Tuesday, 31 December 2019

Midsummer Dreams

So here we are, New Year's Eve, a dull, misty and very damp day, one to easily forget. The excesses and once a year fakery of being religious for a few days are now almost behind us and already we are ten days past the Shortest Day. Tonight we step over the threshold into not only a new year but a new decade. It'll still be several weeks before the days lengthen enough for us countryside and wildlife lovers to begin to get excited about a new Spring but I console myself with dreams of one of my favourite times of the year - Midsummer.

At that time of the year it's quite usual for me to rise, after a sleepless and hot night, at around 4.30 and set off with my dog to the nature reserve on the marsh. There, in the brief freshness at the start of another long hot day, is a wondrous place. The first thing to greet me as I step onto the marsh is a great avian chorus - the geese the backing group, the Skylarks the lead singers and the Curlews the bubbling orchestra in the background.
As I begin to walk round, there will be faint wisps of mist rising from the surface of the ditches and fleets and I will be surrounded by the business of parent birds as they rush to feed offspring before the heat of the day starts to take effect. Coots will be "tucking" at their chicks, shushing them into the cover of the reed stems to hide from me. In the reed beds themselves, dozens of Reed Warblers will be constantly uttering their song, which is little more than the same couple of notes monotonously repeated over and over. Then there are the Marsh Frogs, noisy as hell as their loud croaking spreads like a bushfire throughout the whole marsh, to suddenly stop in an instant as some threat or other appears in their vision.
On the clumps of Ragwort large clusters of the stripey yellow and black Cinnabar Moth caterpillars feed hungrily on the leaves while assorted butterflies feed from the yellow flowers. Moving across the longer grass of the grazing meadows, where the skylarks continue to serenade me from far above, there are the butterflies. Meadow Browns, Small Heaths, Small Skippers, lazy in flight and giving a peacefulness to the avian frenzy all around. It's a lot to take in and enjoy but soon, as the heat begins to build again, it's time to head back home again and the rigours of the day.
In the evening, as the first zephyrs of cooling air begin to peck away at the lingering heat, it's time to sit in the garden and mull over the events of the long, hot summer's day. Small parties of Swifts will circle,high overhead, screaming down at me as they feed on rising insects. Then, as dusk begins to lessen the light, bats begin to appear. They circle my garden like large dark moths, happily feeding on the mosquitoes above my garden pond. Soon it is gone 10.00 and only in the western sky is there the last lingering brightness in the sky as the the day tries hard not to die, but it's time to draw a curtain on it all and go to bed, a midsummer's day to dream about.

Monday, 23 December 2019

Sunshine came softly

"Sunshine came softly,
through my window today" ........Donovan

At last, I actually got up early this morning to dry roads and clear skies, in other words, no rain! Eventually those clear skies became blue skies, filled with sunshine and no clouds - after several days of trudging round the reserve in mud and deep water, in rain and wind, the sunshine made it seem so much more bearable.
Despite all the rain that has fell, the reserve still isn't as flooded as I've seen it in past years, more a case of ditches and fleets full up and overflowing and waterlogged grazing fields. Two weeks ago the ditch below was three feet lower than it is now.

The one below was a simple ditch last week, now turned into a fleet.

Two examples below of how the reed bed fleets have filled up and spread out, just need the ducks now.

After spending two hours on the reserve wading through or swimming the wet conditions, Ellie laughs in the face of dogs that wear coats, she's fit and tough.
The White-fronted Geese numbers continue to creep up on a daily basis, yesterday there were 74 and this morning 81, which seems odd. Normally we would expect them to arrive as cold weather pushes them across from Holland, etc. but our winds are currently from the south or south west.
With sunshine forecast for tomorrow and Christmas Day it will be great wandering round the reserve for the next few days, brightening up the one week of the year that I hate the most. If I hear one more person say that people should never be on their own at Christmas, I will scream. Some of us do actually enjoy missing all that Christmas crap, roll on the New Year!

Tuesday, 17 December 2019

A Wet Winter

Well, after several dry winters the tide has finally turned, or at least the weather has. It's been a fairly wet couple of months up till now and finally, over the last week or so, it has been noticeable that many of the ditches on the reserve are close to normal winter levels. We still haven't got large wet splashes of water across the grazing marsh, the type that attract the wading birds and wildfowl in large numbers, but I have a feeling that that is about to change.
As I write this we're just coming to the end of 14 hours of continuous unbroken rain, water is pouring down the roads and out of every drive and garden around here, it is bloody wet!
When it does eventually stop I'll go down to the reserve and see what a difference this last lengthy session has made but it'll be over the next week that changes will really start to show. The reserve is lower than the arable farmland alongside it and therefore all that rainfall on the farmland will gradually drain into our boundary ditches. They in turn will then over-top and spread out into the grazing marsh and quickly produce the conditions we have been missing for the last 4-5 years.
That all sounds perfect, my moans about dry winters will be at end, but it then creates a new moan, daily walking round in part flooded and very muddy conditions is bloody hard and tiring work, especially when you have arthritic joints as I do, but you won't see me stop.

