Saturday, 22 July 2017

The Doldrums

Reading the latest RSPB magazine today I was intrigued by some comments in the latest Simon Barnes column in there. He was writing about how mid-summer to a lot of birdwatchers in particular, is known as "the doldrums", that period in the year when bird activity is at it's lowest and least noticeable. It's surprising how many birdwatchers just settle for that and don't allow their interests to widen out because in fact, there is actually a lot still going on in the countryside at this time of years. Butterflies are having a prolific time this summer and to spend time wandering fields and hedgerows identifying them can be very therapeutic, and why not learn the names of the many wild flowers they pass without even noticing them.
The two below I found on the reserve this morning. Common Toadflax first, looking similar to our garden antirrhinums.......


......and then Perennial Sweet Pea

It was also sad to read in the same RSPB magazine, that last autumn on a British military base in Cyprus, that a record level of more than 800,000 songbirds, including robins and blackcaps, were illegally killed according to research by the RSPB and Birdlife Cyprus. The birds are caught using nets or branches coated with adhesive and sold via the black market to restaurants that serve them up as a local dish, a dish that has been banned since 1974. Many of these songbirds are on a southerly migration having bred in the British Isles and it's appalling that despite the best efforts of the British Sovereign Police there, that so many songbirds are still being killed, so many that won't return here each year.

On the reserve, the rabbit population is starting to show signs of the annual myxomatosis returning as it does each summer. Ellie caught this one this morning showing early signs of it. Some rabbits do actually catch it and survive it but most don't and it soon decimates the population there.


And after a hot session chasing rabbits there's nothing like a nice cooling session in a ditch, a shame the water doesn't smell better!

Thursday, 20 July 2017

Changeable times

Well the best way to describe the weather here on Sheppey at the moment, is changeable and sometimes by the hour! The week started hot, sunny and humid and then broke down overnight Tues/Weds into massive storms and torrential rain that caused a lot of damage in some places. Getting up yesterday morning the garden at last, looked pleasantly wet, but scraping the surface of the soil back do you know, it was only wet to an inch deep, so dry has it been. That rain yesterday was followed all day by a strong and warm wind and so it wasn't long before it started to look dry again. Today has seen heavy grey clouds and a couple of heavy showers which have dampened things down again but it's still windy so we're not getting anywhere wet-wise.
The other point of interest for me as I crossed the marsh yesterday morning was what effect the torrential rain and gusty winds from the overnight storm would of had on the ripe wheat fields. In past years the result would of been flattened and sodden crops and heavy losses for the farmer but as far as I could see the fields were undamaged. I imagine that this is in part due to new wheat varieties that have shorter stems. Wheat straw has little commercial value, unlike barley straw that has, and so it makes sense to grow shorter stemmed crops that are less prone to collapsing under the attack by rain and wind. The farmer that I spoke to yesterday, when I mentioned the storm, was happy to shrug and say "that's farming" but his lot has certainly been made easier by the newer varieties of crop.

A couple of weeks ago I mentioned one of our local Speedwatch sessions whereby our team of four make hourly visits to roads in the parish area that are known for speeding vehicles. early this morning we had a one hour session recording speeding motorists on the same road as a fortnight ago, when 54 were recorded in one hour, almost one a minute! The road in question has a 30mph speed limit and we only record the details of those who are doing 35mph and over, today we recorded another 45 motorists exceeding the limit by that amount. The sessions are not always harmonious, this morning two separate motorists slowed down enough to call us f...ing c...'s and to clear off and get a life. Clearly many see us as just a bunch of bored pensioners with little else to do but annoy people who are speeding in built up areas but it is a role that the local police and parish council have asked us to undertake. The stretch of road we were on today goes past a primary school entrance halfway along it and therefore to expect to speed past it unchallenged does seem a tad stupid and thoughtless.

More autumn wading birds were recorded passing through the reserve this morning and many other reserves are experiencing the same, it really does seem as if autumn is coming early this year.

