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.

Tuesday, 14 March 2017

Last WEBS

Yesterday, Monday, was the best day of this early Spring so far. It was warm and sunny and the first time that I was able to walk round the reserve without a coat on, I really enjoyed it. Today, under grey skies and with a chilly wind, we're back to square one, it's not particularly pleasant.
Getting back to yesterday, we carried out the last of the Wetland Bird Surveys (WEBS) until next autumn, planned as always, to coincide with the high tide, due on this visit at 13.00. The warm sunshine and a gentle breeze had made the ground seem even dryer and harder as I walked round and I wasn't expecting to record that many wetland birds as a result.
The wind pump does it's best to pump up fresh water from the underground aquifer but in reality it only keeps wet an area inside a 100yd radius around it.

The rest of the reserve remains in rainfall denial, as this old but vital crossing plank demonstrates. The ditch isn't as deep as it looks, only about six inches, normally at this time of the year the water would be level with, or over it.

But not to worry, the walk round had Lapwing pairs doing their lovely "peewitting" courtship displays and Skylarks rose up high into the blue sky at regular intervals and sent down waterfalls of song to cascade over us. I only had small counts of the waders and wildfowl that I was there to record but had a good variety of species, including Mallard, Teal, Pochard, Coot, Shoveler, Shelduck, Curlew, Lapwing and Little Grebe. There were 80 of the resident Greylag Geese and best of all, 160 White-fronted Geese (below) still lingered on before returning to their far northern breeding grounds.
A total of eight Marsh Harriers were active across the reserve, often soaring high into the sky to become small specks, only noticeable by their plaintive call notes that made you look up and search for them. It was a real, small taste of the summer to come and I sat on the sea wall and savoured it and as if to confirm my thoughts, the first butterflies of the year came by, two Small Tortoiseshells and a Peacock, such simple joys.
Ellie meanwhile, bored with such inactivity, had wandered off a short way to inspect some mole hills in the vain hope that one of the little, furry tunnellers might be near the surface and catchable but they rarely are. It was a really uplifting day and a shame that today couldn't of been the same.

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.