Saturday, 19 September 2020

One for The Weaver

 Walking the reserve each morning at the moment is the same as the morning before. It's dry, it's yellow, it's like walking round some foreign savanna.

The weather is stuck in a rut that has lasted months - seems like a lifetime. I wake up, I get up I look out the window, the eastern sky is just dawning. Yes, it's gonna be another day like yesterday and the day before - dry, sunny, warm or hot, we've had almost five months of such days. Life is parched - the gardens, the horse paddocks, the grazing meadows, the soil in the arable fields. Everybody is waiting, waiting for the rain, for it to rain properly and not just shower and be gone. Proper soaking in rain, rain that keeps you indoors rain, rain that will need to last for several days and still not be enough.

On the reserve the visits have become boring, so few birds in the arid conditions - a wet land reserve needs wet areas to entice the wildlife and be interesting! The poor old cattle spend every day looking for real and fulfilling grazing and good fresh water but they find little of either. They have taken to eating the sedge along the ditch edges and the tall phragmites reeds from the sea wall fleet, neither is terribly palatable or nourishing but they are at least green. The wildfowlers still turn up, sit out on the saltings and go home a while later empty handed, no wildfowl to see or shoot at. 

Ducks, geese and waders look for wet areas in which to feed, wash and drink - none are available. Starlings and plovers look for soft ground to probe for fat insects that sustain them - none is available.

Just a Barn Owl quartering the meadows in the early morning half-light, fortunately little changes for them, except heavy snow and every morning the swallows flitting south across the meadows in fond farewells, decrease.

The arable fields on the neighbouring farmland have been harvested, the soil lightly turned over and broken down ready for seed sowing but sit dry and dusty. Some rape was sown a month ago, as it normally is for next year, we had a heavy shower of rain, it germinated but hot dry weather saw it shrivel up, an expensive loss that will have to repeated when the rain eventually comes.    

In my garden, the half of the front lawn that I turned into a wild flower meadow this year, was only a 50% success. I begun it last October by mowing the grass down as low as I could and then raking and scarifying the surface soil into a rough tilth. Unfortunately the wild seed mix that I spread over it also contained meadow grass seed and so the combination of the lawn grass re-growing and the wild grss, tended to swamp the wild flowers. This week I have worked hard at preparing the meadow's surface and reducing the grass ready for a new sowing of wild meadow flowers. As soon as it rains the seed will be sown and my wild meadow will begin it's life ahead of next year.

And for The Weaver, well I'll always be in your footprints, you'll always be leading the way.

Wednesday, 26 August 2020

Early Autumn

Since I wrote my last "It's a Scorcher" posting, the weather has taken a dramatic turn and seemed to have rushed head-long into autumn, despite it still being August. Over the last seven days we have had two Atlantic storms come rushing in, both the subject of now giving them silly names, in this case Storm Ellen and  now, Storm Francis. In the old days we were simply told to expect some stormy weather, which in autumn was normally par for the course, but now they have to be hyped up with name calling, presumably to make them sound more dramatic.
At the onset of Storm Francis yesterday morning, we had 4-5 hours of decent and much needed rain for the parched countryside round here. However, as seems to happen every time at the moment, immediately the rain stopped the afternoon became one of warm sunshine and severe gales - the result being much evaporation of that rain again.
Anyway, enough of that, what else has been occurring, well not a lot to be honest, thanks to the parched conditions, bird-life on the marshes and the reserve here, has been somewhat at a premium. Until that is, last Friday. I was walking across the reserve early in the morning, a tad bored because parched grass and almost dry ditches create very little interest to look at, when a different coloured heron, fast disappearing into a ditch, caught my eye. I slowly walked along the ditch until up sprung the heron in front of me. Yes, certainly a heron species and certainly different. It had a long and heavy, bright yellow bill and was basically a combination of light and brown colours with an almost gingery effect. It was also slightly slimmer and smaller than the normal Grey Heron. Although I'd never seen one before I had a fairly good idea what it was and went home to consult my bird books.
The next morning I walked along the same ditch and up it popped again to confirm what I suspected, it was a juvenile Purple Heron, an uncommon to almost rare bird in this country. Since then it has remained on the reserve.
In anticipation of the rain that was due yesterday and did briefly appear, the farmer next door to the reserve was out a couple of days ago, sowing the wheat stubble with rape seed for next years crop.  Driving across the marsh this morning it was clear that germination of the seed would take a while yet, the fields were dust dry and unless you live round here, it's hard to explain to people just how much rain we need to bring things back to normal.
The next main event in the reserve calendar occurs early morning next Tuesday 1st September, when the new wildfowling season begins. Before dawn on Tuesday wildfowlers will be in position the other side of the reserve sea wall, eagerly hoping for the chance to shoot any goose or duck that might fly over the sea wall towards them. I will be there at first light to watch events and to have a chat with them afterwards.

