycle Route close by, the urge to cycle the walls is strong, and the cyclists have led the scrub basing to get around the kissing gates onto Otterham. Thankfully, most trundle through quietly. Only once, when a group stopped to look/chat, have they put up the birds on a covering tide this season.
The wildfowlers have reported night cycling is increasing, meaning moving lights on usually dark safe areas, but no idea of disturbance effects; the Spotshanks will routinely feed nocturnally in Otterham.
(Oh, nearly forgot the best cycling incident this year. The chap who, late one day, rode over the closed RSPB saltings and around the fence of the Sewage farm thinking he could circuit the Motney peninsula. By time he got to other end, tide was in. He had had to sleep rough, trapped behind bars that night. I found him at dawn trying to find a way to avoid the staff and the mud. What a shame, eh?)

Off-road motor cyclists
Similar to cyclists. Most (the old 80/20 again) you can have a good chat with. Many know the informal memorial to a young biker that died off-road. Didn't happen here, the accident was over on Hoo- but he really liked this stretch. And his friends appreciate how the landowners have allowed their memorial to stay all these years. All meaning we could have respectful two-way conversations about disturbance here, and the young bikers' friends keep their bikes off the seawall now.
Wildly different 'user groups' can show a level of respect towards each other.
(Most motorcyclists are on the wall here during winter. Usually around the time the local commercial off-road facilities close to avoid unnecessary hard-weather damage to their tracks. Go figure.)

Landowners' routine behaviours
Western shore, directly by the reedbeds/pool in the local Water Authority site, vital maintenance repairs have been ongoing for all of the autumn. Not an area where roosts usually occur, and very rare to see workers on the wall.
Elsewhere, a 'normal year'. Patterns of behaviour change as a season progresses- the eastern shore holds that large game farm shoot, and once birds arrive landowners need to check on them routinely. Human activity increases. This year, just after the birds arrived, their hay cut also had to take place. You may say a pain, but historic and Bird Wise is about ensuring disturbance doesn't increase as local population soars around the SPA. The landowners are trying not to increase disturbance, as should we birders.

Waders did change their usual August behaviour that week, deserting the roost adjacent to their favourite creek and switching to the head of the creek, having to roost higher up the creek seen than in previous years.

That gamebird arrival and hay cut was the same week the Godwit watcher decided to stand out on the saltings opposite the head roost, the same week the first group of Mudlarkers decided to lark out on the mud and the wildfowlers did their flight pond clearance work. That birder might very well believe he wasn't the cause of the changes. And the drop in numbers after he visited might, just might be 'normal' peaks/throughs.

But we're be the user group which should be able to appreciates disturbance potential the most, and self-police. Plus engage with the public. We we need all user groups to be 'Bird Wise' so we need birders to be leading by example.

So why publicise now?

More and more birders are visiting Otterham to try and tick Spotted Reds. Sightings have been kept under the radar from one or two other well-known Kentish spots this year, making Otterham the most publicised in 2021. Meaning birders could now become the major disturbance user group on this public seawall. Other pressures also continue to grow on the eastern shore. If the birds are to be able to continue to use this creek in such good numbers, it will need birders to be alert to all problems and be on best behaviour.

Last year I did tweet a few counts. But decided not to tweet further counts after the news services started blindly cashing in. Technically, a mini-version of this blogpost:

I still won't be posting my own counts routinely. Main reason for this blogpost is a way of having a reference for day visiting birders should they wish to debate such decisions with me. Pareto principal again. 80% will understand, and will appreciate. 20% won't. And then there'll be 20% of those who'll  justify why hobbyist birding comes before conservation/disturbance. Perfectly natural behaviour in a consumer world. Some just want to consume nature.

(Oh for a reserve on this estuary.)

Day 103 (and counting)

Autumn 2021 is by no means over, but my talk to Medway RSPB Members' Group is tonight. I'm telling this story there, so also telling it here without an ending. Today's blogpost is being put up as a reference.

Even in the last week since composing this there's been more interesting developments. Major flight of shanks being caused by yet another disturbance by the Godwit watcher, and the Spotshanks have spread out from Otterham. Birds being seen routinely since as far as Horrid Hill to the west and Lower Halstow to the east. As yet they've not all returned, perhaps because large numbers Black-tailed Godwits have also now deserted Otterham. Or something completely different. We've got really nasty neaps now in a narrow creek with high flats at the head only going under for a short time at the top of such tides. Questions, questions.

