The Southend and surrounding areas have some of the best estuaries and saltings for birds in the whole of the UK. On sheltered coasts like ours, where the action of the tide is minimal, silts settle in the intertidal zone to form flats of mud mixed with sand. A huge number of marine invertebrates inhabit this area and at low tide provide a huge food resource for waders and other shore birds. The Southend estuaries are of international importance as wintering grounds for waders and wildfowl where thousands of birds congregate in the winter months.
Our estuarine mudflats, backed by saltmarshes (Fleethead and Havengore Creek for example) and saltings are a transitional zone between the sea and the land where geese, seed eating ducks and waders that prefer the shelter of creeks are found.
For the birdwatcher in Southend, our estuaries are at their best in winter. The most common waders then are Dunlin, Knot (which fly in huge dense packs), Oystercatchers, Lapwings and Redshanks. Slightly smaller numbers of Golden Plovers, Turnstones, Curlews, Bar and Black Tailed Godwits and Sanderlings can be seen. many other waders such as Greenshanks and Spotted Redshanks also occur on passage in autumn and spring. Among our ducks that regularly winter in and around the Southend area are large numbers of Wigeon, Shelduck, Pochards, Velvet and Common Scoter and small numbers of Eider. The beginning of September 1999 even produced the site of at least five Ospreys passing through in the Foulness area.
Cormorants are often in the Thames estuary and there are always large concentrations of Gulls and Gannets with the occasional Guillemot and Little Auk that can be viewed from the Pier. We also have raptors wintering in the Foulness/Wakering area with Hen Harriers, Marsh Harriers, Peregrines, Barn Owls, Short Eared Owls and Merlins staying for the plentiful supply of prey available. the small birds of the saltings then are mainly Meadow Pipits, Skylarks, Corn Buntings, Reed Buntings and Twite (a flock of at least twenty being observed at Two Tree Island in January 2000).
Our special bird in the estuary in winter is the Brent Goose, which feeds on eelgrass. Around half the world population of the dark-bellied form are from artic Russia and winter in Britain with the pale-bellied race wintering in Ireland. Click here to learn more about this remarkable goose.
By summer the bird life is relatively reduced. Shelducks, Mallards and Red Breasted Mergansers are often the only ducks. The main waders then are Oystercatchers, Lapwings, Ringed Plovers and Redshanks with Avocet on Two Tree Island and Fleethead Creek. Gulls and Terns feed in our estuaries.
A Day in Southend
With grateful thanks to Paul Baker of the Southend Ornithological Group
Good numbers of wintering wildfowl and waders with a chance of a diver, rare grebe or seaduck. Supporting cast of Ring-billed Gull, raptors, gulls and woodland birds.
The densely populated area of Southend offers pockets of woodland habitat coupled with excellent sites around the Outer Thames estuary where thousands of Brent Geese choose to winter and scarce seabirds may be seen at close range off the Pier. Many sites are surprisingly under-watched offering the chance of finding a local rarity.
Red-throated Diver, Little Egret, wildfowl inc Dark-bellied Brent Geese with possibility of Black Brant, Marsh and Hen Harrier, Peregrine, Merlin, large numbers of waders including Avocet with possibility of Purple Sandpiper, Ring-billed and Mediterranean Gull, Kittiwake, Guillemot, Barn and Short-eared Owl, all three Woodpeckers, Rock Pipit, Stonechat, Nuthatch, Treecreeper, Hawfinch, Snow and Corn Bunting.
Where To Go
To give yourself the best chance of a decent day list, start your day at Hockley Woods, which is to be found at TQ834924 alongside The Bull pub, just off the B1013, four miles north west of Southend. The woods are signposted upon arrival and there is a large, free car park.
