Saturday, 31 December 2011

End of the Year

I arrived on the seawall just as dawn was breaking as you can see below and it was both mild and very damp from overnight rain. What you can't see due to the light, are two wildfowlers sitting in front of me halfway across the saltings.
After an hour and no shots fired the two of them were still out there and so I rang one up on his mobile to find out if he had seen much prior to my arrival. Apparently he had bagged one Teal and claimed to have heard some Pink-footed Geese fly along the saltings in the dark, if he was right then hopefully they will be re-found some time today by any birdwatchers out and about. As well as the two wildfowlers mentioned I could just make out the heads of another two at the far end of the saltings by the old barges and that total of four is the most that I have seen out there in the last couple of months, which pretty much describes how few wildfowl there are in the area.


In recent weeks the two RSPB fields alongside the reserve have been attracting both good numbers of birds and as a result increasing numbers of birdwatchers. The principal interest has been increasing numbers of Lapland Buntings, peaking this week so far at 20-22 birds, a number unheard of on Sheppey for many years, if at all.
These two fields, that run between the public footpath that runs down behind Muswell Manor and the edge of the reserve are simply two grassy fields. What makes them so attractive to a large and varied number of passerines however is their progress over the last year.
Three years ago the two fields were part of the neighbouring arable farmland and shot over and were two of four purchased to eventually come into the RSPB's ownership. During autumn 2010 the two fields, after levelling and landscaping, were re-sown with grass seed which by this Spring had produced a good green sward. As I understand it, the fields are destined to become yet another two examples of grazing marsh for the benefit of breeding Lapwings, as though we need more! For whatever reason the fields were left to become totally overgrown and the wide variety of grasses, corn, wild oats and rape, all run to seed before the fields were eventually cut in late September. The resultant grassy base of the fields, packed with all manner of wild seed, first became a magnet this autumn/winter for flocks of a 100+ Skylarks and Linnets and then gradually Reed Buntings and the Lapland Buntings have followed. It has become an accidental example of what you can achieve out there by providing that, in very short supply, that type of habitat and hopefully the senior RSPB management will now re-consider their original plans for the fields.

One last point of possible interest to some readers, Ellie continues to make progress as you can see below. Despite her little legs she now manages to complete an almost full patrol round the reserve in company with Midge. I think she's always going to be a much shorter version of Midge but she has tremendous stamina and character.
Tonight, and not by choice, I have to stay up until well past midnight in order to calm Midge as we endure the barrage of fireworks that now have to be let off each New Year and so panic her.

Monday, 26 December 2011

Mild and Quiet

I arrived on the seawall of the reserve this morning just as it was half light from the dawn and was struck by two things, one it was incredibly mild and two, there were no wildfowlers present, which is pretty much unheard of for Boxing Day. In fact there were no visible signs of anyone shooting on the whole of Harty, something I've never known before in this Christmas holiday period.
While its nice that there is no disturbance, etc. from the wildfowlers it has to be tempered with the fact that the reason that there are no wildfowlers is because there's nothing to shoot and if there's nothing to shoot at, there's also nothing for us to see on the reserve, which this morning was pretty much the case. On Boxing Day last year the reserve was covered in snow and completely frozen up except for one small patch of open water in the seawall fleet and yet I saw a few hundred ducks, over a thousand geese and fifteen wildfowlers - today I saw just five Mallard! Talking to various wildfowlers recently it seems that the dearth of wildfowl is pretty much the same throughout much of North Kent this winter, lets hope that it is simply just a case of the mild and dry weather and not an indicator of anything more serious.

Staying on the quiet theme there really were few birds to be seen on the main reserve this morning. Now I don't want to get into the same trend as a few blogs have recently - you know, where they produce an enviable list of birds seen on a particular day and then smugly complain about how quiet it is, but have a look at my main sightings in an hour or so this morning.
5 Mallard
2 Grey Heron
1 Little Egret
2 Marsh Harrier
1 Kestrel
80 Lapwing
1 S.E.Owl
1 Lapland Bunting
1 Wren

OK, if I'd of stayed for several hours I could of added to that list but a wetland reserve at the end of December should have large numbers of wildfowl, plovers and waders viewable the minute you arrive there. It was a strange visit, it was mild enough to grace any March day and eerily quiet as though something had sucked all the birds out of the sky and moved them somewhere else.

Thursday, 22 December 2011

A Special Day

What a superb day's weather we had today, clear blue skies and an almost warm sun, despite being a tad breezy on the marsh, today could of easily been one from March or April. Last night in the garden I found a Common Newt making its way across the lawn and today there was a Great Tit loudly "teaching" to all and sundry - is it really only mid-December?
Last Friday we should of completed the Dec WEBS count but the weather defeated us and so early this morning two of carried out a belated count on the reserve. I don't have the count for Shellness Point yet but mine covering birds on the mudflats in front of the reserve saltings and along to the saltings below Harty church were encouraging. The two stand out counts were 210 Avocet and 1050 Lapwing. 800 of the Lapwing were on the saltings below Harty Church and it is a welcome back to good numbers of Lapwing, they have been in very low numbers through the continuing drought. A few other noteable counts were 180 Grey Plover, 60 Redshank and 100 Shelduck. One absentee in recent months has been Coots. Normally at this time of the year we would see numbers building towards the 100 mark but since the drought set in during late summer they have pretty much disappeared and I can't recall when I last saw any.
On my back round the boundary hedging of the reserve I was also pleased to come across 12 Long-tailed Tits, 2 Blue Tits, 16 Blackbird, 40 Reed Bunting, 26 Goldfinch.

Back at the reserve barn at 10.15 it was obviously to good a morning to waste and so I briefly nipped home to collect Ellie the puppy (only 15 mins each way) and set off again across part of the reserve. I'd left Ellie at home because I assumed that a long walk such as the WEBS would be too much for her little legs but I think I worried unduly, she ran for ages on that second walk of the day. Here below she is in the reserve barn helping Midge sniff out any mice or rats and then out on the marsh itself.





Despite looking beautifully green and muddy, the overall level of water on the reserve remains very low and I'll be surprised if we achieve anywhere near normal water levels this winter. The scrapes in the field that we know as "The Flood" (its in front of the Sea wall Hide), we re-dug this summer and they still remain pretty much dry and so I decided to pump what water that we could spare, onto them this morning. The Pumphouse pumps water from the ditches alongside The Flood onto the scrapes and at the moment that means lowing the ditches from just a foot or so deep to around six inches. However once we can get the scrapes reasonably wet then any further rains do at least add to the depth of water in the scrape rather than simply soaking into the soil. The pumphouse has the ability to pump the water in three different directions by opening/shutting various valves.


This is the main scrape before we started pumping.


And after we had been pumping for a short while.



All in all a splendid morning's work on the reserve and a real treat to be able to get out in such enjoyable weather, we've had the Shortest Day, soon all this Christmas rubbish will be out of the way and we can start dreaming of breeding birds, swallows and butterflies - can't wait!!

Monday, 19 December 2011

Barnacles

Yesterday morning I arrived at the reserve Just as light was lighting up what soon became a blue sky. There was a hard white frost and it was bone-chillingly cold but as the light increased and the eastern horizon gradually became a deeper orange, the sun threatened to rise shortly. Actually the shortly took another hour and it was 8.00 before the first orange tip inched it's way above the hills behind Seasalter but with the Shortest Day just two days away, things should start to swing backwards in time before long.
Arriving on top of the seawall,I could just make out the dark shapes of three wildfowlers out on the saltings in the half light, how cold they must of been and for no return. No wildfowl were visible at all on or around the reserve, the only ones audibly and occasionally visible, were Brent Geese out on The Swale. There have been large rafts of Mallard and other ducks recorded lately on the sea off of Shellness but where they are going to on land no one seems to know. The three wildfowlers packed up just after sun-rise and came on to the seawall for a chat before heading home, all teeth chattering and juddering with the cold. Apparently a few Greylag Geese passed along the salting before it got light, none of which were shot, and that was the sum of the morning's wildfowl. Looking at the still dry, new rills and scrapes across the reserve, despite last week's rain, that looks like remaining the case as well. I'm beginning to despair of seeing the reserve properly wet this winter, which could be disastorous for next year's breeding birds.

