Wednesday, 6 February 2019

Getting Wetter

Last Friday, while most of Southern England was experiencing a heavy fall of snow, here on Sheppey we fortunately didn't. Despite the snow falling to within about 15-20 miles of us, we instead had 18 hours of rain, it was like we were in some kind of unique micro-climate.
Over the last few days, what that has meant, is that as the neighbouring farmland has drained towards the reserve, the ditches have filled almost to over-flowing. All the shallow rills across the grazing marsh have re-filled and the scrape in the Flood Field has also filled just as we need it - the reserve is now looking just as it should do at this time of year.


 Couple that with the fact that as I walked round it earlier this morning, it was much milder than of late and to be honest, in odd sunny spells, it felt almost Springlike. Tempting fate perhaps but a few Skylarks were singing, odd pairs of geese are separating from the main flocks and after the last few weeks of cold weather it was easy to feel that way.
There have been a few casualties over the cold spell though. Yesterday I found a dead Heron alongside one of the ditches and two juvenile Mute Swans from a brood of six last summer have died. Just this morning I also found literally just the two legs of a predated Redshank, one with a ring on. I took the ring number and rang the local bird ringing group and it turned out that the bird had been ringed on the reserve just two and a half years ago.
Back home, the garden is gradually stirring into life, a few daffodils are in flower, with many more soon to follow and tulips are now an inch or two out of the soil. I've pruned all my roses, manured everything that needs manuring and as I stated in my last post, we're in "limbo land" waiting impatiently for the opportunity to do some proper gardening. In the meantime I'll leave you with some of my snowdrops and aconites, how heart-warming they are.

Tuesday, 29 January 2019

Limbo Land

We're currently experiencing a series of very cold days at the moment. Sometimes they're just grey and bitter cold with a bone-chilling wind and sometimes they start with a hard frost and stay sunny and frozen for most of the day. Both the countryside and I are in limbo, seeing out each day waiting for the Spring to begin. Minute by minute the days are lengthening, heading in that Spring-time direction but too much time is spent doing nothing, spending very cold afternoons staring out of the windows.
The garden, visually at least, is giving me some solace from the urge to be back out there again. The snowdrops, aconites, heathers and helebores are all in flower and the daffodils and tulips are chasing them, inching gradually upwards out of the frozen soil.
For the moment, the early morning visits to the reserve with little Ellie are pretty much my only daily highlights. There the early morning daylight sees the wildfowlers packing up, with or without a duck or two and it's always nice to have a chat with them. Later perhaps, as the weekly farmland game shoots starts, I'll perhaps say hello to some of them as they pass by on the other side of the fence, even retrieve a freshly shot pheasant for them from the reserve.
One frosty dawn last week, with the frost so thick it looked like snow, I captured these White-fronted Geese as they flew into the reserve in front of me, such a lovely sight and sound.



But the shooting season is winding down now. Thursday sees the end of the wildfowl shooting on the land above the tidal high water mark and Friday is the last day of the game (pheasants and partridges) shooting season. That just leaves the wildfowlers with twenty days in February to carry on shooting ducks and geese below the tidal high water mark, which basically means that they must be standing in the mud at low tide. Peace and quiet will soon resound around the reserve and farmland as we look forward to a new breeding season.
On the farmland close by most of the fields are green with autumn sown wheat and rape but there are still several fields of stubble, un-touched since last summer's harvest. To these for the last week, tractors have been hauling trailer loads of manure from the stock yards full of cattle, a few miles away. This manure has been spread across the stubble fields and lightly turned in ready for what ever spring sowings that the farmers have planned.

So for now, it's just a matter of of getting through the boredom that is February and looking forward to those first mild and sunny March days, the first bumblebee, the first butterfly, the joy of Spring in my 72nd year.

