Monday, 20 February 2017

Winter is Slipping By

It was still three parts dark as I made my way along the Harty Road yesterday (Sunday) morning to the reserve. However, by the time that I had made my way across the reserve to the sea wall the sky had lightened considerably, although it was heavily grey rather than blue, but it was very mild. It was the second to last day of the wildfowling season and I had arrived early to see if many wildfowlers were taking the opportunity to bag a duck or two on this last weekend of the season. There was just the one, who throughout the hour and a half I was there never fired a shot, which pretty much summed up their season adjacent to the reserve.
Progressing much further along the sea wall to where I could see another birdwatcher, who I knew would be looking at Hen Harriers leaving their overnight roost, sun-rise began to happen. The mainly grey sky had broken into several slits and in one of those brief slits a great red sun briefly appeared, like a blood shot eye in a grey face, until it blinked and was gone again. I chatted with the other birdwatcher, who had as expected seen Hen Harriers leave their roost, three ringtails, and then departed back along the sea wall for home, I was due back that evening for the monthly harrier roost count.
The day had been almost warm, with good sunny spells, as I made my back along the Harty road again at 16.45. There were numerous bird watchers along the road side as I drove past, the legacy no doubt of last week's BBC television's Countryfile feature about what a superb place to view birds of prey, Harty was. Just a shame that so many choose, out of laziness I suppose, to use the small, vehicle passing places as car parks rather than the car park supplied at the Raptor Viewing Mound.
It was a pleasantly mild and windless late afternoon as I climbed the sea wall again and the light was just starting to fade. Several hundred yards away three wildfowlers were no doubt swapping tales of how the season had been for them and so I walked along and briefly joined them for a chat. It was clear that with just one day to go, that the shooting season in front of the reserve had been pretty dire and in no way matching the above average bags seen elsewhere around Kent. It was also clear, just standing there looking across the reserve as we spoke, of the reason why, we could of been looking at the reserve in mid-summer, no flooded areas and no deep ditches. The reserve's wildfowl counts this winter have been some of the lowest for years, if not ever, and it was quite apparent to us all that by the time the wildfowlers returned next September that the reserve could resemble a desert unless it's an exceptionally wet summer.
As the dusk began to rapidly settle across the marsh the wildfowlers and their dogs left me and walked out to their chosen spots on the saltings, in the hope that an odd duck or goose might fly over them, while I remained on the sea wall. I began to earnestly watch the normal harrier roost site through my telescope pausing briefly for seconds at a time to take in the other bird world out on The Swale. The tide was rising and several hundred waders were noisily being pushed off of the mudflats where they fed, still desperate for that last morsel before they went to roost. In the increasing gloom and way across on the mainland side, several hundred Brent Geese rose up, almost disappearing into the darkness and came across to the Sheppey side before settling down on the tide and letting it flow them along with it. For a moment birds were calling from everywhere, Coots and the odd Water Rail along the sea wall fleet, pheasants and a few Mallard out in the marsh and suddenly, I had a Short-eared Owl hunting in circles round me. Ellie, who was off hunting for voles herself in the sea wall grass, suddenly had company, for a while the owl followed her, hoping that she would flush out a vole that it could catch.
And then, it was suddenly almost dark, I had seen the three Hen Harriers go back into the same roost that they had left early in the day, it was time to leave. I waived to the barely visible wildfowlers tucked down in the gullies and threaded my way back across the marsh in the darkness, Ellie a constant white flash, ahead of me and nose to the ground, still hoping to pick up the scent of something worthy of chasing. It'd had been a good day.