After the wildfowlers had gone, I carried on along the sea wall for a while before catching the sound of approaching geese, the exciting yapping of Barnacle Geese! 18 of them came in from The Swale and circled round me before going back out towards The Swale, what a lovely sound they make. With another 40-odd seen over mid-Kent the same morning perhaps birds are beginning to move in from the Continent, although one would normally expect to see good numbers of White-fronted Geese before or with the Barnacles.

Yesterday afternoon/early evening I was back at the Sea Wall Hide, enduring relentless cold, for the third Harrier Roost Count. This time fortunately, there were no wildfowlers out on the saltings and I had the increasing gloom to myself, but the cold was a bit of an endurance test, just standing there looking through a scope. It turned out to be one of the best I've ever had for Hen Harriers roosting on the saltings though. Immediately I put the 'scope up and look towards Shellness, I spotted a ring-tail (female) HH drop in and disturb a superb, pale grey male HH, which re-alighted a few yards away. Gradually, as the light lessened, single ring-tail HH's made their way along the salting past me and down to the Shellness end to roost. Eventually I ended up with 1 male HH - 4 ring-tail HH's and 1 female Marsh Harrier - a really good count for there in recent times!

Arriving back at the barn and my car in the near dark I was encouraged to see a Barn Owl out hunting. Whether this was the poorly one from last weekend I couldn't say but I was encouraged to see it. However there was a down-side to the owls in the week, looking round for a possible dead adult, three decomposing bodies of young Barn Owls were found. They had been dead for some time and had no rings on their legs and as we had rung the first brood of three chicks we could only surmise that the adults had had a second brood that didn't survive after fledging.

Thursday, 15 December 2011

Adey comes to Sheppey

Adey is an unusual name from my family's history and is one that I would love to have been called. Unfortunately it was allowed to die out before it got to my turn to be named but I'll take you down the path it took until then, hopefully it won't be considered a boring indulgence.

Adey Faulkner was born in Ospringe, nr. Faversham in Kent in 1822, and his father, also an Adey, had been born in 1796. By 1847, exactly a hundred years before I was born, he had moved across The Swale and was living at the eastern end of Sheppey, and thus starting the Faulkners' link with Sheppey. Its also a pretty fair bet that he came across via the small boat ferry at Harty Ferry, one of three along The Swale at the time.
During the first three months of 1847, aged 25, he had married a 20 yr old Doddington girl by the name of Mary Marchant and within four years they already had two children.
So by 1851 Adey was working as a farm labourer and living with his family in a small farm cottage at Stonepitts Farm, out on the marshes, two miles below Eastchurch village. In those days there were a great numbers of these farms and their small cottages strung out across the bleak and waterlogged marshes of southern Sheppey. Rose Cottage and Cod's House at Elmley are a couple of the few that remain. Like all the farm cottages on the marshes in those days, Adey's would of had no sanitation, no lighting other than candles or oil lamps and water gathered from either a well or even ditches. The malarial mosquitoes which abounded on the marshes saw many people suffering with and often die of, the ague (malaria)and periods of extreme cold and snow in the winter months must of been particually excruciating to bear.
To compound the misery at the time, these workers cottages were only available while you were employed by the owner and you often found yourself sharing with other families, despite the cramped conditions. Become unemployable and you and your family were homeless again.
The 1851 Census at the Stonepitts cottage Adey was in illustrates this quite clearly:-

Adey Faulkner 28
Mary Faulkner - wife 23
Adey Faulkner - son 2
James Faulkner - son 5 mths
James Newman - lodger/farm labourer 26
Harriet Newman - wife 20

Much later in 1909, Stonepitts Farm was bought by the Aero Club who were desperate to move from their airfield at nearby Muswell Manor, Leysdown. They immediately began turning it into both an airfield for their members and an aeroplane factory for the Shorts Bros.. It of course then went on to became both a military airfield in WW1 and WW2 before ending up in its current form - several prisons. The photo below shows Stonepitts Farmhouse in 1911, surrounded by the early aeroplane sheds.


Also in 1851 and living on Sheppey, were the Thomas family, who lived at Parsonage Farm, near Halfway village in the centre of Sheppey. Thomas, like a big percentage of Sheppey at the time, was also a farm labourer and his second daughter Martha was born that year. Ten years later in 1861, the Thomas family were housed in another farm cottage, this time somewhere along the Harty Road but Martha aged just 10, was
living, and working, at nearby Elliots Farm as a Housemaid. Martha was would marry into the Faulkner family a little later.
Also by 1861 Adey Faulkner and his ever growing family had moved from Stonepitts and were now living in a cottage at New Rides farm along the Leysdown Road below Eastchurch. Adey continued to be employed as a farm labourer, as was his son Adey, now 12 and employed as a Carter.

This general merry-go-round of families moving from farm to farm was typical of the period as both farmers and their labourers struggled to earn a living. During the last quarter of the 1800's there had been a gradual shift away from agriculture to industry and even in those days, an increase in the amount of imported food, so farmers were seeing their profits starting to drop. It was a very traumatic time for the farm labourers and their families and they were constantly moving from farm to farm, as jobs were easily lost for the slightest of reasons. Adey Snr, to his credit, seems to have managed to stay employed throughout these times and even ten years later in 1871 was still employed as a farm labourer and living at New Rides Farm, aged 49, and by today's standards probably looking like an old man. Not only that, with his wife Mary having died in 1861 and his three sons all left home, he now found himself lodging there in a cottage with another family.

Adey Jnr meanwhile had moved a few miles further along the Leysdown Road, was employed as a farm labourer and was living with a family of seven and two lodgers, all crammed in to No.5 Tills Cottages at New House Farm. This farm is still there today, sits on high ground looking south across Capel Fleet and the Harty Road below and also towards Elliots Farm where the young Martha Thomas had been working ten years before. Fate however, now found the 19yr old Martha living back with her parents and alongside Adey Jnr at No.3 Tills Cottages at New House Farm. Clearly they had also been doing some courting because in the autumn of 1871 they needed to become a married couple with their first son, Adey, being born in early 1872. My eventual Grandad Albert was also one of his four siblings. Unfortunately, this baby Adey was the last in the family to be named so but we can follow him on until his eventual death and the demise of the name, in 1926.

1872 was also monumental for the fact that schooling for children became compulsory and as a result two small schools were built at Leysdown and Harty. The Harty schoolhouse was alongside Harty church and was only pulled down a couple of years ago to make way for the new bungalow there. Imagine the children from the many farms and cottages dotted across the whole of Harty making their way there on foot using just tracks and footpaths across the marshes in winter! Ironically this new education system also had the unfortunate effect of increasing the poverty experienced by these already poor farm workers' families, because it limited the earning ability of children to provide cheap labour on the farms. They were now expected to attend school every day and were only allowed to leave at thirteen if they had gained a School-leaving Certificate. No Certificate meant compulsory staying on for another year. Local school records also highlight the poverty suffered by these families with children arriving at school wearing no socks and often even no shoes and frozen cold with no coats or jackets.
Quite which school Adey's children would of gone to I don't know but I imagine that the Leysdown one would of been much easier to walk to from Till's Cottages than the much further Harty one.

Adey Snr was to eventually die in 1884, aged 62, but before that in 1881, Adey and his family were now to be found living in a cottage at the far more pleasant surroundings of Whyburns Farm in Minster. Minster since the year dot had always been the dominant and ruling parish over most of Sheppey and was to remain that way for a few years more until Sheerness began to spread out from the hulks of the dockyard there. The village was on high ground, warmer than the wilds of Harty and most importantly had shops, churches and schools all close by. The farm, of which the farmhouse still remains, was situated alongside Wards Hill Road, just below the village, and ironically I now live further down the same road. Adey was employed there as a Waggoner, and although it wasn't a huge farm it did encompass part of what is now known as The Glen village green and park.

It is also worth noting here that in Kentish records for the time the position of Waggoner or Carter was generally regarded as a fairly prestigious and well paid one. They would be responsible for the complete welfare of the farm's horses, without which little could happen. As a result the Waggoner would be employed on a year's contract, guaranteeing his family their living regardless of weather and sickness and would often receive other benefits such as free cottage, coal and faggots. Whether Adey was beneficiary of such a standard of living is unknown but it would be nice to think so. And if he needed a constant reminder of the price of failure, just a few hundred yards up the road was the Sheppey Union Workhouse!

