Sooty Shearwater & skuas at Oare Marshes 30th November 2009

A biting cold north north-westerly and some very heavy showers made birding uncomfortable today, but we were rewarded with some very good birds.
Arriving at the car park at Oare Marshes NR at 7.40 a.m. (before the wind and rain started), we were immediately treated to the sight of a Barn Owl hunting just behind the sea wall and around 1000 Golden Plover were spectacularly wheeling over the floods.
We decided that, as the incoming tide could produce some decent sea birds, we would head straight for the Sea Wall Hide.
On the way we heard a Cetti's Warbler (and later heard and saw another one low in the reeds). A Water Rail was squealing in the ditch near the top of the slipway but remained hidden, two Little Egrets were flying over the reserve, the Barn Owl was seen hunting again and a Bearded Tit was heard 'pinging' in the reeds near the hide.

The dark and gloomy view across the East Flood from the Sea Wall Hide.

Arriving at the hide, it was a while before much of note was seen, plenty of Shelducks, Redshanks, Curlews, Dunlin, Oystercatchers and a few Turnstones and Grey Plovers.
As high tide approached, the bitter wind strengthened and 70+ Avocets flew across the Swale towards Sheppey and a female Eider was seen on the water. Also, 2 male and 3 female Red-breasted Mergansers touched down briefly on the Swale. At least 200 Brent Geese were along the Sheppey side of the water and the sudden appearance of a flock of 100 plus Kittiwakes with an adult Little Gull amongst them was a surprise. The Kittiwakes remained over the Swale for most of the morning, often alighting on the water.
Taking a break from seawatching, we headed to the hide on the East Flood. Two Rock Pipits were at the sluice and when we arrived at the hide, 5 Pintail, 40-plus Snipe, a Little Stint, c150 Black-tailed Godwits and huge numbers of Golden Plover were roosting on the East Flood along with plenty of Lapwings and a Grey Plover. We had just made it to the hide when the first really heavy and prolonged shower set in.

Black-tailed Godwits (Graham)

Golden Plovers and Lapwings (Graham)

After the shower passed, we headed back to the seawall hide for another seawatch.
It wasn't too long before we spotted a dark bird skimming over the water on the southern side of the Swale - a Sooty Shearwater. It behaved just as it should, shearing over the waves and twisting and turning to show all the correct features to identify it. It crossed the water to the Sheppey side and headed back east towards the mouth of the Swale.
A while later, Paul noticed a group of large dark birds heading west, fairly high over the water. These turned out to be 8 Great Skuas. A Red-throated Diver alighted on the Swale for a short time before heading off distantly to the east.
Murray Wright (he of Tufted Puffin fame) arrived and after chatting for a while, we continued our seawatch whilst Murray took up position outside the hide. It was not long before we saw a skua arrive from the east, low over the water. Neither of us were certain of its ID, not as broad -winged as a Great Skua and showing much contrast of dark and light areas in its plumage. I rushed outside to alert Murray, but he was already on to the bird and readily identified it as an immature Pomarine Skua.
Later in the afternoon, Murray alerted us to a female Hen Harrier hunting over the East Flood. Paul soon picked it up in his bins, but I failed to do so!
Despite the miserable weather conditions, it turned out to be a very worthwhile visit with both of us adding several species to our year lists. Our disappointment of not being able to digiscope successfully in such conditions goes without saying.

Paul & Graham

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