The sea-front cafes at Leigh-on-sea were already starting to get busy with customers that had arrived early to beat the lunch time rush for a cold beer and seafood. We had passed a few fishmongers that were selling fresh mussels, crabs and other seafood specialities for those who preferred to make their own. The sea-front location and good transport links to central London means that a number of day trippers arrive at this little sea-front town in Essex. To be exact, it is on the Thames estuary which at this point has opened out to the sea. On the marina, a lot of boats were bobbing about on the sea. Also bobbing about on the water were hundreds of Brent Geese. I was on a birdwatching walk organised by the London Bird Club, a section of the London Natural History Society (LNHS). This was one of around 25 bird walks organised a year by the LBC which are also open to non-members of the LNHS. Seeing the telescopes mounted on tripods a number of locals were curious as to whether a special bird had been seen. Others were just keen to have a chat with us about what we were seeing.

Three subspecies or geographical races of Brent Geese winter in the UK. The Pale-bellied, Dark-bellied (or Russian) and Black. The Black Brant is a rare visitor which breeds in Eastern Siberia, Alaska and North-western Canada. The Pale-bellied which arrives from the Canadian Arctic winters mainly in Ireland. In England, the wintering Brent Geese are almost entirely the Dark-bellied which arrive from the Eurasian Arctic. Interestingly, Britain and Ireland hold as much as half the world's population of Brent Geese in winter. This underlines how important Britain is for many wintering species from the high Northern latitudes. Brent Geese are grazers along with other geese that winter in Britain. Sea grasses are an important part of their diet and conservation measures that have been implemented have played an important part in improving their survival in their wintering grounds. The geese have also adapted to feeding on farmland. However, the Brent Geese do not occupy farmland in the same manner as the tens of thousands of Pink-footed Geese which arrive for the winter in places like the coast of Norfolk. The Pink-footed Geese do come into conflict with farmers and one of the mitigants is to compensate farmers. The Pink-footed are also a big draw to wildlife tourists who visit Norfolk to watch the big skies filled with skeins of geese flying in V-shaped formations.

Brent Geese are not very large being one of the smallest geese. They are about the size of a Mallard, but being longer necked and longer legged have the impression of a bigger bird. Sea-side towns are good places in which to observe Brent Geese as they have become habituated. They take readily to water and in many parts of Britain’s east coast they can be seen swimming in large flocks.

Leigh-on-sea is a special location for birdwatchers as the coastal salt marsh is only tens of meters away from the railway station. There are not many places in Britain where naturalists can enjoy views of salt marsh from a train platform and have it just a few minutes walk away. Leaving the station, one can take a small road that runs beside the seafront or one can take this road head the other way to join a footpath that leads through the marsh to the Two Tree Island nature reserve, one of the many reserves managed by the Essex Wildlife Trust. We visited the restaurant lined seafront first as the incoming tide would have pushed in waders towards the beach. We did see Oystercatchers, Black-tailed Godwits, Turnstones and Dunlin, but we were just a little too late as the water had now come right in. But we knew we could try again later on. We also had a Rock Pipit on the water front. This is much darker than the commoner Meadow Pipit and is a specialist of the strandline. We reversed direction back towards the train station and then headed out to the reserve walking on a raised footpath that led across saltmarsh. Around us, the marsh was also a graveyard for abandoned boats. The masts of decaying boats stretched up into the sky like thin gravestones to mark where the fallen lay.

We looked out for Redshanks and Reed Buntings as we walked. Pools of freshwater held dainty Teal and robust Shovelers. We took lunch at a view point surrounded by phragmites reeds and distant views of the sea. The tide had begun to recede and Curlews began to fly in. The curlew is an endangered bird whose numbers have declined worldwide due to the loss of habitat. At first, it did not seem like there were many as they flew in as twos and threes. But one member of the group kept count and it added up to a surprising 140 curlews. The numbers of Curlew have fallen precipitously in Britain with the population declining by 65% since 1970. Nevertheless, Britain’s curlew population is very important and represents nearly a third of the West European Curlew population.

Out on the marshes, we could also see a large number of Little Egrets. A couple of decades ago this bird was a rarity in Britain. But they have now successfully colonised Britain and are now an established breeding resident. We counted 175 Little Egrets that were spread out, the largest number I have ever had in view of from a single vantage point.

The highlight of the day was from Monty’s Lookout which is a small bird watching hide. Looking out, we could see that hundreds of waders had huddled together on exposed islands on a large pool of water. A few hundred Dunlin were present mixing with Ringed Plovers. From time to time a flock would spring up and wheel around their undersides glinting silver. With them were also Knot and Redshank. In the distance were Black-tailed Godwits. It was a textbook example of a high-tide wader roost.

Although Leigh-on-Sea is out of London in Essex, many Londoners treat it as one of their regular sites. With two trains an hour and about an hour away, it is possible to come out in winter to watch the waders on the high tide roost and then head to the sea-front for a nice meal and then back to the glass and steel of the city at Fenchurch Street or Liverpool Street. But if you are planning a visit, consult the tide table which can be found easily online. You may also want to join one of the free guided visits to Two Trees Island organised by the various bird watching groups based in Central London.

Useful Information

A number of groups in London organise a range of bird-watching and other nature walks as well as day trips by coach or by using public transport to sites further afield from London. Three groups which are especially suited for residents and visitors in Central London are the London Natural History Society, Marylebone Birdwatching Society and the RSPB Central London Local Group.

For visiting nature reserves in London, see also the websites of the London Wildlife Trust and London Wetland Centre. For nature based activities for children and adults in a Central London Park, see the website of the Holland Park Ecology Centre.