It is difficult to know exactly but it appears throughout this potted history that our Adeys all managed to stay one step ahead of unemployment which was quite credible and seemed to involve regular moves to new farms. As a result, by 1891 he left Whyburns and was now living with Martha and their sons at Ripney Hill Farm, halway between Minster and Sheerness and only a few miles from Martha's birthplace at Parsonage Farm, she had almost travelled in a full circle. The majority of Ripney Hill Farm is now covered by the Sheerness Golf Club but in 1891 both Adey and four of his sons were working there as Farm Servants, I assume that was another name for labourers. The average wage for the farm workers at the time was less than three shillings a day and in an effort to improve conditions for themselves and their workers, in 1894 local farmers formed local branches of the National Agricultural Union. A large number of the farm workers joined this Union in the hope that it would bring better security but there is little to suggest that it actually did.

The last record of Adey and Martha and their family, including the younger Adey, mostly living together was in 1901, they were living in the short High Street of Minster village itself. The High Street even now, is still barely much more than a hundred yards long but in those days was full on both sides by mostly wooden shacks on both sides of the street, some of which had become shops. Eventually in the 1920's many of them were destroyed in a fire that quickly spread along the High Street.
In 1901, despite now living in the very heart of the village, the Faulkner's had hardly improved their situation, the shacks were in very poor condition and things such as water and oil for lamps still had to be bought from the daily cart rounds, or water sometimes bucketed from a local communual well.
Here Adey and three of his sons were as usual still employed in the area as Agricultural Labourers, although there was an indication that times were changing. A fourth son was lodging in Queenborough and now employed as a railway plater on the Island's new railways.

Adey died there in 1907, aged 59 but for some reason I cannot find Martha's date of death. Their son, the last Adey, by 1911 was living as a boarder at Neats Cottages, between Queenborough and Minster and working as a labourer. Eventually he died in 1926 and is buried in an un-marked pauper's grave in the Sheppey Cemetery, which I have located. The last of an unusual name.
One last photograph that I must share with you, is that of my Great Grandmother Martha in her later years in Minster. There are those that say I have inhereted her severe look - I prefer to think that even then someone might of mentioned the word twitcher.

Saturday, 10 December 2011

Brent at Dawn

The first glimmers of dawn light were showing to the east as I left home this morning for the reserve after first clearing a frozen windscreen on the car, it had been a cold night!
As I turned on to the Harty Road I glanced back towards Eastchurch up on the hill and was struck by the night's full moon gently slipping down behind the village and adding to the coldness of the scene.


When the sky is clear, as it was this morning, its amazing how quick the light increases and by the time that I pulled up at the reserve it was almost full daylight, with a lovely blue sky changing gradually to pinks and yellows the closer it got to the horizon.
I alighted from the car to the regular weekend dawn chorus of shotguns going off at various point around the farmland marshed behind me, the commercial duck ponds were suffering their regular attacks. As I crossed the reserve towards the seawall the grass underfoot was covered in hard frost, crunchy and firm and so much easier to walk across than the wet and the mud. Up the seawall steps and my first peruse of the saltings in both directions for any wildfowler heads that might be visible out there. Nope, none - the story so far of this shooting season, the wildfowlers have been very few and far between out there this winter - talking to them I doubt collectively if they've shot much more than a dozen or so birds over three months!
Still a dozen too many you might say, fair enough, but compare that with the scores shot around the commercial duck ponds on the farmland, each visit!

So, which direction to walk, I went west along the sea wall, heading for the stretch of reserve that lies below Harty Church. As I have mentioned before, these narrow grassy banks that run down to the saltings below the church, are a favourite part of the reserve for me with their views down The Swale and across to Oare. Looking across to Oare I could see a couple of wildfowlers on the saltings in front of the West Flood, presumably hoping to surprise any wildfowl leaving it, but instead they were shotless and instead stood around talking, its sometimes hard being a wildfowler - should I say that, oh well.
On the mudflats below the banks were several hundred Brent Geese, bathing, preening and generally cackling and barking away, they sound at times, like a pack of fox hounds away in the distance.


Eventually, they began to rise up in regular small flocks and make their way over me towards the farmland, a cackling, brent-full sky of birds.




They were heading for their current daily feeding area on the adjacent farmland, see them here towards the top of the field.


The field was sown this autumn with a silage grass mixture that will produce one or two cuts of silage next summer. It must be very lush and palatable for the geese at the moment, why mess about on mudflats! Technically, as long as the field doesn't become water-logged and muddy, the grazing by the geese won't do a lot of harm, just as a lawn does in the warmth of the Spring, after the geese have moved on, the grass will quickly shoot away to produce the silage crop that the farmer expects. Wether he will see it that way is a different matter, there could be trouble ahead as the song goes.

A sadder event occurred when I visited the reserve yesterday morning. As I parked up I became aware of one of the reserve's resident Barn Owls sitting atop a post alongside the car. That was unusual, they don't normally allow me to get that close. Getting out of the car with my camera, I was allowed to get within a few yards before the bird weakly flew off to quickly land in some long grass close by. For whatever reason, the bird doesn't look well and I fear that we shall find it dead there in the coming weeks, a real shame.

Thursday, 8 December 2011

Another Side of Winter

In my previous posting I made no secret of my dislike of the winter cold and the conditions that come with it, and yet there are times when I find myself having nostalgic thoughts about winter's past and how we did things. Perversely these normally occur when I'm laying on my sunlounger in the garden on a hot summer's day, glugging some chilled white wine (sipping is out of the question). I suppose its that normal thing whereby when you're in one season you find yourself dreaming about another, just as many of us are currently dreaming about next Spring.
Anyway, while I'm glugging away and staring up at a hot July sky, I find myself sometimes thinking about cosily sitting in front of log fires, with it cold outside, and mulled ale and hot chestnuts and all the atmosphere that goes with it. I suppose the modern day equivalent is the central heating full on, a glass of red wine and a bag of dry roasted - hardly something for our grandchildren to be nostalgic about! But what I'm recalling are wintery events that I've read about or heard, not my depressed memories.

Of these and easily the most nostalgic for people of my age, is Dylan Thomas's "A Child's Christmas in Wales", narrated by himself in that lovely deep Welsh voice of his. He describes so perfectly a typical winter childhood in those hard times of the 1930's and despite the fact that mine was in the late 1940's- early 1950's I was shocked at easily he was also recanting my very own memories of those times.
The fact that it always seemed to snow, the snowball fights wearing old socks as gloves, the same presents that old bosomy aunties always gave you every Christmas - the knitted scarves and matching gloves and the jars of bullseyes, the mechano sets for "Lttle Engineers", and one of my favourite Stocking presents at the time, the packet of sweet cigarettes. Dylan describes the event as "and then the packet of sweet cigarettes, you put one in your mouth and stood on the corner of the street and waited for hours in vain for an old lady to scold you for smoking a cigarette and then with a smirk, you ate it".


Its a real nostalgia trip through the childhood of people of my age and should you ever get the chance to listen to it you will not regret it.
And before we leave Dylan Thomas behind, what about a verse or two from his poem "A Winter's Tale"...........

It is a winter's tale
That the snow blind twilight ferries over the lakes
And floating fields from the farm in the cup of the vales,
Gliding windless through the hand folded flakes,
The pale breath of cattle at the stealthy sail,

And the stars falling cold,
and the smell of hay in the snow, and the far owl
warning among the folds, and the frozen hold
flocked with the sheep white smoke of the farm house cowl
in the river wended vales where the tale was told.

Dylan typically takes a simple observation and packs it with extra words because he loves the sound of words, but if you say the words slowly to yourself you can picture great flakes of snow silently blowing down across a Welsh valley and its farm and farmyard animals and feel the intense cold of it all.

And as always, as I lay in that summer sun, competing with Dylan Thomas in the nostalgia stakes was my old friend "The Wind in the Willows".
Take one of my favourite chapters - The Wild Wood - where we find the Mole slipping out of the house on a bitter cold winter's afternoon - "it was a cold still afternoon with a hard steely sky overhead, when he slipped out of the warm parlour into the open air. The country lay bare and entirely leafless around him, and he thought that he had never seen so far and so intimately into the insides of things as on that winter day when Nature was deep in her annual slumber and seemed to have kicked the clothes off. Copses, dells, quarries and all hidden places, which had been mysterious mines for exploration in leafy summer, now exposed themselves and their secrets pathetically, and seemed to ask him to overlook their shabby poverty for a while, till they could riot in rich masquerade as before"....