What is certain is the birds that are left have switched roost again, this time just out of sight on the sewage farm's private seawall north of the public footpath.

Questions, questions. Will there be an October peak? Probably not. But simple fact is for many, many years now much of the estuary has not been covered efficiently. A peak could just happen. It hasn't the last few years, but it could. And as I've really been enjoying plodding down there daily this year, why stop now?

Watch this blog.

What the future holds

As Graham Appleton of Wader Tales fame told me, remain positive -  you only need one good breeding season and a large-scale arrival of juveniles to perhaps resurrect a generation of birds that then favour the estuary. He's right, we should remain positive, even though latest formal studies show a continuing small decline in breeding nos. (Graham also has another excellent Spotshank blogpost on declining UK nos).

We should remain positive we can persuade enough of the growing number of visitors from all user groups to avoid increasing disturbance. So, if you do come, good luck counting them (did I say bring a 'scope?) and thanks in advance for being 'Bird Wise' and following the additional codes we have for this SPA.

Thursday, 26 August 2021

Blog relaunches 21/09/21

Watch this space: 
This blog is being relaunched on the evening of September 21st, with a full set of 'Where to watch' pages for the southern Medway, plus an updated 'How to watch' page, in support of the following talk:

Medway RSPB Local Group: 
"Birding the southern Medway"

Tuesday 21st September, 2021 at 7.30pm
(doors open from 7pm)

Parkwood Community Centre
Parkwood Green

 "Since 2013 Kevin has been looking at how internationally important numbers of wildfowl and waders use our estuary's waters, mudflats and islands, through a typical tidal cycle. His talk will focus on passing on tips and tricks for getting the very best out of a visit to the southern shore, from the head at St Mary's Island to the mouth at Sheerness and the deep water channel beyond."

Thursday, 25 July 2019

Arrivals and departures- the early autumn avian hub

(This post is a little different, being a copy of my original speaker notes for an informal talk given today aboard the Jacob Marley, on an estuary cruise in support of Living River Foundation.
Rather than waste the time on the water with a lengthy lecture full of facts/figures, the talk was pared down to be short, general and informal, but with this lengthier blog then available with additional info after the event. Hope the general approach here of interest to some.)


Arrivals and departures- the early autumn avian hub


Grey Plovers

Forget the argument for a Boris Island. The north Kent marshes already handle internationally important numbers of flights every year.

The marshes are well known for the high numbers of overwintering wildfowl and waders. Why each of the north Kent hubs, the Thames, the Medway and the Swale, is recognised as internationally important and are internationally protected: Ramsar, SSSI, MPA.

The north Kent marshes also hold significant numbers of important breeding species.

But what about on migration? How many birds use the Medway? And what do they use it for?

Scheduled flights in July/ August
Wader passage starts in mid-June. For several species, the female's work is done by then, as she leaves the male to look after the eggs/young. Failed breeders and immature birds (some do not breed until they are four or five years old) also wander back in small numbers from mid-June onward. A hardened birder might enjoy getting out and finding the few returners, but not really a spectacle- yet.

By the last 10 days of July more people are noticing a build in numbers, as small flocks start to appear- tens, twenties for most, but some species already well into the hundreds. The rest of the breeding adults have started to move now. They will often desert their young, who then only follow on a few more weeks later.

The East Atlantic Flyway

The Medway is one hub within of a large network of refueling stations strung out along the main carrier route between the high Arctic and Africa. As we will see in the individual species accounts, different species have different travel plans for travelling the flyway, and will use the Medway in different ways.


Sandwich Terns

Birds are also leaving us now. Our breeding seabird species have nearly all left. A simple premise with colonial nesters- as any colony is a magnet for predators, as soon as your young fledge, move away.

Some that are estuary feeders might only move a short distance from colony (e.g. Common Terns, often to adjacent creeks and fleets), while others move their young to more open water elsewhere (Sandwich Terns, which feed more readily in open water, have now moved off to places such as east Kent).

