Firstly, special thanks to my generous sponsors who have donated over £250 to the Kent Wildlife Trust and the new RSPB Reserve at Cliffe.
The "Cliffe Strollers" is a new team but old hands - we compete on foot. David Wilson (North Kent Rainmakers) and myself (formerly the Kent Veterans leader) decided in 2001 to plan an environmentally friendly route on foot for the 2001 Great Kent Bird Challenge (GKBC), but that was thwarted by the outbreak of Foot and Mouth. To make up the team this year, we were joined by Bob Davison and Trevor Manship. Several variations of routes based around woodland within range of the Cliffe Pools complex, much of which now comprises the new RSPB eserve, were considered and different parts were visited prior to the event, before a final decision was reached - on the morning of the event!
Bird populations have changed markedly on the Hoo Peninsula over the last 20 years, and many of the typical woodland species can no longer be found or are extremely scarce. These include Nightjar, Lesser Spotted Woodpecker, Tree Pipit, Wood Warbler, Goldcrest, Marsh Tit, Willow Tit, Coal Tit, Nuthatch, Treecreeper, Lesser Redpoll and Hawfinch. Other species that have also disappeared, or are again thinly distributed, include Tree Sparrow, Yellowhammer and Corn Bunting. None of these species can be anticipated at Northward Hill in May, though a few may be found in Chattenden Woods and a few more in Shorne Woods Country Park.
Research suggested a few alternatives, based on a proven assumption that woodland species, particularly the owls, need to be heard or seen at the beginning of the day. This meant that combinations of Shorne Woods CP and a walk to the Cliffe Pools; Northward Hill and possibly Chattenden Woods and thence to Cliffe; or Northward Hill and a long walk along the river wall to Cliffe, seemed possible choices. Given the limited time available for visits to the various sites before the event, the final analysis compared in detail the first and last of the above options, as spending time in two woodland areas can prove counterproductive. The statistics showed extremely similar results and both routes could enable the team to set a new Kent record. However, the challenge of exceeding the existing Kent record of 109 species, for an on foot event, was going to be stretched by the lack of regular migrant waders in the county this spring, as well as the virtual absence of any lingering winter visitors. However, the detailed analysis did suggest that a target of 110 was just possible, given good weather conditions and of course some good fortune. We eventually decided to take the third option, starting at Northward Hill before dawn.
For those not familiar with the rules of Bird Racing, each species must be seen or heard by at least three of the four team members. This often means that there is a delay in adding a species to the list, and it is extremely frustrating for a single member when he hears or glimpses a new species that the others fail to hear or see. However, good teamwork usually means that it can be added and this year none was missed.
Saturday 11th May was selected for the GKBC but the weather forecast on the Friday suggested Sunday might be preferable. Having been so heavily involved in the documentation of the pre-race data, right up until bedtime on the 11th, I forgot to set my alarm and was awoken by Bob ringing the front doorbell at 2.05am. Due in Walderslade by 2.30am to join David and Trevor, we did just make it! David's wife Heather kindly drove us to the car park below Northward Hill, where we started the day's enterprise at 3am precisely, with the song of Nightingales filling the air. The weather was not quite what was anticipated: it was overcast, but still, with dampness in the air. The lights from the industrial zone across the river in Essex produced a glow in the sky, which meant that we could see where we were walking, even within the woodland. As we stood in the car park a Greylag Goose called, followed by the call of a Grey Heron from the direction of Europe's largest heronry. As we walked towards the wood a Rook called from the direction of the large rookery and then a Little Owl was heard - the first of four owl species, we hoped. At 3.05am we heard the first of several Cuckoos utter his onomatopoeic call, followed by the call of a Redshank from the direction of the marshes. An Oystercatcher was heard and as we walked into the wood, the beating of wings as a Woodpigeon flew from its roost was sufficient to identify that species. The tenth species to be noted was a cock Pheasant as it called at 3.16am followed by calls from another marshland species, a Moorhen. The song of several Nightingales was almost deafening, as we listened intently for a call from an adult or maybe a juvenile Long-eared Owl. A Lapwing called from the marshes, but hearing no sounds from the owls during the first hour, we decided it was time to move towards the western end of the wood for Tawny and Barn Owl.
