Wednesday 27 April 2011

Blackberry days

One of the joys of life is sometimes putting on some music and it immediately evoking some long forgotten memories. This afternoon whilst sitting in the sun I put on a favourite Manattan Transfer LP, yes an LP, and was immediately taken back to my childhood in the late 1950's. I don't know why, Man Tran weren't about then so there was no connection. Anyway, I layed back in the sun, almost deaf to the music, and re-lived that place in time that I gone to.
Born in 1947, I lived my formative years through the 1950's, when life was still very much like a Famous Five novel. For our family in Sheerness then, Minster was still that big, wide world of meadows, hedgerows, orchards and cliffs - not the ruined landscape of housing developments that it is now. It was a world that us Sheerness kids, apart from being born in the hospital there, only got to see on special occasions. Late summer was one of those special occasions and on a warm and sunny weekend my mother would announce that tomorrow would be blackberry picking day! Joy oh joy, it meant the long walk from Sheerness along the coast to Minster, to that real and green world of the countryside, each of us carefully carrying our biscuit tin, lined with greaseproof paper, ready to be filled with blackberries. When you lived in a world of back streets and dusty alleys and the sun was something that you only glimpsed over the roofs of tall, terraced houses, this was a feast of such simple excitement that children today couldn't equate too or would be interested in.

It was two or three miles on foot just to get there and us children all ran here and there well in front, with so many new things to see and touch and smell, we were so excited. Our target was that area known as The Glen, which even today has been retained as a country park, an oasis in the middle of enormous rural development, but in those days was a wide open area surrounded by dense scrub. And to get to it we walked along tracks that are today Clovelly Drive and The Glen road but in those days were simply grassy paths through tall thickets of hawthorn and blackberry. They were full of butterflies and birds and bees that the young naturalist in me still had to discover and identify but I was young and easy and didn't care.

And then there was the blackberry picking and who could fill their tin up first - oh such joy as fingers and lips turned purple with the passage of countless berries. And as time passed we learnt that standing in stinging nettles leaves you with itching legs for hours after and that rubbing with dock leaves helps make it go away. We learnt that hawthorn bushes have nasty thorns, that daisies can be made into chains and holding buttercups to your face makes your chin turn gold. And when it couldn't possibly get any better we sat around mother and had our picnic, simple sandwiches and some lemonade, not like Ratty and Mole:-

"Rat appeared staggering under a fat, wicker luncheon basket...."what's inside it" asked the Mole, wriggling with curiosity. "There's cold chicken inside it", replied the Rat briefly; coldtonguecoldhamcoldbeefpickledgherkinssaladfrenchrollscressandwidgespottedmeatgingerbeerlemonadesodawater -" No it wasn't like that but we enjoyed what we had.

Sunshine, bees, birds, butterflies and of course blackberries, such a wonderful world to us then and still the long walk home to experience yet again. And on arriving home the tins were all stood in the cool of the scullery where pies would be made the next day. Us children were washed and fed, and tired out from all that sunshine and fresh air were packed off to bed, to dream of hedgerows and blackberry pies

Tuesday 26 April 2011

Bad Road Blues

I got up early this morning to a depressing sight, not only was it very gloomy but with overcast skies and a N. wind it wasn't very pleasant. A bit later, whilst walking along the seawall of the reserve and with the N. wind strengthening, it was bloody cold after recent days - not as cold as this but I wasn't very happy.

I couldn't help thinking of a couple of recent blogs where, despite only a few days of warm summer weather the writers were already complaining of it being too hot for birdwatching and needing to get under some trees for shade! I could imagine them getting up this morning and gleefully pulling on their winter coats again and rushing out into the cold and the gloom, happy little winter bloggers!

Anyway enough of that, today I want to mention the Harty Road, also above, which as the majority of birdwatchers who use it will know, is a tad pot-holed and worn out. Driving along it is similar to holding a pneumatic drill and if you wonder why people who live there stutter, try driving along it and talking at the same time - you'd stutter too!
Just recently in our local paper, the landlord of the Ferry House Inn at the end of the road, complained about the condition of the road and how the failure of Kent Highways to repair it was costing him valuable motorised trade - I'll return to him at the end!

The road is in a diabolical state, badly pot-holed and with either side compressed low to leave a higher ridge down the middle that regularly removes exhausts and engine covers. But is reparing it at great expense worthwhile, or a waste of time, let's look at its history.
I've scanned a piece of one of my 1907 maps of the area, which should enlarge if you double click on it. At the bottom is the word "pump" - this is where the pumps and the Raptor Viewing Mound are currently. Running away from there on the map, towards Capel Corner, are both Capel Fleet and a Counter Wall and the Counter Wall is what is now the Harty Road. Around that time and before, Capel Fleet regularly flooded and burst its banks and earth bunds or counter walls were built either side to prevent the low lying farmland nearby from becoming flooded. Obviously this high and dry earth bank soon became the obvious route for farm hands and horse and carts to cross the marsh and it gradually became part of the recognised track across Harty. Presumably as motor vehicles and tar macadam came along it was gradually improved for their benefit and it became a road. However, the road, if it can be called a road, never evolved as something capable of withstanding the weight and width of the modern day agricultural plant that use it on a daily basis.

Plant with tyres a yard wide and two yards high often use it, as do countless huge lorries and the effect of their weight on the outer edges of what is still just a simple earth bank underneath, has had the effect of pushing the edges downwards and the middle to badly crack up. Just look at a couple of examples below.

So, with the knowledge that this plant is always going to use that "road" will repairing it at rate-payer's expense make any difference, unlikely if previous attempts are anything to go by.
Should the two farming families whose plant continue to damage the road, be expected to contribute towards the repair costs? - it does seem a fair solution. Oh, and by the way, the landlord of the pub is part of one of those farming families, a bit of a vicious circle really.

