Saturday, 28 June 2014

Spuggies and things

During this last week there was a brief bit of chat on a local forum about how many House Sparrows (Spuggies) some of us were recording in our gardens. The result seemed to suggest that they were doing quite well, especially in gardens where the birds had a large bush or hedge where they could gather together and pass the day away safely. I've regularly commented on my own consistent garden flock of 30-40 birds and Sheppey, especially the rural parts, still seems to be recording reasonable numbers of this bird that was once so prolific that people were paid to shoot large numbers of them.
Personally I think that they have great charm and a pretty much unique plumage colour, which is often wrongly described as drab but there aren't that many birds with a similar combination of browns and greys. It;s also rare to see regular records of spuggie numbers being submitted to various bird organisations - perhaps people still take them for granted as they chase the more colourful rarities around the countryside - that common old spuggie - but is it?

This morning, before 6.00, I was on the reserve enjoying a couple of hours in the windless and warm sunshine of a lovely summer's morning. At any time of the year you only get that kind of stillness and serenity twice a day, at dawn and at dusk. I love looking at the windpump in the early morning, it captures so much the images that I retain from my childhood on the marshes of Sheppey when they were a far commoner sight.

Moving past the windpump I made my way to the western entry gate on to the reserve and it's seawall, where the track leads down from Harty Church.

The track is sandwiched between tall poplar trees and this year's corn crop and gives good views across the flat marsh of the reserve to distant Shellness Hamlet and at it's top end leads left to Harty Church.

Turning all the way round at the track gate, the view southwards is of a low tide Swale with Horse Sands exposed in the middle and the assorted boats moored in Faversham Creek. Many days of the year you can usually see 20-30 Common Seals as they rest on the Sands at low tide and during this month they will often have pups with them.

Tucked away in the distance from the track above is Harty Church and it's neighbouring farm buildings

Back on the reserve itself this is a Coot's eye view of a typical ditch on the reserve - now shallow water bordered each side by club rush but still retaining the charm that only a marshland ditch can - the odd ripple of a Rudd at the surface, the startling leap of a Marsh Frog into the water, dragonflies chasing flies, a Dabchick bringing a Minnow to it's eager brood - a ditch has a lot to offer if you tarry long enough!

A view across the flat grazing marsh that makes up most of the reserve, marshes are fortunately not everybody's cup of tea, especially when the bitter cold winds of winter make the shelter of woodlands a far more enjoyable experience, but I have lived and loved them all my life. Real hardy people are marsh people as they endure the endless winter damp, the freezing winds, the fogs, the frosts, the baking sun of the summer days - special people and I' proud to have spent 67 years being one.

And I'm not alone, Midge and Ellie wouldn't swap the place for the world - well, a few extra rabbits would be nice. And that leads me onto another favourite rant of mine, (see below).

I read a local blog yesterday where the writer had gone from his usual Kent patch to the Ashdown Forest in Sussex, presumably to someone else's patch. Whilst there his photography session had been spoiled by someone's dogs that has appeared and jumped into the waterway that he was photographing - cue a big rant on his blog about dogs and what a pain that they are - seconded by at least one other blogger.
What is it with these up their own arses, PC perfect photographer types - that's what dogs do, if I was a dog on a hot day, I'd jump in a ditch too. The point they always miss is that they have travelled to someone else's patch, the dogs and their owner probably walk that same patch every day of the year and then one day they have to endure some prat appearing out of the undergrowth, trying to stick his lens up a dragonfly's arse to get that perfect, better than anybody else's, macro shot. I doubt that dog owner takes his dogs into another county to annoy somebody on their own patch - some of these birdwatchers/photographers need to accept that other people enjoy the countryside in different ways, it's not for them alone.
Thank Christ for big, wide open and unpopular North Kent marshes, the dogs and I love the solitude.

Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Drying Times

Since my last posting the reserve has continued to dry out at an amazing rate and clearly we are now settling into the annual summer event now of bone hard ground and very low water levels, it'd now be almost impossible to convince a stranger that just four months ago we were experiencing the wettest winter on record. All of the rills that traverse the flat grazing marsh for the benefit of wader chicks, full of water just a month ago, are now dry and cracked.