How often have we all experienced those bitter cold, steel grey days when sniffing the air you just know that snow is not far off. And lo and behold, when you get up in the morning there it is, a thick layer of fresh snow, captured perfectly for me in those great words my Ratty in the same chapter of the book. Emerging from their overnight stay in a hollow tree in the Wild Wood Ratty exclaims "hello, hello" - "what's up, Ratty" asked the Mole - "Snow is up replied the Rat briefly: "or rather, down. Its snowing hard".

So I suppose there is a lot of nostalgia and warm feelings about events that happen during the winter but its the enduring of the winter that defeats me - best read and remembered from the comfort of a sun lounger in the middle of summer, I can fit them into my life then.

Sunday, 4 December 2011

An Odd One Out.

I was on the reserve earlier today and what a cold, grey, breezy, not properly light and gloomy visit it was. These cold and gloomy days that are only around eight to nine hours long are very much not my cup of tea. I hate having to walk round weighed down with winter clothes on and my body rigidly tensed against the cold. I hate it when its only light for four hours either side of lunch time and having to spend so much time indoors looking out at darkness or gloom. The photo below from this morning records nothing other than how cold and grey it all looked.


However, reading several of the regular blogs lately, it seems that I'm the odd one out - no surprise there to many who read my comments - but in this context I refer to this deep winter period and my loathing of it. Several of the other writers are hoping for some proper winter weather, snow even, purely to apparently increase the bird species and numbers that are being seen. Mind you even those guys portray some contradictions in what they say - when its sunny and bird-boring they call for cold, grey, more like it winter weather and when they get that weather, plus the birds, they then complain that its too gloomy to photograph them.
Some of these people seem to spend every day either working or birdwatching, with nothing in between - no mention of spouses, or mowing the lawn, or shopping, or decorating - just the constant hope that if they stay out long enough each day that they might add one more bird to each month's list. Its easy to imagine them emerging from a violent storm that has wrecked their houses, stepping over the wreckage and saying, "wow, I bet there's some birds about today".

No, I hate this weather, I spend it looking forward to the passing of The Shortest Day, praying for a mild January and February and at last, that first warm and sunny Spring Day. Oh to feel a hot sun soaking into my bones, a cold glass of wine at hand, light till 10pm and sitting outside watching swifts overhead and bats hawking round, and of course, just a couple of hours each day birdwatching - does that make me the odd one out?

Friday, 2 December 2011

After the Rain

Sheppey finally had several hours of prolonged and fairly heavy rain last night, easily the most noticeable rain for several months - no longer can we say it never rains on Sheppey!
And after the rain came the sun, under clear blue skies and steady sunshine this morning, the reserve looked quite beautiful and green, and had the feel of March or April about it.
Arriving at the reserve I briefly watched the constant small flocks of Brent Geese that were leaving The Swale and flying across the reserve to alight and feed on the neighbouring farmer's fields of winter corn and silage grass. By the time that I moved on the flock was reaching +700 birds and I fear that prevention measures will have to be taken by the farmer before very long. The photo below shows part of the flock, which despite being several hundred strong, had very few juvenile birds amongst it.


Buoyed by the overnight rain and the fact that a couple of the smaller, dry ditches now had a film of water in them, I carried on to have a look at the "S Bend Ditch" - surely it must have a covering of water in it, the rain last night was really heavy at times - the photo below shows the result, not even a dribble's worth. Obviously the bed of the ditch was so dry after the prolonged drought that all the rain had simply soaked into the ditch bed, we are going to need almost monsoon proportions to re-fill it!

Oh well, Midge and I carried on, we moved through the herd of cattle, with Midge walking between their legs, we left the marsh and walked up on to the reserve and looked out in to The Swale. It was low tide, most of the birds out there on the mudbanks were invisible from the wall but a birdwatcher could be seen making his way out on to Shellness Point - Snow Buntings, that's a thought, I must go out to The Point this weekend and have a look for them.
We wandered about for a while longer but I was thinking of the puppy back home on her own and so we didn't spend as long out there as we would normally and eventually we regretfully left the blue skies and the sunshine behind.

Some of the birds that we saw were:-
700+ Brent Geese - 200 Mallard - 2 ring-tailed Hen Harriers - 5 Marsh Harriers - 1 Peregrine - 1 Kestrel - 2 S.E. Owl - 3 Green Sandpiper - 2 Snipe - 1 Green Woodpecker - 6 Bearded Tit - 3 Wren.

Thursday, 1 December 2011

Time moves on

The Tower Hide at the rear of the reserve is no more, on Tuesday it was pulled down and burnt, all that remains are a few Elderberry bushes to mark where it once stood. It had been in-situ for over twenty-five years and was badly showing its age and had become a liability in respect of health and safety. This was borne out when it was pulled over to reveal that half of the thick uprights that it stood on were rotten at their base, severe gales this winter could of seen its demise anyway.


This now leaves the Sea Wall Hide below as the sole survivor of the original hides that once rung the reserve, and as regular visitors will know, that itself is far past it's best and probably due to suffer the same fate as the Tower Hide.


Regular visitors will have also noted that both of the previous entry points onto the reserve along the seawall have now been closed and in effect that there is no access on to the main reserve in front of the Sea Wall Hide now at all. Why, you might ask. Well, with the need to access the Tower Hide now gone and the narrowness of the reserve along its length, most of it can be viewed easily from the seawall and the most recently closed access point across the Delph fleet was always a bad thing. In a normal winter it was hardly useable due to the marsh beyond being flooded and in the breeding season it allowed people to walk across the marsh within feet of nesting Lapwings and Redshanks.
But all this doom and gloom needs to be viewed as a short term event, estimates are being sort for the provision of at least two new seawall hides next year which should make viewing the reserve far more comfortable, especially once the newly dug scrapes and rills fill with water. Other improvements are also being considered, so hopefully next year will see the reserve being re-born so to speak.

There has also been a few new improvements to the habitat out there made this week, this time on the farmland. The farmer that owns the grazing fields that run from the Shellness track, across to the reserve, has dug several shallow scrapes across them. These fields in recent years have been host to numerous breeding Lapwings but have suffered from quickly drying out, these scrapes should help increase the survival rates of Lapwing chicks by providing much needed insect life at a vital time. Once again a much maligned shooting farmer has ticked some very important boxes for wildlife.

Lastly, can I say how touched I've been at the comments and E-Mails that I've received expressing sympathy over the passing on of Nana. Dogs are not everybody's cup of tea and I can understand some people finding it all a bit over the top, that's fair enough, but anybody who has had the companionship of a dog over a long period of time will have known how I felt.
But time has to move on and descisions made and I decided to get another companion for both Midge and myself, and the result was another Jack Russell, called Ellie and seen below. She is only nine weeks old and in the picture seems to be daring anybody to get in the conservatory door, but at just 8 inches high, she's kidding herself. So, as anybody who has brought up a puppy will know, the next few weeks and months will be beset with non-sleep and tension as she tries to chew her way round the house and train me to her way of thinking, and Midge is trying to recall how blissful it was to be able to sleep without having her ears chewed.



Sunday, 27 November 2011

Nana

Sadly, Nana my Beagle had to be put to sleep last Thursday and she has left behind a huge hole in the house that Midge and I are struggling to cope with.

She first appeared in the Faulkner household 16 years ago, after we had travelled down to Devon to collect her. This photo shows her, around four months old and getting her first taste of snow in my garden.


True to her breed, she lived for food and could sniff it out from some distance, and right up to the end would still remind me at 6.00 in the morning and 4.30 in the afternoon, that it was meal time. She could be asleep all day but at around 4pm you would suddenly hear a bark to remind you of the time. She was also an escape artist, once scaling a six foot high fence round my garden, via a bush, to see what was in a neighbours garden. And just like Midge is doing, she spent her whole life wandering the reserve and its neighbouring farmland, enjoying every year to the maximum.
Here she is asleep on my bed with the puppy Midge and in her prime on the reserve, a beautiful dog.


