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All aboard for bird spotting

PUBLISHED: 16:48 27 October 2014 | UPDATED: 16:48 27 October 2014

SB Victor

SB Victor

Archant

Rachael Murray, of the RSPB, heads out into the River Stour on the SB Victor for a closer look at an estuary teeming with wildlife

Dunlin Calidris alpina on the artificial lagoon; high tide wader roost at Freiston Shore RSPB reserve, The Wash, Lincolnshire, England. August 2008.Dunlin Calidris alpina on the artificial lagoon; high tide wader roost at Freiston Shore RSPB reserve, The Wash, Lincolnshire, England. August 2008.

Whilst we humans spend our days with our feet firmly rooted in solid ground, wildlife has me in awe at its freedom and versatility.

As I anticipate embarking on my annual Christmas food shop in a brightly lit, bauble festooned supermarket, much of Suffolk’s wildlife is out looking for dinner, swooping and swirling above hidden beauty found in places rarely accessible to the county’s human residents.

Forget Sainsbury’s – one of the most nutrient rich places for Suffolk wildlife to forage is on and around bodies of water such as the Stour estuary. Feeding on the estuary’s mudflats is the wildlife equivalent of rooting through the traditional Christmas tin of Quality Street, minus the shiny wrappers – all those calorific morsels liberally sprinkled across the rippled brown surface. An RSPB nature watching trip on the SB Victor is a great way to temporarily gain access to a captivating world of wildlife that is hidden from view in our day to day lives.

Sailing through the Stour estuary aboard one of only 30 remaining Thames sailing barges is like entering an undisturbed world of natural wonder.

Goldeneye, Bucephala clangula, male displaying, Martin Mere, Lancashire (captive)Goldeneye, Bucephala clangula, male displaying, Martin Mere, Lancashire (captive)

The barge heads out along the county boundary between Essex and Suffolk, an imaginary line that falls directly along the centre of the Stour estuary. This estuary is an internationally important site for birds where around 30,000 ducks, geese and waders retreat from the most northerly parts of the globe every autumn to seek food and shelter. The vast tracts of estuarine mud along the estuary are an incredibly important resource for many migratory birds. The mud is packed with invertebrates, molluscs and insect larvae that birds feed on and use to sustain them on their journeys south, or through the cold autumn and winter months. It is these birds that provide such a rewarding experience on a trip out on the water.

As the skipper hoists Victor’s huge red sails, the ship gently drifts east out of Mistley. Expertly skippered and on gentle water she provides a strange calm despite her size. On board, we, the uninvited guests in this wild landscape, go apparently unnoticed by the hordes of birds. Brent geese mass on the edge of the mud and arrive in streams over the horizon, honking and croaking as they come in to land. Flocks of wading birds – knot, dunlin and grey plover – swirl from shore to shore, a flurry of tiny wing beats swooping in a sheet of noise over head. Grey herons stand as stiff as statues on the water’s edge and gulls swirl and scream above us. Emerging from the pinched in banks of the river into an expanse of water, the estuary widens and flattens. Common scoter speed over the horizon like black darts, while red breasted merganser dip and dive, and goldeneye turn to glare back at you with unblinking amber eyes.

Looking back at the banks, wigeon gather in crowds to watch the tide ebb and flow. And, all the time, the creaking wooden limbs of the Victor carry us quietly further into the wildness of the estuary – VIP access to a secret life on the water.

Once the shopping is out of the way, the festive season is a time of appreciation – not just of ribbon wrapped boxes, but more importantly, the everyday gifts that it can be all too easily taken for granted.

Knot Calidris canutus on the artificial lagoon;high tide wader roost at Freiston Shore RSPB reserve, The Wash, Lincolnshire, England. August 2008.Knot Calidris canutus on the artificial lagoon;high tide wader roost at Freiston Shore RSPB reserve, The Wash, Lincolnshire, England. August 2008.

For me, a rich natural environment that sustains both our bodies and our souls is the biggest gift of all. What better way to celebrate this special time of year than by leaving terra firma and gliding gently through the Suffolk landscape, exploring some of the county’s most fascinating wildlife?

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