Saturday 27 February 2010

From dry to wet and back again

Whilst sitting in the reserve's Tower Hide this morning I had a go at counting the huge number of birds out there but gave up because one, they had the sun behind them and therefore tended to be dark silhouettes and two, the plovers were so mobile that it was difficult to know what you had or hadn't counted. I simply enjoyed the spectacle.
In the 22-odd years that I've been wardening out there I don't think that I've ever seen that number of birds out there at any one time. Between the Shellness track and Harty church track there must be in excess of 10,000 birds at times.

The last four months have also exemplified the typical extreems of conditions that you get on the North Kent marshes in a typical year. Just last October the reserve was dust dry and bone hard and what birds were about were counted in single figures. The farmer alongside was having to re-sow the rape because the first lot died back after germination. Today, a few months later, two thirds of the reserve is under water or waterlogged and birds are counted by the several thousands. And do you know what, by Aug/Sept I bet we'll be crying out for water again!
In the meantime, tomorrow, we have a Spring High tide of 6.1m due, pushed in by a forecast severe NE gale and with around possibly 24 hours of rain - could be dodgy in low lying coastal areas by Monday.

Friday 26 February 2010

Springing into life

I got up at dawn today to the by now, guaranteed and expected grey skies and rain, but had my spirits lifted by a mini-dawn chorus of a Song Thrush, two Blackbirds and two Robins. There have been clear signs over the last 24 hrs here that the wildlife obviously don't suffer from the same weather-orientated depressions that us humans do.

Two pairs of Magpies are building nests in roadside bushes nearby and whilst looking round the garden yesterday I spotted a Robin coming out of a bush where I had placed an open-fronted nest box last year. On inspection there was an almost completed nest in the box, things were looking up. Then last night while it was pouring hard, I had a look at the garden pond by torchlight,to see if it had overflowed onto the lawn (it had), and lit up three of my resident frogs! A normal date in recent years but I had expected them to be late this year after such cold conditions.

So, despite the forecast of prolonged and heavy rain through Sunday into Monday, that will possibly see Midge and I kayaking around the reserve, I shall take heart from the fact that wildlife knows that Spring is just around the corner.

Thursday 25 February 2010

The Swale NNR

Sunrise today promised good weather with blue skies and sunshine, but by the time I'd arrived at the reserve we were back to the routine grey skies, a strengthening SW wind and a little light rain.
It was also obvious that recent rain had increased the amount of surface water and flooding across the reserve's grazing marsh to the worse that it has been this winter - so much the opposite of the drought conditions of last autumn! All that water meant that I had no option but to wear wellington boots, something I avoid as much as possible because lengthy walks in them through water and mud, greatly increases the pain in my arthritic feet. As a result I chose to take the shortest route and just go round to the reserve's Tower Hide. It was still to much water though for Midge my Jack Russell, who I think recently, has set new swimming endurance records for Jacko's because she has had to swim more of the reserve than actually walk it.

Anyway, the one thing that is instantly obvious to anyone arriving on the reserve is the fact that all that water and soft ground has attracted huge numbers of birds. If you are willing to make the longish walk from either Shellness or Harty church to put yourself on the seawall of the reserve, you are guaranteed a close and spectacular view of many thousands of wetland birds. Just in a less than a half mile radius around the Tower Hide I had the following birds:
48 Mute Swan - 20 Greylag Geese - 90 Shelduck - 2,800 Wigeon - 40 Gadwall - 1,400 Teal - 320 Mallard - 50 Pintail - 80 Shoveler - 3 Marsh Harrier - 230 Coot - 30 Avocet - 1,800 Golden Plover - 3,000 Lapwing - 200 Curlew - 30 Redshank - 2 Green Woodpeckers - 1 Barn Owl - 150 Woodpigeon - 50 Fieldfare.
Add to that the fact that many of the fields across Harty have considerable numbers of similar birds and there is potential for some seriously high numbers of some species and worth seeing if you can get down that way.

One other apparent increase on Harty at the moment is the regular noise from bird-scaring gas guns as the farmers try to deter huge numbers of wood pigeons and some wildfowl from eating the rape crops. The noise can become irritating but remember, it does at least mean that birds such as Brent Geese are left alive, rather than suffering the last resort of shooting them under license. Unfortunately the rape crops on Harty have faired pretty badly so far this year, because in recent years it would normally be around a foot high by now. However last autumn a lot of it failed to survive after being sown, due to the excessively dry conditions, and that which did survive has been stunted by waterlogging and freezing conditions.

Wednesday 24 February 2010

This morning on Sheppey was awful - low cloud, mist, drizzle and general dampness oozing out of everywhere, so I chose to help the father-in-law glaze a new 10x8 greenhouse. We started in mild and drizzly weather and ended in blue skies and sunshine. So the reserve was given a miss today, there's only so much mud and water one can endure in a week. But driving past the Harty Road turn off en-route to the father-in-law's at Leysdown this morning, I was reminded of Harty Halt there and its connection to both nature reserves on Sheppey.
"Harty Halt" you might question, what was that?

