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The No Airport at Cliffe RSPB boat trip

Cruising along the Thames to view the threatened North Kent marshes from an estuarine perspective - by RSPB senior warden Alan Parker.

The weather on the morning of Dec 7th was unpromising, with heavily overcast skies and a cool northerly wind. However, 150 people braved the elements and boarded the passenger boat Pocahontas for an RSPB chartered cruise along the Thames past the site of the ludicrous Cliffe Airport proposal. The cruise was arranged to give an audience of young people a different perspective on the issue and a chance to view some of the birds wintering on the Thames. Representatives from a range of youth oriented organisations including Medway Youth Parliament, Scouts, Guides, RSPB Wildlife Explorers and youngsters from the local community were accompanied by local birdwatchers, members of the Kent Ornithological Society, RSPB wardens and staff (including Director of Conservation Mark Avery) Bob Marshall Andrews MP, local Councillors and popular TV celebrity Chris Simmons who is currently starring in the TV series The Bill. Things got off to a promising start, with Red Throated Diver, Little Gull and, most surprisingly a male Goosander recorded while press photo-calls were going on and the boat had not yet cast off. Leaving Gravesend, birds were soon in evidence on the narrow mudflats on the edge of the town, where several hundred waders included Black Tailed Godwits, and a fine Yellow Legged Gull sat on a buoy. Proceeding past Shorne Marshes and Higham Bight RSPB reserves, expected waders and wildfowl were picked up, but 3 Red Breasted Mergansers close to the boat were nice, a Kittiwake was unfortunately lightly oiled. Rounding Lower Hope Point the first of at least 5 Red Throated Divers was spotted close to the boat, there are quite a lot in the area at the moment, again some are oiled. A Little Egret was on the seawall at Cliffe and an auk which flew past surprisingly turned out to be a Razorbill, which also received a surprise when a Peregrine Falcon appeared from nowhere in pursuit of it. The Peregrine was then in turn chased by 3 Great Black Backs and so the auk was saved!With the tide on the turn, the extensive mudflats of Blyth Sands were being rapidly covered, and streams of waders that included Dunlin and Grey Plover began to fly across the bows of the boat towards Essex, illustrating clearly how these birds use both sides of the Thames in their feeding and roosting cycle. A second auk that flew close to the boat turned out to be the much commoner Guillemot. Passing the western extremity of the proposed airport, and proceeding towards Egypt Bay, the audience viewed the prominent landmark of Northward Hill woodland (home to the largest Heronry in the UK) Clearly visible beyond the seawall, the scale of the threatened destruction was most graphic as one imagined levelling it to the ground. As the boat cruised slowly around the Egypt Bay area- as far as it was licensed to go- there were almost continuous sightings of Red Throated Divers and, best of all, a flock of 10 Little Gulls headed slowly east, and close to us, the dull skies highlighting the black under-wings of the adults.Lunch was then served below deck as the boat headed back towards Gravesend, giving us all an interesting close view of the built up Essex shoreline contrasting very starkly with the vast open spaces that make peninsula so precious. We all felt that this had been an excellent trip, and for the birdwatchers aboard ship an excellent morning`s birding too.

4th July 2014