Monday 30 August 2010

A Pleasant Dawn and a Bit of Respect

For the third morning running I was on the reserve at first light this morning. The sky was cloudless and blue apart from one small bank of grey clouds on the horizon behind Shellness Hamlet. They sat there like some miniature mountain range and as I walked across the marsh their top edge changed from red, to orange and to yellow as the sun quickly rose behind them and broke free into the sky. One other thing, whilst inland in sheltered woods and fields early this morning, it may have seemed chilly and breezy, across that marsh and the seawall early on it was blowing a gale and was bloody freezing. No doubt those hardy birdwatchers arriving to sit on the beach and carry out seawatching in near perfect conditions will also be able to testify to the same.

My reason for being out so early was one, because I normally am, and two because I was expecting to bump into a particular wildfowler on the seawall. For several years now he has always sat along there at dawn, a few days before the start of the shooting season, always with his two superbly trained gundogs and often with his wife, simply to get an idea of what wildfowl there are about.
Now my dislike of these people and their activities is well known but here is a guy who I have a lot of respect for and who I also enjoy sitting on the seawall with once a year and discussing each others views on the subject. He is also a KWCA committee man and will also be there for just the first day's shooting in front of the reserve in order to evaluate the members' activities. I won't mention his name because he also has similar views to me on some of the more modern "wildfowlers" that unfortunately make up some of the membership of the KWCA, or shoot round the corn-fed duck ponds on Harty, and I wouldn't want to embarrass him.

No, this guy is the same kind of age as me, has been involved with the countryside and its sports all his life and therefore has huge experience in the subject, and more importantly, shoots with proper restraint and experience. By sitting and talking to him for an hour or two it allows me to bring a degree of rationale into my dislike of the wildfowlers, he knows he'll never change my views but if all his Association were like him it could be a lot different. Unfortunately as he accepts, its too easy to simply buy a gun and some fancy clothes and become a "wildfowler" these days - its the respect and experience that those guys don't bring with them.

Apart from seeing him out on the saltings at dawn on Wednesday morning, that'll probably be the last time that I see him for another year because he mainly shoots elsewhere in Kent and once a year, Scotland, but I felt much better for the chat.

Saturday 28 August 2010

Suspicious minds

Glad to see clear skies at dawn this morning and not a repeat of yesterday's awful weather, I arrived at the reserve just as the first glimpse of an orange sun appeared behind the wind turbines out to sea. The rain has made a slight difference to the dryer parts of the marsh and put a film of water across parts of the "S" bend ditch. This had attracted small numbers of Green and Common Sandpipers, a dozen Blackwits and around 40 Teal. Other than that there wasn't an awful lot about other than the usual Lapwings, harriers and groups of migrating swallows and wagtails, it was more a case of simply enjoying the solitude before Wednesday.

Stopping off at the Raptor Viewing Mound I was curious to check out why one of the farmers that shares Capel Fleet there, where it's huge reed beds run east across to Muswell Manor, has had a digger along there the last couple of days. Walking along part of it, it transpires that he has mown down a wide area of sedge and reed between a counter wall and the Fleet, basically tidying it up and exposing the narrow stretch of open water alongside the large reed beds. It appears that this has been done along a mile or so stretch but unfortunately the public footpath is on the other side of the small counter wall and so technically you can't take advantage of this betterment for birdwatching.
Now the charitable side of me should simply assume that this work has all been done for conservation reasons but given the recent up-surge of duck shooting on Harty and the fact that this farming family are also involved in a lot of shooting, it is also clear that by opening up this water on their side of the Fleet that they have made it very attractive to ducks! Time will tell, as regulars at the Raptor Viweing Mound this winter will be able to judge.
I could also ask the question, given that the Fleet is all designated as SSSI, if prior consultation about this work was had with Natural England beforehand?

