Wednesday, 20 January 2021

Flooding and Ticks

 As readers will have read in my last couple of postings, it has been getting progressively wetter by the week here on Sheppey this week is the third consecutive week with rain almost daily and often heavy. As a result the reserve that I spend most of my year wandering about on and carrying out my Voluntary Warden duties, has now reached the point where it is not really enjoyable to try and get round it. The photo above was taken a few years ago and currently we're beginning to approach those kind of water levels again. As you can imagine, wading through large areas of such water and soft, clinging mud that almost sucks one's wellies off, is none to enjoyable. Twenty years ago, when these scenes were almost annual, I was in my fifties and it wasn't too much of a problem, almost a challenge, but not now. Plus, when you're a little, short-legged Jack Russell, like the one that always accompanies me, it becomes quite aquatic and grim. So at the moment my daily visits are limited to walking the farmland perimeter as best as I can. 

The other problem that the reserve faces in such times of flooding is the fact that the reserve not only receives all the water that drains off the higher arable farmland alongside but that the whole reserve itself  has to drain across it's whole length to just one 12in. pipe at one end, so it's a slow process. One winner in this situation though is the attraction that it is presenting to the wildfowl in the area, especially now that the wildfowlers that would normally be alongside the reserve trying to harvest some of these ducks and geese, have been stopped by the Kent Wildfowlers Association in order to comply with Covid regulations. 

Moving to an entirely different subject, I was reading an account the other day of a person's experience with ticks on dogs and it got me thinking of my experiences. In the years running up until the 2001 Foot and Mouth outbreak, ticks used to be real problem on my dogs, mainly because the marshes that I frequented here on Sheppey, were always holding large numbers of grazing sheep, something that Sheppey (Sheepey) has been noted for over many centuries. Sheep ticks were the constant reason why many forms of wildlife on the Sheppey marshes were often covered in the awful blood-sucking pests, my dogs included, although curiously, rabbits never seemed to carry them. Many were the time that my dogs would catch a stoat or ferret gone wild and I'd find that the animal's head was covered in many large ticks, all sucking the life out of them. Adult ticks would drop off the sheep and literally sit on the grass or any other vegetation and then simply wait for a warm blooded animal to brush past and then crawl on, lay it's eggs and look for a top up from the animal's blood. Fortunately, apart from one Beagle, all the dogs that I've had over the last fifty years, have been smooth haired, mostly white, Jack Russells and so it was relatively easy to find the ticks in their coats. It was necessary though, to regularly sit down and search through the dog's fur and seek out any ticks that might be using the dog as a meal. Mostly it was the odd one or two but there were occasions when it was possible to find many dozens of newly hatched ticks, all no bigger than a pin head and all in need of picking off before they grew any bigger, luckily, I got a perverse pleasure from squashing each one.
However, after the mass culling of livestock during the F&M outbreak, the livestock farmers on Sheppey re-stocked with mostly cattle and so the tick problem has mostly gone away.

Tuesday, 12 January 2021

Where Have all the Birdies Gone

 After last week's 48 hour deluge of rain, we had several days of dryer weather, including a couple of severe frosts. Last night saw it rain throughout, although not heavily, and tomorrow and Thursday are forecast to see it rain for much of both days again, so back to square one with some possible flooding.

On the Swale NNR here in Sheppey, where I'm now entering my 34th year as a Voluntary Warden, the water levels look as good as they've been for several years. The ditches, fleets and shallow rills are full, and the grazing marsh is either waterlogged or covered in largish areas of surface water. It looks how it used to look most winters up until several years ago - a good example of a typical winter on the North Kent marshes. Sadly, that seems to be where the comparisons currently end, despite the perfect conditions, recent walks across the reserve have been noticeable for the lack of birds. 

In those "normal" years that I reflect back on, such conditions would of seen bird numbers, at times difficult to count, there were so many. Golden Plover would of been spread out as far as the eye could see across the waterlogged fields, several thousands at times and they would be joined by similar numbers of Lapwings and other wading birds.The large areas of surface water would of been inhabited by all manner of ducks - several hundred Wigeon, Mallard, Shoveler and Pintail. The sounds when a passing Peregrine Falcon or Harrier went by, scaring the huge flocks up, was both deafening and visually spectacular.