Saturday, 15 July 2017

Seasonal Confusion

When I arrived at the reserve early this morning it was under an overcast sky but it was very humid and there was a total stillness in the air. Small parties of Sand Martins passed across the grazing meadows heading south and ultimately Africa, just stopping briefly to circle round the cattle and feed on their attendant flies. On the power wires above the entrance to the reserve, large groups of young swallows were perched, twittering happily among themselves as they do and no doubt thinking about joining the Sand Martins. On the fluffy seed heads of thistles small family groups of Goldfinches were plucking out fresh seeds to eat and, strange as it may seem, this whole scene gave me an over-whelming feeling of autumn being just around the corner. As I wandered around the reserve that mood stayed with me, crazy you might say, you're getting ahead of yourself, it's only the second week of July, but what is normal about our seasons these days, are the birds sensing something that we haven't quite grasped yet.
Unfortunately the weather remained pretty grey all day and with a fresh and chilly breeze and a few spits and spots of rain occurring it seemed even more autumnal, I know some people don't like hot sunny days in summer but it would be nice to have such a traditional summer last a bit longer than it currently is.
Oh, and if Wilma reads this - it'd be nice to see a new blog from you and an up-date on your life in paradise.

Thursday, 13 July 2017

Death is not the end

Well for once, the rain that was hinted at in my last blog, actually arrived. Overnight Tuesday into Wednesday we had almost 14 hours of rain, although not always heavy. It was quite a shock to the system, after endless days of hot and sunny weather, to get up early yesterday morning to poor light, heavy rain, a cold N. wind and water pouring down the road in torrents. It was like we'd jumped into winter overnight, but all was not lost, by the afternoon we were back into very warm and sunny conditions and today is the same - the benefits of the rain will soon be gone again.
On Tuesday, I did something I rarely do and attended a funeral, that of my older cousin. He and his family live locally and I worked with him in the docks for many years and so I went and represented my side of the family. And for once it wasn't the usual format. Although it was held in the crematorium chapel there was no real religious nonsense, no vicar and no singing of hymns, etc. Just an independent guy who stood up and read out the family's prepared summary of my cousin's life and their own individual thoughts about him, played a couple of his favourite songs and that was it, simples, I take my hat off to the family. While sitting there listening to the various platitudes I found myself day-dreaming about what people would say about my life, would anybody be there to say anything! what songs would I want played, perhaps one such as Bob Dylan's below.

"when the storm clouds gather 'round you
and heavy rains descend
just remember that death is not the end
and all your dreams have vanished
and you don't know what's up the bend
just remember that death is not the end"

This morning as I wandered round the reserve enjoying the warmth and sun of a summer's day, I took some photos so that you see some of what I saw. The sea wall was heaving with butterflies, some are here.
Gatekeeper

 Peacock

 Small Tortoiseshell

This Heron was keeping guard on the other side of the fleet

Meadow Bindweed, seemed to be a favourite of several butterflies

Prickly Lettuce, much taller than me

Common Fleabane

A bit of green and smelly water left in a ditch by the barn

The neighbouring farmer might not be happy to see seed heads of these thistles blowing towards his fields soon but in the mean time the humming of hundreds of bees feeding on the flowers was really intense.

Lastly, the wheat fields across the Harty marshes are now looking really golden as they await the harvesters.

Monday, 10 July 2017

The Heat Goes On - or maybe not

Walking round the reserve early this morning at 6.00, I was struck at how all of a sudden the amount of bird song is beginning to decrease, the reserve is getting quieter as mid-summer takes hold and the drought increases. Although we're pretty much entering a second year of these very dry conditions, we still haven't yet reached the intensity of the 1976 summer, or that of the first couple of years of the 1990's here on Sheppey, but we're getting closer. Having said that, the weather forecast for here is for some rain over the next couple of days, a forecast these days which rarely seems to come true. That leads me to the latest type of warning from the Met. Office, such as for today and tomorrow, a Yellow Warning (be prepared) of rain. Presumably that is because any showers might be heavy and intense but come on, all of my life I've never known it come down to being warned that it might rain, seems silly!
The countryside around here is mostly burnt yellow, bone hard and tinder dry, a colour exacerbated by the fact the rape crops are being harvested and the wheat and barley fields are also that bright gold colour. Given that the ground that all these crops are growing in is cracked and dust dry, it will be interesting to see how much the yields will be affected this year. It's certainly done away with the need to mow the garden lawns this summer very much, mine is burnt brown and yellow now and has only required a light mow just once this last month.