Gull species that feed on the flats might now spend their time on higher mud nearer the shore, rarely visiting the colonies. And most will be back on the water to roost. Mediterranean Gulls are harder to find as, feeding more on insects, tend to move inland en masse (mostly via the North Downs).


Black-tailed Godwits

But there will be more arriving than departing.

Like people-watching the crowds at any hub airport, a little hard to tell who's coming/going by a quick look around the terminal; those same departing Gull/Tern species are also arriving from elsewhere; colony dispersers from elsewhere around the UK coast/ near continent. Why any series of counts of the estuary will never really give an idea of the total number of birds that pass through.

The waders are easier to call as arrivals. There were so few here for the summer for a start. And there can be many. Of course, we concentrate on peak wintering numbers, and some arriving now will indeed stay for the winter. One species known to prefer carrying out post-breeding moult on wintering grounds is the Curlew. July to March, some birds spend more time here each year than anywhere else, but we just think of them as 'wintering'.

But many autumn bird move on.

Connecting flights


Inter-continental journeys, from the north American high arctic, or from Siberia, then on to African shores, often have to be made in stages. Too long a journey for a single flight. Stop and refuel, stop and refuel.

Often not as simple as a quick feed-up, often need a few days, weeks, to rebuild reserves. These are their scheduled short-haul flights; many older birds use the same estuaries, even the same small creek on the same estuary, year after year; they enjoyed the facilities before, so they'll use them again.

This is why some species actually have their peak numbers in autumn, rather than winter as many of us are led to believe.

And if you look carefully enough, some wintering species have two distinct peaks, a mid-/late- winter peak and an autumn peak- a gap between the movers and the stayers. Others have numbers departing for warmer climes obscured by arrivals from other continental hubs (continental hubs tend to be much more challenging in winter than those on our mild UK Atlantic coastline). Monthly counts in autumn may look fairly similar to winter, but the individual turnover has been much higher than the numbers show. (Where individual monitoring through methods such as colour-ringing and radio-tagging comes in useful to prove hub usage.)

Stopovers, long and short stays


Migration isn't cheap. As well as fuel, there's feather wear and tear. All birds have to replace their plumage. This takes more time in larger birds, for most waders around 90 days.

Redshank love the stopover facilities on the Medway. First birds are back on the flats post breeding, late June. Local breeders are joined by birds from the near continent, then later from northern Europe and finally Iceland. The 'continental' birds are most likely to continue south after moulting, on to as far as west Africa for the winter. The Icelandic usually tend to stay on here- they don't mind the cold, being slightly bigger birds. All populations within a species have different degrees of attachment to an area. Redshank overall numbers are smallest in summer, highest on autumn passage, somewhat lower during winter. Why we need to survey through the whole of the year to understand what goes on.

Several species behave similarly but differently, with populations having different strategies; when Grey Plovers arrive, some wil moult and then stay, others simply refuel, then carry on south to moult later.

Diverted air traffic

Black-tailed Godwits

Youngsters have a general idea where they're heading, but are more prone to land at unscheduled sites. Why those rarities that twitchers chase often turn out to be youngsters. If they find a rare adult wader, why twitchers then they have high hopes it might well turn back up same time following year.

Customs on arrival


We've seen it isn't that easy to spot the incoming, what with so many other movements going on during the twice-daily ebb and flow. The Medway, as an 'inland estuary', doesn't really have a coastline, so we don't see birds fly 'in-off'..

So, one of the easier ways to pick out arrivals is on a covering tide. Birds are wary. Even if they know the area, they will still need to check that last autumn's safe roost site is still safe. Juveniles have no idea, they watch and wait out on the flats, often until the tide is up to their bellies, before dashing to a roost; they will have watched local birds leaving long before to settle for the high tide.

Also, the main runway for arrivals appears to usually be mid-estuary. Makes sense, the quietest areas will be central to this 60 square kilometre eastuary. A chance to rest up upon touchdown before exploring. Small flights of 10s, 20s, 30s can often be seen dropping in from height (local/settled birds rarely bother to gain too much height when traversing the area- why waste energy?)

So, the individual species- how do they use the Medway? A short cut-out-and-keep guide follows.