Unfortunately, arthritis, a heart murmur and a tumour, all combined in the end to make life uncomfortable and we had to say goodbye. She will be replaced but in the meantime she is badly missed.

Monday, 21 November 2011

Harrier sunset

It was most definitely a day of two halves yesterday. When I got up at 5.30 there was thick mist outside and a dawn visit to the reserve looked pointless. However, by 6.45 here in Minster, the mist had cleared and so I thought I'd give it a go and headed off out. Going through Eastchurch and looking out across the eastern half of Sheppey, it was obvious that visibility at that end of the Island was very limited due to the mist. However it was one of those house-high type of mists again, with blue skies overhead and so I carried on anyway.
Arriving at the reserve in thick mist and hard frost I decided to briefly go across to the seawall and then home again. Despite not being able to see anything, except flying over, the sounds coming from the tidal mudflats were quite spectacular. Curlews, Redshanks and Oystercatchers all called non-stop and somewhere out in The Swale, Brent Geese could be heard "barking" in the mist, you don't always have to actually see the birds for it to be quite magical.
Just then a figure loomed through the mist on the sea wall, a figure carring a long-lense camera on a tripod, someone with a high degree of hope obviously. He turned out to be a guy that comments on my blog, a professional wildlife photographer called Lewis, and he was hoping to get some shots of Short-eared Owls, a slim hope at that moment. We had a chat and I told him that I would be back later in the day for the monthly Harrier Roost count and he was welcome to join me for that, and then I departed for home.

The return trip at 3.00 pm was in far more pleasant weather conditions, clear blue skies and pleasant sunshine, it had been a really good day after the mist had cleared. It had certainly brought out the walkers and bird watchers as well, its the most I've seen around Harty for some time, and why not in such perfect November weather. I stopped at the Raptor Viewing Mound to speak to some and they confirmed that as well as several raptors seen, the 27 Pink-footed Geese were still present at Capel Corner and a Great White Egret had been in Capel Fleet close to The Mound.
With the sun now fast losing its warmth and a chill starting to rise across the marsh, I made my way back to the reserve and across to the seawall, stopping briefly to speak to a couple from Surrey who were enjoying a walk round the Harty circuit. They were also very novice bird watchers and so were well pleased when I pointed out both Short-eared Owls and Bearded Tits to them as their first-time ticks. I then re-joined my photographer friend from the morning on the verandah of the Sea Wall Hide and took stock of the scene.

The sun was just starting to set behind Harty Church to the west, there were four wildfowler's heads just visible way out on the saltings in front of us, and several Short-eared Owls were hunting close by. Suddenly, around 90 Teal came off the reserve and shot low across the saltings towards The Swale like arrows. Thankfully, the two wildfowlers they passed closest to were deep in conversation and before they had grabbed for their guns, the Teal were long gone. That, until I left in the near dark, was the only action the wildfowlers had and you wouldn't of even known they were there. Lewis the photographer showed me some of his superb photographs captured during that day, I decided to keep my cheap little Fuji concealed behind my back and we chatted about his work at Eagle Heights.
The sun was now well gone, a damp cold was setting in and the light was receding fast and yet still no harriers at all, anywhere, just the owls and a solitary Kestrel. However, after constant sweeps of the saltings in the increasing gloom a male Hen Harrier suddenly swept in across the saltings at Shellness and without hesitation, suddenly dropped into the saltings to roost, my first male Hen Harrier of the winter as well. The saltings close to Shellness Hamlet are a long established favourite roost for Hen Harriers and with the light making viewing at any distance increasingly difficult, a female Hen Harrier made its way along the saltings in front of me and I was just able to see it drop in close to the male to roost.

So, just the two Hen Harriers there this month, it'll be interesting to see how the other three observers on Sheppey did at their roost sites. And before I left in the near dark, with Lewis now departed, I got out the Fuji and took this photograph of the sky behind Harty Church with mist just visible, lifting off the marshes.

Friday, 18 November 2011

Up and Downs

I found this photo in an old album the other day. It is my good self in early Spring 1963 and just approaching my 16th birthday. It'll be of no particular interest to readers of this blog except I was sitting on part of an old building that stood where the Raptor Viewing Mound now stands. Look carefully and you can see Capel Fleet in the background, running north east towards Leysdown. I haven't a clue what the building was, or had been, all I know is that a friend and I cycled out to Harty that day from Sheerness and we took some photos. It'd be nice to say that even at fifteen I had just seen Sheppey's first Marsh Harrier or something, but I'd be lying, I was simply having a look round Harty and anyway, within a year or two I'd become a bit of a long-haired beatnik and birds took a back seat for a few years.



I bumped into another couple of really nice birdwatchers this morning as I left the reserve, well I say bumped into but what I mean is, as I suggested in yesterday's blog, I made a point of stopping and chatting with them rather than being some person disappearing into the distance. I believe that they were a father and son and early in our conversation they told me that they came from London and were avid fans of my blog - cue for a long and pleasant chat with my fans - such nice and sensible people!
The trouble with all this new interaction with passing bird watchers is that I'm beginning to feel that I should know more than what I do. While I can talk for hours about Sheppey's countryside, its wildlife and its history, I've always been a bit of a lazy birdwatcher and despite watching them for fifty-odd years and having a pretty good knowledge of them, I've never bothered with the finer points. Take a Rough-legged Buzzard for instance, I find people asking me for example, was it a second winter, or third winter bird - gawd! I haven't a clue, its just a Rough-legged Buzzard as far as I'm concerned!

To another subject now and I've made no secret over the last year of my change of attitude regarding wildfowling and my increasing friendship with many of them. Yet just as all this back slapping and adoration between each other is going on along the sea wall, along comes one of the shooting fraternity to kick me in the goolies and encourage my bird watching critics to say - I told you so!
This week in his regular column in the Shooting Times, a gamekeeper has made the suggestion, which has been building momentum for some time amongst the shooting fraternity, that Brent Geese should be put back on the shooting list. His reason for suggesting that - there's loads of them now and it'd be nice to be able to shoot some - what a pathetic reason and a load of crap! There's the shooting fraternity under attack from antis from all sides and they start suggesting something that will harden the attitude of even more people towards them. And if the simple arguement is, despite their protection, that there's lots of them, presumably they could argue the same case for shooting Shelduck.
Anyone that regularly watches Brent Geese around the coast will know full well that they fly low, fly slow, stay very close to the shoreline and are very confiding birds. A few wildfowlers sat on the edge of some saltings will easily be able to kill large numbers of these birds as they take advantage of the birds' non-fear of humans - and for why? I'm advised they're not pleasant to eat, so will we see them simply thrown away. Its also suggested that once shooting them begun that the birds would soon wisen up and become more wary and harder to shoot, really, and how many would be shot easily, before and if, that happens.

It's been an up and a down couple of days, tomorrow looks set fair, lets hope we get back on an even keel.

Thursday, 17 November 2011

Tomorrow is a Long Time



"Tomorrow is a Long Time" is a Bob Dylan song from the 1960's and one of many favourites of his that I have and it could in some ways describe my spell on The Swale NNR asa Voluntary Warden. I was only 39 when I accepted the offer from the Nature Conservancy Council, as Natural England was called in its early form, to become a Vol. Warden on their Harty reserve. I accepted with a touch of trepidation and wondered what tomorrow would bring, and yet here I am at 64, a quarter of a century later, still hobbling round the reserve - tomorrow really has been a long time!

And yet, I suppose because its always been a part-time thing and for the first twenty years, not an every day thing, it doesn't feel as if twenty five years have sailed by, it's seemed a lot shorter. But it's certainly been a long education in the ways of the countryside and at times, the closest thing to private meditation, as I've spent most of it through choice, in isolation with just my dogs and my thoughts for company.
And when I look back over the countless memories and sights I've experienced throughout that time, I have realised that it has taken me the whole, first twenty-four years, to achieve in my mind the correct balance in order that I can be fully at peace out there. Only during this last year have I been able to accept that the wildfowlers are not the aliens that I've always seen them as, seen the surrounding farmland as a huge contributor to the local wildlife habitat and as a result sort of trebled the size of the reserve, and lastly, accepted that effective pest controls are a vital tool in successful reserve management. There were times when I seemed to be running around the reserve at all hours, and getting stressed out single-handedly trying to retaliate against various shooting factions and farmers in general. But this year Karma has descended over this old curmudgeon, as I was called recently, and so I don't "chase" anymore, although that's possibly because the arthritis in my feet has altered the word to "hobble".

