Thursday 31 March 2011

Bloody Angry - An Explanation

Given the reaction to yesterday's blog, which initially was genuinely written in a fit of anger, let me give an explanation, starting first with a thank you.

Jan,(Shy Songbird) thank you for returning with your comments, I hadn't expected either you or Warren to, given that I thought that we had exhausted our opinions on the subject last weekend.

"Letters from Sheppey" is not purely a natural history blog, it also covers other countryside issues and local history and believe it or not, I hadn't had any red when I made my posting, or replies.
As for it being a "mind boggling contradiction" - really? I, and possibly alone, can see a huge difference between slamming people for shooting wildfowl for fun, especially some wildfowl species whose numbers are known to be falling - and reducing the numbers of an agreed harmful pest species and therefore protecting threatened species of birds. You may say that it is simply changing the arguement, or splitting hairs to suit myself but not at all, I would take the same stance on say fox hunting. I have no problem with foxes being killed as vermin - where they are killed by one swift shot - but would argue against them being chased round the countryside for fun first.

I accept that I have probably upset and lost some followers of my blog, who only expect to read nice things about the countryside but I can't be like some conservation bodies who present a nice public image but behind closed doors keep the nasty bits that they carry out, hidden. So to those who have been offended I would say that it is only my opinion on things but I do believe in trying to present the bad things as well as the good things that go on, so stick with me, good conservation is at the heart of what I do and say. It is not as nice and fluffy out there as some people might have you believe and sometimes even conservation has to be achieved by some brutal means.
And not only that Dylan, anybody that reads your excellent blog will know that you too have never baulked at saying what you feel and know might upset some people.

Wednesday 30 March 2011

Bloody Angry

The photo below shows part of a hawthorn hedge that runs up my front drive between mine and my neighbour's drive. Against the piece of fence in the hedge a Blackbird is/was sitting on eggs in a nest. I fed the Blackbirds this winter all through the snow and ice, with sultanas, chopped apples and mealworms and they have rewarded that help by nesting in my garden.
This morning as I got in the car and looked back up the drive, I saw a Magpie drop into the hedge and alight straight away with an egg in its mouth and an inspection found one egg missing from the Blackbird's nest - quite clearly the other three are now doomed.

My views on Magpies and crows in the countryside are quite widely known - along with Grey Squirrels, the bloody things are responsible for taking a huge number of both songbird and wader eggs and chicks and need to be annually culled. I have three Magpie nests within 100 yds of my house and quite clearly, judging by this morning's experience, my neighbourhood is now going to become a songbird-free zone thanks to these birds.
And yet still, I am told by countless wildlife lovers that this does not happen, not because they have practical experience in the matter as I do, both at home and on The Swale NNR, but because they've read it somewhere, and even if it does happen, well I should accept it as part of nature. Well I'm sorry but I value endangered songbirds much higher than I do over-common, thieving corvids and I can make a guarantee that those Magpies near me have now made a fatal mistake.

Tuesday 29 March 2011

First Martins and a List of Birds

We have had quite a few variations in the weather today. Dawn began with blue skies and a moderate frost and then as the sun came up it clouded over for a short while, then by mid-morning we were back to clear blue skies, vary warm sun and humid conditions and then by lunch time it had begun to cloud over again.
At the end of this posting I have listed the birds that I saw today, something that I rarely do and something that really surprised me.

Anyway, it was back to the reserve again this morning and the sign below points to the Harty Road turning and the reserve. Interestingly, if you double click on the photos and enlarge them, you will see on the road to Leysdown, behind the sign, the large plastic man that greets people into Leysdown. He changes his appearnce quite regularly.

I had another success as I wandered along the seawall this morning, 8 Sand Martins came winging across the saltings, over the heads of 180 White-fronted Geese feeding in the Flood and headed North across the reserve. That sighting was in some ways better than yesterday's Swallows because for some strange reason Sand Martins are rarely reported crossing the reserve in the Spring.
The rather hazy photo below also shows some of the Avocets taht were feeding in the Flood.

These two birds chose to watch me as I passed by in the car and so were snapped through the open window.

Birds seen today, both on the reserve and the farmland just over the fence.

Little Grebe - Cormorant - Little Egret - Grey Heron - Mute Swan - White-fronted Goose - Greylag Goose - Canada Goose - Brent Goose - Shelduck - Wigeon - Gadwall - Teal - Mallard - Shoveler - Pochard - Tufted Duck - Marsh Harrier - Hen Harrier - Kestrel - Peregrine - RL Partridge - Pheasant - Coot - Moorhen - Oystercatcher - Avocet - Golden Plover - Lapwing - Snipe - Curlew - Redshank - Green Sandpiper - Black-headed Gull - LBB Gull - Herring Gull - Stock Dove - Wood Pigeon - Barn Owl - Green Woodpecker - Skylark - Sand Martin - Meadow Pipit - Pied Wagtail - Wren - Robin - Blackbird - Bearded Tit - Great Tit - Magpie - Carrion Crow - Jackdaw - Starling - Chaffinch - Greenfinch - Goldfinch - Linnet - Corn Bunting - Reed Bunting.

