Just off the M25 on the north bank of the Thames, a rural idyll this isn’t. And that’s part of the attraction.
I made my way, by car, past Purfleet station where I have often arrived by train, for the short walk to the reserve, and parked in the car park. There were lots of birds around on the feeders and around the visitor centre; house sparrows, song thrush, green, gold and chaff finches too.The visitor centre is a Marmite subject – you either love it or hate it. I have grown to love it. It reminds me of a Liquorice Allsort and I have always looked out for it if I am speeding past the nature reserve on the Eurostar.
Standing outside the visitor centre, overlooking the reserve, you look over a wet grassland full of birds. On Friday, at first glance, there were lots of lapwings and teal and wigeon and shoveler. A Eurostar whizzed past and scared the lapwings into the air with some starlings and a few dunlin but I saw no golden plover. A local train moved past much more slowly and seemed to have no impact on the birds. There were planes overhead. A boat went past on the Thames heading upstream on the high tide. Cars and lorries were passing by too heading to Dagenham.
I wandered down the path but a well-placed bench made me stop and scan the bird-filled wetlands in front. A pair of pintails slept in the grass; coots fussed around; shelducks were in the distance but easy to pick out – as were the little egrets; tufted ducks swam and dived on a distant pool; greylags, canada geese and mute swans were the big birds; pied wagtails called overhead.
I was joined on the bench by two local volunteers. They told me that the bench, which was a very fine bench, had only been put in yesterday and showed me that it commemorated Mick Clayton who had died recently. It is a very fine bench and it has a very fine view. Many people will get a lot of pleasure from sitting on it.I continued my stroll and headed down to a little bridge across a waterway where I stopped, as I always do, to look for water voles. As I mention in Fighting for Birds, I have not yet seen a water vole at Rainham despite many visits and it being a very good place for them. I am beginning to wonder whether I am blind to water voles as I have seen very few in recent years and my most recent sighting was pointed out to me at the WWT site at Barnes by an attractive young lady birder – maybe I’d meet her or someone similar today?
I am not blind to water vole droppings though – there were many on a little well-trodden pathway from the water into a bankside burrow. Water vole droppings look a little like liquorice torpedoes come to think of it, although maybe we don’t want to think of it in quite that way. I kept looking for water voles from the bridge. There were occasional ripples on the surface of the smooth-surfaced straight reed-fringed waterway but every ripple had a coot at its focus.
I waited for about 10 minutes and added a few birds to my list (snipe calling, curlew calling, common gulls flying past, reed buntings in the reeds, wren too) but no water voles.
I visited a rather plush hide and then continued along the path by the water where the water voles should have been cavorting – but they weren’t. A movement in the reeds looked promising and turned out to be a very close and very nice-looking dabchick but wasn’t a water vole.
A magpie flew past – it looked a little like a liquorice allsort too.I walked slowly as far as the Wetland Discovery Centre where I didn’t discover the wetland wildlife about which I was now getting slightly pre-occupied.
I started retracing my steps and was overtaken by two RSPB staff who were heading back to the visitor centre. I smiled and said hello to them and they smiled and said hello to me and I got a message on Facebook from one of them later in the day saying that she had thought she recognised me but wasn’t completely sure at the time (Thanks for the message Nicole).
I was nearly back at ‘water vole droppings bridge’ – which is supposed to be water vole central and I still hadn’t seen one. Is water vole blindness something that can be treated on the NHS I wonder? Another long wait at the bridge was very pleasant but also very untroubled by water vole sightings and I was wondering how to treat the RSPB’s huge and wicked exaggeration of water vole numbers at Rainham Marshes when I saw one. It was quite quick, but quite water-voley. A vole swam across the channel, from left to right. Water voles swim really low in the water and always seem to have an arched back which means their heads stick out a bit at the front and their bums stick out a bit at the other end but their backs almost disappear in the water.It was a bit of a relief really. Water vole has been a bit of a bogey species for the last few years. Where I grew up south of Bristol I remember seeing water voles every time I walked along the River Chew looking for kingfishers – now they are much rarer although at places like Rainham they are making a comeback. I now feel more a part of their comeback having seen one of the little critters again, and found it by myself (although it was nice of the RPSB to provide the ideal circumstances at Rainham).
I had a quick look again from Mick’s bench and then passed through the visitor centre again. The lady who had greeted me when I arrived, with a very local accent, and suggested where to go for water voles was, I had been told by the two volunteers with whom I had had a chat, Mrs Clayton so I told her I’d seen water vole, sympathised with her for her loss and said that I’d enjoyed sitting on her husband’s bench and that it was perfectly positioned and very comfortable. She smiled and said she’d seen me sitting there and hoped that the bench would give lots of people pleasure. What might have been a difficult moment passed very easily and I’m glad I spoke to Mrs Clayton rather than just smiling and passing on.But pass on I did now as I took another path, along the sea wall, with the Thames on my left and the marshes on my right. You get a great view from up on the sea wall and I was able to pick out the Ross’s goose that I hadn’t seen from a lower vantage point. Has it sought out the environs of the M25 from its home in Arctic Canada or has it flown in from some nearby waterfowl collection? If we were talking about the black swan that used to frequent Rainham Marshes (is it still around, I wonder?) then we’d know it hadn’t made the journey from Australia but Ross’s goose might just have got here under its own steam. I somehow doubt it though.
My attention moved to the left of the path where I saw my first mallard of the visit and cormorants floated past on the Thames. There were supposed to be some rock pipits and occasional water pipits around in this area and that’s what I was looking for. A fellow birder pointed out a stonechat that was being photographed and we got talking. He was a beginner and when I said I was looking for rock pipits he said he’d never seen one, so that made me keener to find one.The rock pipits emerged, several of them, in a few moments and were added to my year-list and my fellow birder’s life list. We said goodbye with me suggesting he might like to buy a copy of fighting for birds if they had any copies in the centre shop. But I was now keen on the idea, and the actuality, of lunch. back in the liquorice allsort I ordered Moroccan chick-pea soup and a roll. The tasty spicy soup was just what I needed (OK – wanted!) and it was delicious.
But time was ticking away and it was time for me to head to Cambridge and the Cambridge Bird Club. I had a quick chat to the lady in the shop who told me that Fighting for Birds wasn’t exactly flying off the shelves and totted up my list of birds for the visit. I had seen 48 species (including Ross’s goose) of which that goose, pintail, rock pipit and, strangely, collared dove, were new for the reserve for me.
Rainham Marshes is really a reserve of Allsorts; Essex accents, Ross’s geese, Moroccan chick pea soup, some of the very few cattle inside the M25, views of the Thames, finches on the feeders and, yes, water voles too!