We visit London around 3-4 times a year and have the fantastic advantage of very generous friends, who happily accommodate us. I usually spend my time split between Kew Gardens and the Natural History Museum, but this year under the advice of our hosts I decided to check out the RSPB reserve at Rainham Marshes.
Accessible on an Oyster card, meaning I didn’t have to worry about buying tickets, the nearest station is Purfleet, and then it’s a 15 minute walk to get to the reserve (you do need to catch a coast2coast train for the final leg). It is however out of zone 6 so expect to be charged the highest daily maximum. I use the London Transport free app on my phone to work out the route and the RSPB site has a ‘get directions’ by public transport link.
I had picked a cracker of a day and left early to make sure I made the most of my time, as I needed to be back in London for around 3 to meet the GF for an Sabastiåo Salgado exhibition at the Natural History Museum, but if travelling before 9:30 be aware that you get charged peak fares. The journey took around 50 minutes for me to reach Purfleet, so allow approximately 1 1/2 hours from central London, with changes and the walk to get there.
Incidentally half of the walk is on a path that tracks the Thames so if you’ve got the time to stroll rather than stride, there is the chance to see a few birds along the way, notably herring gulls and cormorants.
Upon arrival I was given a map and some advice on which way to go and what might be where. My main aim was to see a hobby (Falco subbuteo – a UK first for me), seven had been sighted the previous day so things looked promising, and there is a good chance of a cuckoo (Cuculus canorus) or two, which I have never managed to photograph yet. There are also grass snakes (Natrix natrix) around the reserve which is another key British species that has eluded me, so I was quite excited about the possibility of two new ticks in one day.
So I set off around the 2 1/2 mile track in an anti-clockwise direction. The paths are very well laid out and all are suitable for wheelchairs, intercrossing the marsh at times walking on boardwalk through the reeds, and others through wooded areas. The first half is more wooded, with small groves of mature trees allowing you to get into it with the song birds. Notables for me were chiffchaff and black cap, with the usual suspects thrown in for good measure. This is the spot to look out for cuckoo, but unfortunately I wasn’t even lucky enough to hear one never mind see one.
There is a small area known as the cordite store which is a small horseshoe that leaves the main track and takes you into a nicely overgrown area which is full of insects and birdsong. I had great sightings of common blue damselfly (Enallagma cyathigerum) and a southern hawker dragonfly (Aeshna cyanea), and I daresay I could have easily spent an hour or two in this small spot alone.
The next section takes you past the woodland classroom, which is an area specifically for classes that arrive, which for me was great as it keeps the potentially noisy groups away from the mainstream visitors. I don’t want that to sound snobby as I am all for educating children, especially those who don’t have access to wildlife and nature, but it was nice to know I wasn’t suddenly going to be surrounded by a large group of excitement and noise! There is a path that loops around the classroom that is mostly boardwalk through trees, plenty to hear, and reed buntings and reed warblers flitting around.
It probably took me about an hour and a half to reach the first hide – the Ken Barrett hide, I was taking it slow and trying to spot any grass snakes that could be out and about. The warden had advised to look anywhere you hear marsh frogs – which are incredibly jumpy and I failed to get a useable picture of one – and when crossing bridges as you get a clear view of open water. One had been seen basking outside one of the hides the previous day but unfortunately for me, this visit was to prove a blank.
The Ken Barrett hide didn’t reveal much, there were territorial lapwings, oystercatchers and some distant little egrets so I got back into the thick of it. I had totally forgotten until I was leaving this hide that this site also has another important British creature that because of The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame is hugely loved but often mistakenly called a rat – the water vole. I was soon realising how important this site is, and crucially because of its proximity to London, allows access to a huge audience who need to be on board with conservation and the future of the planet.
So, with another creature to look out for I headed out with eager anticipation. Remarkably I soon heard rustling in the reeds and got my first sighting in a long time of the delightful water vole (Arvicola terrestris). I managed to get a couple of shots, but as always the light and position was not the greatest so I hoped for another encounter.
The day was warming up nicely and there was barely a cloud in the sky. Wandering through the reed beds listening to the symphony of warblers, buntings and with the occasional plop of a vole disappearing providing percussion really made an impact on me. I spend so much time in the countryside that I often take it for granted, but I would look up and see the intercrossing flightpaths, the endless flow of traffic on the M25 and regular trains and it would hit home just how privileged we are to still be able to witness such a wild environment in an area which is so incredibly urban. It certainly emphasised how important organisations such as the RSPB are!
Bizarrely there was little birdlife for me to photograph, the waders were all too far away and the flighty warblers and buntings afforded few shots as they hurried around on the constant search for food. Along the Northern Boardwalk there are a couple of viewing platforms with benches and this allows a pleasant interlude to hearing your footfall on the boards, you can really take a moment and listen to the surrounds.
I eventually reached the Shooting Butts Hide, this was used as a military firing range for around 100 years, and boy was I impressed. I had never been in such a large hide and one where the windows would open fully, the top section flipped out normally but the lower 2/3rds operated on a pulley-system and was lowered on a sliding mechanism to offer the best view. Absolute genius, and so well thought out for a site that obviously attracts a huge amount of visitors. There was even a lift for the less abled as the viewing windows are on an upper level.
Again there was very little happening, plenty of canada geese (Branta canadensis) and their goslings but the little egrets had flown just as I sat down, which was a little disappointing as I love watching these birds, reminding me of a family holiday to Fuerteventura where they were on the beach, it all seemed so tropical. Whilst watching the geese I caught a flash of movement high in the sky as a raptor flew directly over us. The hobby had woken!
When chatting to the warden on arrival he had said that the hobby was a lazy bird and they would seldom arrive any earlier than 11:30, he was absolutely correct, although today it seemed they had required a longer lie than normal. They tend to hunt over the Discovery zone, which because I was advised to head anti-clockwise, I was hitting at the perfect time for their arrival.
There was a huge rush of excitement, as I watched these truly awesome birds of prey as they performed aerial acrobatics, and out of around 300 shots, there were only a couple that were acceptable as record shots, they were just too far away. So, I did what I seldom do and just enjoyed the experience, watching them hunt insects, swallows and martins. I ended up watching a total of four at once and the memory will stay with me for a long, long time.
I now had less than a 1/4 of the track to go but was still excited about what this truly amazing reserve could provide. You have the option of leaving the reserve here and rejoining the coastal path, however I had been told that the last hide could herald a kingfisher so I wanted to aim for that. Shortly after here I had another great water vole sighting but one that didn’t last long enough, they really are on the go all the time.
The final hide didn’t supply me a kingfisher, however the windows are covered in netting to make it easier to approach anything that is in front of it. This allowed me closer than usual viewing of a little grebe or dabchick (Tachybaptus rufficollis). I now only had a few hundred meters to go and as I scanned everywhere for that possible glimpse of a grass snake I noticed a tiny chick on the water among the reeds. I hadn’t seen one of these before, I knew it wasn’t coot or moorhen, and soon noticed a second one tucked further in. They did me the courtesy of posing together, before disappearing into the forest of reeds. I later learned that they were little grebe chicks, and they were the topping to a completely awesome day.
Anyone who is in this area, or visiting London and who wants a break from the sprawl then this is truly worth a visit. I was blessed with great weather, and some brilliant sightings, but I didn’t get great views of a lot of creatures which I’m sure are all possible. I loved it, and will visit again without hesitation.
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