Sunday, 20 January 2019

All Quiet

Today began at 6.00 as I sat at my laptop, catching up on overnight bits and bobs and with a beautiful full moon shining in the window in front of me. A frost that was quite intense in the middle of the night when I got up for a toilet break, had begun to lessen as a degree of cloud cover had appeared. It's a frustrating time of the year, a month after the Shortest Day and yet I'm found still hanging around indoors waiting for the first glimmers of daybreak so I can go out. That became apparent at just after 7.00 and I set off for the reserve, arriving there as the eastern sky was showing a wide range of yellows, pinks, oranges, although the actual sun rise was still almost an hour away. The large flock of White-fronted Geese (350+) that had been roosting overnight on the flooded scrape on the reserve must of sensed that I was there and got up with a huge clamouring of their very musical and beautiful calls. They flew quite low over my head in the half light, wheeled round and took up their usual day-time place in a stubble field on the next door farmland.
Very high above me as I headed towards the sea wall, came the plaintive calls of a circling Marsh Harrier, while lower down several other Marsh Harriers drifted slowly across the reserve, fresh out of overnight roost sites in various reed beds.
Up onto the sea wall in the increasing light and a quick scan along the saltings to see how many wildfowlers were out enduring the freezing conditions in their pursuit of wildfowl meals, just the one, who never fired a shot the whole time that he was there - wonder why it's always a he, and never a she wildfowler, more sense I suppose.
 Some way further along the sea wall I could see the distant figure of a fellow birdwatcher, one I had expected, and I spent some time walking along to join up with him. He'd been there last night until after dark to count in the roosting Hen Harriers on the saltings and achieved one of the best counts for some time - probably two male HH's and three female HH's. He was there this morning in the dark to count them back out as it became light. As we stood there talking and watching the sun beginning to rise above the hills to the east, the reserve and surrounding farmland looked almost Springlike with it's green fields and blue skies, only the cold temperatures spoiled that effect. We also discussed the absence of so many bird varieties and indeed the very low numbers of birds that has become apparent over the last few years. Low water levels has to be the most obvious reason, wetland bird species need large areas of part-flooded marshland to find such sites attractive and that continues to not be the case and to be honest, doesn't look realistic either in the near future.
We parted and my dog and I made our way back across the reserve, four Snipe got up from one ditch, as did several Mallard and I could hear the Whitefronts calling in the distance but that in all honesty was pretty much it until I got back to the car. There, I could hear a Great Spotted Woodpecker drumming in a nearby farm copse and a Shetland Pony that someone had left in a farm field alongside the reserve, came forward for the carrots that I give it every morning. It had been a beautiful but quiet walk round the reserve and now heading home too where people were still just waking up, unaware of the day that had already taken place..

Thursday, 3 January 2019

The New Year

Little change on the reserve at the moment, re. birds and conditions and given the extended Christmas holiday that many companies have these days, the wildfowlers have been regular in their sometimes twice daily visits to the saltings in front of the reserve. Talking to some of them this morning though, it seems that few of them have been successful at shooting themselves a duck or goose before going back to work next Monday. I counted the White-fronted Goose flock this morning and it still numbers around 160 birds and so they seem unscathed, which is good news, they are beautiful wild birds.

So a change of subject. It.s 3.00 and I've just come in from the garden, the lovely cold but sunny day has now been replaced by heavy grey clouds which have rendered early near darkness upon us.
After returning from my daily visit to the reserve I have been working in the garden, pruning and then manuring, two thirds of my rose beds, you can see one of the beds below. Between the roses there are large numbers of tulips planted, so it should look quite good in the Spring.


Tomorrow, if my aching back allows, I shall complete the task and if "Beast from the East Mk.2" does return as forecast in the next few weeks, everything will be ready for it and snug under it's mulch of manure. The manure by the way, comes from my local garden center at 3 sacks for £10, is good quality manure and equally good value.
My dahlias, a variety called "Bishop of Aukland", have also been left where they grew and given a good covering of manure and will be OK. I know that the experts always advise digging up the tubers and  dry storing them indoors through the winter but mine have remained in the ground for six years now and have come up just as good each year, despite snow and frost.

Saturday, 29 December 2018

Year's End

After the beautiful day's weather that we had on Christmas Day - weather wasted for those who had to endure being stuck indoors being Christmasy, although not me, we have had three days of greyness, gloomyness and dampness, though not rain.
I have been on the reserve around dawn on every morning, dawn that rarely shows much light before 07.15. I've been going at, or just before dawn, for several reasons, the first being that I rarely get up later than around 05.30 in the morning and the first chinks of light not showing until around 07.00 finds me getting very impatient indoors.
A couple of weeks ago a new Marsh Harrier night-time roost was found in the the dense reed beds alongside the sea wall, with up to sixteen birds being seen to leave there at very first light in the morning. Unfortunately my pre-dawn visits over the last three days have come up blank, the birds appear to have moved somewhere else at the moment. There are still several of them to be seem flying around the reserve every day but not to/from the roost it seems.
The Christmas holiday period, with many companies shutting down for a couple of weeks, means that the wildfowlers that shoot the saltings in front of the reserve tend to be more frequent with their visits than during the rest of the winter season.  Slowly, as the reserve begins to wetten up much quicker this winter after two previous drought winters, so the wildfowl are beginning to use the reserve again. This has therefore seen more shooting going on around, and just after, dawn, as the birds fly out to the nearby tide and over the wildfowlers. However, chatting with them as they pack up and from what I've witnessed, there may be a lot of shots being fired but very few birds are being killed. I rather suspect that this is due to poor skills and in one or two cases that I've seen, shooting at birds too far out of range. But the wildfowlers are a hardy and mostly friendly bunch and I always make a point of chatting with them as they pack up, the shooting that goes on there now is minuscule compared to how it used to be twenty-odd years ago.
I've had a few chats with birdwatchers as well while wandering round over the last few days and have enjoyed the fact that both they and the wildfowlers have failed to speak ill of each other, they seem to accept what each other does and leave it at that.
And so this year draws to and end. It basically began with the "Beast from the East" spell of Siberian weather, went through the glorious mid-summer heatwave (please can we have another next year), is ending in increasingly perfect wetland reserve conditions and I'm into my 32nd year as a Volunteer Warden on the reserve - I guess that allows me to say that I know a bit about the place.

