PWC Interview Series
Patch birder: Howard Vaughan
Patch: RSPB Rainham Marshes (Estuarine minileague)
Date: 13th November 2015
Niall Keogh (PWC) and Howard Vaughan (RSPB) at Rainham 13th November 2015
Introduction: Tell us a bit about yourself & your general birding habits...
My name is Howard Vaughan and I am the Visitor Experience Officer at RSPB Rainham Marshes in Essex. I have been working at the marshes for nearly 13 years and seem to spend most of my time here nowadays. Thankfully the view from the visitor centre is open enough that I can bird even from the inside and it affords a great vista over the marsh and the adjacent Thames so even on foul days I have a chance of finding something. I was Essex County Bird Recorder for ten years and birding is without a doubt in my blood.
View across Rainham marshes from the RSPB visitor centre © Niall Keogh
Background info on your patch: A brief history of the site. What habitats & key species can be found there?
Rainham Marshes sits on the site of an ex-Ministry of Defence firing range that the RSPB bought in July 2000. Ancient medieval lowland wet grazing marsh and pools with some reedbed, scrub and a small bit of damp woodland hemmed in by the Thames, two railways, the A13, housing estates and two industrial estates.
Over 270 species on the site list including some historical goodies such as Western Sandpiper and Solitary Sandpiper. Excellent gulling including the UK’s first Slaty-backed Gull and numerous Caspians. Increasing numbers wintering wildfowl and waders as we improve the grazing marsh through habitat management. Breeding Cetti’s Warblers, Marsh Harriers, Bearded Tits and nationally important numbers of Redshank and Lapwing.
Good track record with Penduline Tits and some monster rarities over the last ten years such as Sociable Plover and White-tailed Plover, Baillon’s Crake and Eleonora’s Falcon (…even if they did reject it!)
(left) Penduline Tit © Jonathan Lethbridge / (top right) Bearded Reedling © Chris Lowe / (bottom right) Slaty-backed Gull © Priscille Durnerin
Why did you choose your patch? (for general birding and/or for taking part in PWC)
I have been birding at Rainham Marshes since the mid 1980’s at which time there was basically no legal access to anywhere except the foreshore by the Stone Barges and when I was asked, as WeBS co-ordinator for Essex, to help the RSPB to carry out counts on the newly acquired site in 2000, I leapt at the chance. Being full time with the RSPB since 2003 has meant that most of my life since then has actually been spent on this site and as I practically live here it was the natural choice. I actually feel slightly guilty about not doing one of the great sites close to my home in North Kent but despite living within five miles of RSPB Cliffe Pools, I would never have the time to do it justice!
Let's get straight to the juicy question! What is the best rarity you have found on the patch?
The Sociable Plover of the 4th December 2005 was real heart stopping moment for myself and Mike Dent who were out busily counting for WeBS. I seem to remember the Lapwing count going something like "273, 274, 275 oh... clucking bell". At the time they thought that there may only have been 200 left in the world.
Five years later in July 2010 Sam Shippey and myself found the White-tailed Plover in exactly the same spot much to the amazement of those with us on the Wednesday Walk. I seem to remember picking Sam up in a bear hug! Amazingly Mike Dent was only a hundred yards away the time.
(top left) Sociable Plover © Reg Mellis / (top right) Sociable Plover twitch © Howard Vaughan / (bottom left) White-tailed Plover twitch © Jonathan Lethbridge / (bottom right) White-tailed Plover © Tony Coombs
What is the best blocker or most coveted species you have seen on your patch?
Taiga Bean Goose: three west with 354 White-fronted Geese on 16th January 2000. By far the biggest flock of WFG’s ever through the site (and probably London) and thankfully they were low enough for us to pick out the big Beans. Tundras have now become the almost annual Beans over the last few years while the English Taiga population dwindles further and a re-run looks unlikely.
Willow Tit: now extinct in Essex and yet they were hanging on mid-county up until the early 2000’s. Odd birds were occasionally encountered elsewhere and on the National Bird Race on the 14th May 2000 (technically three months before the RSPB bought the site) we snuck on to look for (and find) singing Turtle Dove and found a singing male Willow Tit as well!
Strangely enough the Bee-eater of the 11th May 2007 is actually more likely to become unblocked than the other two. I shouted quite loudly to get everyone’s attention when it flew over the centre calling. Happy days...
And now for those painful moments... What is your biggest dip on the patch?
Ducks... Green-winged Teal, Mandarin and Red-crested Pochard!
Green-winged Teal: strangely just the one record of an erratic drake in late April 2013 but I was in Lesvos and could cope without it!
Mandarin: only one previous record and this fine drake chooses to appear on one of my very few days off sick over the last 13 years. I put the news out and phoned round and everyone else was happy but the little bugger had gone the next day.
And last duck trauma… a female Red-crested Pochard last summer was a first of the reserve and on its second day it quite literally vanished just before I got to the pool.
There have been many other superb birds over the years but most were before my time in the Silt Lagoon golden years of the 1970s with Western and Solitary Sandpipers and such waifs that we may once again find if we keep looking.
It's not all birds. What other wildlife of note can be found on your patch?
I found a new bug (Rhyparochromus vulgaris) to Britain several years ago and a 4th record for Britain of the hoverfly (Eristalis similis) two years ago. It is a superb location for butterflies and dragonflies including Scarce and Willow Emeralds. Excellent populations of Water Vole, Marsh Frog, Wasp Spider and Ivy Bee also.
(top left) Wasp Spider / (bottom left) Eristalis similis / (right) Rhyparochromus vulgaris © all Howard Vaughan
What was your funniest moment on the patch?
Trying to conduct a raffle draw at our September fair in 2009 and realising that a large, angular, dark falcon above looked horribly like an Eleonora’s and instead of calling ticket numbers I shouted for any birders to get out of the tents and look up to puzzled expressions from those gathered around me. It was seen by about 7 or 8 people but unfortunately there were no images obtained and it was ‘record not proven’. Still on my list though!
Most patch birders will dream of that ultimate prize... What national first would you like to find on your patch?
Moustached Warbler: I reckon the chances are almost zero for this but you never know and perhaps one may pop out of the reedbed one winter’s morning on the Northern Trail to feed down at water level in one of the ‘reed rides’ we have created. We can but dream... perhaps more topically I would dearly like to find the French Caspian Plover with my Lapwing flock. It may not be a first but it would certainly be popular!
But back to reality... What is the next most likely patch tick you'd like to find?
Sadly, ducks... probably a Green-winged Teal but would be happier with an American Wigeon.
Each patch birder is probably the biggest critic of their own patch. What one thing would you change about your patch and why?
I would like to move us 15 miles closer to the mouth of the Thames Estuary and strangely enough I would love more eyes on the site. We have some great local patch birders but who knows what we could find with more...?
When you're dead and gone and there's a bench on your patch commemorating you, what would you like the plaque to say?
"He Came; He Saw; He Rarely Went Home"...
Evening over the River Thames from RSPB Rainham Marshes © Howard Vaughan