Thursday, 24 January 2013

Thursday Thaw

The snow is now thawing fast across the reserve and presumably after this weekend's predicted rain, it will be all gone, bringing with it a return to the awful trudging round in large areas of water and deep, clinging mud. It is not, as you will have noticed by now by reading my postings, my favourite type of conditions to walk round in, or indeed by favourite time of year. The only thing good about the winter is the influx of winter birds, which generally come in large and visible numbers, other than that I'll happily settle for Spring and Summer on a permanent basis.
The snow and ice of the last week have been a real blessing as far as access and comfort are concerned on the reserve, with both myself and the dogs ending up at the end of each walk as clean and as dry as when we set out. Not only that, as well as an incredible brightness in any sunny periods, there has been the tracks in the snow which have given a real insight into what or who has been using the reserve, something that you don't normally see in normal conditions. It has been a real insight to see just how many rabbits, hares and foxes have criss-crossed the fields each night, although I suppose it could be one of each just running in circles to confuse me. In respect of foxes, it can also be useful in tracking back to where they are regularly holed up, enough said. But not only is it a give-away to the activities of animals but also those of humans that might not necessarily of been where they should of been, especially in the past with shooting along the reserve's boundaries at night. Fortunately however, there hasn't been any evidence of this in recent years.
Another benefit of the snow and ice has been the dramatic upturn in wildfowl numbers on the reserve. After the lowest winter counts for many years, the only largish area of open water on the reserve, at one end of the "S Bend Ditch", has been attracting really good numbers and variety of wildfowl, part of which is shown in my somewhat distant and less than expert, photo above.

Despite being an avid non-twitcher, it was pleasing yesterday en-route home along the Harty Road, to not have to go off route in any way to be able to watch 7 Common Cranes as they stood in a snowy field alongside the road. Not only that, along the same stretch of road the day before, I also watched as a Red Kite flew across the road in front of me. I guess if you wait long enough things will eventually come to you and the joy will be all the better for it being in a pager-less way.

The results of January's Harrier Roost count were distributed to those of us who do the counting, yesterday, and for the second month running it showed that a major roost site on Harty has failed to attract any birds. Indeed, the counts in general show that, compared with recent winters, unless new roost sites have been established and remain as yet undetected, Marsh Harriers seem to have abandoned much of southern and eastern Sheppey, for roosting at least. Certainly their numbers don't appear to be any less from day-time sightings, but then a few birds ranging wide and far, can sometimes give a false impression.
We have the February and March counts yet to do and so there is still time for these figures to correct themselves before inquests need to take place but its difficult not to speculate on reasons for the drop in roosting numbers. The aforementioned site is in a reed bed and so the high water levels this winter may have made it unattractive but loss of habitat in the area this last year may also be to blame. As most visitors will have seen, a huge acreage of the grazing marshes on Harty/Shellness was ploughed up a year or so ago and re-planted with maize and the loss of that grassland will have had a big impact on the small mammal prey available to the birds. Couple that with a general decline in rabbit numbers on Harty in recent years and the fact that last year very few harriers fledged young birds due to the cold and the wet summer and things start to stack up.
I suppose, rightfully or wrongly, you also have to throw into the equation, possible human intervention, commercial shooting of wildfowl in particular has intensified on Harty in recent years and wildfowl do feature on harrier's menus. However, all of the above reasons are speculation on my part and one good breeding season this year could make everything rosy again, so I guess we'll have to wait and see but it proves the value of doing these counts.

Monday, 21 January 2013

Harty in the Snow

After my last posting, Wilma, an American blogger who has just had the good fortune to move from Minnesota to Belize, asked for some photos of my dogs, so here are few from today's snow fields on Harty. Have a look at Wilma's excellent blog and dream about where you'd rather be right now

The view down the "concrete track" from outside Elliotts Farm.

Looking across to the reserve's barn and the hills of the mainland.

Ellie doing her Meerkat impersonation in order to see over the snow.

Ellie wishing she could grow up to have long legs like Midge. A lot less cold round the nether regions then.

The view down the track to the barn with rather threatening skies in the background.

