Birding by barge

Note: This is an archived article from the previous Bird Watching website...

If you’re a long-term reader of Bird Watching, you might remember that, a little over a year ago, Mark Nowers of the RSPB detailed the delights on offer on the organisation’s Birds by Barge trips, on the Stour Estuary.

This bird-rich area, forming part of the Suffolk-Essex border, gets rather overshadowed by some of the well-known birding hotspots further north in East Anglia, but Mark made a good case for it being a real hidden gem.

A couple of weeks ago, I found out for myself. I was at Mistley Marine, just outside Manningtree, a little after dawn. The sky was clear, the sun bright, the wind light and the river perfectly calm, and although we were wrapped up like polar explorers against the first real blast of winter cold, the prospects were good.

Let’s get it straight, though – when I say barge, I don’t mean the sort of narrowboat-style affair you might have in mind. The Sailing Barge Victor is a large, wide-bottomed motorised vessel, of the type which chugged to and from the maltings of East Anglia in days gone by. It’s got a comfortable, roomy cabin/galley, and it’s a very stable platform from which to watch birds, or digiscope or photograph them.

We were picking out Curlews, Redshanks and Black-tailed Godwits on the nearby mudflats even before we’d left our berth, and of course it’s those food-rich expanses that make an estuary like this so important for wintering birds, with around 30,000 spending the coldest months of the year on the Stour.

Throughout the trip, we were provided with expert commentary and direction from Mark and RSPB volunteers – their wealth of knowledge about not only the birds, but also the landscape and its history (The Royal Hospital School, on the Suffolk bank, is hugely impressive), made the time pass all too quickly.

But what about those birds? Well, there were plenty of Red-breasted Mergansers, always a thrill for a Midlands-based landlubber like myself, and we got good views too of a small raft of Common Scoters, another sea-duck I see far too rarely. Add a few Pintails, lots of dark-bellied Brent Geese, Goldeneyes, and a noisy, whistling flock of Wigeon, plus all the commoner ducks, and we were off to a flyer.

Waders are another family of birds I see too little of, living where I do, but we easily added Lapwing, Avocet and Oystercatcher to the species mentioned earlier, while some careful scanning revealed occasional Grey Plovers dotted along the shore, as usual striking a rather bad-tempered, anti-social pose. Meanwhile, small, very fast-moving flocks of small waders skimming the water before coming to rest among their fellows revealed themselves as Dunlin and Knot.

It’s no longer a surprise to see Buzzards soaring over the East of England, however implausible it would have seemed not so long ago, and sure enough once the day had warmed a little, there they were over the Suffolk shore, spiralling above the woods. Kestrels hovered here and there, but if it was a slight disappointment not to see a Peregrine or Merlin, it was made up for by a Marsh Harrier quartering the fields and mudflats, occasionally rising above the skyline for a more wide-ranging look.

Quite the best thing about birding from any boat, though, is that the birds let you get much closer than you might otherwise manage. Red-necked Grebe was a nice addition to the list, but our real highlight was a Great Northern Diver which allowed us to approach relatively close – certainly closer than any I’ve ever seen before.

The same could be said about a Shag on one of the buoys – the quiet, stately progress of the barge seems to put the birds at their ease, making life much easier for birdwatchers.

We were sustained throughout by as much tea and coffee as the cold demanded, and the breakfast baps were just what were needed to fuel what turned out to be four-and-a-half hours of great birding.

As we reached Mistley again, and waited for the water to rise a little so that we could get into our berth, we added Turnstone to the list, plus Grey Wagtails on the maltings on the shore, and a couple of Kingfishers skimming low over the main channel. Our final total, 47 species, was evidence of a fine, and unusual, morning’s birding.

Price is £37.50 per person, which includes tea, coffee and breakfast in a bun. Children must be accompanied by adults, and booking is essential. Places are still available on a few of the regular sailings in January. You can find more details here.