Plain spotting at the hub:

A short guide to the common wader species
found on the Medway 
during late July/early August


The following accounts are simplified guides to the commonest waders using the Medway as a hub in July and August, including:
- Points of departure
- Final destinations
- length of stay in the UK
- Reason for visit (their moult strategies whilst on the Medway)
- Passenger number estimates: average maximum figures for July and August are taken from WeBS/KOS reports. There are two sets, illustrative only, as  surveying has often been incomplete since the turn of the century. The first figures, for the 90s, were done partly when the Medway was better surveyed. The 00s counts are now acknowledged as probably unfit for purpose. Finally my comments, which are based on my own nigh-daily visits to the estuary, from 2013 to date.


Local breeding population: Most choose not to fly far from the estuary, though a few (mainly their youngsters) head south (to near continent, exceptionally as far as Africa).

Local non-breeding population: stay local all year, augmented by very young Norwegian birds (who from age of two tend to move nearer their natal grounds in summer).

Main winter arrivals are not until October/November. Chiefly Fennoscandian birds, mainly Norwegian. Others from the Low Countries, with small numbers from Iceland e. to Estonia.

Moult (adult)- postbreeding, complete: flight feathers usually changed September- December, may occasionally arrest during passage (technical term- the moult halts then later begins again from the start by changing both new and remaining old flight feathers). Why the bulk of our wintering birds, moulting somewhere else along the flyway nearer to their nesting grounds, do not start to arrive until much later in the year.

Average nos 1990-99 July 616 August 1,008
Average nos 2000-09 July 700 August 670
In recent years more sampling has revealed numbers to still be in four figures from around now, but the picture is complicated by individuals using one estuary (Greater Thames) to feed then roosting in another (Medway), if disturbed or if spring tides reduce carrying capacities- numbers can be tripled over certain tides


Chiefly short-distance flights at present, switching between local breeding estuaries (east Anglia southwards) and local moulting grounds (such as the Thames at Cliffe). They then Settle on a choice of estuary for winter, usually within southern UK- but not necessarily the one they bred on.

Moult (adult)- postbreeding, complete. Flight feathers start in July, to October (November). Winter numbers on the Medway do not peak until after this time.

Average nos 1990-99 July 66 August 182
Average nos 2000-09 July 135 August 147
In recent years, due to increasing breeding numbers, July numbers have continued to grow, but most will have left for safer moulting areas by month end- August has similarly low numbers nowadays.

Ringed Plover

A collapse in numbers in recent decades, now almost extinct as a breeding species on the estuary. Any remaining local birds will be joined by birds from northern Europe for the winter, with 'tundrae' (birds from the high north of Scandinavia e. into Siberia) passing through in variable numbers during autumn. A definite early autumn peak in passage numbers, but birds 'short stop' and may only be present for a short period. Counts are often missed.

Moult (adult)- postbreeding, complete. Highly variable sequences, usually starting on breeding grounds, from mid-June to as late as October, most suspending the primary feather moult during peak passage period (August- September). Right now they will have grown a small number of new flight feathers to help their journey south, our breeders perhaps going as far as France/Spain while the Scandinavians 'leap-frog' us to go as far as Africa

Average nos 1990-99 July 124 August 904
Average nos 2000-09 July 12 August 155
In recent years numbers have remained low, just double figures most days, although the odd three-figure count does still get made- just as for breeding, Ringed Plovers find our increased activity and urbanisation have made the Medway less attractive. Any high shoreline fronts (their favoured areas) are too disturbed (or more often flooded by increasingly high spring tides) for hold them for long.

Golden Plover

A small number arrive around now and will remain to overwinter. Origins unknown, possibly British/ near continent.

Varying numbers then arrive in late autumn/early winter. ('last minute bookings' to escape harshest of the winter weather on the continent). Further urbanisation of the green areas surrounding the Medway will reduce the Medway's carrying capacity- birds that spend the day roosting on marshes such as Chetney do need inland fields in which to feed at night.

Moult (adult)- postbreeding, complete. Starts late May- July, often suspends July-August, restarting mid-September- early November. July August is the move from breeding grounds, the flight feathers are pristine at the start of winter ready for 'escape movements' from bad weather.

Average nos 1990-99 July 7 August 40
Average nos 2000-09 July 11 August 97
Numbers on the Funton mudflats have, in recent years, been slightly higher (up to around the 200 mark) and, interestingly, these birds then tend to continue to roost on the flats rather than join the later arrivals in the fields.