Across the reserve to the new Seawall Hide.

The entrance spinney - hard to believe that Whitethroats will be nesting here in a few months time.

There's a rat in here somewhere!

Saturday, 19 January 2013

Snow on the Swale

 I was both surprised and really chuffed yesterday as with every hour through the day, Sheppey remained totally snow free. It didn't last however and mid evening we had a couple of hours of snow that left a token covering everywhere.
And so it remained as I arrived at the reserve this morning, there was a snow covering, heavy grey skies and a bitter cold E wind - it was pretty bleak, as you can see from the photos above and below, and not for the faint-hearted. But, do you know, it was far more enjoyable walking across snow covered, frozen ground than wading through flood water and mud, I enjoyed it.

Arriving on top of the sea wall, I could see from the various tracks in the snow that several wildfowlers and their dogs had been out early this morning and this was confirmed when I walked part of the way with the last one as he left. It must of been pretty cold sitting in a rill way out on the saltings for several hours in sub-zero temperatures, which he confirmed as he bodily shuddered with cold as he chatted with me, but like them or loathe them, wildfowling is the toughest form of shooting. Today also, was one of the many blank days that occur through a season, none of the guys that braved the bone-numbing cold this morning actually fired a shot, the wildfowl on the reserve stayed safe and sound where it was.

The thing that I like about a snow covering on the reserve, is the opportunity that it gives you to assess just how much mammal activity that there is actuallyu out there. Hare and rabbit tracks were everywhere (see 2nd to last photo), which was very encouraging in respect of rabbits, we haven't physically seen that many, although numerous fox trails were a depressing sight, action will need to be stepped up!

With most of the reserve's wet areas now frozen up, a large area of open water at the inner end of the "S Bend Ditch" was proving very popular with assorted wildfowl, very popular when one takes recent counts into consideration! Here this morning I had the reserve's best wildfowl count of the winter:-

200 Brent Geese
18 White-fronted Geese
60 Greylag Geese
500 Wigeon
120 Mallard
80 Teal
320 Shelduck
120 Coot

The Coot count was particularly enjoyable because last winter for the first time ever, we lost all our Coots for the whole winter and they only returned in the Spring in small numbers and then had a disastrous breeding season. The nearby maize fields also continue to attract huge numbers of hungry Wood Pigeons, there must of been c.4,000 birds there this morning. From what I can gather from the farm shooting crowd, the pigeons only have until the end of the month, when game shooting finishes, it will then become their turn to be reduced  before they begin attacking the rape fields.
I was surprised to see no other birdwatchers out and about this morning, on what was potentially a good morning for birds, perhaps birdwatching like wildfowling, calls for an extreme form of dedication in bad weather. Further heavy snow permitting, I shall be out at the crack of dawn tomorrow and see what that turns up.

Thursday, 17 January 2013

New Hide

Today has been a beautiful day, the calm before tomorrow's snow storm maybe, but a day to be thoroughly enjoyed all the same.
I waited until the sun had been up an hour or two and then set off for the reserve, arriving under dazzlingly clear blue skies, grass white with frost and a strongly beaming sun. The sun not only beamed but it was surprisingly warm on my back as I walked round and I was very warm by the time I got back to the car, perhaps I'd overdone the winter clothes. It all looked really superb and even better, the dogs and I had it all to ourselves and we set off to enjoy the rare treat of walking across a bone-hard, frozen marsh - a rare day without mud and water! The newly finished sea wall hide was drawing us towards it like a magnet and so that was our first stop, perhaps even the first visitors.
It's a really compact and cosy little hide and with a rare treat for us this time, glass viewing slots - no freezing cold wind blowing in while you sit there and look around. This time as well, it has an extra viewing slot, one that takes in the saltings and The Swale behind, magic. I love it, and standing at the top of the steps, bathed in warming sunshine this morning, it's been worth the wait, let's hope it remains un-vandalised now.

Continuing with my patrol round, there was even some birds to be found, no huge numbers but a good variety all the same and more than enough to keep this lonely soul happy.

