First published in: The Times Click here to view a map for this walk in a new window
‘Oh! There’s a pair of Mediterranean gulls!’ exclaimed RSPB warden Nick Godden, pointing skyward. The gulls drifted across the binocular lenses, big black heads with scarlet bills, bodies and wings of a white so intense as to be almost translucent. ‘They were mating last weekend, and we think they’re going to nest at Marshside. It’ll be the first time ever!’
The RSPB’s coastal reserve at Marshside sits just north of Southport on the southern tip of the Ribble estuary. It’s ideally placed to catch the attention of birds with its sheltered and food-laden mixture of freshwater marshes, mud-banks, pools, islets and a huge apron of saltmarsh across which the sea slides and withdraws with every tide. Spring is the perfect time for walking with binoculars here as tens of thousands of geese, ducks, waders and songbirds with mating on their minds move through, using Marshside as a pit-stop on their incredible journeys north to nesting grounds thousands of miles away in Scandinavia, Russia, Iceland and Greenland.
Some don’t move on, but stay and breed right here. At the big picture windows in the Visitor Centre hide we stood and watched a black-and-white avocet sitting tight on her four-egg clutch on an islet of pebbles, while her mate stepped delicately through the shallows on long, spindly blue legs as he looked for food. Beyond the islet a cormorant struggled to swallow a wildly writhing eel, shaking its head to try and quell the mad squirming of its victim. Eventually it forced the eel down its gullet and swam off, sipping water to help the turbulent dinner down.
Nick Godden accompanied us out along Redshank Road, an old sand-dredger’s track that curls out through the saltmarsh to the water’s edge. As the tide swirled in along the marsh channels, through white drifts of flowering scurvy grass, we watched ringed plover huddling together on the stones, dunlin flickering low over the water like a thousand fragments of silver foil, and the solitary stance of redshank, ‘the Warden of the Marshes’ as Nick calls them, with their piping alarm calls warning the other birds as soon as danger threatens – be it fox, peregrine or man.
Back on the coast road we walked a leisurely circuit of the Reserve’s perimeter among joggers, dog walkers and birders. On the grasslands, lapwings tended tiny chicks, and a brown hare sat motionless with flattened ears rippling in the wind. South lay Southport, and distant across the sands rose Blackpool’s Tower and giant rollercoaster. But the inhabitants of the world we were walking through knew nothing of them, and cared even less.
Start: Marshside RSPB car park, Marine Drive, Southport, Merseyside PR9 9PB (OS ref SD 352205)
Getting there: Bus 44 (Southport-Crossens) to Elswick Road junction.
Road: From Southport Pier follow Marine Drive north; car park is on left in 2 miles.
Walk (6 miles, easy, OS Explorer 285. Reserve map from Visitor Centre. Online map, more walks at christophersomerville.co.uk): Cross Marine Drive; left on path to Visitor Centre in Sandgrounders Hide (354207). Return to Marine Drive, and walk clockwise round the two halves of the Reserve, Sutton’s Marsh and Rimmers Marsh; then from car park out along Redshank Road to tideline and back.
Conditions: Can be very windy. Bring binoculars. Walking Redshank Road, keep an eye on the tide! Tide times posted at Visitor Centre.
Accommodation: Ramada Plaza Hotel, The Promenade, Southport PR9 0DZ (01704-516220; ramadaplazasouthporth.co.uk) – large, comfortable hotel on Southport’s Marine Lake. World-beating fish’n’chips!
RSPB Marshside: 01704-226190; rspb.org.uk/marshside
Information: Southport TIC (01704-533333).