With the breeding season now coming to and end and many young birds and their parent dispersing in post-breeding flocks and little water to attract passage birds, it'll become an increasingly quiet next few months wildlife wise, with mainly butterflies to brighten up each visit.
And of course wildflowers, along one ditch in particular there are clouds of this Marsh Bedstraw in flower at the moment, not the most spectacular of flowers but I like it.

Every year I can't resist photographing the bulls on their summer holidays with the ladies. There are two of these fine black specimens in a herd of around thirty cows in one field on the reserve, that's fifteen each if they share - reminds me of some of the better nights in the Swinging 60's!

One early morning out there I watched these two sailing vessels making their way down the Swale, the sailing barge looked like it was chasing after it's baby barge.

One morning last week I came across this late brood of Greylag Geese being shepherded along a ditch by their parents.

I took this photo of a Redshank on Sunday as I drove back down the Elmley track. It was sat on top of a gate post and I was amazed that it allowed my car to edge to within a few feet of it, close enough to take this photo with my little camera through the windscreen.

On a more serious note, Kent has been very excited this last couple of weeks to find that it's first pair of Black-winged Stilts were nesting, fortunately on the RSPB's Cliffe marshes reserve, where they were given 24hr surveillance. Four chicks duly hatched and were photographed and what happened next - they were bloody predated!
This seems to be happening more and more these days, look at Springwatch this year, where a complete colony of breeding Black-headed Gulls and Avocets was cleaned out in one night by a single rogue badger. It's happening far too frequently now a days, where birds breeding for the first time in this country, or who are only breeding in tiny numbers, are having their attempts to establish breeding colonies ruined by very common and predatory species such as Herring Gulls, LBB Gulls, Magpies, crows and foxes. It really is about time that we took a firmer stance with some of these predator species and increased culling rather than continually giving in to the ridiculous and likely argument put up by bunny-huggers that losing the first ever brood of BW Stilts is justifiable because what ever ate them has a right to live and feed its young just the same, despite the fact that Herring Gulls say, outnumber them by hundreds of thousands to one. In my book, that one rogue badger at Minsmere, (and one hopes that the RSPB do quietly achieve that), should "disappear" one night.

Tuesday, 17 June 2014

Quiet Times

It's been a struggle just lately to find anything worthwhile to comment on, apart from the weather which continues in it's topsy-turvy style - last week hot, sunny and humid and this week heavy grey skies and chilly N. winds. It does seem however, that the dryness of the ground appears to be settling into a prolonged spell, supported by Met. Office forecasts, not really what anybody trying to grow crops needs. Having said that, so far on the reserve the cattle have struggled to make any great impression on the grass levels and counting hatched and fledging wader chicks has been pretty difficult as they regularly disappear among the taller areas of grass and sedge.
Considering how ideal the conditions on the reserve were after the mild, wet winter, we were hopeful of a really good breeding season for Lapwings this year but with one final count yet to do, the totals of both breeding pairs and fledged young are not exceptional. The heady days of 2010's 81 breeding pairs of Lapwings seem far away at the moment, despite improvements to the reserve making it seem pretty much ideal for them. Over the last two years they also appear to have also changed their preference of breeding site, almost ignoring the western half of the reserve to favour the eastern half, which is hard to figure out. The western half consists of previously well favoured breeding areas of flat, short grazed fields containing numerous rills of shallow water with muddy fringes, ideal for providing insects for growing chicks. The now favoured eastern half of the reserve consists of the Flood field, which begins the breeding season with large areas of standing water or water-logged grass and sedge, and one or two other part-flooded fields, there has to be a reason there somewhere.
Redshanks on the other hand, are doing really well and this year has seen a continuation of the upward rise in numbers of breeding pairs, and fairly spread throughout the reserve.