1 Little Egret
6 White-fronted Geese
60 Greylag Geese
300 Brent Geese
4 Shoveler
100 Wigeon
20 Teal
1 Buzzard
1 ring-tail Hen Harrier
3 Marsh Harrier
70 Coot
250 Golden Plover
500 Lapwing
26 Snipe
2 Pied Wagtail
6 Bearded Tit
2 Stonechat
30 Linnet
18 Reed Buntings

Hopefully, the projected arrival time of tomorrow's snow will remain at lunch-time and I will be able to get in another patrol early tomorrow, ahead of being confined indoors over the weekend. Hopefully, it won't even come at all.

Tuesday, 15 January 2013

Signs of Life at Last

Despite the very cold weather this week signs are beginning to appear of better things to come. In the small spinney that we drive through to get onto the reserve, the first willow buds are beginning to burst open, giving hope that catkins and indeed Spring might not be too far away. At the same time in my own garden, both Blue and Great Tits have been actively giving the various nest boxes the once over and hopefully ear-marking one for this year's breeding season. Its that time of the year when many of us start wishing our lives away as we dismiss the winter months still to come and urge Spring to hurry up, as every day we start to imagine that "I'm sure it stayed lighter a bit longer tonight."

On the reserve itself this morning, in bright sunshine, a great event was unfolding, the new hide had arrived and erection had begun, if that's the right word, although it was an almost orgasmic moment.

In the background the old Seawall Hide had just been felled from atop it's uprights and shortly after was reduced to a heap of burnt ash - I remember painting that, back in 1991 ready for the official reserve Opening Day. The new hide will not be as high as the posts would indicate, they will be cut back a bit once they're all in position but it will still give good views, not only across the reserve but out to The Swale as well. Hopefully, if all goes well, we hope to have a second one in place, in the center of the reserve, later this week.
I suppose the next event then will be the arrival of the first new graffiti in the Seawall Hide and probably before the first Swallow. All those felt-tipped memos of sexual activities alleged to have taken place in the hide, such as "Fred had sex with six girls here yesterday" - I suppose Derek saw six Bearded Tits doesn't have the same effect!
Anyway, hopefully by the weekend I will be able to post some photos of the newly completed Seawall Hide and even enjoy some warmer bird watching from it's interior, all I need to do now is find my felt-tipped pen in case I get bored.

Sunday, 13 January 2013

Seaview, WEBS and Ploughs

Towards the end of last year, regular readers of this blog will recall that I first posted an account of Seaview Cottages that used to stand down at the "Brickfields" at Elmley and later followed it with an account of Martha Dodd, who lived in them for much of her life.
This last week I was over the moon to receive E-Mails from both the Great Granddaughter and Great Great Granddaughter of Martha Dodd and we have now begun excitedly swapping information and memories of old Elmley history from around the time that Martha lived there. Martha's delightful Great Granddaughter has much to tell me about Martha's life there and who knows, I might be able to write a further blog about Martha entitled - "What Martha Did Next." One thing she was able to quickly put to bed, was my suspicion that the above picture wasn't of the Seaview Cottages numbered 1-4. She confirmed that it was indeed Seaview Cottages - one building housing four seperate tenants - one up to my girlfriend who never doubted it.

Yesterday (Sat) lunchtime, our three man team carried out our January WEBS count. I must say that walking  the circuit of the reserve's main grazing marsh under heavy grey skies and in a strong and very cold SE wind didn't make it a terribly enjoyable experience. Some of the deep muddy areas that I had to plough through also made it a pretty tiring event, but at least this week the 200 sheep were taken off the reserve, underfoot conditions should now improve. 800 small feet regularly walking through the same gateways all the time have left some parts a foot deep in liquid mud, hopefully these will now begin to solidify again, especially now that the flooding has started to recede quite appreciably. Getting back to the WEBS count itself, we had good counts of some waders (4,000 Dunlin) but overall it pretty much continued the run of lower than normal counts that we have been experiencing this winter, especially in respect of wildfowl. Wigeon in particular struggled to get past the 300 mark and Mallard, once the commonest Harty duck, coming in at less than 50. It was pleasing however, to see 6 White-fronted Geese with the 90 Greylag Geese and early this morning their numbers were swelled when another 23 Whitefronts flew in from the west.

