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The iconic bird of waterways is undoubtedly the kingfisher (right). Despite being brightly coloured, this small, shy bird is remarkably easy to miss, even though it is resident on the marshes. Although fond of fishing along this stretch of river, the kingfisher is just as likely to be glimpsed beside a narrow ditch or small pool – anywhere with a depth of at least a few inches is a possible hunting ground.
Much bigger is the heron (right), which can be seen patiently waiting for prey in any area of shallow water. Despite its size, it can be easily overlooked, especially as this grey bird can spend minutes standing stock still. Also, it has a much larger feeding territory than the kingfisher, so quite often will simply not be present on the marsh. There are no heronries in the immediate vicinity, so in the nesting season any birds seen are likely to be young non-breeders.
Only in the past twenty years or so has the little egret (right) become a familiar bird, even to those with no particular interest in birdwatching. Before then it was eagerly sought out by twitchers, as it was essentially a species of the Mediterranean and only an occasional visitor to these shores. Now, perhaps thanks to climate change, the species has spread through France and much of the UK. Its dazzling white plumage makes it hard to miss, but it ranges up and down the Stour valley, so often can’t be found on the reserve. Egrets like to breed amongst their cousins, herons, and the lack of nearby heronries means that little egrets are seen much less frequently during the nesting season.
The only species of duck regularly found at Hambrook is the mallard. Several pairs breed here and birds can be found throughout the year on the river and in ditches, while in winter they delight in feeding in shallow-flooded areas of fields when, if you are near enough to them, you can hear the slapping sound of their beaks filtering the water for floating seeds, a characteristic feeding action shared with other dabbling ducks.
Another dabbler, but much rarer than the mallard, is the outlandishly exotic mandarin duck (right). Long kept in wildfowl collections on account of the male’s incredibly flamboyant plumage (the female is much drabber, not unlike a female mallard), some birds inevitably escaped and established a feral breeding population in this country, particularly in SE England. This lovely bird is very occasionally seen along the Stour, and in 2013 a pair bred nearby, so it is always worth looking out for, though seldom seen.
Another duck-like bird to be found on the river in winter is the little grebe (right). Not in fact related to ducks, this shy bird spends much of its time diving for food, and when disturbed it will usually swim underwater to streamside vegetation, where it surfaces unseen.
Wherever you see mallards, you are almost bound to find moorhens (right), as these birds occur wherever there is water or wet ground. Often dismissed as boring black birds, they are in fact far more attractive than that description would suggest, the plumage grading from violet-grey through brownish grey to jet black, against which the startling yellow-tipped red bill stands out like a beacon. Finishing touches are provided by its large yellowy-green legs and feet, and by the white underside to its tail, which is flicked rhythmically when swimming or walking.
Another waterside bird is the rather inappropriately named grey wagtail (right), as the most striking aspect of the male’s plumage is the vivid yellow of its underparts. It is an extremely elegant bird, its unusually long tail constantly bobbing up and down as it picks its way delicately among pebbles or mud.
Away from the river, ditches and pools, look out for small flocks of meadow pipits (right) moving around in areas of coarser grassland. A little like miniature song thrushes, with their brown backs and streaked breasts, these birds descend from the bleak northern moorlands to spend winter in the more benign conditions of lowland England. Almost invariably encountered in flocks, meadow pipits are moderately confiding and utter a rather weak “sweet” call when flying from one feeding area to another.
In dry scrub listen out for the cheerful, but rather tuneless song of the whitethroat (right), a summer visitor from Africa. Perched prominently atop a bush, the male is hard to miss, particularly when he performs his occasional song flight – launching himself upwards, and bouncing around on rapidly beating wings, before subsiding into a bush, singing all the while.
In wetter patches of willow scrub you may find a pair of reed buntings (right). Although resident in Kent, they tend to be found at Hambrook in the summer only. The attractive male spends long hours uttering his rather monotonous song (dink-dink, di-dink) from the top of a reed stem or willow branch.