A New Year's 'Big Day' in Essex



Not many people could have a chance of finding 100 species on New Year's Day on their doorstep, but my local area has a good variety of habitats with salt and freshwater, wood and farmland – all reachable on foot. So here is my low-carbon, #LocalBigYear New Year's effort.

During the Christmas week, the local grapevine hadn't advised anything too exotic so I'd need a little luck. The first was the timing of high tide. It was conveniently predicted at 9.40 am in good light and to a decent height.

I woke before the alarm and by 6.30 am, I was leaning out the back door. I heard the squawk of an Egyptian Goose and a Blackbird above half-a-dozen European Robins. I set off as the faintest of light showed in the eastern sky; cut across town and through Wivenhoe Wood to Ferry Marsh, taking the Wivenhoe Trail from there to Alresford Creek for the high tide vigil …

Glyn's patch at Wivenhoe, Essex, offers enough variety to be in with a shout of 100 species seen on foot on New Year's Day. But would he succeed?

Luckily, the wood yielded a Tawny Owl with a last kee-yik before retiring for the day. A Song Thrush also was in full song, close to the train station. Ferry Marsh also benefited from the unseasonably warm morning and Cetti's Warblers were making themselves heard, plus a Water Rail. Eurasian Teal's twinkling calls were heard, and a Common Kestrel was hunting early against the crimson sky. A Rock Pipit was on the saltings as I approached West Quay. I was messaging the local WhatsApp group so I could keep tabs on what I was finding without having to stop to keep a list going.

A short pause on the jetty allowed a view across to Fingringhoe Mill, where I failed to see Barn Owl or Common Kingfisher. But redemption came when, first, a kingfisher sounded its presence as it flew through the open barrier downstream and then a Grey Wagtail flew over back toward Wivenhoe. Two tricky species bagged. A male Western Marsh Harrier soared, then six Redwing caught the eye as they flickered quietly over. A male European Stonechat was located after a brief scan of the grazing marsh and, as the sky started to show some generous blue patches, 90 European Golden Plover flew south.

From the sea wall just before Alresford Grange Wood a large flock of Avocets was seen over on Fingringhoe lagoon, disturbed by an unseen predator. But apart from the odd Great Cormorant, Little and Great Crested Grebes were all that could be seen on the water. I slowed to listen carefully in Alresford Grange wood and was rewarded by a pair of Eurasian Treecreeper and then a Eurasian Bullfinch. The Eurasian Nuthatches that graced the wood in the summer, however, had not been seen for a while.

As I approached Whitehouse Beach a small flock of finches and buntings were moving ahead of me in the hedge. As I tried to sneak ahead of them to get the light behind me, two chunkier birds took flight with distinctive whirring wingbeats – Corn Buntings! I then heard the subtly nasal chirp of a Brambling in among the remaining birds and was eventually able to see a nicely marked male.

Brambling was a handy mid-morning addition in a hedgerow beside the estuary.

As I trudged from the saltings to Whitehouse beach, my head was turned by the unmistakable chew-it of a Spotted Redshank which had been disturbed with a host of other waders from Fingringhoe.

I reached Dave Gardner's bench, overlooking the creek mouth, the estuary and Geedon Marshes a couple of miles away and settled in for a watch. A Raven flew quietly over the hides at Fingringhoe. The waders were sufficiently jumpy that I was able to see or hear most of them in flight as they jostled for a high tide roost, with the call of a couple of Greenshank a tricky bonus at high tide.

By 10.30 am, it was 50 minutes after the predicted high, so with the possibility of seeing a few more species around the farmland and the creek, I marched to Thorrington Mill, intent on returning to the estuary for a second spell before the tide got too low, but apart from a single Fieldfare and another kingfisher, there was nothing to add from the 5-km return. I called home with a progress report and my partner Debbie asked if I had seen Darrell Stile's WhatsApp message that he had seen the nuthatches back at the Grange – I had not!

I diverted the return hike to the creek and gave Cemex Pits a look in the hope that I might pick up a Common Pochard, but instead heard a Green Sandpiper at the far end. In the five minutes it took to get back onto the lane from the footpath, I calculated that I'd be better off going back along the creek and taking the trail to Grange Wood, while the tide was still relatively high. Along the way, I met Darrell Stile. He'd seen Red-throated Diver on the high tide which I had missed, but perhaps now it had drifted back out of the estuary …

As I reached Dave's bench once more, I concentrated on the furthest stretches of water in the hope of seeing the diver before it retreated out of sight. Again, the open water was devoid of anything new, so after a careful scan of Geedon Marshes saw me pick out a perched Peregrine Falcon.