Sunday, 12 February 2017

Opinion Differences

Yesterday morning at first light I stood on the reserve sea wall talking to three wildfowlers. The reserve was white with a light fall of snow that had only just stopped, a bone numbing N.E. wind was picking up and icy rain had just started to blow in on the wind. It was exceptionally cold and we didn't chat for long, just long enough for me to ask them if they had shot anything that morning, no was the answer. Three hours sitting out in the mud in falling snow and the dark and not a single shot fired had left them frozen stiff. People who lump these coastal wildfowlers in with the molly-coddled large bird number, shooters elsewhere, should try experiencing those conditions and also see how few birds that actually get shoot.
This last week I got embroiled in a debate on the Kent Ornithological Society's Facebook Page to do with the continuing persecution of Hen Harriers in this country. Despite the fact that I also deplore the persecution of such a beautiful and fast declining bird of prey, I found myself airing different opinions on the subject with two guys in particular, who were quite clearly disciples of Chris Packham and Mark Avery. I haven't got a problem with much of that, most of these people work hard at battling against the persecution dished out against Hen Harriers by grouse moor owners and their employees and keeping it in the public eye. Where I did start to disagree with their points of view though was (a) when I suggested that despite all their petitions, etc, Harriers were still going missing, grouse shooters were still sticking two fingers up, (b) when they found it impossible to accept any criticism of the RSPB, (c) when I accused them of taking the traditional birdwatcher's stance in that every missing/dead Hen Harrier has to have been caused by actions taken by those involved with grouse shooting. Particularly in the case of missing birds, evidence has never been produced to support the purely assumptions that it was grouse shooters that caused them to be missing. Of course, as soon as I starting stating those opinions, then accusations of me being both cynical about the anti grouse moor protesters and therefore a supporter of Hen Harrier persecution, came out. The fact that I have no problems with a few forms of shooting and pest controls does seem to mark me down as not a true and serious bird watcher in some people's eyes. There seems to be a trend in modern day birdwatching these days that in order to be one you have to openly loathe any form of shooting, without actually having any experience of the subject that they are loathing.
I'm regularly vilified for being too opinionated, a trait I can't deny but find too easy to fall into. I'm all to often criticised because (a) I don't like twitching, (b) don't always share rare birds that I've seen, not that I see that many, and (c) don't take the normal birdwatcher line and automatically despise anyone that shoots or kills wildlife. All my life I've always been a natural loner when it comes to wandering about in the countryside, and I take part in several lonesome annual bird counts and supply those records to the appropriate people. What I don't do is carry a pager or smart phone that allows me to immediately alert the outside bird watching world to what I've just seen, they're capable of getting off their arses and doing that themselves. Neither do I rush off to the latest rare bird alert, no matter how close, and join a murmaration of twitchers swirling about on a roadside or riverbank. Neither do I carry a long lens camera with which to impress people with my stunning photos that I always claim are still not quite sharp enough, I have a free running dog (a huge black mark in birdwatching circles) and lastly, probably the greatest sin of all, I'm an Associate Member of the Kent Wildfowling and Conservation Association, despite having no interest in shooting myself.
And finally, just to bring down the curtain on Opinion Differences, I'm currently reading and thoroughly enjoying, an old book called Morning Flight, written by that great conservationist Peter Scott, about his very many wildfowling days in the 1930's.

Friday, 10 February 2017

February Blues

I don't know why but this winter here on Sheppey seems to be showing a great reluctance to allow it to gradually get light earlier each week in the mornings.The evenings definitely are but not the mornings. OK that fact has been exacerbated this week by a series of very gloomy and sun-less days but the mornings are definitely not keeping pace with the evenings. Look at the view that greeted me at 8.00 this morning as I arrived at the reserve and looked across the grazing marsh, instead of broad daylight and a rising sun, it was poor light, poor visibility and pretty depressing.


 It never really got that much better throughout my walk round, below is a view of a ditch by the entrance gate some time later as I made my back.

That is a pretty bleak view of how the reserve has looked and felt this last few days. Heavy grey cloud, a bitter cold N.E. wind and spits and spots of light rain or drizzle - for a warm weather lover and SAD sufferer as I am, it ain't been much fun. February in my book, shares with November as being one of the worst two months of the year, especially when it teases us with the odd warm, sunny and almost Springlike day, before dumping us back into winter. 
Fortunately, nature doesn't get depressed like some of us do at such conditions, behind that bleak facade it can sense Spring is close by. Snowdrops and Aconites are in full bloom, hazel catkins hang from their bushes and the Rooks are already repairing their nests. All it will take to cheer us up is one or two warm and sunny days, a bumblebee, a butterfly - I do wish it would hurry up.