But getting back to the birds on and around the reserve, well with each visit more and more of the Reed and Sedge Warblers in the reed beds are falling silent. The Marsh Harriers have fledged their young now and therefore becoming more solitary again and the wildfowl are entering their eclipse, or moult, period. This moult sees them lose their flight feathers for a short time and become vulnerable to predators and so many tend to skulk about in waterside vegetation and become less noticeable. There are still a few pairs of birds breeding, some will go into late August, but in the main many are now in family groups as they fly around, Linnets this morning were noticeable in small flocks again. I read somewhere recently that Linnet numbers are starting to drop, well that's definitely not the case around the reserve, they are easily the commonest finch.
Following on from their disastrous breeding season this year and with very few feeding opportunities for them in the bone dry conditions, Lapwings have mostly left the reserve now, I doubt that we'll see many of them back now until wet conditions return. All in all we're now entering the annual period of wildlife inactivity where for the next couple of months the countryside seems to go to sleep. The only major activity to look forward to now is the harvesting of crops and then the readying of the fields for next year's crops.

Tuesday, 4 July 2017

Butterflies, Speeding and Old Age

Earlier this morning was about as good as it gets weather and reserve wise, one to be thoroughly enjoyed. Under clear blue skies with no breeze at all, it was already very warm, hot even, by 8.00 and the reserve looked beautiful. Everywhere was a mass of butterflies fluttering to and fro across the grazing meadows, Meadow Browns, Small Heaths, Small and Essex Skippers, and a few Red Admirals, Peacocks and Painted Ladies, it was amazing.
But I'm jumping forward, before that, between 6.00 and 7.00, our four-man Parish Council Speedwatch Team, of which I am one, carried out one of our weekly sessions recording speeding motorists along one of six stretches of police assessed roads around the parish. The speed limit on the stretch of road that we did today is 30mph and we record the details of motorists travelling at 35mph and over. We recorded 54 speeding motorists - that's almost one a minute! - and some were doing 45mph and more.

Lastly, today is my 70th birthday and time to reflect on how being 70 and over these days is so different to how I saw it when I was much younger. Today many, if not most of us, get to 70 looking and feeling pretty fit, looking allegedly, good for our age. Blimey, when I was in my 20's or 30's, looking forward to people in their 70's they always seemed to be old and frail, in wheel chairs and pissing themselves all the time. Yet nowadays most of us get to this age, still very active, walking, cycling, still getting a "leg over" now and then and testament to the modern day fit and healthy pensioner.
I have to admit that July 4th 1947 seems a bloody long way ago but I'm really chuffed to have got here still doing what I do and although the next decade will probably be a long road on a downward slope, life is pretty good at the moment.

Monday, 26 June 2017

Flora, Fauna and the Seashore

It has been an unexpectedly hot and sunny day here in North Kent and even better, without the wind that seems to blow most days this summer.
Walking past one of the large reed beds on the reserve this morning I could hear the familiar "pinging" calls of Bearded Tits. They do breed in the reed beds and I quickly came across four juvenile birds working their way through the reed stems, two of which are shown below.

Every year I look for these, my favourite caterpillars, the larva of the Cinnabar Moth. Such distinctive colours as they munch their way through the leaves of the Ragwort plants.

I also came across this thistle, heavily infested with black aphids, to the delight of the local ants. Ants milk the aphids for a sticky substance that they produce and which the ants feed on. Quite often the ants will carry aphids to new plants so that the infestation cycle can continue and the ants maintain their food supply. If you look closely in the center of the photo, you can see a black ant in the process of milking some of the ants.

 Several hundred yards from my bungalow is one of the main routes into the town of Sheerness. We know it as the "Coastal Road because just the other side of the shingle bank to the right, that acts as a sea wall, is the sea. In the center of the photograph is the cycle path that I ride most days during the summer months.

This is the view from the top of the shingle bank, looking out into the Thames Estuary, where large ships pass daily, making their way into near-by Sheerness Docks or carrying on up the Thames towards London. I have this view, a tad more distant, as I sit in my study writing this.

And looking back eastwards along the seaward side of the shingle bank towards the ever eroding clay cliffs, a mile or so away. A wide promenade runs along the base of those cliffs for part of their length.

Lastly, as I cycled through the local cemetery this afternoon, I was delighted to come across large numbers of this lovely coloured wild flower, Orange Hawkweed. I've never seen it anywhere else on Sheppey but it is apparently common in churchyards and has the delightful country name of Fox and Cubs.