Arriving at dawn, the childrens play area will be seen almost adjacent to the car park. To avoid disturbing the birds, view the play area from the perimeter fence only. This is the only reliable site in south-east Essex for Hawfinch with one or two birds present every winter. Favoured spots are at the tops of the tallest trees bordering the houses or grubbing around in the leaf litter. Keep your ears alert too for any birdcalls coming from the main woodland behind you. The bubbling call of the Nuthatch should already have been heard during the short walk from the car park. Great Spotted Woodpecker is abundant, Green Woodpecker is scarcer but still present in good numbers, and if you are really lucky one of the resident Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers might reveal its presence with its distinctive call. They favour the wooded slope between the car park and the small stream to the south with the open glade to the south-east of the play area the best area. Treecreeper are also present but require patience and luck, and Bullfinch is scarce but resident. Firecrest have over-wintered in recent winters between the play area and the glade, and small numbers of Goldcrest should also be present. If arriving very early, Tawny Owl may be heard calling. Although found throughout the woods they are rarely seen.
After spending the first hour of the day here, head now towards the car park and onwards to the coastal sites. All of the following sites are tidal dependant to varying degrees, with high tide being preferable for all except the Gulls at Westcliff seafront which are best two hours either side of high tide. So to get the most out of your birdwatching in Southend, it would be desirable to spread your visit over two days. If this is not possible, there will still be plenty of birds to see, they just wont be as close.
The first coastal site to visit will be Two Tree Island, the home of internationally important numbers of Dark-bellied Brent Geese. Access is along the minor road that runs behind Leigh train station at TQ832858. Follow the road over the humpback bridge, which will take you over Benfleet Creek, and onto the island. There is a large, free car park on your left as soon as you cross the creek.
The island is divided in half by the access road. The western half has a circular cinder ash path that will take you out to the brackish lagoon at the western tip where you will also find two hides. Over high tide, good numbers of Ringed Plover, Redshank, Dunlin, and possibly Avocet and Snipe will be roosting on the lagoon. Kingfisher usually winter on the island and the lagoon offers the best chance of seeing one. Just to the north of the lagoon in Benfleet Creek a few Spotted Redshank and Greenshank winter most years. Whilst walking the cinder path, Skylark will be seen and heard and a flock of Corn Bunting are usually present between the car park and lagoon. The western half of the island is well known locally for hosting up to three Short-eared Owls each winter. They can be seen hunting in the daytime over the saltings in Benfleet Creek and the rough grassland around the model aircraft field. Keep a lookout for Stonechat this is the best area locally to find them with up to six birds present some years. Dartford Warbler has occasionally been reported on the island in recent years. If one is present it favours the company of Stonechat.
To explore the eastern half of the island, follow the obvious wide grassy track that starts just south of the car park at the kissing gate. The track leads to the eastern tip of the island where large numbers of Curlew, Black-tailed and Bar-tailed Godwit, Knot, Lapwing, Golden and Grey Plover roost over high tide on the adjacent saltmarsh. In recent years Little Egret have also established a high tide roost with up to ninety birds in the autumn, there should still be at least twenty present in December. The eastern tip is also the favoured feeding ground of the Dark-bellied Brent Goose with up to 6,000 present. If viewing conditions and time allow, check through the flock as Black Brant and Pale-bellied Brent Goose are now annual and have already both been reported this winter. The obvious stand of large trees has held a wintering Barn Owl in recent years. Retrace your steps back to the car park, listening for the squeal of Water Rail from the network of borrowdykes.
It is now time to drive towards Southend Pier along the seafront from Chalkwell but not before stopping at Westcliff seafront to see Rossi the Ring-billed Gull. There are plenty of pay and display parking bays here. Rossi is present this winter for his eighth winter and is most likely to be loafing on the sea with the Black-headed Gull flock immediately in front of the Rossi ice cream parlour. Other favoured places are on top of the lampposts and the groynes. Several Mediterranean Gulls will also be present and small parties of Sanderling and Turnstone will be picking their way around the foreshore at your feet.
Continue your drive towards the start of the Pier where you can pay to park in a roadside bay, or one of the many car parks in Southend town centre.
