Monday, 25 February 2013

A cold look back

How cold it has been this last week on Sheppey's marshes. No woods and hedgerows there to shelter in or behind when one feels a tad cold and sorry for one's self, no, out on the marshes the wind hits you unchecked, all the way from the North Sea, it goes through you, rather than round. We all have our own opinions of how cold it has been, or indeed make our own choices about where we choose to visit but standing on an exposed marsh or sea wall at the moment - that's bloody cold, it eats into my bones and does me no good at all. Like many other people I'm looking forward to some warm and sunny weather but also like some others, you won't find me, a few weeks into that weather, complaining about it being too hot, or too sunny, oh no, guaranteed.

Anyway, whilst thawing myself out the other day after another session on the reserve that left me feeling like I was in training as an extra for another "Scott of the Antarctic" film, I sat indoors with a glass of warming sloe gin and looked at some old reserve records of mine. I had a look at my entries for 1990 and immediately, records for three, regularly seen bird species stood out.
In the winters at each end of the year, flocks of 20-30+ Eiders were regularly seen, likewise 30-40+ Twite and irregularly, small flocks of up to 20 Tree Sparrows.

Eiders had been a regular feature at the eastern end of Sheppey for many years, and were generally seen at three sites. The sea and shore line below Warden Point cliffs, the sea off of Shellness Point and the area in The Swale by some old barges set into the edge of the saltings in front of the Swale NNR. The first two sites were normally used during the winter months but by the spring and summer, as the flock dwindled in size, the remaining birds seemed to prefer to summer just inside the Swale, between the old barges and Horse Sands. Unfortunately, by the turn of the new century, regular sightings became less and less, although looking at the two most recent Kent Bird Reports it seems they are still being seen reasonably regularly in The Swale, so perhaps its just me.

Twite too, used to be a bird almost guaranteed to be found at Shellness Point and the saltings in front of the Swale NNR each winter, I even had one flock totaling 50 birds in 1990. I must admit that I've always had quite a soft spot for these nondescript little birds but these days you are lucky if you are able to pick out the odd bird in a Linnet flock.

The last species, Tree Sparrows, definitely appears to have gone for good, just as they have in many other places. For the first four or five years that I was a vol. warden on the reserve, there was a small breeding colony in some of the thickets on the adjoining farmland. It was my first ever encounter with Tree Sparrows and I loved them and made up some nest boxes for them that I placed in one of their favourite thickets, which they readily used. During the autumn/winter months a small flock of 15-20 birds would regularly come down onto the reserve to feed in the grass and the reed beds, it was a real joy to see them.  For me at the time, I assumed that they were simply part of the local bird scene, which I suppose that they always had been, I had no inkling that even then their numbers were on the slide and if I had done, I would of at least put up even more nest boxes. Then, after a couple of years of not seeing them at all I deliberately had a look around their regular haunts to try and find some but they were no more, it coincided with worries being expressed nationally about their demise.
It's a really hard to understand why they have been lost on Harty, the habitat that they used is still there, and is even better if anything. The food supply via game cover strips full of well seeded wild plants has improved greatly, but constant spraying of arable fields alongside has removed most of the supply of insect life needed for chick production. If I were to choose a location for Tree Sparrows to reside in, their previous haunt on Harty would fit the bill perfectly, so perhaps it does just come down to insect life, perhaps there are just too few Tree Sparrows moving around in Kent now for them to be able to find and re-colonise these old sites.


  1. We've noticed a huge decrease in sparrow numbers in our Garden. We're not far from you (Whitstable).

    Our garden attracts lots of Great Tits, Blue Tits, Chaffinches, Black Cap, Long Tailed Tits, Robins and Blackbirds. We have very few dunnocks or tree sparrows (and the sparrows used to be here in huge numbers a few years back)

    But ... we have a holiday home on Fuerteventura (Canaries) where the sparrow numbers seem to be on the increase and the little guys are very noisy and active. If you had the choice between living on sunny Fuerte or icy cold Harty which would you select if you were a sparrow? :-)

  2. Sue,

    The sparrows that you would of seen around your garden would of almost certainly been House Sparrows, not the now increasingly uncommon Tree Sparrow. In the Canaries they would also be a regional variety such as Spanish Sparrow, there are also Italian Sparrows, all similar except I suppose they chirrup in a different language.

    Back here unfortunately, while House Sparrows are still to be found in good numbers, 30 odd a day in my garden, they are also decreasing in numbers quite rapidly.