Monday, 10 August 2020

It's a Scorcher

It's scorching hot, (the now daily 30 degrees plus), it's been bloody hot for weeks and shows little chance of not being bloody hot for the foreseeable future. It's not only hot, it's very humid with it and every bit of effort makes you break into a sweat and lastly, rain, proper soaking rain, just seems like something that other countries get.
As I look out of my bungalow window this afternoon, I'm looking at a distant heat haze that looks like a mist hanging over a grazing marsh that contains horses. Those poor animals are grazing their way across fields that are bright yellow, almost white, with no grass at all, just dry grass stalks.
In my garden, the regular dropping of apples from water starved apple bushes, is giving the Blackbirds something to feed from, there's very little else on offer. Their dreams of fat worms must be pretty much like ours of rain and plenty of it. And what of hedgehogs - no fat slugs, snails or worms in this dusty heat, things must be so hard for them.
The Swale National Nature reserve, on which I carry out my Volunteer Wardening, is just the same. It's official description is that of "an example of North Kent grazing marshes" - one that brings to mind  murky, boggy places, full of mists and wildfowl and Darwinian characters. At the moment it resembles a photo from some sun-baked African plain, with near dry and stinking ditches and cattle so desperate for sustenance that they are now plundering the tall reed beds of phragmites and with very little water that is drinkable.
On the surrounding farmland, everything but the maize has been harvested and it's straw baled and carted away. All the fields have then been tickled over for a few inches depth by tractors towing discs and everything sits dry and dusty waiting for rain that has to come one day.
Bird-life on the reserve continues to be disappointing, some morning we get shorts bursts of Swallows and Sand Martins hastily making their way south and a few ducks struggle on in ditches with very rancid water. Some passing waders such as Green Sandpipers stop off to probe the widening muddy fringes of the ditches but basically, it's only the Greylag Geese that are present in any numbers. During the day they feed in the neighbouring stubble fields and then fly into the reserve's sea wall fleet, the only one with any proper water, in order to drink and wash.
It's all a pretty depressing scene but it'll change, of course it will, but till then it's simply a matter of going out very early in the morning to beat the heat and waiting for the rain to come.

Thursday, 23 July 2020

Harvest Time

Well it's been around seven weeks since my last post and I have been minded to scrap the blog all together. I have said this before but have carried on but it does get hard with every month to think of things worthy of filling a blog with.
The weather certainly hasn't changed at all. Apart from the odd showery day, with the resultant brief rain drying within an hour or so, we remain in a continuous drought situation. It is getting a tad tedious walking round the reserve now in such continually dry conditions, the ground is rock hard, the grass dry and brittle and the muddy fringes to the ditches getting wider as the water in the middle decreases almost daily. With the breeding season pretty much over and the moult now replacing it, bird life has become pretty quiet and numbers are lower. Along what is left of one fleet we do have a daily early morning roost of c.24 Little Egret and 1 Great White Egret, all looking quite magnificent as they rise up into the air together. The muddy ditch fringes will also act as stopping off places to grab a quick snack by passing individual wading birds as they make their way south. Green Sandpipers, Common Sandpipers, Greenshank are slowly being seen.
And of course, the southerly rush of Swallows and Sand Martins is starting, at the moment mostly by juvenile birds, all of that way with no adults leading the way! I came across one gate on the reserve yesterday morning with dozens of those birds crowded on to it and also on the ground around it, all twittering away. I wondered if they might be discussing the route and it's best feeding stops, but how could they know, they've never done it before.
The only real noticeable birds at the moment are the Greylag Geese and there are around 140 on the reserve, made up of adult birds and near full grown goslings. Once they finish their moult they will soon cross over on to the farmland and spend a lot of their time picking up spilled grain in the stubble fields. Hard to believe that in just five weeks on the 1st September, the wildfowling season will begin again and those geese will become targets once again. On drought days like we are currently experiencing it's hard to imagine those wildfowlers sitting out there with their guns ready, bitter cold and dark mornings yes, but not hot, dry and sunny.
On the surrounding farmland the rape was cut, baled and stacked away some weeks ago and the activity now is all concentrated on harvesting the wheat and barley and taking the straw bales away for stacking elsewhere.