60 species! - that has honestly amazed me, especially when you consider that I didn't go to the coastal fringes where I could of added Knot, Dunlin, Turnstone, etc, etc.

Monday 28 March 2011

First Swallows

It was back to the reserve this morning after my little excursion to Warden Point yesterday looking for migrants and like they say, there's no place like home. As I walked across the marsh this morning my first Swallow came zipping across the reserve in front of me. Later, as I was passing through the reserve's entry gate on my way out, a second Swallow also came past. Today's Swallow was one day later than that of last year but my earliest still remains as the 15th March 2009.
Seeing that first Swallow is one of the year's special events - like looking at the simple beauty of a Primrose flower, like suddenly in the depths of a hot summer's day hearing a Carpenters song, like coming home from a freezing cold, mid-winter dusk and sipping at that first glass of something, like all those things that suddenly, out of the blue make you feel good.

Apart from that little bit of excitement the reserve was fairly quiet, with nothing else out of the ordinary, still small flocks of Teal and Wigeon and the 200+ Whitefronts but Tufted Duck and Pochard are in better numbers than the last few years, with 15-20of both types most days. Probably meagre by some peoples standards but good counts for us and a delight to see when bunched together and I look forward to a few broods of their delightful ducklings.
As is usual most mornings, the Barn Owls were still out hunting in the daylight and this one sat on the fence and watched me drive by. I managed to photograph it a split second before it opened its wings and flew off.

Along the Harty Road I stopped to watch this Hare as it wove huge figure of eights through a flock of sheep and lambs, always with its nose to the ground and I imagine it was probably following the scent of another one that had been there earlier. Given the time of year the other one had possibly left a particularly enticing smell behind.
One other sighting along the road was a flock of 78 Corn Buntings on the overhead power cables, always a joy to see but never easy to photograph.

My garden pond is looking a bit bare at the moment where I have been doing some renovation work at the rear during the winter but the frog spawn in the middle of the weed is now starting to hatch.

Sunday 27 March 2011

A Change of Scene

I've spent part of every morning this last week on the reserve and to be honest, walking the same patch and seeing pretty much the same birds every day, gets a tad boring, or at least it does for me.
This morning I decided to give it a miss and have a change of scenery and so drove out to the cliff tops at Warden Point. In my mind I was hoping to catch sight of a spring migrant such as Swallow, Sand Martin or Wheatear as they passed along the cliffs on Sheppey's northern coast. Unfortunately this morning until lunchtime, when a warm and hazy sun broke through for the afternoon, was gloomy with a cold E wind and this was accentuated as I stood up on top of the cliffs looking out into a murky Thames Estuary. It was bloody cold and as a result and through watering eyes, I saw bugger all, apart from the odd crow riding the thermals below. It was also noticeable how much more of the cliffs had broken away over the winter and tumbled downwards towards the sea, in some cases to sit halfway down as a small circle of turf with a bush still growing out of it.
The difference occurred as I walked back away from the cliff edge and below the taller trees and shrubs and hedges that back onto the cliffs, the cold air disappeared, warmth came down from the overcast sky and bird song was everywhere. This to me was experiencing what inland bird watchers must get most of the time, shelter, warmth and birds to match. If I'd of been on the reserve this morning I'd of had that cold wind for the whole visit and both I and the birds would of been keeping our heads down. Would I swap, no, but it was nice to be spoilt by such conditions for a change, I assume that inland bird watchers rarely wear thick winter clothing.
Anyway enough of that bleating, did I see anything worthwhile at all, yes I did actually. The whole area was alive with the song of Great Tits, Blue Tits, Chaffinches, Greenfinches, Linnets, Blackbirds, Dunnocks, Wrens, etc. and I even saw a large polecat ferret run across the road in front of me - not a good animal to be loose in the countryside but it was gone before I could do anything. A nearby rookery was bursting at the seams with cawing rooks and I counted 47 nests, some still being completed. Then, all of a sudden, in the space of a few minutes, better birds suddenly put in an appearance all in one brief burst. Above me in some very tall populars, a Chiffchaff began singing, 18 Redwing flew across the road and what I at first thought was going to be a Blue Tit, turned out to be a Firecrest working its way through a hawthorn bush - great stuff!

