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Kent and East Sussex in autumn

Exciting birding as autumn migration gets into full swing

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With a coastline projecting out into the North Sea, Kent is perfectly positioned to attract large numbers of passage birds as they funnel through the UK each autumn. With a range of habitats and several great reserves, the county is a magnet for migrating birds on the move and an attractive place to watch them. On this two centre tour we enjoy varied and busy bird-watching days, exploring Kent in detail with a little time dedicated to nearby East Sussex hotspots too. Waders will feature highly at coastal and freshwater sites, typically moving through the North Sea in abundance at this time of year from various origins including Northern Europe, Scandinavia and Russia. Passerines will not be neglected, the habitat around the coast often attracting ‘falls’ of warblers, chats, wagtails, pipits and flycatchers as well as rarities.

The first part of the week will be spent exploring the North Kent Marshes, which with many good sites is the perfect place to start. The Oare Marshes, RSPB Cliffe Pools, The Isle of Sheppey, Capel Fleet and Swale NNR are all within a short journey of our base. We also plan to visit Stodmarsh and Grove Ferry NNR near Canterbury, and may also visit Reculver Country Park near Herne Bay which can be good for resting migrants. Our daily itinerary will be flexible, and with most of the top birding sites close by we have every chance of connecting with any reported rare bird to boost our trip list.

Later in the week we travel south over the Kent peninsula via Walland Marsh and stay just over the border In East Sussex near Rye. We have excellent access to both the Dungeness Peninsula and its nature reserves, as well as Rye Harbour LNR. The largest shingle promontory in Europe and with on average only 25 inches of rainfall a year, Dungeness is the only official desert in the UK! This bleak, gaunt wilderness is however of huge attraction to birdlife and the area lays claim to one of the oldest established Bird Observatories as well as one of the earliest RSPB reserves in England. On some days the peninsula can be alive with drift migrants, while on others is a great location to witness seabirds moving west along the coastline. Rye Harbour Nature Reserve is another excellent birding site with good nature trails and hides. Terns, gulls and passage waders congregate on the old gravel pit workings, while the surrounding bushes can be busy with migrants, as they fatten up before continuing the next part of their journey to southern wintering grounds.

A variety of species are likely to be seen during our week and we will certainly build a substantial list of waders likely to include Ruff, Avocet, Golden, Grey and Little Ringed Plover, Knot, Whimbrel, Spotted Redshank, Greenshank, Green, Wood and Curlew Sandpiper and Little Stint. In recent autumns rarer, Nearctic species have included Lesser Yellowlegs, American Golden Plover and Long billed Dowitcher. At this time of year Yellow Wagtail flocks are on the move, while local reserves are great place to find parties of Bearded Tit with juveniles often seen at close quarters. Strong winds from the north in September bring a good chance of skuas and other migrating sea birds being pushed into the Swale estuary, and if these conditions prevail then we are able to sea watch from various vantage points. This really is a great new opportunity to explore South-East England at a busy time of year for birds.

Day 1: Sat 7 September – Arrival and the Oare Marshes
We meet at 2pm at the railway station in Faversham or at our hotel, and after checking in take the short drive to Oare Marshes. Here we will soon be scanning flocks of passage waders with the opportunity to familiarise ourselves with a host of species. On this reserve birds can often be feeding close by, so this is a great way to improve identification skills and enhance your birding knowledge. With luck, scarce Little Stint and Curlew Sandpiper might be present to compare with commoner Dunlin, inevitably in a variety of plumages with adults and young birds side by side. At this time of year, it is also a great place to view and hear ‘pinging’ Bearded Tit as family parties feed, often out in the open in the tops of the reeds or on the ground at close quarters. A great place to start our tour.

Day 2: Sun 8 September - Isle of Sheppey
A full day exploring Sheppey, most of which is a combination of grazing marsh with reedbeds, wide ditches and muddy fleets. Around Capel Fleet we will check the channels for waders and wildfowl with Ruff, Avocet and Whimbrel possible. Also with an extensive area of flat grasslands, Sheppey is a good place to find hunting raptors with Hobby, Peregrine, Marsh Harrier all likely with a chance of Little or Barn Owl or even an early Short-eared Owl. A viewing mound provides a great vantage point to scan for anything of interest, including flocks of Yellow Wagtail in the fields, or Corn Bunting and migrants in the hedgerows. Moving on to the beach at Leysdown, the foreshore is worth checking for feeding waders or any seabirds moving offshore. We may also visit Swale National Nature Reserve, a great place for waders which on a rising tide congregate on the end of Shellness spit. When the wind is in the north, seabirds including skuas may be pushed into the entrance of The Swale after crossing from the vast mouth of the River Thames.