Sunday, 7 June 2020

Five weeks later

It has been around five weeks since my last post and little of any great importance has happened in my orderly kind of life.
I was rejoicing in my last post at the fact that at last we had had some rain to ease the dry conditions that we were experiencing and that has just happened again. After that last post we had several fairly hot and very sunny weeks, which while enjoyable for me as a warm to hot weather lover, saw pretty much drought conditions set in across much of the country. This week, literally overnight, we went from July like weather, to that of March/April. It has been cold, with grey skies and strong cold winds and occasional rain, though rarely enough to soften up the hard, dry ground.
I have to say, that getting up every morning to cloudless blue skies and the knowledge that shorts and light shirts were all that were going to be needed throughout the day, was quite enjoyable, as were the warm and sunny evenings sitting in the garden. Not so this week, some people have even put their central heating back on - in June, what's going on with this weather!
Still the dry and sunny weather did encourage my sempervivum collections. I have three of these collections and the ones in this sink-like container have just started to flower.

One thing that I have been doing during the last five weeks, is reading a lot. Not because the lockdown due to the Corvid-19 virus has restricted what I get up to, in fact I have not been restricted in any way. No, because I get up very early each day (5am) and start the day with a patrol round the nature reserve and then other jobs in the garden, etc., I find that most afternoons I have little to do and so do quite a bit of reading.
I have found a series of books by a quite brilliant biographer, Mary S. Lovell. Her books are terrifically well researched, contain many pages and yet are easy to read. I came across her latest one first - "The Riviera Set: 1920-1960: The Golden Years of Glamour and Excess" and then went backwards to "The Churchills" and I'm currently reading "The Mitford Girls: The biography of an Extraordinary Family." They are very worth well reading.

On the reserve, we are just beginning to emerge from the main rush of the breeding season and so far it hasn't been that spectacular, the several weeks of dry weather has affected birds like the Lapwings. Their chicks depend on insect life to feed on, the type that you get around the muddy fringes of bodies of water and such areas dried up with considerable speed as the near drought progressed. I have however, seen a number of broods of geese and various duck youngsters and the Sedge and Reed Warblers are busy in the reed beds, so all is not lost. A few grassland butterflies are also starting to emerge - Small Heaths and Meadow Browns are a tad early and there are Peacock caterpillars feeding on the stinging nettles. 

So far it has been a funny old year - a very wet winter, followed immediately by a bone dry Spring, what weather surprises has the summer in store as we approach the Longest Day in a couple of weeks. 


Wednesday, 29 April 2020

Rain at Last

After around 5-6 weeks of rain-less days, when almost every day seemed to be cloudless, sunny and very warm in the afternoons, leading to the comments in my last couple of posts about almost drought conditions, things changed dramatically yesterday.
After a very warm Monday afternoon when people were as usual, out walking in their summer clothes, shorts and T shirts even, we got up yesterday to dark skies, steady rain and a big drop in temperature. That remained the case for most of the day and at times even, a burst of the central heating was needed to take the chill off of the house. Lawns and flower beds that had been rock hard and cracking up begun to ooze water by the evening. Garden water butts re-filled and over-flowed and the poor Blackbirds, that had been struggling for a few weeks to get any worms out of the ground for their chicks, suddenly looked rejuvenated.
Early this Wednesday morning as I write this, we still have dark skies, light rain and cold temperatures, with heavier rain forecast during the day. Unfortunately this year's weather seems to be coming in binges - we had the endless and record wet winter, followed by this recent endless dry spell, hopefully it won't mean that this current wet weather isn't set in for a month or so now.