But seriously, to sit on the seawall now, as I've mentioned before, and spend an hour or two swapping gossip and memories with some of the wildfowlers, especially the older ones, is a real delight now. Many of those, like me, have been out and about on those marshes at all hours for around fifty years and there's some great tales to be told of ducks, geese, rabbits, eels, ferrets, terriers and of poaching and farmers. Its took me a long time for me to realise that we do actually have a lot in common, apart from killing ducks that is.
There were times as well for many years, when the sight of birdwatchers advancing along the seawall or going into a hide, would see me going in the opposite direction, because it meant having to talk to people and I preffered to remain as the figure in the distance. But these days I find myself looking forward to a chat with many of them and sometimes guide them across unofficial parts of the reserve, if they don't walk too fast.

And the reserve itself, has that changed over the last twenty-five years. Well the one fundamental thing that hasn't changed, which is a success, is that it still remains the same example of an old piece of grazing marsh, still looking as it probably did a hundred years ago. However, when I started there, there were six viewing hides with a circular route round part of the main reserve. Today there is currently just one hide and no access at all off of the sea wall.

So its been a long learning curve and a privelage to conduct it out there but what will the next tomorrow bring. One thing's for sure, I certainly won't be celebrating any half century as a Vol. Warden out there and it really is one day at a time now, rather than planning for the tomorrow's. Perhaps the next step is as Dylan sings in the title song:
"I can't see my reflections in the waters
I can't speak the sounds that show no pain
I can't hear the echo of my footsteps
Or can't remember the sound of my own name.............

Sunday, 13 November 2011

Gloom Free Dawn

Despite getting up as usual just after 5.30 this morning, I hadn't planned to visit the reserve today but a glance out of the window just after 6.00 showed a starlit sky - could we really be looking at a gloom free dawn, too good to be missed, I was off!
The view below was taken over the reserve's barn just as I arrived, a spectacular sight as the light began to increase.


Getting up onto the sea wall this was the dawn view looking across The Swale towards Seasalter.


At first there wasn't a lot of bird activity, a look across the fields to the Shellness track proved that the Rough-legged Buzzard does seem to have moved on and only a couple of Marsh Harriers were gliding low along the sea wall.
However as I made my way across one of the reserve's grazing fields I suddenly hit apon a remarkable treble of birds. Standing in the grass just twenty yards away were five Short-eared Owls, all bunched together shoulder to shoulder. I wondered if they'd roosted overnight like this or were just discussing breakfast, but whatever, they didn't hang around and rose up and began to lazily disperse. As they did, a Great White Egret flew low across the field directly above them and eventually dropped into the Delph fleet alongside the sea wall, where it was yesterday.
I was well chuffed but it hadn't finished yet, just a hundred yards further on a Lapland Bunting flew overhead calling repeatedly - trebles like that don't happen too often and coupled with a beautiful November morning of blue skies and sunshine, it was one to remember. The true essence of simple, solitary bird watching on the same, regular patch and getting the maximum enjoyment from it.
I moved on and with the sun rising higher in the sky it lit up the cattle contentedly grazing in the dewy fields, emphasising that lovely, desolate nature of the marshes that I love so much.


Some even came to say hello.


I was only out for an hour and a half, but what a glorious way to start a day and rounded off back at the barn by three Long-tailed Tits working through the willow trees.

Friday, 11 November 2011

Birds at Last

After a barren spell for birds, going back almost to the Spring and due mainly to the extremely dry conditions, the eastern half of Sheppey, including The Swale NNR, has had a dramatic surge in bird records since the end of October.
It pretty much all began on the 20th October as we carried out the monthly WEBS count on the reserve, which produced one of the lowest wader counts that we've ever had. As the count came to a close, two of us found ourselves watching a Rough-legged Buzzard, circling high above the grazing fields alongside the Shellness track until it eventually drifted northwards into Harty.
A week later it had begun to be seen again along the Shellness track, with increasing numbers of Short-eared Owls and on the 28th Oct we saw two RLB's at the same time on the reserve. That was a real bonus, coupled with a probable eight S.E.Owls the same afternoon but two RLB's were rarely seen again and it petered out to just daily sightings of the one again, lasting until the last reported sighting last weekend.

Obviously the increase in bird watchers that the birds caused brought many more pairs of eyes to the area and besides the RLB, regular and increasing numbers of S.E.Owls were being reported, with up to ten some days. Watching these owls hunting the fields and saltings with their slow and moth-like wing actions is always a joy but to see them in these numbers is quite spectacular and yesterday a total of fifteen were seen! Throughout this same period a Great White Egret started making forays across the Sheppey marshes and this too began to be seen along Capel Fleet at Harty, until sightings of this bird also doubled up to become two on regular occassions. It was starting to get quite impressive and quite novel to see that end of Sheppey featuring on a daily basis on various bird websites and for me, used to spending quite a solitary time on the reserve, I found myself talking to all kinds of knowledgeable and interesting bird watchers - yet another rare event.

This Tuesday 8th November, with things quieting down again I decided to walk out to Shellness Point to look for Snow Buntings and was chuffed to find the reserve's first nine of the winter on the beach there. My joy was a tad short-lived however, when having been home for a few hours, it turned out that another birdwatcher had been out to Shellness after me and found the next rarity, a Great Grey Shrike. I have never seen one of these birds and despite one or more of these being seen throughout the area over the last few days, I still haven't, but what an impressive list of uncommon to rare birds over the last three weeks.

Moving off of that subject slightly, The Swale Wader Group were ringing on the reserve a few nights ago and also came up with some interesting observations, if I can steal their thunder a bit. This group have been catching and ringing mostly waders on the saltings of the reserve for many, many years, normally in the middle of the night. One night this week they caught a total of 85 waders which included two re-trapped Bar-tailed Godwits - re-trapped meaning that they had been caught and rung before.
The first of these two re-traps had originally been rung at Shellness in December 1997, making it 13 years and 10 months old but the second was even more impressive, it had been originally rung at Shellness in December 1994, making it 16 years and 10 months old. So many hazardous journeys to and from Sheppey to its breeding grounds in the near Arctic and yet still getting back after all those years, how wondorous is that.
N.B: An hour after posting the above, I went out to the Harty Road and finally saw my first Gt. Grey Shrike, although I'm getting sleepless nights wondering if I'm turning into a mini-twitcher - god forbid!

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

A Bit of Snow at the Point

This morning Midge and I drove out to Shellness and walked out to the Point to have a look at the high-tide roost. The weather was a far cry from the last time that I was out there several weeks ago, watching a film crew on a hot and sunny day. Today it was grey, chilly, gloomy and damp and never really got properly light - and to think that when it was warm and sunny a few weeks ago some birdwatchers were complaining and hoping for this wintry weather, to better the bird watching - takes all sorts I suppose, I know which I prefer!
Anchored on the tide and fairly close to the Point were a total of eight vessels of varying sizes, all to do with the cable laying operation that is going on between the wind turbines out to sea and the new receiving station on the mainland at Graveney. This is the biggest of them, which is a lot bigger than it looks in this photo and of a night has so many lights on that it illuminates the beach at Shellness.


A second vessel was anchored close to the Point, looking ghostly in the gloom. The dark area on the beach of the Point is around 900 Oystercatchers and 400 Dunlin that were roosting there, so it would appear that the vessels are not disturbing the roost very much.
I followed the path out to the beach at the very tip of Shellness, careful that Midge and I never disturbed the wader roost and faced into the bay there. Almost immediately I heard the familiar and budgie-like twittering of Snow Buntings and just along the beach of cockle shells there were indeed 9 Snow Buntings busily looking for seeds. Unfortunately the light and the range were just a bit too much for my little camera to take photos.
In all along the beach of Shellness Point this morning I had a total of 900 Oystercatcher - 400 Dunlin - 5 Cormorant - 12 Knot - 50 Turnstone - 4 Grey Plover - 70 Brent Geese - 9 Great Black Backed Gulls and the 9 Snow Buntings. On the saltings alongside I also had 8 Little Egrets.




And one last surprise for the time of year, was this specimen of Vipers Bugloss still in flower.

