If you’ve ever thought about getting into birdwatching, then the River Hamble Estuary is a great place to start.
It’s an internationally important area for nature and is covered by several conservation initiatives to help protect its delicate ecosystem.
Here, Ranger Tony tell us about the wonderful array of overwintering birds that pay the area a visit.
River Hamble is a great place to visit all-year round but, if you’re just getting into birdwatching and want to be sure of spotting birds and honing your skills, then the best time to visit the region is during the autumn and winter months, late September through to March, when the bird numbers and varieties are at their greatest and most visible.
Be sure to go when the tide is falling to a low tide or rising from a low tide, when there is plenty of mudflats and saltmarsh habitat exposed, as this is the optimum feeding time for most birds. At high tide, the birds will have left for their roosting places and they will be scarce in number.
So, armed with a pair of binoculars – 8 x 42s is the best for beginners as you get reduced image shake with this magnification – I would head for the pay and display car park at Passage Lane in Warsash and walk from there.
From the car park head north up the River Hamble towards Lower Swanwick (you can also park this end and walk south). As you walk past the toilet block on your right, you will find yourself on a gravel pathway that winds its way through the mudflats and saltmarshes of the River Hamble and an area called Bunny Meadows where you will be treated to a whole host of overwintering birds.
The mudflats around the Pink Ferry jetty are where you are likely to encounter redshank, oystercatcher, turnstone, curlew and dunlin.
The redshank can be identified by their bright red legs (hence the name) and straight red-based bill. Somewhat smaller than a wood pigeon, it is easily spooked and will fly off emitting a noisy, piercing warning call.
The oystercatcher, with its dazzling black and white plumage and long, straight orange-red bill, is much larger than a pigeon in size.
It, like the redshank, has a piercing call which is equally distinctive when alarmed.
Covering some of the mudflats will be algae and seaweed, shingle, stones and rocks.
Here, you may find the turnstone, a stocky, short-billed small wader about twice the size of a house sparrow, with short, bright orange legs and a black breast band.
Noisy and active, the turnstone loves nothing more than rooting through the weeds and stones, constantly flicking them over, looking for a tasty morsel to eat.
Further along the riverside of the path, as it bends to the right, Europe’s largest wader, the curlew, can often be found probing the mud with its very long, downcurved bill searching for worms, shellfish and shrimps. It has a streaked brown body with greyish, quite short legs and is a little smaller than a mallard. When taking to flight, the curlew’s song starts slowly then quickens to an excited, rippling, other-worldly trill.
A little further out, along the water’s edge, you may see flocks of dunlin. Its winter plumage is drab and unremarkable but its white belly, hunched posture and very slightly downcurved black bill help to identify it. When the dunlin rise as a group from their feeding spot, due to disturbance, they form a shimmering white cloud, darting back and forth, low across the water, another distinguishing characteristic.
A group of curlew
Scattered amongst the dunlin, if you look carefully, you will often find some ringed plovers. These pretty little birds are similar in size to the dunlin with a short black and orange bill and orange legs. But it is the striking black head and breast band that make it stand out, making it look like it is about to rob a bank!
There may also be the odd sanderling too, with its black bill and legs and bright white underparts, this wader is quick and nimble, darting back and forth along the water’s edge.
In amongst the saltmarsh islands you may also find a solitary greenshank probing for worms, insects and crustaceans in the mud and shallow waters. A cousin of the redshank, it has a slightly upturned bill, is lighter in colour and has long grey-green legs.
As you reach the second bend on the path, the mudflats of Bunny Meadows become more visible on your right, as do the saltmarsh islands of the river on the left. These are two wonderful habitats for seeing many of the overwintering species that make the Solent region their home at this special season of the year.
About a hundred metres up the path from the bend is an ideal location to just stop awhile, sandwiched between the saltmarsh islands and the lagoon, and just allow your binoculars to focus in on the myriad of birds that are feverishly and anxiously feeding, hoping to fatten up sufficiently to eventually make their long migration home. A journey that is both dangerous and incredibly energy consuming, and so their time spent feeding undisturbed among the saltmarshes and mudflats of the Hamble river is crucial to their survival.
Here, you will be treated to flocks of colourful grazing wigeon, tightly packed together, wary of all onlookers, one eye on the food and one eye on you.
These beautiful dabbling ducks are about the size of a mallard and have a very distinctive chestnut coloured head and neck with a very striking yellow forehead stripe, pinkish breast and white belly.
The males have a brilliantly loud and explosive high-pitched whistling call and when several males start calling in unison, it is quite a symphony of sound, hence why they are known as whistling wigeon!
Amongst the wigeon, or at least nearby, in smaller numbers and equally wary, you may find teal.
These gorgeous looking birds are the smallest of the common European surface-feeding ducks.
About half the size of a mallard, they have a chestnut head with a beautiful iridescent green flash across the eye edged with thin cream piping.
As you scan the lagoon at Bunny Meadows with your binoculars, you are likely to see clusters of black-tailed godwit and brent geese.
The black-tailed godwit is roughly the size of a woodpigeon but slimmer, with plain brown-grey plumage. Its distinguishing features are its very long legs and long straight bill along with a white rump and black tail.
Brent geese are the smallest geese to migrate to these shores. Their size is a distinguishing feature setting it apart from other geese such as the plentiful Canada geese. They have a black head and chest with a white neck patch, their bill is also black. Their behaviour is duck-like and they can often be seen in large flocks on the water, upending to reach eelgrass and algae upon which they feed.
If you happen to get the tide timing wrong and end up arriving at high tide for your birdwatching session, don’t worry, all is not lost!
Simply head up the river path until you can see the arched wooden bridge in the near distance and, at the top end of Bunny Meadows, on your right, you will find a high tide roosting place for many of the birds mentioned.
Here, too, you may see shelduck, little egret, cormorant, grey plover and, if you’re very lucky, the stunning kingfisher!
Kingfisher at Bunny Meadows
Enjoy this remarkable river system with all the wonderful birdlife it supports, give the birds the space they need to feed and rest undisturbed and we can all enjoy this special space for many years to come.
The ranger team at Bunny Meadows