Wednesday, 24 May 2017

Summer Days

The weather continues to yo-yo to and fro, this week it is very warm to hot, sunny days amd most appreciated.
Yesterday I made one of my irregular visits to the extreme eastern end of the reserve and the eastern end od Sheppey as a whole, Shellness beach. This long and narrow strip of sand and shell beach with it's old WW2 building looks quite beautiful on a sunny day such as it was. The tide was out otherwise it would of looked even better.

It'll be another month or so before the wide range of seashore wild flowers that it's known for, come into bloom but there was at least many clumps of Sea Campion, the maritime cousin of the Red Campion.

 Back on the main grazing marsh part of the reserve and it is worth mentioning again the efforts of the neighbouring farmers in respect of wildlife friendly strips round field edges. Wide strips of this purple flower was absolutely humming with the amount of bees swarming all over it.

Another farmer has these wide strips of weeds and long grass around his wheat fields, hopefully they'll be left until at least harvest time.

 Below, you see Ellie's favourite place on the whole reserve........

 ........and here's the reason why. She spends hours being led a merry dance by the rabbits, but yesterday her hard work and optimism paid off, she caught two.

Who remembers from childhood, this wild weed, barley grass. When it yellows up in the summer it tends to be home to tiny black beetles that look like fleas and we nick-named it "flea grass". As young lads we used to pick the yellow darts and throw them into girls' hair shouting "fleas in your hair", to much screaming by the girls. Boyish fun, I doubt youngsters know about such things these days.

Saturday, 20 May 2017

Rainy Days

Well at long last, although possibly only for a short time, I'm not on here bleating away about lack of rain and droughts. It rained Tuesday night, it rained a bit harder Wednesday night and through Thursday night we had around twelve hours of non-stop moderate rain. Water seems to be running out of every drive and garden for a while on Friday morning. Surprisingly, there were few substantial splashes across the reserve to show for it all and certainly no rise in ditch levels, the ground being so dry and absorbed it all, but there was plenty of mud and boy how it had freshened the place up. Stagnant ditches had been rejuvenated by being re-oxygenated and grazing meadows looked so much greener. It won't take long for drying winds and sunshine to get to work but for the moment all is well out there.
This morning, despite a gusty wind, it was pleasantly warm in the sunshine and this Marsh Frog was enjoying the improved water quality.

This is a view across the tidal Swale to the mainland on the other side. The Swale is what maintains Sheppey as an island and lends itself to the reserve's name, The Swale National Nature Reserve.

Below are part of a collection of around forty Greylag Geese goslings of different ages that were in the sea wall fleet this morning.

A Common Blue butterfly settled for a while in front of me and opened it's wings to the sun. I also had the first Painted Lady butterfly of the summer as well.

 And of course, early morning, warm sun, just right for chewing the cud, as these two pictures show.

Thursday, 11 May 2017

Here Comes the Sun

Finally, after the protracted cold weather of recent weeks, we have enjoyed a couple of not only sunny days but warm days. And if the rain that is forecast over the next couple of days actually comes, it is going to be warm rain, so we could have a win-win event there as well. It was a real tonic to get up this morning to blue skies and a rising sun outside and buoyed by such a rarity, I set off for the reserve and began my breeding bird counts in earnest as I wandered round. Thankfully, for several species at least, things are moving at last and the Coot's nest below was one of four of that species that I found, well down on last year's count but we're inching forward. A brood of nine recently hatched Mallard ducklings was another pleasant surprise.

It remains dust dry out there and some bird numbers are low but sunshine and warmth today but it all seem so much better and to cap it off I even saw the first Small Heath butterfly of this year.

