Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Minster North

At this time of the year as the holiday season comes to an end and the area settles into a winter quietness, the stretch of Minster on Sheppey's north coast begins to come into its own birdwise. It is basically made up of four sections, the cliff-top path and the sloping banks that run down to the promenade - The Leas, and the Shingle Bank beaches and Bartons Point canal and lake.
The area is not known for any regular rarities, apart from a Blue Rock Thrush along the cliff top some years ago, but does have spectacular views, very bracing air and a good selection of many of the commoner birds, especially waders at high tide.

Several roads terminate just short of the cliff top and this leaves a wide walk eastwards along the fairly high cliffs with some dense shrub and bramble on the landward side - good for many finches and migrating warblers.
The slopes of the cliffs are of two types, the highest ones are still in their wild and continually eroding state but those adjacent to the concrete promenade were landscaped to a uniform gradient around twenty-odd years ago at the same time as the promenade was built. These landscaped slopes, are in an overgrown state made up of mainly grasses and lucerne, although Ox-eye Daisy and Valerian are now becoming established since I introduced them a few years ago. Also many blackberry bushes and small trees have begun to colonise these slopes as their seeds spread down from the gardens above. Common Whitethroats have become common here during the summer but during the winter birdlife can be surprisingly sparse, mainly Kestrels, Meadow Pipits, Skylarks and passing Chats. Three years ago we did however have a Dartford Warbler that hung around for a few weeks, so with proximity to north and easterly winds from the sea, surprises are always possible.

During the summer both The Leas and Shingle Bank beaches are too well populated by bathers and windsurfers and the best you are likely to see are regular small numbers of Med. Gulls. But from September onwards high tide roosts of waders begin to become both daily and variable in species, already in the last week we have had 190 Ringed Plover and 30 Turnstone. Sanderling are also a species that have begun to use the beaches there in numbers up to 200+ at times and they make a spectacular sight as they briefly fly out to sea and back again. Med. Gulls also increase and passing Great-Crested Grebes can be seen out to sea. At low tide Brent Geese and Oystercatchers join up with the many other waders and feed out on the mudflats.
Lastly, the vegetation along the Shingle Bank is a good place to seek our Snow Buntings, I saw my first ever one there in 1959 and they still appear here in small flocks most years.

At the end of the Shingle Bank, where it becomes seawall and across the main road is the Bartons Point Park. This old army rifle range is now a collection of mown fields and banks bordered by a wide stretch of water known as The Canal. This Canal borders most of Sheerness and was originally dug many years ago as part of Sheerness and its garrison's landward defences. At Barons Point it passes alongside a recently dug Boating Lake, which attracts small numbers of birds that mainly roost on its banks. In recent times both the Canal and the Boating Lake have seen a sluice reinstated that allows regular top-ups from the sea, which unfortunately has pretty much rendered it as fresh-water and vegetation sterile and of minimal interest to most wildlife, except for some reason Little Grebes. In recent years these little birds have been using the waters there as a regular wintering site and 60-70 are regular peak counts, some small fish must be coming in with the seawater and proving attractive.
Another interesting feature of this regular seawater ingress is the startling sight quite a way inland of huge numbers of baby jellyfish and cockles in the water, a true inland nursery and I'd be surprised if there weren't also good numbers of flatfish as well. I've seen this before on Sheppey where seawater has got into some ditches or fleets.
Around the Boating Lake in winter there is normally around a dozen or so Wigeon and some Oystercatchers and Redshanks roosting.

In all, the coastline from Bartons Point to the top of Minster Cliffs stretches for about two miles or more, has some reasonable variation in habitat and has great potential for both good numbers of commoner birds and the rarer kind and is worth visiting on trips to Sheppey.

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