What it does mean is that the farmer close to the reserve, who last week was sowing peas into dust dry ground, causing me to comment on how does he expect them to germinate, will no doubt be feeling quite smug today. On the reserve itself, one piece of concern will be for any newly hatched Lapwing chicks. A cold and rainy day is not good for those small balls of fluff, if they remain wet and cold for long periods of time they will often die.
I'm just about to set off for the reserve and wellie boots and a coat were the last thing on my mind this time last week.

Wednesday, 15 April 2020

The Sweet Dreams of Youth

"Now as I was young and easy" as Dylan Thomas so eloquently began his poem "Fern Hill" - as I was young and easy in my late teens in the 1960's, I discovered Dylan Thomas.
In 1965, in my 18th year, I was introduced to Bob Dylan for the first time by a friend'd suggestion that I watch him on a television programme. In doing that a light bulb came on, the Stones and the Beatles were relegated to second and third places of interest. A life time of devotion to Bob Dylan, his poetry and his music had begun.
Later, after a few months of sating myself on all things Bob Dylan, my interest also began to lean towards the man that Bob Dylan allegedly took his surname from - Dylan Thomas. I bought Dylan Thomas's Collected Poems, read and loved "Under Milk Wood" and begun collecting various autobiographies about both Dylan and his wife Caitlin. It soon became clear to me here was a man that wrote poetry brilliantly and in a style that I many times, badly tried to copy. Not only that, being in my late teens, I was ripe for idolising somebody that was also a rogue, a reprobate and somebody that regularly pissed people off. When you're that age nice people are only seen as boring, people bucking the system are always the ones most interesting. I also read that Dylan Thomas had often said to people that he didn't want to live past 40 and went on to die aged 39 at the height of his fame. He achieved that by going out one night in New York and after claiming to have drunk eighteen whiskies, against doctors orders, collapsed in a coma before dying in a hospital bed a week or so later, well I thought - way to go, who wants to get old. A few years later that thought was once again resurrected when in 1970 Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin and Jimmy Hendrix all died young from drug overdoses.
So with that thought in the back of my mind, I moved further into adult life and marriage and work and buying houses and headed towards that magical cut off point, 40 years of age. Clearly, as I'm writing this aged 72, the romantic thought of dying at 40 like my heroes, was never full filled, life may have took some dark turns along the way but there was always a bright light shining up ahead.

Mind you, as I approach my 73rd birthday, that bright light seems to be flickering somewhat. We are in the depths of the Corvid-19 pandemic and people are dying by the thousands in this country and the normal feeling of safety and comfort from being in hospital is all of a sudden a scary prospect. It's really unsettling to wake up on a fine and sunny morning, with a good day in prospect, to suddenly have that dark cloud of remembering Corvid-19 descend upon you and will today be my turn to get it.
It's changing a lot of people's lives, possibly forever, and has brought about a lot of challenging restrictions to our daily life, which many of us interpret in different ways. For me, the only real restriction is not being able to visit my partner who lives 80 miles away in Surrey whenever I like. We remain separated by the government ruling that travel by car is only allowed for essential reasons and an 80 mile journey there and back would see me probably fined if caught doing it. It's even more frustrating watching some of my neighbours being visited by friends and relatives, visits that include going in their houses.

Other than that, the one topic in vogue at the moment among people that are gardeners or farmers, is how dry the ground has become. To be not that far away from one of the wettest winters on record and now in almost drought conditions, is hard to comprehend. In the gardens, flower borders are cracking up and lawns beginning to go yellow. On the marsh the water levels have dropped almost two feet in places and the field surfaces becoming rock hard, and I watched tractors drilling spring crops the other day, being followed by large dust clouds.
It's becoming a mad, mad world.