The latest breeding discovery was also very satisfying because we thought that we had lost them this year, the Barn Owls have been successful, or perhaps that should be Barn Owl. They have nested on the reserve pretty much continuously for the last twenty-odd years but during this last winter they first of all disappeared and then eventually, only one has been seen, never two at times as is the norm. That has remained the case on an almost daily basis but an inspection of the nest box last week found three almost fledged chicks, which were rung. So we remain a bit mystified, why have we never seen a second bird.

Lastly, the Mute Swans, as they do each year, have provided us with the usual and delightful sight of their cygnets in the early summer sun.

Monday, 2 June 2014

Save the Harrier

Reading a local blog the other day I was intrigued by the blogger's obvious excitement when urging readers to sign a new E-Petition that had been started by the ex-Conservation Director of the RSPB, Mark Avery, this is the BIG One the blogger stated.
I had a read of the petition, found at (trawl down to the 28th May) and it is an E-Petition started by Mark Avery in a somewhat tongue in cheek effort to get driven grouse shooting in England banned in order to help protect Hen Harriers from persecution. I say tongue in cheek because he hasn't got a hope in hell's chance of getting the wealthy owners, including Royalty, of the great grouse moors to accept such a thing and pretty much admits that in his petition. However it will obviously appeal to all those hunting antis out there that will sign anything at the drop of a hat if the words ban and shooting are in the title.

Now I have been involved in various forms of conservation for over many, many years and in recent years have been part of a team that counts the numbers of harriers going into evening roost at numerous sites in Kent during the six winter months. At the site that I watch at, Hen Harriers have had a traditional roost for countless years but in the last few years have dwindled down to the fact that this last winter, for the first time, no Hen Harriers were recorded on any of the six roost counts that I carried out. So I know, from actual first hand experience, how badly the Hen Harrier is doing and would be happy to petition for most things that would help the birds but Mr. Avery's petition makes no mention of what he sees as the after effects of such a ban becoming law. Obviously, many of those that have rushed to sign the petition simply presume that such a ban would mean everything suddenly becoming honky-dory overnight and that the harriers will start to breed in much greater numbers because there will then be no nasty shooting types protecting their grouse by shooting and poisoning them - well that sounds great and I'd like to believe it as much as the next person, but come on, it ain't as simple as that.
Would all the people that get profit, wages and pleasure from what is a multi-million pound industry, simply accept such a ban with no spite, would potentially, even more persecution of harriers take place because people would see them as the cause of such a ban, would the spite of estates who until the ban had always left harriers alone, not be brought into the conflict. And let's face it, shooting and poisoning are the more blatant and identifiable ways of killing harriers, a more subtle way is to identify a nest and "accidentally" stand on the eggs as you walk by. There is also then, the huge and costly amount of moorland management that goes into making a moor ideal not only for grouse but for Golden Plover, Curlew, Merlin, Meadow Pipits, etc. etc. Ban grouse shooting and all of that management and it's necessary pest controls will likely stop, might the moors become overgrown, or what would be in place to stop huge moors being grazed to the ground by sheep by the owner as a means of both revenge and making profit.
People who rush to sign petitions need to first put aside their bias for a moment and look at the bigger picture and determine if in the long run, such bans will actually help to protect a particular species. Assuming that the moors will still look as good after a ban, or that the RSPB will simply rush out and buy them is a dream too far.

On a slightly different subject, I found as usual, Robin Page's article in the Telegraph this weekend, interesting, especially where he quoted what Martin Harper (Mark Avery's successor as head of Conservation at the RSPB) had to say when addressing the National Gamekeepers Organisation recently. He told them that the RSPB controlled mink and foxes - apparently 30 mink bit the dust on RSPB reserves last year and 273 foxes were shot on 26 reserves.
Now, as someone who has actually got his hands dirty on nature reserves, I like Robin Page, have known for some years that the RSPB control predators and not just mink and foxes and not always by shooting. But why are the RSPB so reluctant to report these facts in their magazine, they always give glowing reports and photographs of such reserves and what they have achieved, why not tell the whole story of how they have achieved such success. In that way we might end up with RSPB members better educated in the true ways of countryside and reserve management and far less of those that believe that such things don't and shouldn't happen.