Day 3: Mon 9 September - Cliffe Pools RSPB Reserve
Today we drive a little further to visit Cliffe Pools RSPB reserve, an area approximately 230 hectares in size and incorporating the old clay pit diggings and river dredgings from the River Thames. Managed for wildlife and landscaped into saline and fresh water pools, mixed grassland saltmarsh and scrub can be attractive to many birds. We shall be able to slowly wander around the area checking suitable pools for passing waders with good chances of Green, Wood, Common and Curlew Sandpiper, Little Stint, Spotted Redshank, Greenshank plus any rarities. In addition we should see vast flocks of post breeding Avocet, Black-tailed Godwit, Shelduck and rafts of Little Grebe. Raptors including Hobby, Peregrine and Marsh Harrier will keep us busy as we check the bushes and available cover for migrant passerines. On returning to Faversham we should be able to revisit Oare Marshes to check for any new arrivals, or look for any species we may have missed on our earlier visit.

Day 4: Tue 10 September – Reculver, Stodmarsh and Grove Ferry
A change of scenery today, the road east to Reculver taking us into good habitat to spend an hour or two checking for any grounded passerines. Whinchat, Wheatear, wagtails and warblers are the most likely, and there is also always the possibility of a rarity such as Wryneck or Red-backed Shrike if we are lucky. Later in the morning we make the short journey to Stodmarsh or Grove Ferry and spend the rest of the day exploring these sites within the Stour Valley. A vast area, and home to the largest reedbed in South-East England, a selection of footpaths and a purpose built viewing ramp give wonderful views and opportunities to watch birds. In autumn large flocks of hirundines can be found feeding over the reedbeds, which in turn attract Hobby sometimes into double figures! Viewing the flooded scrapes, Water Rail and other crakes may be seen with feeding terns including Common, Arctic and Black. We are on the lookout for Garganey in eclipse plumage and with recent range expansion may see Spoonbill or Great Egret too. The Grove Ferry part of the reserve has a great track record for producing rare birds, so we could spend more time there depending on up to date news.

Day 5: Wed 7 September - Dungeness and Rye Harbour
Today we relocate south to the Dungeness Peninsula and Rye Harbour in the English Channel, a leisurely journey of just over an hour. With three nights, we have plenty of time to cover these areas in a relaxed manner, bird news or the forecast perhaps determining where we begin. We may choose to cross into Sussex straight away and head for Rye Harbour LNR, practically on our hotel doorstep. The site has been created and developed from coastal gravel workings into one of the premier south coast bird reserves. With large breeding colonies of Sandwich, Common and Little Tern, plus vast numbers of Mediterranean Gull, many of these local breeders can linger in high numbers into September. At this time of year, the shallow pools often attract good numbers of waders and returning ducks and with five good hides we can get up close and take our time. We may also have an option after dinner to look for Barn Owl at dusk.

Day 6: Thur 11 September - Dungeness Peninsula
Today our aim will be to spend all day around the Dungeness area, visiting a diversity of habitats including the vast RSPB Reserve. This is a large reserve with many different areas including its weird and wonderful Fisherman's huts and even a Nuclear Power Station! A sea watch from the beach is a must in favourable winds, passage likely including Gannet, skuas, gulls, terns, auks or even early moving wildfowl with Common Scoter a possibility. Anywhere where there is scrubby cover should be checked for migrants such as Wheatear, Whinchat, Redstart, flycatchers, warblers and finches. On the RSPB reserve we have a chance for Cattle and Great Egret and maybe a Bittern if we are lucky. Black-necked Grebe turn up at this time of year on the ARC pit as well Black Tern or even Little Gull. The roosting flocks of birds here often hold interesting waders and Garganey can often be found on so careful scanning and patience will be required. Later in the day we can look for a roosting Little Owl or check the Dengemarsh Road for other species not found so far.

