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. 

Sunday, 18 December 2016

What happened to Winter?

Here we are at the end of December 2016 and no sign of any really cold weather, in fact it's not unlike the December of last year, predominantly mild and basically an extended autumn. The only really difference between this December and last December is how dank and gloomy it has been.
The photo below shows the Harty Road (it runs across the marshes to the reserve), in December 2011 and it was the last time that we had snow of any seriousness. To the left is a very deep, near empty ditch that concentrated the mind on not going to fast in the car and sliding off the road. But are winters such as this, now a thing of the past, have four or five autumn months now taken their place?

I had a 4x4 vehicle when I took the photo above and so the challenge of getting along the road wasn't too bad. Since then, after a serious of non-snowy winters, I have reverted to a normal two-wheel drive car again and wouldn't want to risk such conditions in that. Up until ten years or so ago, some snow of varying depths was still guaranteed in most winters but then we still had real winters then, not lengthy autumns. Those were the days when it was not possible to get the car off of the drive and so a lengthy walk through deep snow to the pet shop for bird food supplies and household supplies was necessary, or endured. The splendid effect of those days was the fact that many other people were doing the same and the trudge through the snow became a community thing. A time whereby all of a sudden people from the same road shared experiences rather than simple nods in passing.
With bird food purchased it was then back home, sweep 6 inches of snow off of the bird tables and to sit back in the warmth and watch the birds gratefully accepting the life-lines that you'd given them.

Going back to these last two winters, the other event that has not been happening, is normal amounts of rainfall, as I have regularly mentioned this year. Walking away from my car at the reserve barn, this is the sight that I would have seen in many January/February's up until a couple of years ago. Wall to wall flooding that created an arduous walk round for me in wellington boots that were sometimes not high enough and a lot of swimming for my two dogs, but boy, did it attract in many thousands of birds. Ducks, geese, plovers and waders were in such large flocks that it was difficult to count them at times and the wildfowlers waiting on the other side of the sea wall were regularly spoilt for choice when it came to shooting. This morning, and last December, that same view is of unbroken green grass, just some geese and a few ducks, etc. and the ditch water level to the left and right of that gate is three feet below the track.


Thursday, 15 December 2016

Things ain't changed

It's been some time since I last wrote about the reserve and to be honest, it's been some time since anything worth writing about, happened. Here we are almost at the end of December and the main talking point, surprisingly, remains that of the lack of water. After this summer's prolonged drought we finally got a few days of rain several weeks ago and things began to look as though they might catch up water-wise. Since then however it has been either dry and frosty, damp and drizzly, or just plain grey and damp, but certainly not very wet. Sure, when I go out to the reserve each morning the grass is always wringing wet from dew, drizzle or mist, and the bare areas are soft and a tad muddy, but the shallow rills are bone dry and the ditches are barely any deeper than they were in July. I was talking to a birdwatcher out there a couple of weeks ago who hadn't been there for some time and he was amazed at the lack of water and as a result, the lack of wildfowl. It is blindingly obvious therefore, that unless we get a high amount of rainfall during the next three months, we will have serious water problems out there by the end of the Spring once drying winds and warm sunshine come along.
Mind you, both the cattle and their owner are enjoying the current conditions. It's mostly mild, the grass is ticking over nicely, the gateways, etc., haven't become impassable due to cattle damage from excessively wet conditions and no doubt they will be taken off for calving much later than is normal.

Bird-wise, well things aren't too bad in respect of variety, it's mainly the wildfowl numbers however that are well below what would be expected there in a normal wet winter. The very low water levels in the fleets and ditches and a bone dry Flood Field, have meant that numbers of Teal, Mallard and Shoveler are well below what used to be recorded 10-15 years ago, only Gadwall are present in reasonable numbers. The 300+ feral Greylag Geese  are surviving the shooting that is going on all round the reserve well though, they always seem to find the safest routes in and out of the reserve on a regular basis. Their numbers are regularly boosted as well by 48-50 truly wild White-fronted Geese, always a joy to see and hear.
What else, well the day-time roost of Short-eared Owls out on the saltings seems to be holding their own at around 10-12 birds and encouragingly, they are regularly joined for a night-time roost, by two female and one male, Hen Harriers, a far better number than in recent years. The only other birds of note are a long stay Crane and a Richards Pipit. This Skylark sized and rather plain Pipit, an autumn/winter vagrant from Asia, is back to the exact same spot along the reserve sea wall for it's third winter running. Other than that, on a day to day basis, the reserve can be pretty boring at times due to the low numbers of birds.


