The open door of the Castle Inn in the small village of Oare looks inviting, but we opt for the walk along the edge of the narrow, boat-crowded creek. We nod to weather-lined men in blue, barrelled overalls tinkering with their ladies of all shapes and sizes. We pass fields empty but for a handful of cows and deep ditches full of reed (Phragmites australis) and reed-mace, possibly lesser (Typha angustifolia). Four buzzards circle high, a grey heron squats in a wet field, a little egret half-hides below the saltmarsh, black-headed and single lesser black-backed gulls paddle the wet mud. We slowly reacquaint ourselves with the sights and the sounds of the coast.
A wasps’ (Vespula vulgaris) nest in a hole in the grass just off the footpath is busy with the to and fro of workers. A bearded tit ‘pings’ and we just see a pile of buff and blue-grey dive into dense bur-reed (Sparganium emersum). A couple of black-tailed godwits, one still rufous in fading summer plumage, are feeding at the water’s edge below neatly spaced redshanks that work the steep-sloping ooze. The waders stay put as we pass; there are no warning shouts of alarm on this warm autumn day.
Flocks of roosting black-tailed godwits and avocet.
As we near the reserve, we hear distant warblers from distant reeds and are unable to decide on reed, sedge or even something else. The tide is high in a few hours and the meres are already full of roosting birds giving off a constant babble of noise; flocks of neatly segregated black-tails and avocet stand in shallows that ideally suit their length of leg. There are also redshank some of which mix in with the godwits. Dunlin and ringed plover occupy patches of mud in mixed congregations; the ringed plovers tuck their heads in and their black breasts look too big for their bodies. We watch small parties of black-tails tip low over the sea wall from the estuary beyond. Their grey wings with thick, chalk white lines catch the sun as they swivel and switchback low over the water, then turn into the wind to land. Golden plover are more nervous on approach and circle again and again in tight, whistling flocks before landing without any fuss to join others on the mud and short-grassed margins.
Golden plovers and a few black-headed gulls circle overhead.
Lapwings look overlarge next to the slender golden plovers, both sheltered by huge tussocks of sea club rush (Bolboschoenus maritimus), as does a solitary great black-backed gull amongst the godwits in the centre of the water. Two birdwatchers talk waders and tell us that knot may be seen from the Corner Hide. I always think of these as rather plain, even dull in their uniform winter plumage and inelegant short legs; they tell us to look for the distinctive eye-stripe.
The Corner Hide stands guard over the Swale like an old wartime pillbox; a small party of knot (there is the eye-strip) move slowly over the undulating mud and egret, dunlin and ringed plover look tiny on the distant edge of the flats. A party of common seals, like a thin line of jet black bacilli, idle on a huge mud island in mid-estuary. For once, eyes do not stream from a fierce wind blowing into the wooden hide; the view east is flat and still, of wide blues and battleship greys. The low lines of coastal landscape and great skies rest easy on the eye, the only discord being the Roman march of pylons heading away to the east. The slow-moving masts of sailing barges and small boats on this coast of muted colours bring to mind the effortless watercolours of Edward Wesson.
A Thames sailing barge running up the Swale on the tide with Harty’s old church of St Thomas away over on the Isle of Sheppey caught in a patch of late afternoon sun.
Two feeding black-tailed godwits.
Two feeding avocets.
A lone birdwatcher with a telescope confirms small numbers of ruff sheltered in still water and a single shelduck flies through. Shovelers work the water, their bills just under the water surface driving straight across the water like bulldozers on a new motorway. We also find teal, gadwall and mallard. He kindly adds that there are yellow wagtails, whinchat and wheatear on old concrete foundations by the small copse way down the sea wall to the east. We walk past the Watch House and long-deserted ferry slipway, above saltmarsh dominated by Spartina, and eventually find all these as well as linnet, stonechat and a robin full of plaintive autumn song. The yellow wagtails are in small parties with adults and young; their distinctive tsweep calls give them away. A kestrel dives through but with no great menace, swallows hunt low over the fields and we eat good blackberries. I last passed this way on a clear, bright day in February with far fewer birds and the promise of Spring rather than Winter.
Bulldozing female shoveler in nutmeg brown, eclipse plumage.
Back east to the marshes and we walk the road where we are extremely close to the waders. The light, when it breaks the dark cloud, is behind us. The godwits and avocets look small next to a party of ungainly cormorants. The sun catches the white houses way over the back at Whitstable and runs dark over the water and reed but as the cloud moves then the pattern is reversed and the sleeping birds are lit white, and the low hills beyond turn inky purple.
Oare Marshes with its high tide roost of waders in a patch of bright afternoon sun.
A kingfisher fishes a shallow dyke from a wooden bridge; we miss the wood sandpiper but catch a brief bold dash by a water rail and a little stint pottering on the edge of the marsh. A male marsh harrier comes over and puts everything up; the golden plovers run furthest and the last to return. A lone whimbrel flies towards the Swale giving its stuttering cry. A snipe rasps from high above. The godwits quickly settle, dunlins spin in a small flock and then they and the rest return to their allotted spaces. Lapwings shadow and stoop and see the harrier away.
Marsh harrier mobbed by lapwings.
We walk back down the creek making a list of the birds; neither of us can think of a better day on the coast with so much seen so well. The coast is replete and at early autumn ease. On our return, the door of the Castle Inn is closed and the old village sleeps on.