Thursday 18 January 2024

The Northern Waterthrush Revisited 17th January 2024

An unexpected business meeting in Chelmsford, Essex gave me an opportunity to reprise my visit of last week to the wintering Northern Waterthrush at nearby Heybridge.

This was welcome as I considered that the views and photos achieved on my first visit left room for improvement. I formed a plan. On Wednesday I would leave my home in Oxfordshire early and drive to Heybridge and hope to view the waterthrush. Then stay overnight with my sister nearby and go to my business meeting on Thursday before returning to my sister.s home on Thursday night and if my encounter with the waterthrush on Wednesday had proved unsatisfactory then give it another go on Friday.

Checking the daily reports of the waterthrush sightings since my first visit it looked like the bird only reliably appeared in its favourite creek at dawn each day, remained for around thirty minutes and then departed. Subsequent visits during the day looked to be a bit of a lottery with one or two brief random appearances of the bird if you were lucky, before a final one at dusk when presumably it went to roost nearby.

With this in mind I decided to give myself a break and forgo the dawn view which would be of the bird as a silhouette only and schedule my arrival for 9.00am. Mind you this still required my leaving home at 6.30am in order to make the two and a half hour journey to Heybridge.

Another bitterly cold -6 celsius outside temperature greeted me as I got into my car and headed off into the darkness of the country lanes around our village. The interior of the car was on a par with a refridgerator and it took several minutes for the car to warm up so my fingers on the steering wheel no longer tingled with the cold but soon all was well.

Driving along I reflected on the contrast of my human existence with that of the waterthrush. Warm and snug in the car I thought of the waterthrush roosting in some bramble clump or bush, legs and feet locked onto a tiny twig, head tucked into fluffed feathers providing its only protection against the vicious cold. 

A small bird's heart rate is much higher than ours, on average 500 beats per minute as opposed to 100 and this keeps them warm to a degree but at the price of burning energy at a prodigious rate especially in very cold weather. First thing each morning the waterthrush will have to commence feeding and continue all day if it is to survive. Normally it would be in a far warmer climate in South America with plenty of food and not having to cope with cold temperatures but  remarkably this bird has survived at least a week of sub zero temperatures with no apparent ill effects. The creek for now remains unfrozen apart from at the edges where ice platforms have formed and despite this less than ideal environment there is apparently enough to sustain it.

The Creek

It was a grey, dull morning when I arrived at Heybridge with for once no wind to chill my bones. I parked in an adjacent industrial estate and walked for ten minutes to the bank overlooking the head of the small creek. I was pleasantly surprised to see only half a dozen birders standing there. Such a change from the multitudes on my last visit.

I chatted briefly with one or two of those present who told me they had seen the waterthrush at just after 7.30am but were waiting for a better view in daylight. For twenty minutes I stood slightly apart from my fellow birders, fending off the inevitable anxiety by fiddling with my camera settings. 

A stirring amongst my companions and raising of binoculars signified the arrival of the waterthrush which typically hugged the edge of the creek,which in reality is no more than a large waterfilled ditch.It worked its way towards us and flitted up and down across the water and mats of dead reeds.It was present for no more than five minutes  before, with a loud tchick call, it flew off pursued by a Robin into some adjacent bushes and that was that. Gone.

Not very satisfactory. In fact very disappointing. I had hoped for better. Mark arrived just after it had flown off so we settled to wait in the hope it would return. For an hour little troubled us. Gulls squabbled on the warehouse roof tops of the adjacent industrial estate, Dunnocks sang quietly in the brambles and indulged in their menage a trois courtship rituals, a Wren periodically scuttled like a mouse through the rank grass and a Little Egret flew in and then promptly out, obviously thinking better of it.

Riveting stuff but then an explosive call heralded the return of the much desired star turn as it landed on the concrete wall of the culvert at the bottom of the bank before dropping down to the water's edge.

This time the waterthrush was more settled and threaded its way through and over the dead reeds, sometimes ankle deep in the water or flying out over the water to perch on some protuberance to pick at something minute and unidentifiable. 

It wandered along, tail slowly wagging, crossing small plateaux of ice that had formed at the edge of the creek, perching on dead stems to look down into the shallow water. I made the most of this heaven sent opportunity as it performed its by now familiar feeding ritual of searching each side of the creek near to the concrete culvert. Then, as before it flew off calling loudly, this time crossing the path at the top of the bank and disappearing into the hinterland of scrub and reeds behind.

Should we wait? Would it return yet again? These were the questions we asked ourselves.Up to now the elusive bird had only ever returned twice in a day. Sometimes not at all. It was tempting to leave as both of us were now feeling the cold which insiduously had permeated through our protective layers of clothing to reach our skin.

It was just before 11am.

Let's give it to noon Mark then we go.

So we stood and remarkably the waterthrush returned twice more, announcing its arrival each time with its characteristic tchick tchick call. As before the visits lasted for little more than ten minutes but the close views it granted were exceptional.


At noon, having enjoyed an exceptional five visits to the creek by the waterthrush in the space of three hours, we departed, as agreed, for a coffee and somethimg to eat at the Crispy Bacon Cafe handily situated just around the corner. 

It was done. 

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