Thursday, 3 November 2011

Mild November

Well it hasn't been the brightest of days today, so I stayed at home and didn't visit the reserve at all. But although its been gloomy it certainly hasn't been cold, almost warm in fact and especially so for the first week in November.
Along the top of the seawall at the reserve we have just the one large dog-rose bush and yesterday I was surprised to see amongst the hips, this newly-opened flower, quite remarkable. Everytime that I pass the bush I pick off a hand full of hips and scatter them one at a time along the side of the seawall in the hope of getting more bushes established for the wildlife. Despite being such a simple thing, I always feel that the dog-rose flower is one of the most beautiful of all the rose blooms.


And take a look at this rose bush in my garden, photographed just an hour ago, it still has as many flowers on it now as it did in June - quite amazing.


While sitting in the conservatory this afternoon, watching great, dark grey clouds being pushed across the sky in the wind and turning it increasingly gloomier, I watched Bumble bees still actively working the flower heads of that great favourite of theirs - Verbena bonariensis. It seems to flower almost to Christmas and is always there to feed a late bee or butterfly that chances by. Its all so remarkable for the time of year.


With the clouds getting heavier and rain not far away, its starting to get dark already, or so it seems. As I look out of my study window and across the Scrapsgate marshes, the Shingle Bank and the Thames Estuary, a container ship is passing by for Grain and the lights of Southend are beginning to twinkle in the gloom. The daily winter flock of corvids are beginning to rise up off the Scrasgate marshes and circle round before passing overhead to their evening roost. By mid-winter, this flock wiil build up to around 400-500 birds strong and consist of mostly Jackdaws and a few crows.
Just as the first chinks of light start to appear in the sky in the morning this great flock pass over my house and go out on to the Scrapsgate marshes across the road. Here they seem to stay the whole day, feeding on the grazing meadows. Then as the light starts to fade in the late afternoon, up they all rise and for a few moments, spread across a large tract of sky and cawing madly, they make their back east over Minster. I haven't a clue where they all roost but its a great joy to see so many Jackdaws still on Sheppey and this daily event is repeated well into the Spring.

And lastly, the Sloe Gin that I started up in September, has now turned a lovely rich beetroot colour, the hardest part now will be to avoid sampling it until at least the New Year - gawd!

Saturday, 29 October 2011

Rough-legs in the gloom

I hadn't planned on going to the reserve yesterday, it was a pleasant morning's weather and a Friday and I had decided to stay at home and catch up with some work in the garden. However at 11.30 the reserve's other Vol. Warden, Rod Smith, rang to say that he was out there watching now two Rough-legged Buzzards.
I decided to have a bit of early lunch and then pop out there, it seemed a nice day for it.

I arrived at the reserve barn just after mid-day to find that what had been a nice drop of weather in Minster was dull and murky out there but I immediately had a ring-tail Hen Harrier come gliding past me, which was a great start! I began walking across the middle of the reserve towards the Tower Hide, mainly to avoid the mud on the main track. The grazier had just been there and had pushed all the cattle herd across the reserve, via the track, in order to take the cattle temorarily off the reserve to split the calves away from their mothers to be weaned elsewhere. So their massed hooves had churned the softened surface up somewhat and it was plastered in mud and other smelly stuff, best avoided. You could hear the cattle, who by now were penned up just off the reserve, all round the place as they were split up and calves and mothers called anxiously for each other, to no avail.
Anyway, almost straight away as I walked through the grazing marsh I saw a hovering Rough-leg Buzzard near the Tower Hide and then swinging round, saw another over by the saltings in front of the Seawall Hide, that's how days on the reserve should be! Behind me on the main marsh, a flock of Golden Plover was building up, inspired no doubt by the fact that after a few rainy spells this week, the surface looked muddier and softer than it actually was and therefore might produce food. By the time I eventually left the reserve there were around 600 Goldies there.

A couple of Kestrels hovered over the rougher areas of grass and a Marsh Harrier made its way along a reed bed and stirred up some Reed Buntings, it was starting to look quite good. I made my way over to the sea wall and sat there for the rest of the visit with another regular bird watcher to Harty and we watched the reserve and the saltings from there. A few more Marsh Harriers drifted in and out of the reserve, all females today for some reason, and then a Short-eared Owl began quartering the marsh in front of us, followed soon after by a second that sat on top of the sea wall further along. The Rough-legged Buzzards seemed to have disappeared but it didn't matter because, despite the light becoming increasingly gloomy and damp, with a hint of drizzle, the saltings and the fast rising tide had plenty to offer. Yesterday was the culmination of the four weekly cycle through the year whereby the tides increase in height before dropping away again, yesterday was a high one at 6.2 metres and should of covered the saltings completely, and it did, with great effect.
Its an amazing sight, it first starts to flood over the saltings out on their far edge, quite quickly fills and overflows the various rill-ways before quickly sweeping across the saltings in a silent flood to reach the base of the sea wall. Coupled with the still and gloomy visibility it had a Dickesian atmosphere about it all, like you get from marshes at certain times of the year and time of day. And with it came the birds that normally sit on the tide further out, large numbers of Brent Geese and Mallard, drifted in, Curlews, Redshanks, Reed Buntings and Meadow Pipits, flooded out of their normal saltings roosts, all flew up and wheeled around and the noise of birds was fantastic.
Gradually, as you can see below, the saltings began to disappear.


Rob, the other birdwatcher and I, sat there and watched it all, we had birds behind us and birds in front of us. There was always a Marsh Harrier or two on the reserve somewhere everytime we looked, a third S.E. Owl appeared and quartered out into the marsh and small numbers of Skylarks and Reed Buntings got up again. In the distance the cows still mournfully called for their calves and it was a day when all the sky seemed to be full of birds at once, it was great.
By now, as you can see, the saltings were pretty much totally covered and as the white marker post that the wildfowlers must shoot behind indicates, there wouldn't be any of those out that afternoon, even chest waders wouldn't cope with that.
Rob and I finally went our seperate ways and he E-Mailed me later to say that as he made his way back along the sea wall to Shellness Hamlet, he saw a further 5 S.E.Owls, either new or including the three we'd already seen, its hard to know. I suspect that they'd been flooded up off of the saltings where they roost and hunt.


As I made my back along the sea wall in the other direction, I came across a strange sight. After I'd taken the photo above, I watched two Herons further away who had alighted on a piece of salting that wasn't fully submerged. They were regularly stabbing at the vegetation and as I got closer it became apparent what was occurring. Several voles that had obviously got caught out by the tide had sought brief respite on the vegetation, only to become a meal table for the Herons, who were eating them.
It was a good visit and the best counts were:- 2 Rough-legged Buzzards, 2 ring-tailed Hen Harriers, 6 Marsh Harriers, 5 possibly 8 Short-eared Owls, 600 Golden Plovers, 2 Kestrels and a Barn Owl.
And this morning as I crossed the reserve again, I had the first Lapland Bunting of the winter. After several barren months the reserve has come alive again - fantastic!

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Singing In The Rain

I was fortunate to be on the reserve at lunch time today and experience a rare event - an hour's torrential rain, even more fortunate was the fact that I just got to the Seawall Hide as it started. I even recorded the sight of rain hitting the surface of the Delph Fleet.


And the reduced visibility as it poured down across the grazing marsh. All the cattle did was to turn their rear ends to the wind and rain and carry on grazing!


Pictures of rain seems silly I know, but after near eight months without any, it was an event of some magnitude - could we be at the turning point of the drought? Despite adding to overnight rain, this morning's still hasn't made the slightest difference to the miniscule ditch levels but it has definitely softened up the surface of the grazing marsh and we should now see the re-greening of the marsh at least.
And after sheltering in the hide for an hour I eventually came out to sunshine again and the resultant rainbow below. Perhaps I should of stayed in the hide a little longer, might of been blesses with good luck!


One of the few benefits of this year's drought has been the exposure all round the reserve of Water Vole entry/exit holes. Whilst we see evidence of a few of the voles' feeding stations as we walk round, the platform of the mink trap is one, we rarely actually see the voles themselves. It is therefore encouraging to see so many holes dotted around the reserve's ditches, although there's no guarantee that many of them are actually occupied.

This young willow bush was also feeling exposed, the water level is normally above its root system but today that was a very different case.



