Birds of Othona
by David Martin
I have just returned home after a month spent volunteering at Othona (Bradwell) alongside my wife Marie and our daughters, Sita and Durga. While staying at the Community I was able to take the opportunity in my spare time to pursue my lifelong love of “birding”. Most mornings I would take an hour or two before breakfast to get out along the Sea Wall just north of the Camp, surveying the Lower Field, First Beach, the cockle ridges and adjoining saltmarsh, the tidal flats at the Blackwater mouth, the burrow dikes, and the farmland around Othona. Sometimes in the afternoons I was able to find time to walk the Sea Wall south beyond the Chapel, or maybe revisit the cockle spit and the First Beach. I kept a daily log of the species I encountered during our stay which gradually came to form a complete list of all the birds which I found in and around the Camp during the whole month of August.
The Community enjoys a long history of amateur bird appreciation and can count many of its members and regular visitors, past and present, as far more knowledgeable and experienced than I. We have also shared our Othona “patch” since the 1940s with our friends, those expert ornithologists of the Bradwell Bird Observatory situated just next to the Chapel, who have diligently monitored birdlife on the Dengie peninsula for decades. It must be stressed that I am not at all in their league! Nevertheless, I offer my own little Othona list here, alongside some notes and reflections, in the hope that it might be of some interest to the Community. There are many species I will have missed, particularly without use of a telescope, but hopefully not too many mistakes — I have certainly erred on the side of caution regarding identification.
We speak a lot in the Community on the themes of gathering and meeting, of coming together and dispersing, the assembly of our individual selves forming the one body of our Community. As our own dear Tim Fox often says, “The Community is not something you come and visit — we are Othona”. Perhaps the same is somehow true of the non-human beings we share this special place with, of which the many different birds form a very obvious portion. I for one value their presence just as much as the human friends I join with, old and new, each time we come together in this unique place. Many of the birds to be found in the area are passing through just like us: the clouds of Swallow and various warblers that return to Othona each year from Africa to raise the next generation, the many wading birds that stand out on the mud in great flocks as autumn approaches, having bred far up inside the Arctic Circle, the spectacular migrations of geese and ducks that periodically flood the Blackwater estuary with noisy life and the different raptors that follow their prey species to and from the peninsula. This August, I managed to record 83 species within about half a kilometre of the Camp and the Chapel, as well as a further 12 species only marginally further south along the coast on more extended forays. Such a level of diversity in a single location is well worth celebrating. Surely, we at Othona are blessed by the presence of these birds and owe them the recognition that they too are part of our Community.
Birds of Othona — August 2021
Lesser Black-Backed Gull
Great Black-Backed Gull
Great Spotted Woodpecker
Additional species recorded further South along the Sea Wall:
Throughout August there are a number of birds present in the area which are easy enough to find on a more or less daily basis. Some of these may perhaps require verification through a pair of binoculars but they are never too far away. Woodpigeon, Pheasant, Wren, Great Tit, Blue Tit, House Sparrow, Magpie and Goldfinch are a common sight around the Camp, while Black-Headed Gull are often overhead, sometimes in great numbers. Both Great Spotted and Green Woodpeckers are often audible in the copse surrounding the compound and can sometimes be seen moving across the treetops in characteristically undulating flight.
Out on the saltmarsh directly east of Othona it is a total pleasure to see an abundance of Yellow Wagtail throughout the month, both local breeders and loose flocks of passage birds, their number gradually falling away as September approaches and they depart for warmer shores. Dazzling white Little Egret too are now a common species out in the creeks, often seen wheeling around overhead in search of roost sites on summer evenings as the Community makes its way to Chapel.
Meanwhile, out on the mud many Oystercatcher and Curlew are ever-present during August with their familiar piping calls, as well as good numbers of smaller Whimbrel, dainty little Ringed Plover and several of the larger gull species, namely Herring, Great Black-Backed and Lesser Black-Backed Gull. Norman Motley, describing his first ever visit to St Peter-on-the-Wall, refers to the many seabirds — and the call of the Curlew in particular — when “on that vivid afternoon we came under the spell of that ancient building and of the whole area of the Blackwater estuary.”
In the reedbeds and burrow dikes beyond the Lower Field various species of warbler are active towards the tail end of summer — Sedge Warbler, Reed Warbler and Whitethroat, as well as smaller numbers of Lesser Whitethroat and the year-round Cetti’s Warbler with their spectacularly boisterous call. By the second half of August, most of these birds have already migrated, although further waves do appear throughout the month, pausing for a day or two on their passage to feed up and rest nearby to Othona.
The burrow dikes are busy with waterfowl too, particularly as the month draws on. Alongside the familiar Mallard one can find plenty of Teal, Tufted Duck, Moorhen and Coot. While I never managed to catch any glimpse of them, the presence of Water Rail in the dike was very evident from their pig-like squealing, apparently from a nest hidden in the reeds, given that I regularly heard them at a single spot. One morning I even stumbled upon a lone female Shoveler duck in the same place, an admittedly comic vision with her characteristic oversized bill, but strangely haunting in her wild solitude as she rocketed away up over the wall and across the estuary mud, an inexplicably touching encounter.
Geese begin to build up their numbers along the estuary at this time, with decent flocks of Canada and also Greylag Goose grazing in the freshly-cut fields, and the first small parties of Brent Goose start to appear, well ahead of the colossal gatherings to come later in the year. Beautiful Shelduck, true estuary specialists, are also frequently seen at the shoreline.