Saturday, 28 January 2017

Shooting Soon Ends

Driving along the marsh road to the reserve at first light this morning my car was registering an outside temperature of 8 degrees, almost tropical after the severe frost and freezing fog of the last few weeks! Walking back across the reserve later on, with the sun on my back, it felt as though Spring had arrived overnight, which of course it hadn't, but a forecast of milder weather for the next couple of weeks is long overdue.
Next Wednesday 1st February, sees the end of the game shooting season for this winter, while the day before also sees the end of the inland duck shooting season. Since New Year, the farmland game shoots around here seem to have intensified, with sometimes two or three a week, which I suppose is all about making money from the sport. It's of no real consequence to me, they're only shooting and killing artificially reared birds but the habitat that is preserved and maintained for such shooting is of great benefit to all manner of real wildlife. If there is one down side to game shooting it's the fact that licences are now being applied for and amazingly, issued, for some gamekeepers to "control" some raptors that are guilty of harassing and killing some of the millions of these game birds that are artificially reared to be shot.
With those two shooting seasons coming to an end, that won't be an end to the farmland hunting activities though. It is normally followed on Sheppey by one or two visits from the Fox Hunt and Beagle packs. Both hunt illegally in the traditional way, which is ignored by those in authority but it is particularly galling in the case of the Beagle pack which is often chasing and killing hares pregnant with young. There will also of course be pigeon and crow shooting, both officially classed as pest species.
The end of wildfowl shooting inland on the 31st January does not mean the end of the wildfowl shooting season completely though. For the first three weeks of February wildfowlers are still allowed to carry on shooting below the Mean Hide Tide mark. In respect of the reserve that means out on the saltings in front of the reserve just as they have been all winter. For me, that isn't a problem, because as regular readers of this blog will know, I get on very well with the wildfowlers there now, have even become an Associated non-shooting Member of their Association. As far as various types of shooting goes, these are the real tough guys. No sitting round corn-fed inland duck ponds, a few yards from their cars, no being driven from field to field to shoot gamebirds, these guys do it the hard way and often on their own. They will often have to walk long distances along sea walls, then walk out across mudflats or saltings, often in pre-dawn darkness. They will then spend the next few hours standing in deep mud in freezing temperatures, in the optimistic hope that a duck or goose will just happen to fly in their direction.
This winter, as far as the area in front of the reserve goes, the wildfowlers have had a pretty lean season, due mainly to the dryness of the reserve attracting few wildfowl. They're a hardy bunch and I have just one complaint about them, this season seems to have seen an increase in out of range birds being shot at. Even to my inexperienced eyes it has been clear at times that birds up to 100yds or more away have been shot at, which is well outside the effective killing range. This can see some birds carrying around injuries for some length of time before they expire.
It is now looking extremely doubtful that any serious volumes of water are going to rain apon the reserve before the Spring and so we can expect some pretty serious drought conditions to affect us and the wildlife this summer.

Tuesday, 17 January 2017

A Dawn of Many Colours

After a light frost this morning we had a dawn of many colours. As I drove across the marsh road towards the reserve, the sky in the area where the sun was imminently about to rise, was an amazing range of red, pink and yellow colours with a backing of blue. Soon after, a fantastic orange glow preceded the great orange-red sun as it slowly began to climb above horizon and buildings and trees in the distance became burnished in gold. It was a dead still, beautiful dawn, to a day that remained cold but sunny for the whole of it, if we could of added ten degrees of temperature it would of been the perfect Spring morning, but it's coming. And now, as I'm writing this, I have the red sun creating an amazing sunset as it goes down behind the trees to the west of me, it's been a good day.
Yesterday afternoon, myself and two others, carried out our monthly Wetland Bird Survey on the reserve. Each of us has a particular section in which we count all the wading birds and wildfowl that we see. Judging the huge amount of birds that I could see at the Shellness Point end that particular guy must of been recording a good count and I was really pleased to see a pair of Bewick Swans in the bay there, my first this winter.
My section, the main marsh part of the reserve, didn't produce huge numbers of birds due to the continuing dryness but I was pleased to record c.160 White-fronted Geese and the ever present Crane as it noisily walked around the marsh. The light was just beginning to fade as I finished my count and a damp chill began to set in under the clear sky, the precursor to the frosty evening that we ended up with. I stayed on the sea wall to count in the Hen Harriers as they went in to roost out on the saltings as part of our Monthly Harrier roost census and to chat with a local wildfowler who I could see making his way towards me. The dusk increased, the geese called to each other over on the winter corn and Curlews "bubbled" away out on the saltings as they waited for the tide to drop, it was magical and the place to be.
I eventually counted in three Hen Harriers going in to roost as the cold darkness began to descend and briefly chatted with my wildfowler friend about what has been a pretty dire wildfowling season so far. Pretty quickly he needed to get out on the saltings and in position to ambush himself a duck or two and I left and followed the small white shape of Ellie in the near dark as she made her way back across the marsh on the scent of a hare that she was never going to catch. We had both enjoyed a particularly good winter's afternoon.