Apart from that, wildfowl and wader numbers on the grazing marsh part of the reserve have continued to be low so far, except for the geese. They have remained fairly constant over the last few weeks. Yesterday, when our team carried out this month's Wetland Bird Survey (WEBS) on the reserve, part of my count produced 220 Greylag Geese, 41 White-fronted Geese and 1 Tundra Bean Goose on the reserve and 600 Brent Geese feeding on the winter corn alongside the reserve. There were also 5 Pink-footed Geese for a few weeks but they appear have transferred to nearby Harty marshes for the moment. Apart from the Greylag Geese, the other geese species are truly wild geese that winter in the UK from the far north of Europe. The Greylags are semi-feral, here all year round,  breed throughout much of the South in large numbers and despite regular attention from the local wildfowlers and duck shooters, never seem to diminish in numbers.

Lastly, joy of joys, this Sunday sees the Shortest Day - nothing will change much in day lengths for another month, but it'll kind of feel like it is and that's good enough. So, hopefully my next blog posting will contain photos of a part flooded reserve and perhaps news of an increase in bird numbers.

Sunday, 24 November 2019

Oh, no.

It's that time of year again, where each day, I find myself happily wishing my life away. Counting the days until it's the "Shortest Day" and then one week later, New Year. Oh, joy of joys, the start of a new year, daylight increasing by the minute and soon the hour.
Gawd, how awful this time of the year is. The darkness, dampness, depressing, cold and solitary confinement of being indoors so much. The walking round the marsh through the mud and the water, weighed down in heavy clothes that protect against the cold but must add extra mileage to your endurance levels.
So much better are the warm and sunny days of lightweight clothing, the carefree days of birds, butterflies, bees, and all things that don't really matter, because you have a whole, long, summer's day to do it in.
Yes, I'm counting the days, cocooned in my world of darkness and depression, the long nights and the short days - saved only by the promise that another Spring will eventually arise.

Saturday, 16 November 2019

A Lament

Famously, Dylan Thomas once wrote of his dying father
"Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light."

These days, as old age begins to wrap itself around me, I find it harder each day to rage against the claws of cold that come with every winter's month. Every time I pass a mirror the face looking out at me is an old man's version of my younger self. It's not pleasant and winters make the face look older.
Anyway, the nature reserve is suffering winter now as well, it's wet and it's muddy. Tracks that in the summer blew dust across the butterfly wings, now have no fun to sing of. Only Skylarks still sing from leaden skies, small cheer and I thank them for that.

Once, several years ago, as I wandered alongside a huge phragmites reed bed on a cold and windy winter's day, I startled up a Marsh Harrier from it's depth. I stood there for a moment and wondered what it would be like to shelter in that reed bed and resolved to find out for myself. With a glance in either direction to make sure that nobody would be witness to my strange way, I fought my way in. Arriving in the center of this great jungle of reeds I was tightly surrounded in every way and even the brown seed plumes were a couple of feet above my head. It was a totally different world and as I crouched down in there, there was no wind and no cold, I felt totally secure from what the weather and any other living thing could do to me.

This autumn/early winter is turning out to be wetter than the several that have gone before it and yet surprisingly, we still lament at the failure of the ditches and dykes to increase in depth. The grazing meadows are soft and the return of cattle this week are seeing tracks churned into clawing mud but still water levels remain low. The neighbouring arable fields are still soaking up the rain and failing to release it into the reserve's water systems and consequently those birds that like the water still remain scarce.