I have already mentioned a few of the more common wading birds to be found at Othona. This group of birds are notoriously difficult to tell apart: often very small in stature, camouflaged and secretive, invariably in various states of plumage moult dependent on season and age, and more often than not situated far out on the mudflats beyond the reach of the naked eye or even binoculars. A great array of different wader species is indeed present in the area during August, including the steady arrival of more and more birds from their breeding grounds high up in the Arctic. The omnipresent Oystercatcher keep company with Knot, Dunlin, Turnstone, Common Sandpiper, Redshank and Bar-Tailed Godwit, while on longer walks out beyond the Chapel I was delighted to also find Snipe, early Lapwing, Greenshank, Green Sandpiper and even a wonderful juvenile Curlew Sandpiper. But a personal highlight of August was certainly witnessing the gentle influx of growing numbers of Grey and Golden Plover, both birds still sporting their spectacular summer plumage, the males fronted all in gorgeous black. Grey Plover are by nature a shoreline bird, while Golden Plover are more likely to be found stood out in freshly ploughed fields, their number swelling into flocks several thousand-strong by the end of the year. These two closely related species epitomise the unique landscape of Othona for me: vast swathes of saltmarsh and coastal mudflats to one side of the Sea Wall, enormous arable fields to the other; Grey Plover to the left, Golden Plover to the right. Magical!
The intermingling of arable habitat with marsh, mud and sea in the area likewise supports many of our farmland birds — those largely seed-eating species that have lived in community with humans for thousands of years but today widely face catastrophic declines in their population numbers. More senior Othona bird-loving regulars such as Dave James and my own father Mart Tebbs, for example, vividly recall the vast House Sparrow flocks of the 1950s and 60s, all but vanished today, and a similar picture is painted regarding many of the lark, finch and bunting species once ubiquitous on the Dengie peninsula. That said, the area is still full of prime habitat for these charming little birds and we enjoy a relative abundance of lovely Linnet, chubby Corn Bunting with their evocatively jangling song, as well as exquisitely beautiful Reed Bunting, all breeding in their separate niche habitats very nearby to the Camp before gathering together in the autumn into large mixed-species flocks of adults and juveniles alike, ranging over the wider landscape in nomadic foraging parties.
All this diversity — as well as an impressive catalogue of resident small mammals — easily attracts and supports the presence of those most charismatic of creatures, the various birds of prey. I recorded the regular presence of no less than seven species of raptor in and around the community and a further two species that I encountered further down beyond the Sea Wall. The most obvious of these are the magnificent Marsh Harrier which breed on the farmland immediately around Othona. I was seeing these birds daily, sometimes at very close range. One morning the last of us emerged from Chapel to the sight of a large female bird quartering the fields just in front of the door. It is worth bearing in mind that as recently as the 1980s, Marsh Harrier were reduced to a single breeding pair in the UK. It is a fantastic indicator of the health of our local ecosystem that they are now a familiar sight right round the Essex coast.
Several people, including our local bus driver Steve, had informed me that Peregrine were nesting up on the decommissioned power station this year. Indeed, I saw both male and female Peregrine a number of times over the month, smashing their way through wader flocks out on the mud or in fierce pursuit of a Woodpigeon along the Sea Wall. Kestrel too are highly abundant around Othona, often seen hovering over the barley crop watching for mice and voles, and Sparrowhawk patrol the dikes and hedges. Summer-visiting Hobby are likewise often never far away at the height of the season, gorging on dragonflies high above the Compound or even outpacing Swallow and House Martin in a lightning-speed chase. Late in the month I even had the pleasure of encountering the last of the four British breeding falcon species, a female Merlin hunting Skylark along the burrow dikes just a couple of miles south of the Chapel.
A couple of years ago I discovered the nest site of Barn Owl not far from the Community and I was very pleased to find the same spot still in use this year, unwittingly flushing a pair of roosting birds one afternoon as I clumsily investigated the litter of regurgitated pellets on the floor of the abandoned building they call home.
Finally, I must mention the adult Osprey espied out on the marshes by our dear friend Jenne as he and I walked the Sea Wall back from Burnham one day. This magnificent being would have been on migration, moving South along the coast, and although Jenne and I saw her a few miles from Othona itself, it is fair to assume that the bird had passed the Chapel perhaps only half an hour or so earlier. She certainly allowed us magnificent views, perched out on a stake near the shoreline for some twenty minutes before unfurling her enormous wingspan and lifting off into the distance. Just breathtaking!
And of course, what would Summer at Othona be without the charming company of Swallow nesting in the Back Stoep behind the kitchen? By August these birds are already raising their third or even fourth broods of the season; by the end of the month all the chicks are fully fledged and preparing to migrate, although young and adults alike do still roost together in huddles above the outside sinks. Throughout August, our own Back Stoep birds, many more other breeding and juvenile individuals nesting in the Sea Wall pill boxes, as well as literally thousands of other local and passage birds form great feeding flocks together over the Camp, along the Sea Wall and out over the marshes and coastal mud. Other hirundine species — namely House and Sand Martin — can frequently be spotted among the hordes, as well as the last of the migrant Swift moving South down the coast.
So, there it is. Thank you for listening. I didn’t quite find time to mention the juvenile Cuckoo I ran into one afternoon, perched brazenly on a strawbale near the Chapel... Another time, perhaps.
Needless to say, I have not included in the count Debbie’s beloved chickens, nor our two resident Eagle Owl, Sandra and Dave — although this is mainly due to the fact that they never once thanked me for feeding them over the course of the summer.
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