Well immediately before the turn off to Harty, there is a lay-by on the left hand side of the main road. Sit in that and in front of you on either side of the road is a line of telegraph poles above a hedgerow, both of those followed the line taken by the old Sheppey Light Railway, all the way across the middle of Sheppey, between Queenborough and Leysdown. And just in front of the lay-by and to the left, was Harty Halt, the last stop before Leysdown. The railway line crossed the road there, with it's white level crossing gates, and the Halt was little more than a small hut waiting room, on a small platform, presumably serving the many farms and their workers that lived along the Harty Road.
When the railway was closed and dismantled in 1950 due to lack of use, the hut that was the Waiting Room ended up at Kingshill Farm, Elmley, home of the RSPB, where until fairly recent times, it stood alongside Kingshill Farm and housed their generator. Likewise, one of the iron railway gates in use there, was removed and taken out to what is now the Swale NNR and is still there in use today.

Can you imagine how fine that Light Railway would be today, travelling as it did through the very spine of Sheppey, how idyllic it would be for birdwatchers to get on at Queenborough and trundle along at slow speed through the marshes and meadows of rural Sheppey and end up at Leysdown seafront.

Tuesday 23 February 2010

Harty marshes

Whilst driving along the Harty Road this morning I reflected on the scene that unfolds for the birdwatcher driving along there for the first time.

Turning onto the Harty Road and driving its first quarter of a mile, nothing is any different to what you's already passed getting there, hedgerows, farmland and some livestock. However, in a single sudden moment outside the entrance to Capel Hill Farm, you find yourself on the crest of a small hill and laid out below you, as far as the eye can see, are the flat marshes of Harty. By stopping there for a moment you can find yourself at the same height as the Marsh Harriers that soar across the marshes, you can basically see it how they see it - a harrier's eye view.
A view that sees the marshes spread east, west and south, intercected only by the tiny Harty Road as it winds its way across the marsh to the distant Swale and the Ferry House Inn. It has to be one of the best views on Sheppey and never disappoints with its bird life.

Of all the sights that are possible from there, from snow cover, to flooded fields and May-time greenery, my favourite is the one that you often get on an early morning in the autumn. Once again, driving along the first stretch of the road under blue skies and sunshine, nothing seems amiss until you reach the crest of the hill. There before you will be a marshwide blanket of mist, virtually level with the crest of the hill. It is almost as if it was solid, you could simply carry on driving and cross Harty at that height.
Carrying on down the hill you descend into the mist like an areoplane dropping through clouds and as the road starts to disappear in front of you in the mist, it starts to become a different world. The deep ditch to one side seems even closer and deeper and the heads of cattle suddenly loom over the fence the other side to startle you. Tales of smugglers on horseback and marsh ague and even strange people, suddenly seem more realistic and believable.

It could seem pointless carrying on along the road in such conditions, because you're never going to see anything, but it is part of experiencing the marshes. Pull into a lay-by along there and stop the car and feel the dampness of the mist rolling past you. Listen to the sounds of the marsh and how they seem to increase the sense of eeriness and mystery. Curlews bubbling away somewhere, pheasants calling out, Lapwings with their mournful "peewit".

By all means enjoy the beauty of Harty in all its glory in sunnier days but to experience the real mystery and feel of the marshes you need to be there in the mist one time.

I think that on the crest of the hill there, Capel Hill as its known, there should be a small car park, and a notice that simply says, "Harty Marshes - What a view"

Monday 22 February 2010

Another wet day.

My first posting of a new blog and the weather is awful, making a visit to the Swale NNR today an unattractive proposition. It has remained very wet and muddy since the New Year and large areas of the reserve still remain under several inches of water, making movement around it by either foot or vehicle very restricted. With the near continuous rain today and more forecast throughout the week, unless we get a dry March, suitable breeding conditions for birds such as Lapwings and Redshanks could be threatened by grassland that remains waterlogged and cold.
In the meantime however, with vitually the whole of Harty waterlogged, the wildfowl, plovers and waders have been enjoying while its unfrozen, superb feeding conditions, and have been spread across both the grazing and arable fields in many thousands each day.

There are however, harbingers of Spring beginning to appear. For a few weeks now in my garden, we have had the dawn song most days of a Song Thrush, a pretty uncommon bird these days on Sheppey and so a rare treat to wake up too. A Magpie has begun building a nest in a neighbour's bush and despite an abundance of suitable material lying around on the ground, spends much time each day trying to snap growing twigs from a laburnum tree. In the same tree, a pair of Collared Doves seem to mate most days, although nesting through the winter is a pretty common event for them.

I wonder how far north early Sand Martins have got, normally in early March the first birds will be seen along the South Coast and they will be in for a shock this year if they stick to their normal timetable.