A musical, bubbling call drifted over Keyhaven Lagoon, the unmistakable call of a Curlew. A bird whose populations have dropped precipitously in Britain making it a red-listed bird. I had been watching a Stonechat that was perched on Gorse and hearing the call I turned my attention to a flock of waders in the distance across the far side of the lagoon. On my previous visit to Keyhaven Marshes I had seen flocks of several hundred Black-tailed Godwits. Although I had seen the large flock of waders, I had not yet got around to examine the resting birds thinking they were godwits based on a naked eye view of the distant birds. When I looked at them through my binoculars, to my surprise rather than the straight bills I was expecting to see in godwits, these birds had long down-curved beaks. They were almost all Curlews. I counted the flock carefully going from left to right and then again from right to left. There were around 125 Curlews. I had never seen before that many Curlews together. On my last visit earlier on in May, I had seen Curlews as well, but I did not have more than two or three in view at the same time. This current visit and the previous visit were also with the Marylebone Birdwatching Society (MBS), on one of their coach outings. We had left at 8 a.m. from Embankment in Central London and passed through the beautiful, wooded, New Forest in Hampshire to arrive at the South coast. The weather was kind to us and despite a stiff gust by the sea, it was sunny and conditions were good for birdwatching and photography.
It was late September on this visit and the lovely pink Thrifts and the white Bladder Campions I had seen in May were no longer in flower. However, Hawthorn bushes were laden with fruit which would be essential in the autumn for many fruit eating birds such as thrushes. A few summer visitors were still present and I saw at least three Barn Swallows hawking for insects. The Swifts had already left for Africa and the remaining Barn Swallows would soon be gone. A flock of seven Wheatears was seen by the main group from the MBS that were walking along the sea wall with the Solent onto their right and salt marshes and brackish lagoon and ponds onto their left. These Wheatears would be on passage. I caught up with one individual that perched on the sea wall atop which the walking path was on. It seemed confiding and willing to perch close to people but kept getting pushed away from me as other walkers approached it to walk past it. As people got to within a few feet, it would fly further down the path. Finally, it flew onto a gate post until a dog walker opened the gate and then flew onto the field beside a lagoon and began to feed in the company of a Stonechat. The individual I saw lacked the clean grey upperparts of a male. When it flicked its tail at regular intervals, I could see the distinctive black and white patterned tail.
Meadow Pipits were common and a flock seemed to be calling from above or feeding beside the seawall almost all the time. As the group of birdwatchers initially set out, we had a close view of the much scarcer Rock Pipit which is fond of rocky coastal shorelines. It is a darker bird but needs careful examination to tell apart from other pipits including the Water Pipit which was also seen on the day. The flock of Curlews I referred to earlier also held a few Knot, smaller, dumpy waders. There were also a few Bar-tailed and Black-tailed Godwits and a few Redshank. Away from the main flock, around forty Oystercatchers were gathered. These are striking waders in black and white plumage with a long red bill and red legs. They are usually quite vocal birds, but this flock seemed to have had all their energy drained off them and were resting quietly. Approaching a jetty, I examined the beach strewn with pebble and seaweed. As my eyes adjusted, I began to make out a few Ruddy Turnstones. These birds use both disruptive and cryptic colouration as camouflage. Their upperparts are cryptic and will blend in well with pebble strewn beaches. Their underparts are a bold white and completely break up the outline of the bird. As I got my eye in, I realised there were not just a few, but perhaps thirty to forty Turnstones. Some were huddled in sleep amongst the seaweeds whilst a small group of half a dozen was actively feeding. The seawall sloped down to a small jetty on the shore and I came down a small slope and stayed behind a large bush allowing the feeding group to approach me. They were fairly confiding and came to within ten feet of me. I watched leaves and small pebbles flying off as they literally turned stones over in their search for invertebrate prey under the stones. Their beaks are stout and I would imagine their head bones and muscles are engineered in a way that they can apply enormous force to rapidly turn over many objects which may be in the order of five to ten percent of their body mass.
A strangely disjointed chorus of voices fighting against the stiff breeze from the Solent alerted me that the main group of bird watchers led by Andrew Peel were on the return leg and they took a right angle turn from the sea wall to take a circular loop back towards the car park and a refreshing pint at the local pub. I headed back, trailing behind them, through the marshes which had gone suddenly quiet as low ominous clouds with a hint of rain drifted in. The murmurations of Starlings which had enlivened the marshes in the morning were gone. Over a hundred Canada Geese were resting and studded a field like black and white statues in a big outdoor art installation.
I caught up with the main group watching a flock of waterfowl which held Wigeon, Teal, Pintail, and other waterbirds such as Little Grebe. A Common Kingfisher flashed past and a flock of Black-tailed Godwits flew onto the mudflats. The sun came out again and I decided to spend the remaining time on another part of the seawall, a few minutes walk away from the car park. I sat on a bench with a farming couple who had driven from Derby. We talked about how bird populations are crashing. Very close to us a few Turnstones worked their way through the seaweed on the exposed mud. A few Redshank and a solitary Black-tailed Godwit were feeding. A Pied Wagtail alighted. A Meadow Pipit and a Linnet flew onto the stone edge atop the sea wall which was encrusted with colourful, old lichen mats. It was another amazing day out in the field with the MBS, one of the several groups in London that organise coach trips and field excursions. In just another two hours time, the coach would reach the London underground station at Hammersmith, bringing me back from the coast and its wildlife to the busy metropolis that London is.
A number of groups in London organise a range of birdwatching and other nature walks as well as day trips by coach or using public transport to sites further afield from London. Three groups which are especially suited for residents and visitors in central London are:
- London Natural History Society
- Marylebone Birdwatching Society
- RSPB Central London Local Group