Day 7: Fri 12 September – Dungeness/Rye Harbour
Our last full day will be spent locally catching up on any new arrivals or perhaps another seawatch if conditions are favourable. We spend time searching the area around Dungeness Bird Observatory where thick cover, sallow copses and open shingle can support birds. The entire area around ‘The Moat’ including the bird ringing site is another place worth covering, and we might make a second visit to either the RPSB reserve, Dengemarsh, the ARC pit or perhaps nearby Lade Pit. If there is any news of interesting migrants in the area, we follow these reports or re-visit Rye Harbour for roosting Bittern at dusk, which can also often be good for Bearded Tit and squealing Water Rail.

Day 8: Sat 13 September – Departure
We anticipate there will be little time for birding today, so after breakfast we return to Faversham to meet trains departing from 12pm onwards where our holiday ends.

Please note: all itineraries are given as a guide only. Actual holiday content may vary according to the judgement of your guide, and elements beyond our control (eg weather).

Expect a wide variation in weather conditions. The area can at times be wet and windy, however we may also experience some nice dry weather. Sunshine, rain and strong winds are all possible, and you will probably experience a bit of everything. Please bring walking boots or shoes, weatherproof clothing and a small rucksack.

We take things at a slow pace, though will cover a few miles of walking daily mainly on good quality paths but at times over rougher or uneven ground, through fields or across sandy beaches. Rare and target birds are often found in inconvenient locations, involving several gates and stiles to be climbed or potentially a long walk in exposed locations. Transfer between sites is by mini-bus.

Your Leader

Bernie Forbes has been a member of the Heatherlea Guiding team for many years, both in the UK and further afield. Popular and in great demand, Bernie is a highly experienced tour leader, based in Lancing on the sunny Sussex coast.

A very active local Field Leader, Bernie is currently President of the Shoreham and District Ornithological Society, and an active member of the Sussex Ornithological Society, sitting on the Sussex Rare Bird Records Committee, adjudicating on rare bird submissions in the county. Bernie is an active contributor to local bird reports, always sharing his bird finds on blogs and user groups, and an active RSPB volunteer as a participant in work around Pagham Harbour. Bernie is well known for his passion for birds and his commitment to conservation helping to raise considerable sums of money for the Spring and New Year Bird Race days.

When at home, Bernie is frequently helping to improve local birders' identification skills. Very experienced with a deep love of nature and birding, his groups enjoy great birding in his company.

Bernie Forbes

What's included in your 'Kent and East Sussex in autumn' holiday price:

  • Seven nights comfortable en-suite hotel accommodation. Guests are never expected to share. All rooms are en-suite. Full details with your joining pack.
  • Full breakfast and dinner from Saturday evening until Saturday morning, packed lunch daily.
  • Guidance from a professional Group Leader.

What's not included in your 'Kent and East Sussex in autumn' holiday price:

  • Travel to the meeting point in Faversham and any onward travel from where the holiday finishes.
  • Insurance, drinks and other items of a personal nature.

Other birding and wildlife holidays in Southern England

Why choose Heatherlea for your birding and wildlife holiday?

Heatherlea is one of Britain's leading wildlife holiday operators. In 2019 we celebrate our 29th Anniversary with more choice than ever, both in Scotland and overseas. Relax and enjoy yourself, as we do all the planning! Above all, we make it our business to show key wildlife to you. Our fully inclusive guided holidays concentrate on the real experience, and we take time to ensure that each of our guests enjoys everything we do.

  • We have been organising birding and wildlife holidays for 30 seasons, and have a highly experienced and capable office team. We also offer a telephone and email service outside normal office hours.
  • We are a small company, run BY birders FOR birders. Come and see!
  • Heatherlea are Mainland Scotland’s FIRST ‘5-Star Wildlife Experience!’ This is the highest available grading, classified as ‘exceptional’ by visitScotland.
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  • Heatherlea is a limited company, registered in Scotland. We are also registered to pay VAT, which is included in your holiday price as quoted on this page.
  • Once your holiday is confirmed in writing by us, we promise not to surcharge the price for any reason.

About Heatherlea Holidays

Contact Information

The Mountview Hotel, Nethybridge,
PH25 3EB Scotland

T: +44(0)1479 821248