Grey Plover

First landings are usually  scheduled for late July, the start of adult passage, with youngsters then not turning up until September.

Moult (adult)- postbreeding, complete. Starts on wintering ground or on specific staging ground. Starts flight feathers between August- early October, but birds starting from September onwards will suspend from mid-October and only restart in spring. ('Suspend' another technical term; stops, then restarts later from point where halted earlier- so, different from 'arrest'.) Birds present on the Medway in early August will either be adults about to either pass through quickly, or here to establish a feeding territory and remain to moult. Why easy to miss the highest counts if only counting a few times each month.

Average nos 1990-99 July 180 August 1,556
Average nos 2000-09 July 7 August 131
Recent numbers still reflect 1990 figures. Most of the larger flocks do tend to favour the less-disturbed flats mid-estuary, perhaps hinting at their being 'short-stayers'.


Small numbers will have been arriving since June, mainly from the near continent. Some return year after year to winter, mainly late Sept-Nov, but the biggest numbers only will only be seen if they need to escape poor bad winter weather. Biggest numbers will always be on the fields rather than the mudflats.

Moult (adult)- postbreeding, complete. May/June- August/September. The species has a very fast moult of outer primaries to aid early autumn movements.

Average nos 1990-99 July 313 August 513
Average nos 2000-09 July 138 August 347
Another species where older records better reflect the present position- incomplete coverage has underplayed the estuary's true numbers. The drier the summer, the more easily detectable out on the mudflats (instead hidden up in the harder-to-view/count fields spread around the marshes).


Small numbers on autumn passage. Biggest numbers are December-February, made up of wintering wanderers who, having spent first part of winter elsewhere on the east coast, take a short flight to enjoy the Medway cuisine. Fussy eaters, Knot rely on molluscs more than many of the other calidrid species (why they are fixated with only certain muflats here).

Moult (adult)- postbreeding, complete. Might start on breeding grounds, but usually not until in wintering area. Subspecies canutus starts when reaches Mauritania in August-September, subspecies islandica start as soon as arrive in western Europe (July/August) but these stay mainly on recognised moult grounds (e.g. Morecambe Bay, the Wash); 'our' August birds are usually of the race canutus, from western Siberia, heading for Africa.

Average nos 1990-99 July 0 August 171
Average nos 2000-09 July 0 August 50
Recent years very similar, and erratic in number from year to year. A clear example of flight diversions by way of a departure from the scheduled route- here, birds usually relocate after a day or so, probably having overshot the Wash or the Waddenzee (Netherlands).


schinzii- Greenland/Iceland to Norway- small numbers on transit through the early autumn.
alpina- northern Europe to north-west Siberia- these are our overwinterers, not booking in until October/November.

Moult- postbreeding, complete. Just as each race has its own wintering preferences, each has a differing moult strategy. Schinzii moults after migration, alpina may start and then suspend before migrating, often to complete on other specific staging grounds along the flyway before finishing in October (just in time for many to make the final flight to their north Kent wintering grounds). Why many of the small number of adults seen now are likely schinzii, making short stopovers before racing off south.

Average nos 1990-99 July 350 August 1,774
Average nos 2000-09 July 8 August 443
One of the few species where a decline appears to have continued; hard work nowadays for three-figure count at this time of year. Clearly refueling elsewhere. If their main flyway is west to Norway then down through Europe, most will stick to the continental side of the Channel- when they do drift over, they stay more to the south coast than north Kent.

Black-tailed Godwit

Often higher numbers in autumn than in winter. First returnees from Iceland arrive late June, continuing to build through August, to make a moult stopover, with many then moving on to spend the later winter months on the south coast, over in France, or as far south as Portugal.

Moult (adult, islandica)- postbreeding, complete. The flight feather moult takes place after main flight from Iceland, from August to December, when birds may then move on. Birds seen now on the Medway will intend to stay here on the north Kent marshes to see out this important stage of their moult cycle.

Average nos 1990-99 July 232 August 979
Average nos 2000-09 July 298 August 570
Nowadays, four figure counts in August are the norm. (Reflecting the growth in breeding numbers in Iceland).