There is a charge of 3.00 if you want to ride the train towards the end of the 1.34 mile pier where most the birds will be found. The pier structure itself is home to Mediterranean Gulls, and occasional Kittiwake and Shag. Turnstone will be picking their way around the structure and Purple Sandpiper has been recorded infrequently. In the lifeboat bay birds will often sit out the entire tidal cycle affording excellent views. In recent year Great Northern Diver, Red-necked Grebe, Slavonian Grebe, Guillemot and Razorbill have all spent several days in the bay. Regular scanning of the Thames on the seaward side will offer the possibility of further Divers, with all three species present together last winter, and day counts in excess of 100 Red-throated Divers in optimum conditions in early 2003. A brisk north east wind will see good numbers of usually scarce birds driven into the Thames estuary. In these conditions, you can expect to see good numbers of Gannet, Little Gull, Kittiwake, Guillemot and Razorbill, with Fulmar, Great Skua, and Eider also possible. The star bird being a Franklins Gull watched from the Pier in December 2000!
Having spent an hour or two on the Pier, make your way back to the relative warmth and comfort of your car. Continue east along the seafront in the direction of Shoebury but firstly pull over a few hundred metres east of the Sea Life Adventure Centre and walk up onto the sandy shore near the derelict loading jetty. For the last two winters a Purple Sandpiper has roosted between the loading jetty and the foreshore 400 metres to the east. Small mixed flocks of Dunlin, Sanderling and Ringed Plover will be roosting on the beach or the loading pier and if present, the Purple Sandpiper will be with them. A flock of Snow Buntings have also made this stretch of beach their home for the last two years. They are much more mobile and could be anywhere between the loading pier and Uncle Toms Cabin beside Shoebury Coastguards two miles to the east, which itself hosted a Ring-billed Gull in 1999/2000.
The final destination for the day will be the MOD land known as Wakering Stairs, accessed from New Road in Great Wakering. This land is usually open to the public at weekends, bank holidays, and summer evenings only. Barn Owl often hunt the fields along the access road between the MOD checkpoint and the seawall. Free car parking is available at the end of the road where it meets the seawall. The saltmarsh to your right holds another high tide wader roost with Oystercatcher, Bar-tailed Godwit, Knot, Dunlin, Redshank, Grey Plover, Turnstone and Ringed Plover all likely to be present in large numbers. During influx years the saltmarsh here has also hosted small parties of Shorelark although these are far from annual. A walk along the seawall heading north east will bring you to Haven Point after about fifteen minutes. Rock Pipit will accompany you on your way and Snow Bunting is scarce but annual. If the tide is still in Red-throated Diver, Eider, Common Scoter, and Guillemot are all possible. Upon reaching Haven Point a telescope trained on the MOD islands opposite will provide excellent opportunities for raptors in the late afternoon. Note, due to the sensitivity of this MOD land, all photography is strictly prohibited. The harrier roost on the islands should hold Marsh Harrier as well as Hen Harrier. Barn Owls and Short-eared Owls hunt daily on the island opposite and Merlin and Peregrine can be encountered anywhere between the car park and the distant islands. On the landward side, things are likely to be quiet at this time of year with Stonechat probable although there have been reports of Dartford Warbler.
As you make your way back to the car in the failing light with rosy cheeks the ghostly flight of the Barn Owl and the evocative call of skeins of Dark-bellied Brent Geese flying overhead to roost should bring your day to a magical end.
Sites and Access
See the text for details. Most sites have free and open access except Southend Pier which is open 08:00-18:00 during winter weekends and 08:00-16:00 during the week in winter, and Wakering Stairs. Local bus routes service all sites. Check www.arrivabus.co.uk for details.
OS Maps: Landranger 178 (www.ordnancesurvey.co.uk)
Food and drink
As you would expect there are hundreds of eating establishments in and around Southend catering for all tastes.
Excellent fresh seafood and shellfish can be purchased from the vendors at Old Town Leigh Cockle sheds just east of Leigh train station.
The Southend area and, indeed, Essex itself also has a good share of rarities. Highlights of the last few years include:
Click any of the links below for details of bird watching locations in South-east Essex.
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