One of the sites that has become fairly common as I have driven over Capel Hill in recent weeks on the Harty Road, is that of large areas of surface water spread across the winter corn and rape fields. OK, it's receding now but it led me to wonder if one, it caused damage to the crops sitting in it and two, if perhaps modern arable farming methods might have to return to the old ways, i.e. ploughing.
On Sheppey at least, arable farming consists of the annual rotation of winter corn and rape, with minimal cultivation. As wheat stubble is being collected and baled in the field, the same machine is also spreading rape seed throughout the stubble, ready for next year's crop. At the same time, once rape has been harvested, the field quickly receives a light and very shallow tickling-over of the soil and then the next season's wheat is sown. It's not hard to believe that over successive years, the compaction of the soil from all that heavy plant and non-ploughing must be quite considerable and that therefore when periods of heavy rain, such as we have experienced this last year, occur, the water is unable to soak away as it should. At the same time, in periods of hot, summery weather, this same compacted soil cracks up quite badly.
Now, the last thing that I am is any kind of expert on agriculture but it makes you wonder if a return to proper ploughing between crops will result in a proper soil structure. This was emphasised this autumn/winter  when one of the two Harty farmers deep ploughed one of his large fields alongside Eastchurch village. Before it became too wet he then broke the soil down to leave a nicely broken tilth almost ready for sowing. Because the heavy rain has been easily able to soak straight through to the sub-soil this winter the field remains un-water-logged and will be quickly available for cultivation this Spring, unlike those compacted fields on Harty where even putting a tractor on them to spray at the moment is impossible.

Wednesday, 9 January 2013

Foxes and Fings

Somebody must of told the local Minster foxes about my mention in the last blog about culling them because all of a sudden they've become very active in my rear garden.

My two Jack Russell terriers sleep in my conservatory across the rear of the bungalow and in the early hours one night last week, the older and more aggressive of the two woke me with non-stop barking and the outside intruder light was on. Thinking it was an intruder in the garden I rushed naked into the conservatory (as one does when wishing to frighten an intruder), to find the dog was staring through the glass door and up the garden at a fox sitting in the middle of the lawn. I let the dog out and the fox just cleared the six foot panel fence before the terrier reached it, although the dog's barking must of convinced the sleeping neighbours around me that a full scale Hunt was taking place. Ellie, the younger terrier also went up the garden with high speed bravado but kept carefully just behind the older one, just in case she got there first.

The next night we not only had a repeat at 2.00 in the morning, but this time there were three of the bloody things doing a fox-trot round the garden. So once again we had torches flashing, me nakedly shouting, dogs barking, and once again the foxes got away. A visit to the shrubbery at the top of the garden during daylight hours found that not only did it strongly reek of that particular fox odour but that they were obviously coming over the tall, six foot panel fence in one corner. Clearly something better than my anti-cat deterrents were going to be needed if I were to prevent nightly visits from these vulpine vermin who, unlike domestic moggies, aren't legally protected when shitting in somebody else's garden, or killing wild birds.
Clearly discharging a gun in the middle of the night couldn't be added to the list of dogs barking, and my shouting whilst nakedly shining a torch, that my neighbours were compiling and so I had to temporarily improve the fencing. So yesterday I added a line of three feet high wire netting to the top of the fence and lots of nice, thorny rose branches, looks a right mess but last night at least, I was fox free.

Also last night, I was talking to a friend who knows about these things, and it was stated that foxes won't go where they can smell male, human urine. Mmmm, now that's a thought but then I'm not sure. Imagine after the last few escapades, my neighbour looking out of his bedroom window in the middle of the night and seeing me, John Thomas in hand, urinating up the fence! - kind of hard to convince him that it was to do with foxes and not some new perversion, plus on cold, frosty nights the little human hose-pipe doesn't work too well.

Thursday, 3 January 2013

2013 - A Year of Change?