Today, as it has been for some time, it was the sheer absence of birds that was so marked. There doesn't seem any reason for walking across deserted, waterlogged fields that once would of been swarming with birds, as I've described. In all honesty, apart from a few hundred Brent and Greylag Geese that feed daily on a neighbouring field of winter corn, alongside one end of the reserve and a couple of dozen Mallard, where are the birds. Where have all Golden Plover gone, everything's right for them. Even the wintering White-fronted Geese, that had been with us since well before Christmas and totaled 230 at the beginning of the month, haven't been seen or heard for the last week or so.

It's a worrying trend and it doesn't seem to end there, gardens around here seem to be suffering the same dearth of birds, unless you count House Sparrows, I had 72 on or around my bird table a couple of days ago and that's fairly normal. But no, I live in a very rural part of Sheppey, both mine and the gardens all round me are full of shrubs, trees and flowers and yet finches coming to bird feeders are a rarity and even Blue and Great Tits are mostly absent -  the count for my RSPB Garden Birdwatch will be sadly depleted this year!

Tuesday, 5 January 2021

It's raining

 she's got everything she needs

she's an artist, she don't look back,

she's got everything she needs

she's an artist she don't look back,

she can take the dark out of the nighttime

and paint the daytime black... Bob Dylan

apart from that, well, here we are just a few days in to 2021 and already it feels like 2020 Part Two. Today sees us here in North Kent enduring our second day of non-stop rain and cold Northerly winds. Weather forecasts promise yet another 24 hours of this weather, in the meantime fields are starting to flood and gardens round here are leaking from every orifice.  Dark skies, the sun a forgotten spectacle, the buzzing of summer meadows, bees, butterflies and swallows like a distant planet and yet, in a long few months, I'll be talking of hard dry ground, praying for those precious few drops of rain to wet the dust. I guess, like birthdays, these things go round and round, they get better, they get worse.

In the mean-time the rain and the wind continue to batter the conservatory windows, I fall asleep, I wake up, I fall asleep, and the 70 odd sparrows around my bird table jostle for every last seed of budgie mix. 

15.30 and the light is fading fast, cars have their lights on, winter at it's extreme, two months to go until Spring peeks over the hill.


Thursday, 31 December 2020

New Years Eve


The Year

Ella Wheeler Wilcox

What can be said in New Year rhymes, 

That’s not been said a thousand times? 

The new years come, the old years go, 

We know we dream, we dream we know. 

We rise up laughing with the light, 

We lie down weeping with the night. 

We hug the world until it stings, 

We curse it then and sigh for wings. 

We live, we love, we woo, we wed, 

We wreathe our prides, we sheet our dead. 

We laugh, we weep, we hope, we fear, 

And that’s the burden of a year.

Good New Year to you all, my blog has not been that prolific this year, but it's been a difficult year and I've struggled to find both enthusiasm and inspiration for a lot of it. I think it's gonna take till Spring to come out from this Covid shadow, but anyway, carry on doing the best that you can.

Friday, 4 December 2020

Way Down the Road

Last night was a very wet night, it rained so hard and for so long and early this morning , it was pouring out of people's drives, part flooding the roads and water-logging the farm land. With some degree of trepidation I drove out to the reserve this morning along a Harty Road that was full of large puddles of water.

The reserve was as I expected it would be, the grazing meadows were water-logged and muddy, the ditches had at last got more than a few inches of water in them and the wind was icily cold. Looking across The Swale to the mainland, the top fields of the North Downs were covered in snow, yes, it was indeed a cold and wet morning. Gun shots briefly rung out, followed immediately by the sound of the "barking" calls of over a thousand Brent Geese rising up from the neighbouring farmland's winter corn - clearly the farmer was attempting to scare the geese away from their daily breakfast of his next year's crop.

It was bitterly cold, wet and muddy and I really wasn't enjoying it and so I left for home after a rare short visit. I hate giving in to the weather but as basically a warm weather person, there are some days when the weather wins the battle. I plonked myself down in the conservatory, put on the heating, put on some Joni Mitchell and gradually became lost in idle thoughts of, once upon a time. 

 Way back in my teenage and early twenties years, Bob Dylan sang about how "tomorrow is a long time" and throughout those years that was the kind of mantra that I lived by. I was young, the life ahead of me was an endless highway, and old age was a lifetime away - tomorrow is a long time and always to be enjoyed, what did I care. Buoyed by those thought I set out into my adult life - loves and disappointments, marriages and divorces, wealth and poverty - too many crossroads. And now, at 73, the highway that I've already traveled is the longest one, and the one still ahead gets shorter every day, the tomorrows slip by too fast, the bend in the road is the final one.