On a different subject all together, Tuesday evening this week saw my long-time friend and I make what is now a bi-annual event, we went to London to experience Bob Dylan's latest visit. We first saw Bob at the Royal Albert Hall in 1966, hitch-hiking home through the night afterwards, and have seen him countless times since. Like us, he's getting old now, he's 75, but his Never Ending Tour continues to do just that and we, like a packed Wembley Arena on Tuesday, will continue to follow it as long it does. I'm always fascinated by those rare trips to London, because for someone who spends most of his life in the quiet backwaters of Sheppey, so much hustle and bustle always comes as a bit of a shock. You get off the train into a world of human ants, tightly packed and rushing everywhere and descend into the Underground. There humid and oppressive carriages are packed tightly with a kaleidoscope of nationals all governed it seems, by phones and ear pieces. Even more bizarre is the journey back, I find it hard to believe that so many people can be out and about on railway platforms at a time approaching midnight, more people than I normally see in a whole day.
Anyway, the concert was superb, I survived being temporarily swallowed up by an alien world and gratefully enjoyed the solitude of the marshes the next day.

Sunday, 7 May 2017

Went the Rain Well

Four days ago my blog celebrated the fact that we'd had that rare element, rain. Unfortunately, after the continuation of the non-stop and drying, cold NE winds, there is nothing to show that rain ever happened here. Those cold winds and grey skies seem to have been a daily feature for weeks now and other blogs from up the eastern side of England make it clear that many of us are sharing the same torment. Here we are just five weeks or so from the Longest Day and mid-summer and we have barely moved out of winter yet, this morning on the reserve I was wearing pretty much the same clothes as I wore in January. The photo below was taken on the reserve at 8.00 this morning, three hours after dawn but shows how poor the light levels are most days at the moment under the grey and wintery skies. (I'm afraid that all the photos below suffer from poor light). It also shows part of the reserve's Flood Field, so named because it normally retains water the best and longest each year. It shows what is normally a large area of shallow water with a couple of islands in it on which Avocets normally nest - today it is simply dry mud with no Avocets! However, all is not lost, allegedly, the wind is going to go round to the south this week and warm sun is forecast for us, now that would be nice.

On a lighter note a few pairs of birds are now starting to appear with young, such as these Greylag Geese goslings.

I came across this single, early flower on a dog rose bush...... the ditches throughout the reserve, Celery-leaved Buttercup is now flowering......

......and the young livestock still retain their attractiveness.

Wednesday, 3 May 2017

Rain has Appeared

As I write this, it's lunch time on the 3rd May and the conditions outside my window make it look like a typical winter's day. Heavy grey clouds are being sped across the sky on very cold NE winds and since early morning sheets of heavy drizzle and rain have blasted across the fields opposite. In short, it is cold, wet and windy and I have just briefly put the central heating on to take the chill off of the house, there is little sign of late Spring or early Summer yet.
April has now been officially recorded as one of the driest on record and last week, the end of the month, it was also bitterly cold, but for the gardens at least, our drought seems to be over for the moment. The regular bouts of rain that we've had this last few days have not been heavy or prolonged enough to make any difference to water levels on the marsh or the reserve but they have at least softened up the lawns and flower beds. If only the wind direction would now change for a prolonged spell, it seems to have been from a cold northerly direction for ages now and the forecast for the next seven days is more of the same.

It was heart-breaking during a brief, wet and cold visit to the reserve this morning, to see newly arriving swallows skimming low as possible across the marsh, heading into the bitter cold and rainy wind as they made their way north for the summer, insects must of been in very short supply! So, April was bone dry and rarely very warm and now May has started both cold and wet, it's looking pretty dire for wildlife so far. Talking of the reserve, thanks to April's drought, breeding counts continue to remain very low, just six broods of Lapwing chicks so far, at least 50% down on previous years by this time and just one successful Coot family. Unfortunately it's one of those situations that is out of the reserve management's hands, the water supply comes from one source, the skies above. All the storage areas available are of no use if they aren't re-filled by winter rains and not only that, in one of those vicious circle, can't win events, now we have some rain, that too could now be harmful because it's cold rain. Imagine those little fluffy, few days old plover chicks, getting soaking wet in this rain and then being chilled all day by an icy wind. Wildlife has very fine balances to negotiate a lot of the time.