Small numbers pass through in early autumn. A species which we see more in the spring than the autumn. The bulk of their population moving through the UK (breeding in Iceland) adjusts their flightline to Africa, sticking to the west via Ireland. The birds we see in the autumn are more likely from Scaninavian/Siberian populations.

Moult (adult)- postbreeding, complete. Usually not started until on wintering grounds in Africa, September/October onwards (a neat aide to separating from moulting Curlew in distant flight at this time of year). Stopovers here are for refueling purposes only.

Average nos not readily available from the old printed annual reports. Partly because they weren't here in any number then. Whimbrel can be fickle and switch refueling sites every few years. Recently a three figure roost has become regular around Nor/Friars/Oakham at this time of year, but only for a matter of a few weeks before continuing on to the wintering grounds to moult.


Annual peak numbers are in the autumn, usually September. Safe moulting out around the Medway islands. The drop off in monthly counts later in the winter is probably down to feeding strategies as Curlew, more specifically the shorter-billed males, prefer to feed in fields as winter progresses. Further urbanisation will affect the Medway's carrying capacity.

Moult (adult)- postbreeding, complete. Primary flight feathers start in July/ August, shortly after arriving on wintering grounds. Take 12 weeks to complete.

Average nos 1990-99 July 786 August 1,599
Average nos 2000-09 July 134 August 178
Recent numbers reflect the more methodical counts of the 1990s. In fact, a series of counts will often produce peaks- like Oystercatcher, under certain tidal conditions/ disturbance levels, many of the Thames birds will join the Medway (and Swale) moulters. Another reason why counts should be coordinated not only within the Medway estuary, but on the Thames and Swale as well.


Late autumn peak, although moulting numbers are already quite high. Rough and ready rule of thumb, most Icelandics overwinter, quite a few continentals carry on south. And some local movement to the near continent.

Moult (adult)- postbreeding, complete. Flight feathers start in late June to September. Usually remain on moulting grounds throughout, but can still continue on migration before finishedif needs must (a strategy more prevalent in continental birds).

Average nos 1990-99 July 2,294 August 3,523
Average nos 2000-09 July 208 August 404
Numbers moulting within my study area (the southern shoreline) probably reflect an autumn population perhaps only a little under those 1990 figures. Get the count time right (on the rise for birds retiring into the spartina) and single creek roosts here can exceed 700, 800 birds.


Small numbers build to a first peak at the end of July, when the bulk of the breeding adults arrive. A second peak follows two- three weeks later, as the juveniles join them. Very small numbers then remain to overwinter.

Moult (adult)- postbreeding, complete. Moult of flight feathers might start on breeding grounds, then suspend until reach moulting  grounds such as the Medway. Moult takes place July to September (though some may then suspend unifinished moult until they reach their wintering grounds).
Birds here in early autumn are here for safe moulting.

Average nos 1990-99 July 21 August 60
Average nos 2000-09 July 17 August 54
Greenshank behave a lot like their red-shanked cousins, and are often hidden up over the usual WeBS counting period (high tide itself); by counting birds into roost, three figure counts are in truth easily achievable during August.


Fennoscandian population: on transit for south
Greenland/Canada: arriving slightly later, for winter.

Moult (adult)- postbreeding, complete. Birds make a choice of two strategies. #One, starting late-June- August by birds intending to overwinter in northern hemisphere. #Two, for birds overwintering south of the equator, flight feather replacement commences mid-September.

Many of the Turnstone on the Medway in the early autumn peak show no sign of a wing moult, hinting at a short stopover and a long journey ahead.

Average nos 1990-99 July 97 August 726
Average nos 2000-09 July 22 August 43
Again, counts are more usually closer to the 1990s. A species that shows a clear weekend disturbance pattern (more often heading to central estuary roosts rather than the old hulks closer to the shoreline footpaths).


Hopefully this short introduction to the Medway's early autumn bird migrants has helped illustrate the large numbers of waders that will use the estuary during an autumn. It is a complex situation, with every month different; making sense of the way the birds continue to use this estuary is challenging but highly rewarding. Because the estuary needs to be understood if we are to protect it- which brings me neatly back to our hosts tonight, the Living River Foundation- we really do need to know what effect plastic is having on our breeders, our migrants, our overwinterers, on their fuel living in the estuary? I'm sure we all wish them well in their monitoring work- and thank you for coming out and supporting them tonight.