I started tracking back upstream. By now, a few people were out on their constitutionals, so I was astonished to see the Red-throated Diver not far off Whitehouse Beach, where there was a youngster skimming pebbles and a yappy dog keeping it alert!

A pair of Red-breasted Merganser then flew behind the diver and alighted opposite Fingringhoe Lagoon, so I trudged toward Whitehouse in the hope of a better view of either, hurriedly pointing the camera at an interesting immature gull that was flying low downriver.

The large flock of wintering Avocets quickly found its way onto Glyn's 2022 year list.

Despite the presence of other noisy families and their mutts, it didn't take long for me to spot at least one nuthatch threading through the canopy back at Grange Wood. I realised that the Great Spotted Woodpecker there was also the first of the day. Darrell alerted me via WhatsApp to a drake Goosander on a nearby lake, so I pressed on to find it, and possibly go out on a shortish limb to pick up Coal Tit, before doubling back toward the last places on the itinerary – Cockaynes and Keelars Lanes.

The lakes had Northern Shoveler but no Goosander. I elected to descend between the lakes on the path to St Peter's Church to get a different angle and was rewarded with a single Goldcrest in the hollies, but still no Goosander. I decided to follow the stream back to the lane and through the bracken patch where I had flushed Eurasian Woodcock in previous years, but which was now guarded by what looked like an impenetrable barrier of bushes. I struggled through the sparsest area I could find and weaved a course through the brackens toward the lane where, handily, I flushed a woodcock. I didn't even have to break my weary stride as the Coal Tits called from the pines back at the top end of Cutthroat Lane, but a third attempt at finding the Goosander failed again. A Eurasian Sparrowhawk which cruised over the millet field turned out to be my only one of the day.

It was only 1.30 pm. Plenty of time, but some way to walk. I began to compile a mental roll call of obvious absentees … Jay, Goosander, owls …

The latter would have to be an end of day bonus, with some luck, but I'd already passed all the known Little Owl territories. I decided to loop through Cockaynes Lane, which had yielded Common Chiffchaff on recent visits. So it did on this occasion, too, as I took a welcome rest at the picnic table.

From Keelars I could see the fishing lakes where there was a realistic chance of Goosander – and possibly owls if I stayed long enough.

With refreshments in the day sack almost exhausted, I rang home with a request for tea in the hope that I might have fly-by Goosanders and one of the long-staying male Blackcaps in the garden.  The tea was still too hot to drink when the Blackcap obligingly popped up into the elder bush!

It was just after 3 pm. A quick estimate had me on 101 species. Stick or twist? Do I stay in the comfort of home and hope a Goosander flies by, or get my boots back on and slog over to Keelars to try and pick up another couple of species?

"See you when it's dark," was my parting shot to Debbie as I headed out for the last hurrah.

Blackcap is a tricky bird for most New Year's listers, although one of the reliable wintering males in Glyn's garden duly performed.

It was already quite gloomy as I threaded myself through the hedge onto the "common" for a quick scan of a flood. Nothing new. Perhaps the small pond at the far end was worthy of a quick look. Hope springs eternal … I decided to quickly check the pits for Goosander. Bingo! Seven of them, silhouetted in the twilight.

All there was now time for was a yomp through the damp areas to try and flush a Common Snipe and then perhaps a vigil by the road for Barn Owl. I caught up with Keith Hunt on the track toward the road. We watched a mixed flock of Redwing and Fieldfare line the bushes and reminisced about birding days of yore. I bade him farewell and a Happy New Year to wait until I could see no more.

Glyn's final step count for New Year's Day 2022. Good exercise, as well as good birding!

Equalling my previous best of 102 was a satisfying total, but I finally gave up on Barn Owl to retire for the day and check properly what I had found, by typing out the list which numbered itself as I worked through it. I had miscounted. 103! I circulated the "final" list to the WhatsApp group. Mark Halladay's congratulatory message queried the omission of Eurasian Curlew. I'd seen dozens of them! 104 …

Oh, wait – that mystery gull was worth a closer look. It was a first winter Mediterranean Gull; uncommon here in winter, so not a bird I would have expected, but nevertheless, my 105th species after all the reflections and re-counts.

A grand day out and, to me, a valuable example of low-carbon (albeit high mileage – more than 25 km walked!) patch birding.

Written by: Glyn Evans

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