Sunday, 15 January 2017

Damp and Depressing

As I sit here writing this it's early afternoon, it's Sunday, it's been raining all morning and still is, it's cold and it's bloody depressing. I've had to keep the central heating on and I'm sitting in the conservatory looking out at a garden about as far removed from it's mid-summer glory as it could be. The borders are bare and muddy and the bushes and trees are bare of leaves and looking like skeletons after their plump, mid-summery greenery. There are a couple of dozen Sparrows on the bird feeding tubes and a Blackbird wanders up and down the lawn snatching at worms that it seems to be mostly missing.
The rain began lightly at 6.45 this morning and anxious that it might get heavier, which it later did, I left for the reserve in total darkness in order that Ellie and I could get a walk of some sort in. By the time that I got on top of the sea wall the damp, near dark gloom, had become a gloom bright enough for me to just make out a hardy wildfowler out on the saltings with his dog. I walked about a quarter of a mile along the sea wall but by then the rain was setting in heavier and I wasn't enjoying it, I turned back and made for my car and home, I don't do cold and wet very well, in fact I don't do the winter, period. I came home, made a cup of tea, ate my porridge and read the papers, the crappy Sunday Mail and the excellent Sunday Telegraph. After that, well it was down to staring boredly out at the rain, listening to Michael Ball on Radio 2 and longing for the Spring.
Readers of my increasingly fewer blogs this winter will have become used to my regular mentions of how dry the reserve, which remains the case despite several hours of rain recently. Well on local TV this week the Environment Agency finally made public that it has been the driest December on record and indeed it has been dry for the last few months, hooray, we got there, it's an official drought. Reservoirs in the area are only 45% full and water restrictions look increasingly likely for the coming summer, ain't I been saying that!

I read several blogs on a daily basis and most of them are very good but some others have become, presumably because the owner prefers it that way, quite clicky and in doing so rarely allow in new people 's comments, especially those with comments that disagree with the general flow of that particular blog. In other words the blog has become nice and comfortable and the dozen or so daily followers always avidly congratulate the blogger, despite the fact that they have never met that person and are accepting everything about them at face value. One that I read on an almost daily basis and don't ask me why, because I loathe it's falseness and pretence, is written by a woman here in England who maintains her high degree of avid followers by immediately deleting comments from anyone outside the daily clique who might contradict her postings, before her followers can see that such other opinions exist. She has become very adept at creating this weird mystique about herself that seems guaranteed to daily gain extraordinary praise from her followers, almost to a disciple level, and yet I'm left thinking, they've never met her, how do they know she's really as she says she is?
Probably too late now for me to re-model myself as an expert birdwatcher who never has a bad word to say about anybody. Perhaps I'll open a bottle of red wine and settle down later to watch Liverpool play Man Utd.

Monday, 26 December 2016

Boxing Day Traditions

Boxing Day, that day of various traditions and today has been one of blue skies and sunshine and a cold wind, just right for getting out and about. Below is the view across The Swale NNR as I arrived at first light and it would be another three quarters of an hour before the sun finally appeared.


But what of traditions, well as anybody who has long history in the countryside will know that it's traditionally a morning when people will get out hunting, shooting, birdwatching and simply walking here and there discovering the countryside. The fox hunts will be out chasing foxes in the time-honoured way while denying that they do and the wildfowlers will be out after geese and ducks to add to their fridges overflowing with Christmas meat. For me, armed with just binoculars and camera, it always means a dawn start at the reserve to see how many wildfowlers have turned up and to have a chat with those that have. Below are part of a flock of around 115 White-fronted Geese, a variety of wild goose that traditionally visit the Island each winter and are much sought after by the wildfowlers. Fortunately so far, the geese are going no where near the wildfowlers and are sticking mostly to the reserve and the surrounding farmland.


This morning the increasing light eventually revealed three wildfowlers out on the saltings and when they packed up and stopped for a nice chat they revealed that none of them had had a single shot. Pretty much how it's been for much of the winter so far. with little water and few birds but despite that they enjoy watching each dawn rise and the solitude that goes with it. I have experienced thirty odd such Boxing Day mornings out there and the days of twenty-odd wildfowlers being there at dawn are now well gone as dry and mild winters have pushed their quarry birds elsewhere, it's unlikely to improve. 
Of course not everybody has such countryside habits and pursuits, some are happy to queue in the traffic jams of cars trying to get in or out of the car parks of large stores, or freeze half to death in pavement queues, desperately seeking their own personal bargain. And lastly, the streets and roads are very busy with the multi-coloured bodies of joggers and cyclists, all neurotically pounding away and determined to lose that extra couple of calories that they were forced to eat as Christmas Day dinner. Next comes New Years Eve, fireworks, drinking and holding hands on the stroke of midnight with people you don't really like but what the hell.