It's a struggle at the moment to find anything new to talk about re. the reserve, that doesn't involve mentioning  the flooding and how difficult it is to get around it on foot. The two pictures above, taken during the beautiful weather on New Year's Day, show the field that we aptly know as "The Flood". The reserve's Management Map has all the various fields numbered as compartments and the one above is Comp.40. It is known to us as "The Flood" because its the one that we are able to annually keep wet longest by pumping water into large scrapes in it via a large on-site diesel pump. At the moment it is living up to it's name and is the wettest it's been for several years.
The photo also shows the derelict Seawall Hide which has had its steps removed to make it inaccessible due to its rotten flooring. It had been planned that by now it would of been demolished and replaced by a brand new one, with a second in the center of the reserve, however for various reasons the hides were ordered late. Now, due to the extensive flooding and soft terrain, getting the sections of hide across to the sea wall is pretty much impossible and Spring looks like the earliest we will see the new hides. Its frustrating not having such refuges on cold, windy and rainy days and I always feel envious of the Oare lads when they're able to extend their visits by some margin by sheltering in their hides, but I guess ours will eventually arrive and be one of the changes of 2013.

Another change this year will take place from the end of March, when the three of us that carry out the twelve, monthly W.E.B.S (Wetland Bird Survey) counts around the reserve, cease doing so. At 65, I'm the youngest of the three of us doing the counts, by several years in respect of one person, and although age isn't necessarily the reason we are packing it up, we do feel its time to hand over to younger people, with perhaps a tad more enthusiasm for the commitment that is involved. We have all been doing the counts for many years now and will all continue to enjoy patrolling and recording on the reserve, but without the commitment of a certain time and day of the W.E.B.S.. Will our involvement in the winter Harrier Roost Counts next winter follow the same pattern, I don't know, but for sure there comes a time when you question what you are doing. Standing in the middle of a windswept, freezing cold and often rainy marsh as it gets dark, does tend to take make the old bones suffer when you are in your 60's and 70's.
Unfortunately, as the repeat requests for help with various aspects of keeping the Kent Ornithological Society going show, it tends to be people of advancing years that are the few volunteers. Perhaps the younger element prefer chasing rare birds and trying to out-do each other with better and better photographs, more exciting than the mundane tasks of surveys and writing up Society bird reports - time will tell.

Despite the flooded areas that I have mentioned above, one other thing that I have commented on this winter is the lack of wildfowl and waders on and around the reserve. Both our WEBS and regular patrol counts, are recording some of the lowest totals for some years and its hard to fathom out, given the conditions. Perhaps that also explains why shooting around the reserve's perimeters has been at its lowest level for as long as I can remember, and while I don't have a particular problem with it these days, seeing an absence of birds as the bigger worry, I guess many will see that as something to rejoice about.
Certainly Wood Pigeons haven't come onto the "missing" list this winter, the enormous acreage of spilt maize crops on the fields around Harty has seen record flocks of c.4,000 birds most of the winter feeding on it. Foxes too, seem to be just as abundant this winter and without a degree of culling will continue to cause problems to the ground nesting birds such as Lapwings this coming breeding season. For many years now it has always been apparent that Elmley, with it's close proximity to the main road onto Sheppey, has been an illicit place to release foxes "rescued" in perhaps London boroughs. Just recently a van was seen leaving the Elmley track early one morning and three bewildered looking foxes seen standing on the track before slowly wandering off. Presumably people who see foxes as nice cuddly creatures that do no harm, think that they are doing them a favour by releasing them into the open countryside but in many ways they are wrong. Often these animals are diseased and mangy and risk spreading those diseases to a healthy local population - more importantly, these semi-tame city foxes, used to eeking out a living among humans in city streets, find it very hard to adapt to the rigours of open marshland and easily succumb to cold, hunger and pest controls, so are their saviours really being kind to them?

Finally, as I stopped at the reserve's entry gate yesterday morning, in an Alder bush alongside it I spied 12 Lesser Redpolls. I have always wanted to see a Redpoll, both on Sheppey and personally, and so it made a great start to the year. Not only that, it was a new addition to the reserve's bird list.