The lastest utterance on the website of the British Association for Shooting and Conservation this week also brought out the disgust and cynic in me - apparently wildfowling prospects this year look very good. At the end of this announcement was a comment from the Chairmen of the Kent Wildfowling and Conservation Association, Alan Jarrett, a man who tries his hardest to turn every action of his members into one of conservation. Apparently according to him it has been a good breeding season in Kent for Canada and Greylag geese and even Mallard numbers are up. Well, Greylags are hardly wild and flighty geese that present a testing challenge to most wildfowlers, rather more like shooting farmyard geese. And Mallard on Harty, and probably Sheppey as a whole, most definitely haven't bred well at all in recent years and if anything are decreasing. Certainly on The Swale NNR this year - which will be encircled by duck shooting this winter - we only registered four broods of Mallard this summer, OK there probably were a few more that were missed but quite clearly a lot more will be removed than are being replaced now.
This is born out by recent BTO stats which shows the BTO beginning to have concerns about the decreasing numbers of Mallard throughout the country and why they are having breeding problems.

The recent death of all the canaries in my aviary from the same parasite that is currently killing thousands of Greenfinches and Chaffinches throughout the country, is now behind me I hope. I have completely cleaned out the aviary and fumigated it and have put two cheap "tester" canaries in there to see if they succumb over the next few weeks before I buy in some proper new birds. I'm convinced that they will be OK.

Wednesday 25 August 2010

Shotgun madness

Imagine my dismay this morning as I drove along the Harty Road, to see yet another digger clearing yet another area of water especially for duck shooting. This was taking place in the stretch of Capel Fleet immediately before the Raptor Viewing Mound, where the Fleet is little more than a ditch and is crossed by a wooden footbridge. Admitedly the guy that shoots there, does so very sensibly and sparingly but it can only increase his opportunities.
To put all this into context lets take the Raptor Viewing Mound as the centre of a three mile circle around that part of Harty and tot up how much the wildfowl shooting has increased in recent years.

Firstly, along the saltings in front of the Swale NNR we have the members of the KWCA, up to 20 a day during the first week. Some of the local, retired members, will often shoot there twice a day, seven days a week for a lot of it as well.

Secondly and not far away from that at the rear of the reserve, we have a newly created and large duck shooting pond just yards from the reserve's boundary. This same landowner also has another pond alongside the wide reed beds of eastern Capel Fleet. Both of these ponds are leased to syndicates who then charge guests to sit round them and kill incoming wildfowl, attracted to corn.

Thirdly, on the grazing marsh between the Shellness track and Muswell Manor another landowner also shoots specially deepened and widened ditches that are corn fed to attract wildfowl. This landowner also shoots along the wide reed beds of eastern Capel Fleet. Bear in mind that eastern Capel Fleet is a favourite roost site for both Marsh and Hen Harriers during the winter, when undisturbed!

Fourthly, we have the guy I first mentioned above, who is the least disturbing of them all.

Lastly, we have another set of shooters who regularly shoot the stretch of Capel Fleet from Capel Corner westwards, sometimes twice a day. Currently, because this is the best stretch of water on Harty at the moment, each morning it contains around a 100 ducks and 4-500 Greylag Geese. You can imagine what is going to happen to them in the darkness of the 1st September next week.

All in all that is an awful lot of wildfowl that will potentially be taken out of just that 3 mile radius this winter and also, at least three of these operations take place inside SSSI areas. A good reason for feeling depressed I think!

Monday 23 August 2010

Something different.

Its always difficult with these blogs to avoid falling into the trap that many do, possibly by popular choice, of repeating the same thing seven days a week. It can get a tad boring pretty much knowing what some are going to tell you each day even before you've actually read them - the same routes, the same wildlife, just different numbers.
The Swale NNR has got like that just lately and I even bore myself writing about the same things and so I've looked for something different. I've visited Warden Point this last couple of weekends in the hope of not only seeing some early migrants but birds that you don't get down on the marsh - Pied and Spotted Flycatchers, Redstarts, Goldcrest. Unfortunately that hasn't quite worked out, its still a tad early, but there have been other things to make the visit interesting. The variety of free and tasty fruit growing in the hedgerows there for one. Also the vagrant in his tent near Manor Cottage, who is quite interesting to talk too and is ex-military and who has his pension paid into the bank so that he can collect it wherever he travels, enjoying the open air and the hedgerows.