A Robin sang as we walked along the bottom of the wood at 4.15am and then the call of a Shoveler was noted, as we emerged to the west of the wood and a Sedge Warbler sang from a reed-lined ditch. It was extremely disappointing not to hear a Tawny Owl by dawn break and there was no sign of a Barn Owl hunting either. The first Blackbird commenced singing at 4.25am and additional species followed in quick succession, with a Coot calling from the new reservoir, a Song Thrush and a Common Whitethroat singing, calls from a Carrion Crow - number 20 - Jackdaws, a Green Woodpecker and a Stock Dove, followed by song from a Wren, the 'purr' of a Turtle Dove and song from the first of many Blackcaps. Trevor's acutely sensitive hearing picked up the song of a Grasshopper Warbler, but it didn't persist and David heard a distant Tawny Owl call, but just once. It was by then light enough to make out species on the new reservoir in the middle distance and Mute Swan, Shelduck and Mallard were quickly added, but a Pochard disappeared behind an island, not to reappear, before more than one observer had seen it. A mist hanging over the marshes made distant scanning extremely difficult as the light slowly improved. At 5.09am the Grasshopper Warbler sang again for two more to hear - number 30 - and birds flying over were by then visible for identification, including a Black-headed Gull, a couple of Herring Gulls and a Little Egret. Another common member of the crow family, a Magpie, was then seen, a Chiffchaff sang and the nesting Avocets on the new reservoir islands could be clearly identified.
As we started to walk through the wood at 5.35am a Starling flew over and in the wood we added a few typical species such as Blue Tit, Great Spotted Woodpecker, Chaffinch and Dunnock, while a Collared Dove could be heard calling from the houses and gardens of the High Halstow residential area. From the edge of the wood, looking over the houses, we quickly added several more species, including Great Tit, House Sparrow, Greenfinch and, somewhat unexpectedly, a Mediterranean Gull as it flew west. An inspirational suggestion from Trevor, having noted the presence of a few conifers within the residential area, encouraged us to explore a little further. A Swallow flew over and in quick succession two Goldcrests appeared in a Leyland Cypress, followed by a couple of Long-tailed Tits - both extremely useful additions, particularly the Goldcrest. Along the edge of the wood, as we rejoined the Saxon Shore Way, a Lesser Whitethroat sang - number 50 at 6.28am - then a pair of Grey Partridge flew over the brow of a winter wheat field. We returned to the car park and considered our best options. We felt extremely disappointed to have found just one of the four owls expected and we were still missing several woodland specialities, like Sparrowhawk, Willow and Garden Warblers, Jay and Bullfinch. The latter two have often proved difficult to find during a bird race, but the warblers ought to be easier. We decided another woodland visit was necessary and so repeated our earlier walk, this time in daylight, along the bottom of the wood.
Several Linnets were present in the open scrub, Bob thought he briefly heard the song of a Willow Warbler, but it didn't sing again. The calls of a female Tawny Owl at 7.16am were an unexpected but most welcome sound. Three Cormorants flew over as we came out of the wood and while we walked by the old, overgrown orchard at the western end, a cacophony of song included that of Blackbirds, Nightingales, Blackcaps and Common Whitethroats, but amongst this volume of sound it was just possible to make out the song of a Garden Warbler - number 35 at 7.31am. From our 'Big Sit' site by the Saxon Shore Way we breakfasted, as we scanned the marshes for further additions. It was quite a useful forty-minute period during which we added Little Grebe, Swift, Tufted Duck, a large female Sparrowhawk - a most welcome sight - and a Kestrel - number 60 at 8:18am. We headed back through the wood again, still needing Willow Warbler, Jay and Bullfinch, while light rain was falling. A short way in, Trevor disturbed a Jay - fortunately it called for all to hear, but we returned to the car park having only added Reed Warbler. We were missing four crucial species and there was no hope of adding the two owls, but there was some discussion about possibly altering the route a little to create improved opportunities for finding Willow Warbler and Bullfinch. However, it was already 8.50am, so we headed towards Decoy Fleet and were pleased to find that the rain was easing, as a Skylark sang. At Decoy Farm we added a few anticipated species, such as Goldfinch, Pied Wagtail and Mistle Thrush and in the adjacent arable fields a Yellow Wagtail. As we reached Decoy Fleet a Pochard flew over for all to see and a splendid adult male Marsh Harrier flapped over the reedbed. Two adult Mediterranean Gulls looked their usual distinctive selves as they fed with Black-headed Gulls on the wet fields. The next hour proved extremely profitable as we added another dozen species. A pair of Red-legged Partridge first - number 70 - then one of about six Greenshanks, a welcome Hobby flew by, two attractive Spotted Redshanks in their black summer plumage fed in the flooded fields, a fine cock Reed Bunting sang from a reedbed, from which Bearded Tits called and two super adult males were seen well. A Ringed Plover was also feeding in the flooded fields, a Common Snipe drummed and called, three Teal flew over, a Dunlin in breeding plumage was also present and when something disturbed the ducks, a group of three separated, a Garganey - number 80 - and two Gadwall.