Thursday, 14 November 2019

Thinking Back

This afternoon, a typical cloudy and cold November afternoon, I sat in the conservatory and aided by an Alison Krauss CD and a couple of glasses of a particularly good Pinot Noir, I sat staring across the Thames estuary to the Essex shore. As you do at such times, I found myself reflecting on the past summer and a particularly good weekend in July.
Sunday 14th July was a very warm and sunny day and I was at my partner's in Surrey. We had planned to go out but the afternoon coincided with the Cricket World Cup Final and the Wimbledon Men's Final. I spent the afternoon enthralled by the cricket, listening to it through headphones attached to my Laptop, while we both watched the tennis at the same time on the TV. Both finals ended in the way we wanted them too and after some dinner it still remained a very warm and humid evening, so how not to waste it.
At 9pm with the light barely beginning to fade, we set off for some woods nearby where Nightjar annually breed. I had never seen Nightjars,coming from a marshland habitat and so the prospect was quite exciting. We made our way through a large wood and came out above a large, shallow valley full of trees, scrub and bracken where the Nightjars were regularly seen, close to and after dark, they being a nocturnal bird. We sat on a bench, surrounded by trees and looked down over the habitat below us as dusk began to quickly settle in. As it became gloomier and more humid, the only thing we saw for some time were bats, no doubt feeding on the millions of mosquitoes that were swarming round us. Then, just as it was getting almost to gloomy to see anything, a loud churring begun below us, the sound of a male Nightjar calling, quickly echoed by another some way away - so exciting! Then a dark shape against the fast receding sky flew past us, my first ever Nightjar - wow! After that, it was too dark to see anymore, but we listened to them for a while before it was time to make our way back through a very dark wood.
But there, the excitement didn't end, small glows of luminous light began to show in the undergrowth, my first Glow worms for fifty odd years, it was almost magical.
We emerged from the wood as the first stars were beginning to light the sky and made our way home, where we ended a humid evening by sitting in a dark garden, drinking white wind and feeding even more mosquitoes for a while - easily the best day of this year.

Friday, 11 October 2019

Autumn finally arrives

Well as a blogging friend of mine from Yorkshire keeps reminding me, my posts are getting very irregular. Put it down to lack of enthusiasm. But here's we is, back again, and so let's start with the reserve.
Summer has finally left, it hung on for as long as it could but Autumn has won the day and with it's coming we have had some regular rain. Not the "fill-dyke" rain that we still need, as the photo shows

..... but it has had the effect of freshening the marsh up, the dry staleness of late summer has gone and the ground is getting softer and the grass is growing again, there is a green-ness about the marsh. A few mushrooms are also beginning to appear.

It has certainly been a welcome relief for the cattle on the reserve - real, green grass again after the dry, dead stuff that they had been existing on over the dry summer. This week they have been temporary corralled up in order that the adult cows can be scanned as part of their pregnancy testing.

Following that, in a few weeks time, this year's calves will be taken away from the herd and weaned off, giving their parents a few months rest before they begin calving again in the early Spring. As you can see from the photo, the calves are now quite well grown.

On the surrounding arable farmland the rain has had an almost instant effect on fields that have stood tilled and dry for several weeks. Wheat seed that has sat in the dry soil un-germinated has quickly done just that and those brown fields have a film of green across them now as millions of green shoots now begin to emerge from the soil.
Bird life on the reserve still remains in low numbers, hampered by the lack of large areas of open water but the odd surprises still appear at times. Recently we have had a couple of Great White Egrets stay for a few days and this week I also had a Bittern drop into the large reed beds alongside the sea wall. One or two pairs of Stonechats have also started appearing along the fence lines, they are regular winter visitors and before long the Fieldfares and Redwings will join them.
So, for a few weeks ahead now, possibly months if recent Autumns are anything to go by, we can enjoy the mellowness of Autumn before the winter starts. And as the Autumn intensifies, what else can we expect to experience, well the mists for one. Thick marshland, Dickensian mists that dare you to step onto the marsh and disappear into them. That swallow you up and surround you in ghostliness as you attempt to find familiar markers that take you in the right direction.
Later, there are the winter winds, bitter cold easterlies that arrive under leaden skies from the nearby sea. There's very little shelter on the marsh from such winds, they go through you rather than round you, freezing your aching bones and making the heat and humidity of summer seem like something that you dreamed, not actually experienced.
But for now, it's still early Autumn and last week, still a glutton for wild and desolate places, my partner and I enjoyed a week in a farm cottage on Bodmin Moor, in Cornwall. I love Cornwall and have rented cottages there on many occasions. I love it's wildness and living as I do, on an island in the Thames Estuary surrounded by the sea, Cornwall makes me feel at home, the sea is never far away there. The cottage that we stayed in was directly opposite the Jamaica Inn and easily the best cottage that I have ever stayed in down there, just the cottage and alongside, the owner's farmhouse. Driving across Bodmin Moor in driving rain and wind is not for the faint-hearted but it made me feel at home and besides, a log fire and a few real ales in the Jamaica Inn soon make things feel better, if a little wobbly on your feet.