Winter bird watching on the River Stour - Water Birds
Sandwich Marina on the River Stour
Looking out of my kitchen window I have a view of a stream that runs through my garden (it is part of the flood defence for sandwich, in case the Stour breaks it's banks). I have an elder tree that overhangs this stream, bare of its leaves this time of year. This tree is a mecca for birds, in the summer I have flocks of long tailed tits and warblers of every kind as well as the usual black birds, robins and wood pigeons to name but a few.
Bird watching here in my garden and out on my little patch of river bank is rewarding all year round, the summer is exciting, what visitors will we get this year? Indeed, twitchers come from far and wide, setting up their long lenses, in the hope of spotting something out of the ordinary, or getting that shot of the resident barn owl that only ever shows himself when they have all gone home.
Winter time is a lot quieter but no less rewarding. I have become quite attached to the winter residents, knowing that like me they are braving and surviving the weather, they manage to keep warm and find food, and show me when spring is on it's way long before the weather does! So this is a log of the winter resident birds, the hardcore British sect that don't feel the need to disappear to warmer climates just because of a little frost or snow! I have only included birds that I have actually seen and heard, so it is an honest log of what you can expect to see this time of year in this area. I have included as much information as possible about each one, some of the photo's are mine, but invariably, when these birds show themselves, I do not have my camera to hand so other photo's will be from other sources all of whom I will give full credit to.
The kingfisher is a dazzlingly attractive bird with a dagger like bill and striking plumage. They are 16 - 17cm long and the sexes are similar, with orange red underparts and electric blue upperparts. They have red legs and feet and a dark bill, the female can be identified by the base of the lower mandible (bill) as it is flushed red.
Although these birds are known to reside on the Stour, they are rarely seen on this section by Sandwich as there are very few perches overhanging the river for them to fish from. However, this year a kingfisher came into my garden and perched on the tree overhanging the stream. I will confess this was truly exciting and the first time I have ever seen one up close and personal. Unfortunately, there are no fish there because it usually dries up in the summer, so I doubt he will return. You can spot them in low level flight speeding over the river though if you have the patience to sit and wait long enough. Their voice is thin and high pitched and uttered in flight.
These birds are very common all year round on the river, but there are actually more of them in the winter due to migrants from Europe! In Sandwich we have many kinds of ducks that live in a local nature reserve. They tend to stay there during the winter though so this time of year it is only the mallard that is seen and heard.
The mallard is around 50 - 60cm long and the sexes differ in appearence. The females have mottled brown plumage that is their camouflage when nesting. They have an orange - brown bill and orange- yellow legs and feet. The male is alot more colourful, with a green shiny head and neck, seperated from its chestnut breast by a white collar. The underparts are grey - brown with a black stern and white tail. The back is grey - brown grading to a redish brown. It has a yellow bill and orange legs and feet. It is not uncommon to see a white mallard however, with an orange bill, there is one that nests here every summer. These birds are from domesticated ducks that have escaped or bred with wild ducks. Juvenille's are similar to the adult female, as are the adult males when they are in eclipse (they moult their feathers at the beginning and end of the summer breeding period).
The ducks are very popular here all year round, and are great characters! They visit human dwellings on the riverbank for food, stop the traffic on the main roads and make a great deal of noise! Having of a lifespan of up to 20 years, people become very attached to them and woe betide anyone who suggests duck for dinner! It is the female that makes the familiar quacking sound, the males utter a range of whistles and nasal calls.
The moorhen lives alongside the ducks on the river and is probably as widespread. When it is cold they sit in the undergrowth along the river bank, and are easily startled by passers by or dogs that send them flying back into the water with a splash and indignant call.
They are 32 - 35cm long and the sexes are similar. They look all dark from a distance, but close up you can see the head and underparts are a dark grey blue, whilst the wings and tail are a brownish black. It's bill is a distinctive red with a yellow tip, and a frontal sheild on the head. It has yellow legs and feet with very long toes, and there are white feathers on the sides of the undertail and a white line along the flank. Their long toes make unmistakable foot prints when it snows! They are year round residents and breed every year.
Geese - The Greylag, Brent and Canadian
The Greylag Goose is a large grey goose (75 - 90cm long) that is the ancester of the domesticated farmyard goose. It is the only grey goose that breeds in britain, and is common on the River Stour or flying overhead in groups of 8 or more in the familiar V formation, and making a loud honking type call. In the summer they are common on the river itself, but this time of year they are seen and heard twice a day flying overhead (morning and evening!). They have grey brown plumage with barring on the flanks and dark lines on the side of the neck. The bill is pinkish orange with a pale tip.
