We are standing stock still, binoculars to our eyes, watching a nightingale. It is perched in a tree just a few metres away. It's perfectly visible to the naked eye, but through the lenses I can see its eyes move and watch its throat vibrate as it sings.
My son has seen enough and runs off to catch up with the others - a small gaggle of friends; adults, children and four-month old twins in a double buggy. I drag myself away from the nightingale and join them looking up at a bird of prey, a hobby, circling over the marshes.
We are at Stodmarsh, Kent a National Nature Reserve famous for its birds. I am not, I must immediately admit, a birdwatcher. I have never seen the point of staring at dark dots in the sky or straining to tell whether one small feathery creature differs from another by the presence of some minuscule streak on its wing. I am, however, married to a birdwatcher, so occasional family birding trips are inevitable - and they are (though I rarely confess it) usually enjoyable. The trick is to choose the right place, and Stodmarsh is one of my favourites.
We park in the car park (which has two loos) on the edge of Stodmarsh village. The main paths through the reserve are buggy-friendly and easy to find. The nightingales hang out in the trees not far along the path, and beyond them on the right is a little-used boardwalk (only for those on their own two feet). Reeds flank the path and a little bridge marks one of my younger son's favourite places. The sun always seems to be shining here and there is never anyone else around. In utter peace, we listen to bird calls and watch butterflies flutter among the tops of the reeds, and water bugs twirl at their base.
The main path continues past open water on the left - with a variety of ducks and geese (not just the city park kinds) and low flying terns. On the right are reed beds - the largest in the South-east - where on one trip we saw a crane, and heard a water-rail squealing like a pig. This is one of the best places in Britain to see bearded tits; the male has a blue-grey head with black markings more like a long moustache than a beard. The path winds to the right, joining the river Stour and running past a pub.
The Grove Ferry Inn - originally an 1830s coaching inn - sits right on the river bank. We find tables in the large garden, watch boats and swans go by, and listen to the nightingales singing from the opposite bank. There is an extensive wooden playground for children (visible from the tables) and a range of decent pub food, so everyone is happy.
Suitably fortified, we head out, passing some trees where my younger son likes to spot cuckoos (in spring and summer), to the viewing mound at Feast's Lake. This is the main spot on the reserve for sighting rarities. The water is crowded with waders. Black tailed godwits are good "starter birds" - large and easy to distinguish, often standing on one leg and feeding from the water with their immensely long, thin bills. There are also lapwings (another distinctive bird, with its little backwards quiff), red shanks (yes, with red legs), and green shanks (you got it), ringed plovers (there is sometimes logic to bird names - the ring is round the neck), great crested grebes and golden plovers. You might even see a temminck's stint or a buff-breasted sandpiper - not especially different to look at, but they'll get the twitchers excited.
A little further on, a small green hide, the Turf Fields Hide, offers unusually close views of kingfishers. They regularly settle on a neighbouring post and may sit for 10 or 20 minutes. And the Harrison Drove hide has a new "wader scrape" - an area that encourages birds to come right up close. In its first few days, the scrape has attracted snipe, green sandpiper and a sparrow hawk having a bath.
My younger son and one of the other kids have settled into beetle spotting, wandering and chatting happily, comfortable in the knowledge that an adult will tell them if a particularly interesting bird flies in. My older son, though, is up there with the professionals. Eyes peeled, binoculars at the ready - watching for himself.
I've been quite drawn in too. My binoculars (small and inexpensive but functional) have been well used - and I've been given a few close-ups through the telescopes of "proper" birdwatchers. The simple truth is that this is a beautiful place with easy access, an abundance of wildlife and a good, child-friendly pub. What more can you ask for?
GIVE ME THE FACTS
How to get there
Stodmarsh is off the A28 near Canterbury, Kent. Free access.
Stodmarsh leaflets available from English Nature Kent (01233 812525, www.english-nature.org.uk). There are occasional guided walks. Call the warden, David Feast, on 07767 321058. RSPB reserves also offer introductions to birdwatching, and family events (01767 680551 www.rspb.org.uk/reserves). Several sites have backpacks for kids, with binoculars, identification sheets, bug boxes, activity book and pens. Try these: (entry free for RSPB members)
Minsmere, Suffolk, is beautiful and varied. Excellent visitor centre, shop and café, nature trail, hides and shingle beach. Open 9am to 9pm/dusk, visitor centre 9am-4pm/ 5pm, tearoom 10am-4/4.30pm. Adults £5, children £1.50, concessions £3, family £10.
Titchwell, North Norfolk, is the most visited reserve in Britain. A 1km main trail, with lots of side paths and hides, leads to a vast sandy beach. Visitor centre, shop and outdoor café. Reserve always open. Visitor centre 9.30am - 4/5pm. £4 per car.
Pulborough Brooks, Sussex, has a two-mile circular trail overlooking bird-filled wetland. Open 9am-9pm/dusk, visitor centre 10am-5pm, tea room 10am-4/4.45pm, Adults £3.50, children £1, concessions £2.50, family £7.
Old Moor, near Doncaster is spectacular in winter when some 8,000 golden plovers gather here. Also known for tree sparrows. Open 10am-4/5.30pm. Adults £2.50, children £1.25, family £5.Reuse content