As we approached Egypt Bay, Trevor's keen hearing picked up the distant song of a Corn Bunting and two birds, perched on a fence around St.Mary's Marsh, could clearly be seen through a telescope. A most welcome addition, as this species is very thinly distributed on this part of the Hoo Peninsula. A pair of Ruddy Duck swam and dived in the river end of Decoy Fleet and when we arrived at Egypt Bay the rising tide had by now reached the entrance, but there was sufficient mud to attract a number of waders and we quickly added Bar-tailed Godwit, Curlew and a Turnstone - the only one of the day. Around 11.30am we commenced our long walk along the river wall to Cliffe Pools. A few Whimbrel flew from the uncovered rocks and swimming in mid-river was a party of five adult Kittiwakes, later to be joined by two more - a most welcome addition, particularly at this time of year. Quite a number of Great Crested Grebes could be seen swimming on the river and at 12.20 the first of a number of Common Terns was seen - number 90. As we walked, we eventually found several Meadow Pipits and a Great Black-backed Gull flew from beside Cliffe Fleet. We reached Lower Hope Point at 1.30pm, where we had planned to stop for lunch. Two of us looked over the river and the other two over the marshes in the hope of adding a few more species, while we rested and ate. A couple of Common Gulls could be seen amongst a flock of feeding Black-headed Gulls and as we left a Lesser Black-backed Gull flew down river. While there, heavy rain clouds were building up over the peninsula and with a southeasterly wind increasing, it looked quite ominous. An analysis of the situation during lunch didn't look very promising either.
Realistically, there were maybe a dozen or so species we could possibly add, if we extended the walk to include Canal Road at Lower Higham. A pair of Canada Geese with their goslings increased the total to just 95, so another 15 species was really expecting too much; however, we weren't to be deterred, particularly as the heavy cloud appeared to be breaking up. As we approached Cliffe Pools a lone Grey Plover called as it flew high overhead, revealing that it was almost in full summer plumage. A cock Stonechat was seen where it was expected and we were entertained by another Hobby, as it flew from fence post to bush top carrying a small bird, plucking at it when perched and in flight. From the first of the viewing ramps over the reserve it was possible to identify a few Black-tailed Godwits among the roosting waders. It was a pity that they were so distant, as there might well have been a Ruff amongst them. The same applied from the second viewing ramp, where both Black-tailed and Bar-tailed Godwits were present. The anticipated Egyptian Goose - one's enough, so the second of the pair wasn't looked for - was feeding with a flock of Canada Geese. Our 100th species, just after 4pm, was a Pintail, possibly a lingering winter visitor. Shortly afterwards we found the anticipated Little Ringed Plover, followed by a real bonus, when Bob glimpsed a Kingfisher, which flew out of a pit and high against the sky so that all could see it. Three Feral Pigeons flew over the Gravel Works as we walked between the Alpha Pool and the Timber Lake. We settled by the western side and scanned both pools, while we discussed what to do for the best. While there, we expressed our concern about the lack of martins over any of the pools in the Cliffe area, while no Swallows were feeding over the waters either. Had there been a disaster on the way north? To produce the most additional species, our best option seemed to be to continue the walk to include Canal Road. Just before 6pm, as we prepared to head in that direction, a Common Sandpiper called clearly. Was our luck beginning to turn? A Yellowhammer sang as we reached Beckley Hill - number 105 and suddenly an unexpected Ring-necked Parakeet called as it flew over. We knew we could almost certainly add Willow Warbler and Cetti's Warbler, but could we find a Bullfinch, maybe a Coal Tit, a Spotted Flycatcher, or possibly a House Martin in Lower Higham and break the record? Such are dreams made of and we walked on with renewed enthusiasm, particularly as the weather had completely changed; much of the sky was cloudless, the wind had dropped and the sun shone warmly. A Willow Warbler sang, appropriately from willows beside the old canal, soon after we reached Canal Road. The Cetti's Warbler proved more challenging, but eventually uttered sufficient bursts of song for three to hear. As we neared Lower Higham, a male Sparrowhawk flew towards the village and then circled high overhead. Another Goldcrest sang from a long line of Leyland Cypresses - could they hold a Coal Tit? A scan over the village failed to produce any House Martins, as we approached the Chequers Inn at 7pm.
By this time, we all knew that we had walked a considerable distance and though measuring the route on a map with a piece of cotton suggested in excess of 21 miles, David's pedometer indicated a distance closer to 30 miles! No wonder we felt a little worn, but non-the-less extremely pleased with our efforts, yet frustrated to be so close to our target, with a final total of 108. If only those two owl species had performed. If only...