Birds by Barge - Winter bird watching aboard SBVictor
During the hustle and bustle of getting the passengers on board, with one of the team busily ticking off the arrivals, climbing on board with their thick coats, hats, gloves and their trusty pair of binoculars, I’m normally to be found standing on the highest part of the barge hoping for a sail-past by the giant DFDS ferry. When these white-and-blue vessels chug past they are followed by hundreds of gulls picking up food churned up by the ship’s propellers, with a few kittiwakes in tow as well. Our expectant passengers are always pleased to see kittiwakes, regardless of whether they’re hardened “birders” or very new to birdwatching – kittiwakes are true seabirds and normally found miles out to sea, consequently you don’t see them very often.
After having left the quayside we head out into the main channel of the Stour Estuary, spotting as we go, and with the group leaders (either myself or Mark, depending on who’s turn it is) already imparting our extensive knowledge of the estuary and it’s amazing wildlife.
Adrenalin starts to pump a little as we head straight for the light vessel moored mid-channel, we know that it is often where the most fearsome predator of the estuary roosts – the Peregrine Falcon (fastest animal in the world). Sometimes we see it, sometimes we don’t. When we do I always marvel at how it looks at us almost with disdain - as if we’re lesser mortals. I guess it’s part of being a world speed champion. If we’re really lucky we’ll see him or her further down the estuary as well, in a 200 mph dive arrowing straight for some unfortunate duck or wader. We get quite excited when this happens, and our commentary sometimes sounds like we’re talking about the Grand National if you know what I mean!!
Our expert barge Skipper Wes then steers us as close to the north shore of the Estuary as he can, so that we can see the birds along Erwarton Bay and Harkstead Point. Often these muddy shores are best for widgeon, teal and especially bar-tailed godwits which are scarcer at the Mistley end of the Stour. Once we’ve cleared Harkstead we concentrate on mid-channel again, hoping to catch the first glimpses of red-breasted mergansers and goldeneyes, both ducks which dive for their food deep under the water. What we’re really hoping for right now is breakfast though, as the smell of the eggs and bacon (veggie options available of course) wafts from the galley below and makes our stomachs rumble.
Warmed up, fuelled by hearty fare cooked by the steward (who used to serve hundreds of people breakfast on the Harwich to Holland ferries) we venture up on deck again ready to spot the next set of birds on the water. And there it is – a Great Northern Diver, or (like this winter just gone) a Black-throated Diver. Like some WW1 warship bird equivalent, they float low in the water, much much bigger than any of the ducks we’ve seen already, about the same size as the cormorants fishing for their own breakfast dotted around on the Stour.
Sometimes, last winter, we sailed so close to Great Northern Divers that you could see the water running off it’s back when it surfaced after having dived. Nowhere else have I seen these magnificent birds up so close, normally you’re lucky if you get a glimpse of them bobbing up and down half a mile off-shore in a stiff Northerly breeze. I just can’t get enough of them, and I’m already excited about this coming winter’s trips. Some people reckon it’s just because I like the breakfasts so much....
Even when Olde Worlde charm of Harwich seafront is sighted in the distance again we never stop telling the passengers about the marvellous work of the RSPB on the estuary and further afield. There is so much to tell passengers: the ever-changing world of international commerce (how the expansion of the Port of Felixstowe can potentially affect the estuary and it’s associated wildlife), windfarms (we work hard to ensure that these developments are in the right place, without any adverse effects on the UK’s precious wildlife), what the latest housing scheme around the Stour is and how the RSPB is involved with that. We’re so keen to impart our knowledge and enthusiasm for the Stour that we’re still spotting birds for passengers as the crew are tying up back at Ha’Penny Pier. Then it’s off home for a hot cuppa and to warm up in front of the wood-burner..by Rick Vonk.
Birdwatching Cruises | November to January
Don’t miss the opportunity to experience one of East Anglia’s finest wildlife spectacles and see thousands of birds on the magnificent estuary. This half-day cruise includes hot drinks and all-day breakfast-in-a-bun, plus local RSPB experts will be on board to help you get the most out of your ‘twitching’.
Bird-watching cruises depart from Ha’Penny Pier, Harwich (Satnav: CO12 3HH).
Phone: 07926 396782