When I was youngster in the 1950's and 60's, Warden Point was a far more mysterious and quieter place, well off the beaten track and with its own Manor at the end of the road. The road itself, also went on for a lot further than it does now and there was at least one more bungalow and a two-story house that was a post-office, sweet shop and tea rooms. Even as recent as the 1980's it was still possible, after a long cycle ride out there, to sit outside the post-office in the summer and enjoy an ice-cream or tea and cakes. Unfortunately these buildings have now gone down the cliffs to join the old military installations that once also stood at the top. Some of these ruins are the remains of concrete Sound Detectors that stood on the top of the cliffs. Between the two World Wars, experiments were carried out around the coasts of southern England in the early detection of incoming aircraft by the use of large, echo-sounding dishes. They were made of various materials and were various sizes up to 200ft long but those erected at sites in the Thames Estuary like Warden were of concrete, 20 foot high and had at the front a large concave dish. These experiments using aircraft, microphones and the sound mirrors carried on throughout the 1920's and 30's but had limited success and were finally stopped in 1935 because an alternative detection system,(radar), was coming into being. So the concrete dishes were abandoned and eventually ended up at the bottom of Warden's cliffs as a little known piece of history.

Warden Manor itself has been around for a long time and as far back as Tudor times was given to Sir Thomas Cheyne by Henry the Eighth. Like all such old buildings it has had its share of mystery and intrigue with tales of smuggling headquarters, ghosts, hidden priest's holes and even tunnels to the Wheatsheaf pub down the road. Seems a hard way to go and get a pint! During WW1 it became a small hospital and in WW2 was used as a convalescent home for military officers. But it became most widely known for its use by the Toc H organisation. In 1930 the Manor was bought by a Cecil Jackson-Cole and both before and after WW2 he allowed Toc H to use it to provide holidays for the elderly. The rooms all had names such as Orient Express or ship's names and were themed inside accordingly. It was very popular for visiting aged people and well used and must of been quite idyllic out there in such lovely and quiet countryside before the holiday camp on the cliffs ruined the place.

By the 1970's it had been purchased by a charming gentleman who owned a clothing shop in Sheerness and he eventually sold part of the Manor and it's small chapel to some monks. These re-named their part as The Monastery of the Sorrowful and Immaculate Heart of Mary and in recent times there were up to 50 monks and nuns living there. I recall one Sunday afternoon seeing a number of these brown robed and hooded monks making their way along the seawall of The Swale NNR, out for an afternoon look round - quite spooky!

So, when you're birdwatching at Warden Point next time, be mindful of its history and what used to be and its a shame that you can't still get a cup of tea at the post office there.

Tuesday 17 August 2010

WEBS day

Yesterday was our monthly WEBS day.
For the uninitiated, WEBS stands for the Wetland Birds Survey. It is a survey that is carried out nationaly to count the high tide roosts of wetland birds such as wildfowl and waders and as much as possible on the same high tide, on the same day, each month. Some teams however only carry out the survey for the six winter months and this appears to be the case on Sheppey apart from our three man team at The Swale NNR. We carry out the survey for the whole of each year, which I personally find a bit of a waste of time if Elmley isn't also being counted and I don't really understand why Elmley do leave those months blank.

Anyway, we carried out ours yesterday around the 17.45 high tide, which as it happened turned into a beautifuly warm and sunny part of the day. My section is the middle marsh and surrounding farm fields of the reserve which as was expected due to the dry conditions, turned up very low numbers of birds. The birds were pretty much all concentrated into the one muddy length of the "S" ditch and whilst a reasonably good list of birds, was made up pretty much with just ones and twos of most. The best count for me was one of 40 newly arrived Teal and 40 Golden Plover.
I haven't seen the other two lists of birds counted at the reserve's high tide roosts at Shellness and Harty yet but do know that over 1,000 Curlew and several thousand Oystercatcher were at Shellness Point.

