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!