Getting back to the car, I stood there for some time and soaked up this whole plethora of woodland bird song, noted violets and arum lily under the hedgerow, Slow bush flower buds bursting into flower and attracting bees and found it hard to believe that the wet, muddy and cold marshes were only a few miles away. Mmmm, there's a lot to be said for being cossetted by woods and copses at this time of the year.

Wednesday 23 March 2011

A Froggy Day

It was absolutely superb on the reserve this morning, with clear blue skies and warm sunshine. The whole reserve seemed to be alive with bird song and activity and even several Peacock butterflies flew past as I walked around, they were the first butterflies on the reserve last year.
As I walked along the seawall a pair of Bearded Tits "pinged" their way along the tops of the Delph reed beds and several Reed Bunting males sung not only from the reed tops but also from chosen territories out on the saltings. Skylarks also got in on the act and regularly challenged to spot them as they became tiny, singing specks up in the blue of the sky. Redshanks, Oystercatchers and Lapwings are all paired up and the Lapwings especially, seem to be in the lead in respect of nesting and we are just waiting for the first eggs to fill the "scrapes" now.
Alongside all this springtime activity are the reminders of winter lingering on - still 200+ Whitefronted Geese, and small numbers of Teal and Wigeon loafing round the shallow pools.
These Oystercatchers were perhaps thinking about nesting.

The sun had also brought out good numbers of frogs into the reserve ditches. The two most numerous types on the reserve are the large Marsh Frogs and the Edible Frogs. The first two below are Edible Frogs, recognised by the yellow stripe down the back. Double click on the photos to enlarge them.

This photo shows an Edible Frog on the left and the larger Marsh Frog, with a plain coloured back, on the right. Sorry about the vegetation obscuring the frogs but to move to a better position would have seen both frogs disappear under the water.
During the summer months the marshes on Sheppey become really noisy from the sound of the male Marsh Frogs, their voices can be heard from a really long distance, especially at night.

Sunday 20 March 2011

A Better Day

Well it wasn't wall to wall sunshine on the reserve this morning but it was a darn sight better than yesterday. Double click on these photos to enlarge them.

The first Harty lambs of the year.

This Lapwing nest scrape has now been completed and awaits its eggs.

This willow blosson greets me as I drive through the entry thicket to the reserve gate.

New moss growth on the seawall steps, which I think has a certain attractiveness.

A direction sign along the seawall, handy in case I get confused some days.

There were a lot of ducks there as I took this shot, which don't appear to be there now.

These next two photos show early growth of the Milk Thistle on the reserve. As far as I know this is the only place on Sheppey that it grows. By mid-summer this will have grown into very large flowers woth purple flower heads, variagated leaves and extremely spiteful spines.

The Mole has been busy. I wonder if he is down there doing his spring-cleaning now and perhaps dusting the Garibaldi plaster statues.

The camera shy Whitefronts take to the air again before I could get a decent photo

Saturday 19 March 2011

Its not funny!

By 8.00 this morning at my home in Minster, there were blue skies above and a warm sun already starting to melt the overnight frost. I set off for the reserve in a state of great joy and expectation - Spring at last!
By 8.20 I arrived at the reserve to be greeted by the sight below, weather on the reserve was just as it has been all week, thick mist and a chilly E. breeze.

Pretty much all I can say about my two hours walking round this morning was that I heard lots of different birds, but saw very few of them. OK, a couple of times the mist receded back a few hundred yards for 10 mins or so, but that was as good as it got and during one of those spells I did get to see the flock of 230 White-fronted Geese quite close up.
Eventually at 10.30 I decided to give up and go home and as you can see below, by that time very little had changed, there was still little to see beyond 200 yds.

Less than two miles from the reserve I was back in warm sun and blue skies - I probably should of gone later.

Monday 14 March 2011

Between Seasons

We are between seasons at the moment, both in respect of wildlife and the weather. Some days it wants to be Spring and others it still seems like winter and the wildlife that you see echos that same mixture. In my garden pond today, the frogs finally re-appeared heralding Spring at last. They are late this year and I thought perhaps I had lost them to the very cold winter but they're back at last, all twenty plus of them. (This photo is fun if you double click on it and enlarge it)

Going back a couple of days, on Saturday I walked round the reserve on a pleasantly warm and sunny morning and it was clear how fast the surface of the marsh was now drying out, until of course we had the wet afternoon that was yesterday.
But on Saturday there was once again that reminder of the two seasons mixture. As I sat near the Seawall Hide listening to Skylarks singing overhead, watching the rolling and tumbling courtship flights of several pairs of Lapwings and some Tufted Ducks swimming along The Delph fleet, in to land in the Flood came a total of 180 White-fronted Geese.

In recent years we have tended to retain a flock of these lovely winter visitors often into April and its often strange to see them alongside Lapwings on their nests. This small section of the flock shows how alert and wary they remain all the time.