Like I said earlier, one of the joys of being out there late afternoon/early evening yesterday was the fact that after a windy and gloomy day the evening became calm, sunny and warm. With combine harvesters working furiously away in the cornfields nearby and swallows and martins passing constantly across the sky, it made for an extremely beautiful and calming time to be there. Unfortunately as I soaked in this golden light and scenery two guys approached along the seawall with labradors. Have you already guessed - yes it was two approaching local wildfowlers. Now I know I constantly bang on about these people and everybody has different outlooks on life but these two guys had simply walked along there to weigh up the numbers of wildfowl that there were about and the prospect for shooting them in two weeks time. Now how could your main interest on such a beautiful evening be in both killing and removing the birds from that picture. Am I suffering from too much melancholy?

Monday 16 August 2010

Autumn has arrived

When I titled my last posting "Summer's passing by" I didn't anticipate it disappearing overnight. It seems as though one night last week we went to bed in summer and woke up in the morning in autumn, it was that quick. I was kept awake last night by a howling NW wind coming straight off the sea here and round my windows and got up at 5.30 to near darkness, grey skies and a classic October morning - summery August it most definitely isn't!
Never mind, it will no doubt keep the sea-watching enthusiasts happy, or at least those that don't have to go to work and miss it today. We have a WEBS to do early this evening so it will be interesting to see what that turns up.

Having tramped around a very quiet and dreary reserve early yesterday morning, seeing little else than a few Green Sandpipers and Reed Warblers, I returned home for breakfast before deciding to give Warden Point a look. A few migrants were reported as moving through there on Friday and it would be nice to see a Pied Flycatcher again and more importantly for me, a first sighting of reported Brown Argus's. The walk down the football pitch to the cliff edge was uneventful apart from the abundance of ripe plum varieties on the bushes there. Although it was breezy walking down the field it was blowing almost a gale at the cliff edge and so it was obvious that the more sheltered conditions of a hundred yards or so inland would be more favourable.
So I made my way back to The Manor and took the little track opposite that goes underneath the radar tower. This is normally a good spot for both butterflies and passing migrants such as warblers, flycatchers and redstarts. Once again I drew a blank this time, the only thing of note was the tent of a vagrant who has been there for a few months now, rather a long way from any water and provisions I would of thought.

Making my way back to the football field again I bumped into Andy M and his wife and they pointed me in the direction of an earlier Pied Flycatcher and so I went off to have a look for that. After a short wait I re-found it in some sycamores alongside the road that runs down to the holiday camp there - once again this is a regular autumn spot for flycatchers as well as Goldcrests and Firecrests - just a shame about the constant passing traffic in and out of the holiday camp.

That was pretty much about it for me there yesterday morning, a tad to breezy and still a tad early for the main autumn movements but worth a regular look now for the next couple of months. I re-met Andy and wife as I made my back to the car and they had done a bit better than me along by the radar tower, with a Lesser Whitethroat and a few Willow Warblers.

Lets just hope that the forecasts aren't completely right and that summer is now finished, there must surely be a few more decent days to come - aren't there?

Wednesday 11 August 2010

Summers passing by - the goose's getting fat

It was very warm and sunny earlier this morning but I didn't get to the reserve until after 9.00, instead of my usual 7.00 and its surprising what a difference those couple of hours make to the mood of the place. Gone by then was the freshness and dampness of the early morning, to be replaced by a warmth that already had seemed to lull what few birds there were into a stupor.
As I began to walk through the yellowness of the grazing marsh it seemed as there were only a few swallows, skimming across the grass tops and the cattle for company, and even the cattle were huddled together in a gateway at just one end of the field. It had a strange early autumn feel about it - the quietness, the whispering of the breeze in the reed beds, the single rasping note of a Sedge Warbler as it no longer had the energy or need to throw its song into the air.
The ditch I passed along was little more than a dark line of sedge against the yellow of the meadow, with just a trickle of water at its base. No frogs were calling, something that has been noticeable this summer, with far fewer calling around the marsh, perhaps a result of the extreme cold this last winter.