Thursday, 24 November 2016

Goodbye Midge

In February 2003 I took receipt of a seven week old Jack Russell puppy to be named Midge. She had been bought to replace the previous Jacko that had just died and to become the new companion of my then, seven year old Beagle, Nana. This photo, taken a day or two after she'd arrived, makes her look a lot bigger than she actually was, she was tiny.


Despite Midge's tiny size, Nana was at first, petrified of her, a supremacy that Midge was quick to exploit but they eventually enjoyed countless hours of playful wrestling.

And when the big day came and a very timid Midge was introduced to the big wide and scary world of the marsh and all it's mysterious sights and smells, it was Nana that showed her round and looked after her.

And after a hard day on the marsh, learning all the things that a young dog has to learn, it would be time for a nap on my bed, protected still by Nana's comforting arm. (This was not posed, they often slept like this)

 And gradually she grew up......

and turned into the wonderful and trouble-free dog that she always was.

And five years ago, when Nana eventually died, I replaced her with little Ellie and it became Midge's turn to be the matriarch and show the latest young up-start the proper way to to things.
But a few days ago, an amazingly fit, near fourteen year old Midge, suddenly developed an aggressive cancer and we had to say goodbye to her - I'll miss her greatly, it's just Ellie and me now.

Sunday, 30 October 2016

Clocking Back

The frustrations of being a bad sleeper and a naturally early waker-upper came home to roost badly this morning. No matter how badly I sleep I always wake up at around 5am and get up shortly after. Last night the clocks went back an hour to bring us into British winter time, that meant when I woke up at my normal 5am, a glance at the clock showed that it was now actually 4am. Great, most normal people will say, turn over and go back to sleep for an extra hour, unfortunately once I'm awake that's it, I can't fall back to sleep again, I get up. So I laid there and thought oh well, if everything's gone backwards by an hour that means instead of having to wait for it to get light at 7.15, this morning it'll be 6.15 and I get to the reserve earlier in the day - wrong!! As I lay there in the darkness I could hear the constant mournful sound of the fog horns out in the Thames Estuary, a couple of miles away. Oh no, and a glance out of the window showed that the fog was so thick I could barely see across the road, I'd only been awake a few minutes and my day had already got off to a bad start.
Normally I quite like being out on the marsh in the fog, it has a real Dickensian feel about it, sounds carry, birds appear from nowhere, but this morning I wanted to be there just as the first glimmer of light appeared in order to see what standard of shooting the wildfowlers produced re. the geese again. Now that wasn't going to happen and so I hung around indoors until the paper shop opened, got the papers, read one, and then by 8.00 the fog was beginning to lift and so I set off. By the time I got to the reserve we briefly had a glimpse of the sun before the fog began to slowly thicken again. I wandered across to the sea wall hide and joined two birdwatchers in there for a chat. They advised that they had passed the wildfowlers as they made their way to the hide and that they were carrying dead geese and so it looks as though the geese are going to take a daily pasting all the time that they continue taking the flight line that they do.
Meanwhile the birdwatchers were hoping for a glimpse of the Crane that has been frequenting the reserve for a few weeks, though not while I was talking to them, and were carrying two of those huge long lenses for photography that are popular these days. They looked terribly heavy and it must be a labour of love to carry them around for any length of distance, although I guess the results make it all worthwhile. As I came round the back of the reserve a while later I could hear the Crane calling and amazingly it had flown in and landed in a field quite close to the photographers and so they must of been very happy in the end.
Going past Capel Corner along the Harty Road the Great White Egret was walking about among the Mallards in the now shallow Fleet there and I pulled up to snatch a photo. On lifting the camera it immediately flew off and so I was left with just the Mallards and behind them a load of Coot. It's still only 11.45, I feel like I've already been up for a whole day, the fog has lifted to leave grey skies and I think it is going to be a long day.