The Isle of Grain & Oare Marshes

For our second outing we wanted to really "stretch our wings" and get far out of the city[1]. At the same time, what with the heatwave, getting to the coast felt like a good idea. Of course, we (accurately) predicted that everyone else would be having the same idea, so chose an area of coast that we felt with have as few people as possible: the Isle of Grain. It's a confusingly named place at the very end of the Thames in Kent, which is at once a highly-industrial area and a huge marshland, called an island but actually now fully connected to the mainland, and absolutely the end of the road. It also only has a very small, predominantly shelly beach, with views out to some huge shipping rigs and not a huge amount else. As we had thought, that meant that basically only a handful of locals were enjoying the sun and we largely had the concrete coastal path to ourselves. Perfect!

Having walked a small way along the coast, spent a bit of time scanning a small pond system in the basin of an old military gun battery, and let Alison get her brief paddle in the ocean, we hopped back in the car and headed a bit further down the coast. Most private nature reserves are still closed, but we discovered that Wildlife Trust areas have all opened up (just with no amenities or facilities, which makes sense), so we popped into Oare Marshes for a late afternoon spot of twitching. It's a fantastic little reserve[2] with a surprising range of habits. Being situated between the "Swale" – a thin area of sea that cuts the Isle of Sheppey off from the mainland – and a small river gives the area a double-estuary vibe, whilst the surrounding farmland is cross-crossed with drainage channels and the central ponds are absolutely surrounded by huge reed beds. There are two hides – one excellently situated looking over the main pond and the other staring out to sea at the meeting point of the Swale and river mouth – and a circular walk, with great views on all directions.

It was also my first time twitching with the new Sigma lens and after my success at Home Park I was excited. I'll admit, the results from Oare were a little disappointing. The main pond was filled with life (see spot list below) but almost all of my shots from the hide came out soft and slightly blurred. As we walked around the trail, I did manage to get some nice images of black-header gulls, shelduck, and a brilliant encounter with a sedge warbler, but anything slightly distant from the path fell flat. I began worrying that either the 500-600mm range was distorted or that the lens was just impossible to use sat down, which would be pretty devastating for safari. Luckily, some late-night Googling when we got home revealed that softness in the 400mm+ range isn't uncommon on the Sigma C series lenses when you're shooting wide-open (i.e. f/6.3). I guess I'll test it out tomorrow stopped down a bit and see if that helps. Certainly, my experience of 300mm or less being tack-sharp holds true and if that is the issue my lens would actually fall at the top-end of the performance scale for its kind, with sharpness right up to 450mm wide-open, so fingers crossed 🤞

Feeling a little peckish, we decided to strike out for nearby Whitstable and try our luck at fish and chips. I think we'd maybe forgotten our earlier prediction about the busy seaside, but Whistable was rammed. Every chippie had queues out the door and halfway down the street (no masks, marginal social distancing 🤦‍♂️), whilst the first beach car park we drove into was filled with well over a hundred partying teenagers (🤦‍♂️🤦‍♂️) so we gave up and started heading back out of town. Luckily, the coast road towards the southern edge of Whistable had a parking spot and plenty of open benches, so whilst it was still notably busy we had a good 20m circle all to ourselves, with perfect views looking out over the beach huts to the distant horizon. Alison had made some excellent gherkin and potato salad, paired with a pork pie each and some crisps. Delicious and an excellent way to close out a relaxing day. 🏖

Spot List

Unless stated, wildlife was seen at Oare Marshes Nature Reserve.

  • Marsh Harrier (Isle of Grain, from car)
  • Avocet
  • Redshank
  • Bar-tailed Godwit (possibly)
  • Black-tailed Godwit
  • Lapwing
  • Cormorant
  • Shoveller
  • Shelduck
  • Teal
  • Heron
  • Little Egret
  • Black-headed Gull
  • Reed Warbler
  • Sedge Warbler
  • Rabbit

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