Gradually however a few bits and pieces began to become noticeable, a Wheatear bobbed along in front of me, a Chiffchaff in a bush piped that mournful note that they have in the autumn, almost as if they're sorry to be leaving. Gatekeepers were still everywhere, easily the commonest butterfly here this year, and they were joined by a solitary Small Copper and some Common Blues.

A clamour of Greylags then woke me from my sleep walking in the sun and I watched 18 of these rise from the seawall fleet and noisily circle the reserve, not what I want to see. Gradually over the next two weeks this flock will gradually increase and build up to a flock of around 400 birds, that's pretty much guaranteed, it happens every year just as the wildfowling season is about to start. These birds all go inland onto central Harty in the spring but always return, for some suicidal reason and to the wildfowlers great joy, just in time to be shot. Every year with it being bone dry on the reserve and few ducks about, I smugly rejoice that at least there'll be nothing to shoot for the first month or so and then back return the geese to slowly and lowly fly out over the guns. By October the geese will have learnt the error of their ways and found safer flight lines but until then the close-range carnage for the first few weeks makes it difficult to witness twice a day.
One reminder of this all summer has been the prescence of a White-fronted Goose with the flock of white farmyard geese on the reserve. Its easily recognised by the fact that one broken wing sticks up in the air, making it look a bit like a miniature junk sailing down the fleets. It was left behind by those conservationists the wildfowlers back in February.

Saturday 7 August 2010

Once upon a time

A lot of afternoons this summer, whilst out on my daily cycle ride, I have sat talking to a few guys along Minster Leas pretty much always about "the old days", as you do when you get to a certain age (old).

Yesterday we were talking about how most countryside children in the 1950's would of carried a catapult in their pockets, you'd probably be arrested or banned from school for carrying one nowadays. So there we were, all in our 60's and arguing about the merits of favourite types of bush or tree for supplying the perfect prong, and how we would lovingly sculpt and sandpaper this perfect prong until it was ready for a final coat of varnish. After that would come the attaching of the catapult elastic. Lengths of black, square elastic, specially bought in Sheerness from a shop called Meeham's - that sold everything a young child could want in those days, and buy if you was lucky, things like airgun pellets and rabbit snares. We then had discussion on the best methods of attaching the elastic to the prong. Some guys swore by the method of making a groove in the top of each prong and then passing the elastic over this groove before the end of the elastic was tightly bound to the prongs using catgut or string. I sometimes simply drilled a hole in each prong and then passed the elastic through to be knotted on one side. Problem with this is that it weakened the stems and often resulted in them snapping when pulling the elastic fully back - painful when a fully extended pouch and stone suddenly whacked against your thumb.
The subject that caused much hilarity was when one guy asked "what did you use to make the pouch" and we all to a man said "soft leather tongues from your shoes". You could always identify a successful country boy in my school by looking down at his shoes!
Finally, much time was spent on Sheerness beach carefully selecting the perfect pebbles, small and round as possible. With pockets bulging with such weaponry we were then all ready to set of in pursuit of targets - a neighbouring cat, a Jackdaw on the chimney pots, the bully several gardens away, who never knew where the stone came from that hit him in the face - happy days!