Before the rain begun I had been walking round in windy but sunny conditions and was fortunate to get some good, if distant, views of the Rough-legged Buzzard that has been around for over a week now, on the grazing marsh alongside the Shellness track. Its a terrific looking bird and seems to alternate between sitting on the ground and hovering over the fields like an enlarged Kestrel. Certainly from the Shellness track many people are getting good views of this uncommon winter visitor and hopefully it will be around for most of the winter.

Saturday, 22 October 2011

Bob Gomes

I gained great pleasure yesterday (Friday) from attending a small gathering of people at a retirement presentation to Bob Gomes the ex-RSPB Warden at Elmley and lately of Dungeness.
I first met Bob just after he had arrived at Elmley in the late 1980's to replace Les Street and like most people have, I immediately found him a really likeable guy, extremely knowledgeable and always willing to share that knowledge. I had just become a Vol. Warden at The Swale NNR then and my vists to Elmley became very few after that and as a result never met Bob that many times after. The most recent prior to his retirement was funnily enough, at a Kate Rusby concert, where I bumped into him and Liz, we obviously share similar musical tastes.

The one memorable time that we did come together was on The Swale NNR in June 1988. On one of my morning patrols around the reserve on a warm and sticky day I suddenly spied what at first I thought was a strange Lapwing on the ground. Watching it through the binoculars it immediately became apparent that it was definitely not a Lapwing but a bird of similar size but brownish and with a very swallow/tern like flying action as it hawked for insects. I had never seen a Pratincole before but it looked very much like one that I'd seen in bird books and so rushed home to look it up and yes, it was a Pratincole. Going back the next day, I found two of them hawking for insects together, this was getting silly! Every day for the next week they were always in the same area, reasonably tame and hawking for insects and with the reserve manager on holiday I decided it would be best to get verification of what I'd seen. I was after all, a new Vol. Warden and of limited experience and repute on the Kentish bird watching scene - who was going to believe just me.
So I rang Bob at Elmley and asked him to come down and verify what I was watching every day. We arrived at the reserve on a pleasant and warm, almost Mediteranean June evening. I took him to where I hoped the two Pratincoles would still be after over a week, and yes, after crawling up an earth bund, there they still were. Bob was able to identify the two as a Black-winged Pratincole and a Collared Pratincole -how about that for a double, and we had a pint in the Ferry House Inn afterwards to celebrate.
The next day the Black-winged Pratincole had gone but the Collared amazingly, remained until September, a daily feature of my patrols and unknown to the regular passing bird watchers. One day in September it was gone but, almost certainly it, turned up at Elmley RSPB reserve the next day and was identified by a birdwatcher with knowledge of the species, as an Oriental Collared Pratincole - we had registered both the 2nd British and 1st Kent record of that species.

Bob was a great RSPB warden and of a type that the RSPB can sorely do with out, he will be missed as he spends his time on his allotment.

Monday, 17 October 2011

Harrier Counts

The dawn vist to the reserve yesterday morning found it even frostier and mistier than Saturday morning and as a consequence, after two hours both were only just lifting as the sun climbed the sky. So little was seen or heard but I was back again late afternoon yesterday for the first of this winter's Harrier Roost Counts. There are four of us on Sheppey taking part - one at Elmley Hill watching a roost over at Ridham, one covering Capel Fleet west of the Harty Road, one covering Capel Fleet east to Muswell Manor and myself on the Swale NNR. It's a valuable exercise in identifying both what sites are being used by the birds and if they're being disturbed and how many birds there are.

I arrived at the reserve at 17.00 and it was still warm and sunny and without a breath of wind as I made my way across the marsh to the Sea wall. With some time left before the light would begin to fade, I spent half an hour chatting on the seawall with two wildfowlers, the first I'd seen for some time. As we stood looking at a bone-dry and pretty much wildfowl free reserve, they commented on how diablolical the season had been so far due to the drought and how they had very little hope of getting anything that evening, and so it later turned out. We had a chat about all things countryside for a while and then they moved off, and further along the seawall made their way out to the seaward edge of the saltings and pretty much disappeared from sight, as they do.

I walked along to the seawall hide and took up my position on its verandah while Midge amused herself trying unsuccessfully to catch voles under the recently mowed hay along the seawall. Accompanied by the various sounds of the marsh that you get, Curlew and Oystercatcher cries out on the mudflats, a Wren working its way through the reed bed and scolding me, a Water Rail squealing from the same reed bed, I turned and watched a beautiful red sun set below the horizon behind Harty church in the distance. Immediately that you lose the sun a pronounced sense of hush comes across the marsh as dusk starts to settle, and bird calls become more pronounced.

Whilst looking west I picked out a harrier coming along the saltings towards me and putting the scope on it, saw that it was a ring-tailed Hen Harrier - really great, I wasn't expecting one on this first month's count. It travelled the length of the saltings in front of me until reaching those close to Shellness Hamlet and then dropped into the saltings to roost, a traditional roosting spot for these birds for some years. Immediately I lost sight of it I became aware of three Short-eared Owls hunting over the same stretch of saltings and watched them for a while, they are such lovely birds to watch with their lazy, flapping wing actions.
By now the light was just starting to fade and looking west again, I picked up yet another harrier following the same path as the Hen Harrier, this time it was a female Marsh Harrier. It carried on along the saltings until more or less where the Hen Harrier was roosting and to my surprise drew up another female Marsh Harrier from the saltings that I'd obviously missed. These two birds then flew all the way back along the saltings in front of me again and I last saw them disappearing into the pink sky and dusk over Harty Church, clearly they favoured Harty marshes for their roost site. Strange how the one seemed to go and fetch the other though as though it knew it was there.
With the light fading fast now and the mosquitoes biting more regularly, there was one last flurrybof harrier action. Directly in front of the hide and far out on the saltings, a male Marsh Harrier and a juvenile both suddenly appeared in off the mudflats, circled a couple of times and then dropped into the saltings to roost, its a great sight, it really is. Almost immediately after a female Marsh Harrier then shot across the marsh in the near dark and went into roost with the other two, a family group, who knows but I was really glad that it was one of those nights that the two wildfowlers hadn't had the opportunity to fire a shot and disturb the birds.

It was pretty much dark by then and there was nothing left but to make my way back across the marsh again, successfully avoiding scaring up a couple of Mallard that I'd seen drop into the Delph fleet nearby, for obvious reasons. I love walking back across the marsh in the pitch dark, obviously easy because I know my way after 25 years, but it has an almost romantic quality about it, apart from the stumbling over ant hills and standing in cow pats that you do!
It was a really great couple of hours and good to be doing something useful and for me, far more worthwhile than simply chasing rarities around the countryside. Back again this afternoon for the latest WEBS count.

Saturday, 15 October 2011

First Frost

I left home just as it was starting to get light this morning and thought it was a bit chilly but was really surprised on getting to the reserve to find that it was coated in a hard white frost with a rising mist. As a result I didn't see an awful lot as I wandered across the marsh, along the seawall and then back across the marsh. A couple of Marsh Harriers appeared out of the mist and around 50 Mallard passed by overhead. A Water Rail squealed from the Delph reed beds as I stood watching a small party of Bearded Tits working along the seed heads and they were joined soon after by another group of Reed Buntings. Making my way along one of the boundary hedgerows I had a total of 1 Blackbird, 1 Wren, 3 Chaffinch, and 3 Robin - not exactly the expected invasion of migrants predicted.
A fox walked out of one the reed beds quite close to me and I don't know who was the most surprised, the fox or Midge, but she pursued it for a short way before realising that her short legs were never going to catch it and so quickly gave up. One thing that did surprise me was catching sight of a medium-sized black bird at the top of a large hawthorn bush, pecking at the berries, when I looked at it through the binoculars it turned out to be a Moorhen!

This is the scene from the top of Capel Hill on the Harty Road as I drove out, with the mist just beginning to spread across the marshes.


This one was taken from the top of the sea wall looking across the reserve and showing how at field level it was difficult to see much around you, only upwards.


But its always atmospheric being out so early in such conditions and eventually at 07.15 a huge red sun came up above Seasalter and quickly began burning the mist away. This second view along the sea wall at 07.45 shows how quickly it had made a difference, although on the shady side to the right you can still see the white of the frost.


Getting to the end of the sea wall, this shot of the Delph fleet shows the extent to which it is drying out now. Quite a grim sight.