Two years ago, life was very different. In contrast to the dappled, leafy commons of Surrey I work on today, the Essex marshes were flat and wide with big skies, full of the sounds of wading birds. They’re totally different environs, and work is very different, but just as physically challenging.
But it has to be said, that back when I worked as a reserve warden in Essex, one of my favourite things to do was taking visitors out on evening safari. Two years ago around now, was that golden time for doing that. I ran the trips in September because it was still warm and ‘Summery’ enough for lots of charismatic wildlife to be very active, but it was also right in the midst of bird migration. And the sunsets were priceless. Not only was it a good income generator for our organisation (the trips were an exclusive VIP experience with price to match) but I thoroughly enjoyed doing the tours.
Guests would meet me at our flagship reserve after closing, and they’d be my passengers in the 4×4, getting the chance to see parts of the site which were not accessible to the public. They’d get behind the scenes insights into the work of nature reserve wardens, and have the chance to get close up to the wildlife.
One particular evening will always stand out in my memory as textbook perfect. Being the first event of this kind we had done, I had no idea how it would fare. One thing with wildlife is that you never can guarrantee if it will ‘put on a show’ or not. When you advertise events such as these you need to be careful to manage expectations.
After introducing myself to the visitors, we trundled out onto the central grazing marsh and around the edge of the lagoon. Larger flocks of lapwing were beginning to assemble, and parties of avocets and black tailed godwits milled about on the islands in the evening sun. Stopping by the tilting weir, I showed the visitors some southern migrant hawkers patrolling like blue jewels over the shallow edge of the lagoon. These are a rare dragonfly, but often seen on these South Essex marshes; a real Thames estuary speciality, at the moment
Leaving the marsh and heading around the reedbed edge of the lagoon, I stopped so we could pause and look out from this side. I could hear bearded reedlings ‘pinging’ in the reeds. We got out and stood quietly, just as the roving party of reedlings bounced into view, and put on a colourful show a few mere metres ahead of us, much to the delight of my guests. Another passing birdwatcher, fully kitted out with expensive optical equipment, stopped to admire the little birds with us. We chatted briefly, and I learnt that he was all the way from China! He had never seen bearded reedlings before. For some reason this amazed me and made me feel proud; someone from so very far away had come to visit our little corner of the Thames estuary, during his stay in the UK. I assumed he must be staying here on business or family visiting, since South Essex isn’t exactly a holiday destination for international tourists.
After the little group of birds had bounced off on their way through the reeds, we hopped back in my 4×4 and headed out onto the eastern grazing marsh, where I immediately spotted a short eared owl patrolling the rough grass. Alerting my guests to the fiery eyed bird, they gasped in awe as it flew closer. The great thing about watching wildlife (especially the birds) from a vehicle, is that surprisingly, you almost become far less visible or threatening looking, to it. Watching from the truck, we were afforded breathtaking, close views of the owl as it flew low over the edges of the marsh. It stopped to perch on a fence post, and seemed to lock its big bright eyes with ours, slow-blinkingly. We were able to watch the bird for many minutes before it eventually moved on. By now, my passengers were already high on wildlife.
Making our way back along the main track, we were met with several wheatears and whinchats alighting along the fenceline beside us. The smart little passerines were on their way back South on migration. Reserves on the Thames estuary such as ours were ideal stopping-off-and-feeding-up points for migrants in early Autumn, so seeing large falls of wheatear and whinchat was quite typical. This evening it was almost as if the sprightly little birds were showing off, fluttering ahead from post to post, flicking their tails and standing proud and alert.
Marvellous bird encounters aside, the main feature of the evening safari was water voles, and that is how we marketed the event. The guests would essentially learn the field and activity signs of water voles with me as we examined them along part of the ditch network, learn all about their little lives, with the chance to (hopefully) catch some glimpses of them in the flesh. Again, this is where the whole managing expectations thing comes into play. We needed to be clear when marketing this, that actual water voles were not guarranteed. So it could in theory be a bit like visiting someones house when they’re not in.
The particular stretch of water where I’d planned this part of the tour, was where the highest density of water voles on the reserve was found. Being responsible for all the water vole monitoring across the reserves, I knew all the best hotspots, the places where most water vole activity could be seen. Having explained how water vole population estimation is calculated, based upon field signs (mostly, from their shit), I encouraged my guests to examine the plentiful evidence of the comings and goings of the voles, along the ditchbank. I found a very tightly cropped ‘water vole lawn’, at the entrance of a burrow, and explained that it was likely made by a nursing mother who didn’t want to stray far from her litter for long, so grazed a lot just at the edge of the burrow.
“The voles eat a heck of a lot. They need to eat almost their own bodyweight in vegetation per day, so they’re almost constantly eating. And bonking.”
“Sounds ideal”, said one member of my small party. Couldn’t disagree there. The perils of life as a water vole aside – multiple predators, cold snaps, habitat degradation – they have a pretty kushti existence.
We’d pretty much had our fill of pellet-shaped droppings, huge heaps of feeding remains, and burrows, when one lady gasped “There’s one there!”
She pointed about 30 metres down the ditch, and I raised my binoculars to look. Sure enough, a plump little individual sat munching at the foot of the bank. I made sure everyone could view it. It was still sat stuffing its face for a good while, before it plopped into the water for a swim, and vanished. ‘Well thank goodness they’ve actually seen the target species’, I thought to myself. I deemed it worth standing in the same spot and waiting for more activity. Lo and behold I spotted another swimming across. We were then rewarded with a third sighting.
‘What good little voles’, I mused. I was immensely grateful to them for putting in an appearance in such a timely manner. They gave us great views, and the guests were absolutely over the moon. By now the sun was starting to set, and that was doing its wonderful thing too. Thames estuary sunsets can be quite a spectacle, spreading their gorgeous orange glow wide across the huge sky, illuminating the quivering reeds and creating silhouettes of the hundreds of birds.
When the light began to fade, I turned on my headlights to make our way out of the reserve and to drop my guests back to their cars. In the glow of the headlights, another pretty wheatear gleaned insects attracted to the light, trotting along in front of us, and stopping ‘inconveniently’ every few metres, as if it had no idea we were rumbling along behind it.
Yes, all the wildlife had really put on a show that evening; everything seemed right on cue. I went home feeling triumphant and so proud of this little patch of north Thames estuary providing a home for so many wonderful treasures.