Another pretty pointless hobby that I had as a 11/12 year old schoolboy was the collection of birds footprints. I had read a book called "Tracks, Trails and Signs" about how to identify tracks and trails left in mud and snow by various wild animals and birds. Things like the fact that a fox's footprints always show in single file, not side by side like many animals. Never really worked out how it managed that with four feet but it does, must have a very mincing walk.
Anyway I determined to get a collection of these footprints and so put together a small satchel of items that I would need and carried it around with me when I was out and about. This satchel contained lengths of thin cardboard and old toilet roll holders, paper clips, scissors, water and plaster of paris. Immediately I found a good trail in some mud and was confident that I knew what had made it (I carried the book around with me, although the library was less than amused at getting it back with white, plaster of paris fingerprints all over it), I set too work.
I would make a suitable sized tube of card, clip it together and place it over the footprint. Mix up some plaster of paris in a bowl and scrape it in to the tube and firm it down and hey-presto, about ten minutes later when it had set, I would pick up the tube, look at the bottom and there would be a plaster of paris cast of a footprint! After writing on the ID I would take these casts home and paint them with water colours. Eventually I had loads of shoe boxes full of these footprints but after briefly impressing my school teacher and class-mates with them I found that they had very little use but was quite amused to re-find them all when I got married and cleared my cupboards to leave home.

I wonder if you can still buy catapult elastic nowadays, it'd be good fun to make that perfect "catty" again one more time and there's one or two cats round here that could do with a reminder of how easy they've got it these days.

Tuesday 3 August 2010

The Start of Autumn?

Driving along the Harty Road early this morning the scenery was as good as it gets, apart from being a tad autumnal. Blue skies, a few whisps of mist, warm sunshine and everywhere gold with with the corn or its stubble. The rape has already been harvested and the ground tickled over ready for the winter corn and as soon as the corn is harvested those fields will be immediately sown with rape and the whole process quickly re-starts again.

There wasn't a breath of wind as I arrived on the reserve and already the sun was getting quite warm so that I wouldn't need a jumper. My exuberance was marred however by stepping out of the car to find that one of the juvenile Barn Owls was on the ground dead. The reserve only bred the two chicks this year, which were rung as usual, and they left the nest a couple of weeks ago. So sad to see such a valuable bird dead after such a short time. Difficult to say what it had died of, although it felt very thin, but Barn Owls tend to be very thin under all that feathering anyway, so who knows.

Its amazing how a day can be so different as migration starts to get under way, the last couple of days, mainly due to the dryness, have been very quiet. Today as I approached the wet, muddy areas of the "S" bend ditch, it was somewhat different. A total of 14 Green Sandpipers got up in a procession of ones and twos, with 3 Common Sandpipers mixed in. A Snipe and a LR Plover quickly followed, plus a few scruffy looking Mallard. One or two Marsh Harriers drifted in off the farmland and made their way along the seawall reed beds, causing a bit of consternation from some Bearded Tits and everywhere were Gatekeepers, either weakly fluttering by or sunbathing on the sunny side of plants.

I decided to turn back along the boundary fence between the reserve and the neighbouring farmland, not far from the Tower Hide. In the early autumn this particular stretch of fence is a favourite place to find Whinchat and today it didn't let me down, there were my first two, lovely stuff! Close by in some elderberry bushes were also 4 Whitethroats and a Sedge Warbler and it was apparent that autumn seems to have started. Final proof of this was the white flashing rump of a Wheatear, making its way up on to the top of one of the old Salt Workings Mounds - the same mound that I last saw one on in the Spring.

By then the dogs were getting hot and thirsty and decided to combine swimming with slaking their thirst in one of the ditches. Not a good idea at this time of the year because they tend to be around two inches of water and twelve inches of black, smelly mud. The result being two dogs happily walking out of the ditch, wet, smelly and looking as if both had black welly boots on up to their shoulders. Does wonders for the aroma in one's car but does deter passengers.
Whilst trying to avoid the explosion of thousand of drops of flying mud as they shook themselves, I just managed a glimpse of a Grass Snake as it too slid quickly away across the ditch.

It was a fabulous few hours out there this morning and lets hope that we can hold on to the sun and the warmth for at least another month before the dreaded winter starts to get closer.