The Brent Goose is here only during the winter months as it migrates to Russia to breed. It is a relatively small goose, being 56 - 61cm long but can be seen in large flocks flying noisily overhead in the V formation and also on the river. It has a blackish head, neck and breast, with a narrow band of white feathers on it's neck. It has a dark brownish grey back and belly.
The Canadian Goose is a little more unobtrusive than the others. Often a single goose will be on the water completely unnoticed until it decides to take off when it does so amidst a great deal of splashing! This goose is here all year round and will breed in the summer. It is easily recognisable with a black head and neck with a distinctive white patch on the throat. The body is mainly grey - brown, the stern is white and it has a dark tail. It has a blackish bill and dark legs.
Probably the largest water bird that I see on the river Stour, and a distant relative of the pelican! They nest in the summer further along the river towards the sea. Sea gulls (herring gulls) will try to attack their nests and it is not uncommon to witness the two birds fighting... unfortunately for the cormorant, although it has the advantage in size, being 80 - 100cm long, it is not nearly vicious enough to ward off these attacks and invariably the sea gull wins.
During the winter months the cormorant can be seen along my patch of river by the marina. It swims deep in the water and then emerges suddenly and flies away, easily recognisable by it's sheer size and shape in flight, it has a habit of sticking it's neck out whilst flying, and as it takes off it seems almost impossible that such a large creature could to take the air.
The plumage is distinctive for it's black oily sheen, with brown feathers on the wings all bordred with black. In the summer it has white patches on the thigh, head and neck, but these white patches disappear in the winter. It has green eyes and a yellow patch under its bill grading to white. It is always a pleasure to see this bird this far inland, but only shows itself every now and then.
Sandwich, like most places in South East England has it's fair share of sea gulls.They have a dubious reputation, many people hating them because of the noise they make, and the mess when they get into peoples rubbish. They also steal food and can attack if they have young nearby.
I personally love them! They are proud, robust birds, full of character and in Sandwich it is common to see several different types. The Herring gull, by far the most common and the one people usually complain about lives in family groups, that get larger each year due to mating. They post sentries when they are nesting to keep watch for dangers and look after each others young. There is an industrial estate near the marina where I live and these birds appear to live on the rooftops of workshops all year round. They tend to stay around the industrial estate as this is their main source of food. They are the largest of the local gulls measuring 56 - 62cm in length. The birds are mainly white with grey upperparts and wings, they have a yellow bill with a distinctive red spot near the tip. The wingtips are black with some white spots. The legs are pink. Sometimes among these birds in the winter, you will see similar looking gulls that are a little smaller but with yellow legs. These are called yellow-legged gulls and are non-breeding visitors from Europe.
The little gull is a much smaller and daintier gull, measuring 25 - 28cm in length. It took me a while to identify this lone gull seen often flying over the river as superficaially it can look similar to the black headed gull and the Mediteranian gull, but is identifyable by the dark underside of it's wings in flight and it's call which is a short sharp kyeck sound. It's upperwings are pale grey with white wingtips, it has a white body, dark bill and reddish legs. In the summer it has a black hood, but it loses this in the winter and the bird that I see almost daily has a white head with black smudges on the crown and by the eyes.
This is a distinctive and pretty wader that looks black and white from a distance (indeed I saw two of these together recently and at first glance I thought they were magpies until I got closer and saw the obvious differences!). Up close the dark upperparts have an amazing green and purple sheen to them, it has a spiky crest on it's head of the same colouring. The underparts are white except for the orange vent and the black fore-neck in the summer, this time of year the fore-neck is white. The female has a smaller crest and white patches on the throat and fore-neck. There is a large patch of rough grassland by the river that serves as a flood plain and is always wet through the winter months. This is a favourite patch for the lapwing as it is with the other waders.
This bird can occasionally be seen feeding in the mud at low tide, and also likes the patch of rough grassland favoured by the lapwing. I have only seen it in winter months, these birds are known to breed further north. It is very distinctive with a long curved down bill. It has mainly grey brown plumage that is streaked and spotted on the neck and underparts with a pale belly. In flight it looks particularly attractive due to the patterns on the wings, and revealing a white rump and lower back.
I have included here the main birds that I have seen this winter between October 2011 and February 2012. I will continue with a series of further hubs logging the other kinds of birds found in this region, also plants and animals, and then of course it will be time to tell you the reader all about the very busy spring and summer time when the warblers, flycatchers and terns come, and if I'm very lucky the nightingale too. Sadly missing from this list of birds is the swan. Although for many years they have been very active on this patch of river, I haven't seen any for over a year now, and I fear some have met a tragic end in accidents with boats. Others I hope have moved to safer parts of the river.
- Nature Writing - Sunrise on the Stour
A descriptive piece of nature writing about sunrise over the river Stour in South East England