Further along the reserve, at the seaward end of the "Gravel Road" that leads down from Harty Church, that other winter visitor the Hooded Crow, was still there with a large flock of his cousins the Carrion Crows.
Just to complete that mixed bag on Saturday, I made a point of walking across some of the grazing marsh and was able to find the first two newly created Lapwing nest scrapes, so egg laying can't be far away.

Yesterday late afternoon I took my place as one of the Harrier Roost Count team on Harty, for the last of this year's counts until October. It was to be a disappointing visit because despite standing in continuous light rain for an hour and a half as the dusk set in and getting soaked, I saw absolutely no harriers. I have too say that that is very unusual for the site that I was watching but I have no explanation for it. It will be interesting to see what the other counts achieved.

Finally, as I made my back along a sunny Harty Road earlier this morning I had two enjoyable sightings, no, not the first Wheatear unfortunately. The first was the sight of a large flock of Starlings carrying out some of that amazing formation flying that they are famous for and this morning it was for a reason. Diving through them a few times was a Peregrine Falcon and despite how densely packed the flock was, it was not successful in catching one and finally gave up and dropped down on a distant fence post on the marsh.
Secondly, on the overhead wires along the road, the regular Corn Bunting flock was assembled, numbering 48 in all. This time however, at least half of them were singing, or jangling their keys, all at the same time. That's an unusual sound, normally you only hear Corn Buntings singing as solitary birds announcing their territory on a fence post somewhere.
The downside of this was the fact that the buntings were only about 80 yds away and my camera was alongside me in the car but I didn't think about it until half way home!

Tuesday 8 March 2011

I Think it Might be Spring

After a surprisingly hard frost and some mist this morning the day soon became quite warm and sunny, with not a cloud in the sky. Within an hour of arriving at the reserve at 7.30 in frost and mist the day had changed to warm and the frost had all disappeared. I spent a part of the visit this morning walking round some of the neighbouring farmland and enjoying hearing several singing Chaffinches along the hedgerows as they staked out their territories. One thing that was particually striking as I came round the edge of a field of winter corn, looking quite beautiful and green in the sunlight, was the number of harriers that were about. I seemed to have them drifting aimlessly by me as common as crows for much of the walk and was particually impressed by a lovely ringtail Hen Harrier that came past low to the ground and within a hundred yards of me. At one stage I was able to count eight Marsh Harriers in view all at the same time.
The picture below shows Harty marshes in all their frozen glory as I came over the top of Capel Hill on my way to the reserve.

Also on Capel Hill were these sheep, just three weeks away from lambing. You can see the green, un-frozen patch alongside one where it has just got up from its night's slumbers.

A scewered Golden Plover. I found this plastic decoy a few years ago in a corner of the reserve and imagine it must be a left over from by-gone shooting times. It stands outside the reserve barn.

These five Brent Geese allowed me to get within 80 yrds of them, unfortunately my little camera couldn't do them justice but I have a new one arriving today which will hopefully allow me to zoom in much closer.

A camera shy Midge who was determined not to smile for the camera.

I found this Lords and Ladies along the base of one of the farmland hedgerows.

Another disappointing photo which hopefully when enlarged will show a Little Egret and Grey Heron alongside each other along one of the marsh ditch banks.

Monday 7 March 2011

Could This be Spring?

Our three man team carried out this month's WEBS counts on the reserve yesterday afternoon in bitter cold temperatures, under grey skies and in a ENE wind. For a change I had the section below Harty Church where a wader roost tradionally builds up on the saltings at high tide. There are three salt water pools on the saltings there, either side of an old salt workings mound, which as well as serving as the roost area are also used in the winter by the Swale Wader Group as their bird catching and ringing site.
My third of the WEBS counts amounted to the following:- 1 Little Egret - 40 Brent Geese - 70 Shelduck - 140 Wigeon - 8 Teal - 8 Oystercatcher - 60 Avocet - 320 Grey Plover - 200 Knot - 400 Dunlin - 340 Barwits - 60 Curlew - 12 Redshank.
Also 5 Red Breasted Merganser on The Swale and 1 S.E. Owl hunting along the grass banks I was counting from.

I went back there again earlier this morning and was in another world - Spring had appeared overnight, actual blue skies and sunshine, and so I took some photos to record the event. Double click on them to enlarge them.
Although this doesn't show the slope of the banks very well, it looks down to the three ponds on the saltings with the salt workings mound just before the last pond to the extreme the right.

Behind me as I took the above photo is the rear of the tiny Harty Church, which has superb views across The Swale to the mainland.

Further along the banks you can make out the Ferry House Inn in the distance. The reserve ends about a quarter of a mile before that.

At the end of the "Gravel Road", where the banks begin, this view looks east and shows all the flat marsh of most of the reserve.