Friday, 14 April 2017

April News

There are several reasons why my blog has become quite infrequent lately, one of them is because I have been busy writing elsewhere and secondly because it became difficult not to write about the event affecting the reserve most this last nine six months or more, the lack of rain. Unfortunately this one too is going to start off on that same theme.
Last autumn began dry and that dryness intensified as we progressed through the winter, it meant that the wet areas needed to attract winter wildfowl and waders were almost non-existent and we had some of the lowest counts for years. Now in mid-April, the Spring, things look even bleaker and the prospect of a summer drought look almost certain. Several years ago we dug a series of shallow rills across the grazing fields of the reserve and after an average wet winter these should still be half full of water. Their purpose being to provide insect life along their muddy edges for newly hatched Lapwing and Redshank chicks to feed on - this is how they currently look.

The ditches are just as bad, the example below is how we would expect them to look in late summer, not early spring. They should be three quarters full at the moment and providing good nest sites for birds such as Coots but a few inches of water has little appeal to the birds.

Even the foot path along the top of the seawall is suffering, with cracking appearing along it's length. And if you look at the current weather forecast for North Kent and the South East until the early part of May, it's basically one of little if any rainfall and below average temperatures. No wonder we have few signs of the normal marshland birds attempting breeding yet.

To maintain the depressing news for a moment longer, take a look at this line of small oak trees on the nearby farmland. They were having a minimal effect, if any, on the farmland alongside them but last week the farmer decided to trim them back for whatever reason. The now traditional tractor driven hedging flail was used and struggled quite a bit against the thickness of many of the branches, leaving them looking quite mangled and doing the trees little good I imagine.

But we might not get the rain but we have at least had some nice sunny days and last weekend had for one day, heat befitting mid-summer and although it hasn't lasted it did bring about the first cows and their calves being put on the reserve for the summer.

And although the dominant cold Northerly winds have seen summer bird visitors arriving in barely a trickle so far this year, they are starting to come, as this newly arrived Yellow Wagtail shows.

Monday, 20 March 2017

Harrier Roost Counts

It was the last of this winter's six, monthly, WEBS counts last Monday and yesterday evening also saw the last of the six, monthly, Harrier Roost Counts around parts of Kent and Essex. There was a chilly and gusty wind blowing under grey skies as I made my way across to the reserve sea wall at 17.15 to await dusk and hopefully, some Hen Harriers. As I have said before, only Hen Harriers roost on the reserve, on the saltings towards Shellness Hamlet, the Marsh Harriers go elsewhere on Harty. Normally I would position myself by the Sea Wall Hide and watch the traditional roost site from there using my telescope. Last night, I chose to walk further round the sea wall and closer to the roost site and bunkered down at the base of the wall out of the wind. Being almost as low as the tops of the salting gave me a much better view, especially as the harriers tend to come in skimming the vegetation and can sometimes be missed if looking down on them.
It was quite pleasant tucked down there and while Ellie amused herself looking for mice or voles in the grass, I enjoyed watching the to and fro-ing of various birds. Small parties of chuckling Shelducks passed overhead, leaving the marsh and heading for the tidal Swale and a female Marsh Harrier tracked it's way slowly along the distant saltings edge, raising my hopes of a Hen Harrier. A little later the Marsh Harrier crossed over the sea wall and headed across the reserve to it's favoured roost site, the light was decreasing fast now. Finally, as the light decreased even further, two adult ringtail (female) Hen Harriers suddenly appeared to my right, I almost missed them. I no sooner saw them than they dropped like stones into the saltings vegetation, not alongside each other but several yards apart. The reason I almost missed them was due to the fact that they chose to roost this time opposite where I normally stand by the Sea Wall Hide, mocking my decision to go further round and watch their traditional roost.
So that was the last Harrier Roost Count of this season until we start again next October, and it's unlikely that the Hen Harriers will be seen much more as they begin their return to breed on the moors of Northern Britain.