I've ended with two wildfowlers and their dog making their way back along the top of the sea wall in the gloom of the early morning.

Wednesday, 26 December 2018

After the event

Dawn and soon after, on Christmas Day, saw the reserve looking just about as scenic as it could. There was a hard, white frost, a blue sky was just beginning to lighten up and a mist, only about 4-5 feet high, rose off the marsh to make some bushes and mounds look as though they were floating. See what I mean in this black and white photo showing a grass mound with a taller hide in front of it. I quite liked the atmosphere in that photo until someone I showed it to suggested that it looked like a nuclear submarine passing by! It was however, a magical and beautiful morning to be out and about, just me and the dog - bliss!


It looked less so in a coloured version.


 And eventually the sun began to rise, to highlight the frosty field in the foreground.


Returning to black and white this was the neighbouring farm track.


 And reed beds covered in frost


 And the full moon as it began to lose brightness in the western sky.

Today, Boxing Day, was different all together at dawn. Much milder and gloomier and grey with no wind and the wind turbines and solar panel farms in the area all mocking the reason that they were put there for. 
Boxing Day is always a traditional hunting/shooting day and so I made my way across the reserve, in the slowly increasing light, and up onto the sea wall to see if many wildfowlers were out on the saltings. As I got there two shots rang out and two ducks fell from the sky with one being picked up immediately but a second, despite much searching by the guy with his dog, wasn't. Very soon after another two shots rang out from much further along the sea wall but I was to far away to see the result, although when the two guys packed up and walked back to go home, they showed me a small Teal duck that they had shot. I left them to go out with their dog and assist the previous guy who was still looking for the missing duck that he'd shot. 

Friday, 21 December 2018

The Equinox

"I dreamed that, as I wandered by the way,
Bare winter suddenly was changed to spring
and gentle odours led my steps astray"........Percy Bysshe Shelley

It's the 21st of December today, the Shortest Day, the one winter's day guaranteed to bring a smile to my lips. With, first every second, then minutes, then hours, we now start the process of longer days, inching nearer towards spring - to warmth, to flowers, to light evenings.

Just lately it seems as though everything is always wet or damp, it seems to rain part of every day. This morning, after overnight rain again, we awoke to a strengthening, gusty and warmish, SW wind. Being outside was liking around in a cool steam room, everything seemed to be dripping.
On the reserve, after two bone dry winters, this winter is most definitely not going to follow that trend. The grazing meadows are now showing numerous splashes of shallow water and the rills that were dug on the meadows are now full of water. The tracks and gateways are very muddy thanks to the cattle that were supposed of been taken off by now but still haven't been. The ditches are still only half full but overall, the reserve is well on it's way to looking like it should do in the winter and to be honest, in a brief sunny spell, it looks quite superb.

Between my front drive and that of a neighbour's, is a tall and fairly wide hawthorn hedge that I planted when I first moved here thirty odd years ago. It is populated for much of the year by up to fifty House Sparrows. In the spring and summer some nest in it and for the rest of the year they shelter in it in order to pop out on to the two bird tables alongside. Sitting in the conservatory the other afternoon watching the birds on the bird table, I suddenly became aware of two rats making their way up through the branches and then jumping across on to a bird table and eating the food. My Jack Russell was going mental with rage through the window but I couldn't let her out to catch them in case they ran out into the road alongside. So that night I put out my baited rat trap, which catches them alive for me to deal with later. Before I went to bed I noticed something was in the trap and on going out there, it was a hedgehog, which should of been hibernating by now and is likely to die if it does hibernate now because it clearly won't have a good enough fat store. I tipped it out, gave it some dog food and off it trotted. The next night I caught it again and so the trap idea was abandoned and I resorted to some securely placed rat poison that hedgehogs and other animals couldn't get to, some people might like rats but I don't.