Thursday, 24 January 2013
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.