I picked up Mary and Jeff from Stratford mid-morning on a recent sunny Saturday and we headed east for a few hours birding on the Kent side of the Thames Estuary. The couple were over from Washington state to enjoy their first real taste of European birding.
There was plenty of birdsong as we got our gear out of the car, with Blackcaps, Chiffchaffs and Blackbirds in full voice. A Reed Warbler chuntered away from a small reedbed in the car park.
As we headed along the track towards the pools, we enjoyed good views of Chiffchaff and Whitethroat. Almost every Wren remained stubbornly out of view, though one did stay in the open long enough for Mary to get a view.
A Buzzard was mobbed by one of the Black-headed Gulls from the site's busy colony as it passed overhead. We heard a Stock Dove singing and tracked it down on some wires, getting it in the 'scope.
It wasn't long before we were watching Great Crested Grebes and Tufted Ducks as the pools came into view. These were followed by our first views of Oystercatchers and Avocets - two very impressive waders! A flock of 20 Gadwall made a couple of passes, showing their white speculums.
A mixed flock of tit families was vocal in the hedgerow and a few minutes of waiting was rewarded with charming views of fledgling Long-tailed Tits, Blue Tits and Great Tits. We also encountered Chaffinches, with their 'high-energy' song, in this area, and fledgling Sedge Warblers.
One thrilling encounter came when a Marsh Harrier made a very close path over our heads, peering down at us as it continued on its hunting patrol. A few minutes later we were blown away when a Long-eared Owl burst from the bushes next to where we were standing and flew down the path in front of us! This is an uncommon bird that is rarely encountered incidentally, especially during the daytime.
A Nightingale called briefly but, as expected at this time of year, soon went quiet and never showed. However, we did get a quick look at a singing Song Thrush.
Viewing more of the wetland habitat, we were treated to fantastic views of flying Curlews, flocking Shelducks and managed nice views of Lapwing, Ringed Plover and Redshank in the telescope. We must have seen over 200 Avocets, including flocks feeding in synchronised fashion, and a Little Ringed Plover could be heard calling.
This area was also productive for passerines, offering views of Skylarks, Linnets and Goldfinches while a Lesser Whitethroat and a couple of Cetti's Warblers sang. A couple of Lesser Black-backed Gulls flew overhead.
We headed back to the car for a lunch break, adding Little Grebe and Pochard as bonus birds on another scan of the pools.
While taking lunch, two Mediterranean Gulls added themselves to our day list as they flew over, and we enjoyed watching the Reed Warbler heard at the start delivering food with its partner to young deep in the reeds. We managed our best views of Dunnock at this point.
Heading back out for 'round two' we started making our way to the Black Barn Pools, but encountered another birder who said they were quieter than usual, so we opted to bail out on the full walk. However, we had some further views of Lapwings and Redshanks, and a wonderful encounter with another family of Long-tailed Tits.
A nice end to the tour came as we enjoyed spending time watching a Moorhen preening on a branch on a secluded pool after hearing it calling in the distance.