Friday, 20 November 2020

A Short November day

 We had a hard frost this morning and the early few hours of the morning saw blue skies and sunshine that made a walk around the reserve very pleasant, especially now that the White-fronted Goose numbers have increased to sixty birds - they really are such delightful birds and it's so hard to think of them being shot.

This afternoon has been a typical November afternoon, the blue skies were soon covered by grey cloud that drifted in, it became colder and here on Sheppey, we have the second highest Covid-19 figures in the country - it's like simply waiting for that inevitable bony hand to tap you on the shoulder and say you're next!

Darkness will come early this afternoon, the sparrows on the bird table are snatching their last mouthfuls of food before they settle down in the bushes alongside for the night, twittering to each other until darkness descends. Just think, if this was 3.00 on a July afternoon, the sun and the heat would just be reaching their peak and there would be seven more hours to go before darkness was complete - oh how I wish!

The garden outside, that spent all summer bursting with colour and wildlife, now looks so drab and green, some leaves still cling on to the crab apple tree - soon frosts will freeze the ground - blackbirds feed on the pyracantha berries - life will soon get tough. The pond, where this summer, I fed newts with earthworms I'd dug up, is just a cold expanse of empty water, untouched by the sun that sits low in the sky.

Too many afternoon hours now get spent musing over the summer that has been and gone - the Covid virus that restricted life and bought premature death to so many people - the brief couple of hot and sunny months when life almost seemed normal - the week long holiday spent in a farm cottage in Devon - the bees, the butterflies, the birds in the garden.

A short November day.

Tuesday, 27 October 2020

A slow descent into dampness

 Since my last post, some four weeks ago, we have continued to experience regular rainy days, with sometimes heavy rain and yet the reserve and it's neighbouring Harty marshes are still far from showing any sign of water-logging or flood. There is still a considerable way to go before the reserve will be showing the large areas of flood water that will attract the great numbers of wildfowl and waders that we would like to see and became used to up until recent years. It really does illustrate how dry the summer has been and to a degree, how much the reserve has changed in respect of water levels in recent years. The reserve was opened in c.1976, the infamous year of an incredible summer drought, and has suffered several dry summers since, but it has been the winters that have seen the most dramatic change. Until several years ago, the winter water levels on the reserve could be relied on to be at least average and very often, excessively wet. I have experienced many winters there where the grazing marsh was 50 - 70% waterlogged or flooded. Indeed, I can recall one October in the late 1980's when the field in front of the Sea Wall Hide was one large lake from bund to bund. Because of that and because it's the one field that we always try to pump water on to each winter, we know it as "The Flood Field". 

Those waterlogged winter conditions lasting into the Spring, created ideal habitat for a large variety of birds and it was normal for Lapwing, Golden Plover and Wigeon numbers, for example, to be in the plus thousands. Sadly, for several years now, those numbers have plummeted to just a few hundred and in the case of Wigeon, to just several dozens if we're lucky. Unfortunately, before you ask, there is no satisfactory way of trapping any substantial amounts of as a form of reservoir. We have a large diesel pump in a brick housing at the end of The Flood Field and that can pump substantial amounts of water onto three different fields, pumping from the ditch system alongside it. That however, is dependent on regular rainfall re-filling the ditches and so in a dry winter, spring and summer that method is quickly lost. We also have a wind pump that draws up fresh water from the underground aquifer but that can only keep the ditch alongside it topped up.

So to go back to the present day, we may not have any floods but at least the current rainy conditions have seen the grass in the grazing meadows re-grow at some speed and green up, something the cattle are now appreciating. Likewise, the arable fields across Harty are now green with the young growth of rape and winter corn and so quickly, the dusty yellow of the summer drought is now but a memory. 

As far as bird life goes, little has changed since my last posting, apart from the one exception. While taking part in last week's monthly Wetland Bird Survey (WEBS) on the reserve, I recorded the first visiting White-fronted Geese of this autumn. There was a group of 10 adults and 8 juveniles feeding alongside the resident Greylag Geese. This is a few weeks earlier than normal for these regular wintering visitors from northern Europe and during the week the flock increased to 25 birds and they still remain there today.