Monday 25 April 2011

Dylan's Demise

Before I go any further could I first of all apologise to those of my readers that don't know of the politics of Kentish birding and just simply enjoy my posts about my wildlife rambles, because I'm angry and need to have a rant.

There is an excellent blog out there, written by one Dylan Wrathall and called "The Dumpton Non-Comformist". Now as the title suggests, Dylan's blog doesn't always conform to what is the normal back-slapping chat that goes on between other blogs on wildlife in this area, but it is always well written and to me at least, always makes perfect sense. I was absolutely fuming this morning to read Dylan's latest posting and find that as a result of his latest opinion on a subject and at least one reaction, that Dylan has decided to bring his blog to an end, at least for the near future.
How did he upset somebody - he challenged the thinking behind the creation of the new bird in Kent, the "Channel Wagtail", an honest opinion with some sensible facts. As a result he received a comment that he felt unable to publish because it was likely to be offensive to other readers of his blog and what's more, that pathetic twat even hid behind the "anonymous" tag. Because this has happened before over his opinions Dylan now feels writing such stuff is pointless and therefore we lose one of the few alternative blogs in the area.
Like Dylan says, the whole reason for creating one's own blog is in order to be able to have, where necessary, an honest and different opinion to the mainstream without it being censured by the closed ranks of those cliques that control things like Forums. But it would appear that even on these now you can find yourself being involuntarily censured by anonymous people forwarding comments unwise or unsuitable to publish.

The alternative? you join the type of blogging circle that is prevalent at the moment whereby you write stuff that is never ever provoking and outside of the old-fashioned Enid Blyton view of the world, even if you do sometimes do nasty things really, and you confine it to simple, boring lists of birds. In that way your fellow blogging circle will love you and when you throw in a few hard done by's every now and then they will pat you on the back and say never mind, it'll be alright tomorrow. And one last thing, you have to patronise their blogs with similar comments otherwise they ignore you.

I guess if you don't do all of that, then as Dylan has found, they can grind you down one way or another. Will I be ground down, I hope not, even though I might be the only one reading my blog, there's very few replies these days. One thing is for sure, I always try to be honest with what I write and do, I don't deliberately hide some of the nasty bits, such as pest control.

I sincerely hope that Dylan re-thinks what he has said because an honest and thought provoking opinion is always very much needed in society and for me, Dylan will be sorely missed.

Friday 22 April 2011

Spring mist

I arrived at the reserve at 06.30 this morning to attend to a few things and found it enveloped in thick mist and heavy dew and despite a warm sun beaming down it had the typical look of an early September morning. Sedge Warblers sang from just about every reed bed and through the mist could be heard a whole cacophony of Lapwing, Redshank, Oystercatcher and geese calls but I couldn't see them. This was the view of the barn as I approached it down the track this morning, have a look at some of the misty shots that follow.

This was the Tower Hide as I arrived at it, clearly not going to be of much use for birdwatching.

And yet, literally ten minutes later, the sun had done its work and the mist had burnt back.

Also, out of the mist, appeared this pair of Avocets on The Flood. Double click on the photo to get a better look at them.

Mink have never been seen on the reserve to my knowledge but we thought that we'd put this mink trap out to test the waters so to speak, and to see if there were any there to catch. Presumably the same people that defended the right of crows and magpies to eat as many Lapwing and Coot's eggs that they could find, would also defend the right of mink to eat the few Water Voles that we still have but the reserve favours the voles I'm afraid.

Tuesday 19 April 2011

Good Weather

At very long last, a proper hot and sunny day on the reserve, all of a sudden those arctic memories are banished, long may this weather last.

Along the ditches and fleets now the Mare's tail - Hippuris Vulgaris, is starting to rise above the surface. This fast spreading fresh-water weed quite quickly covers and chokes up long stretches of the waterways.
On the land it has a similar looking cousin called Horse tail which is just as invasive.

These dung-flies were enjoying both the sun and a nice pat of the reserve's best quality cow poo. Double click on the photo and enlarge it and the flies come up really well and the pat looks like a lunar landscape.

In my blog on the 8th April I showed a picture of a typical area of shallow water on the marsh, that we call a "splash", ideal for Lapwing chicks - this is the same place this morning, showing how fast the marsh is starting to dry out.

The remains of this freshly eaten Redshank were laying by one of the gates this morning, presumably left by a bird of prey. Interestingly it had a discoloured ring on its remaing leg. I checked the number out with a fellow Vol. Warden, who also rings birds on the reserve as part of the Swale Wader Group and he advised the following.
It was rung at Shellness saltings as an adult in moult on 02-9-2001 and so had gone nine and a half years since ringing and was at least nearly 11 yrs old.

And finally, last week I was chuffed to find my first Coot's nest, one of only three so far, unfortunately, as the remains of this egg would show, it would appear that a Crow was just as chuffed - but I know I've had the last laugh. Enlarge the photo and you can identify the egg as a Coot's.

Monday 18 April 2011

WEBS today

While taking part in the monthly WEBS count this lunch time I came across the first specimens of St. Mark's Fly along the seawall, seen below on the flower head of an Alexanders plant. These black flies swarm in large numbers and are easily recognised by the way that they fly with their long legs dangling down. They only live for a week and are supposed to fly on or around St. Mark's Day - 25th April, perhaps by being a week early these ones thought they might get an extra week's life.

The WEBS count itself was carried out under blue skies but with a distant haze and an almost chilly and fresh E. wind. Out of the wind it was very warm, as I imagine it was inland. What has surprised me over the last couple of days, well perhaps not surprised, is that after the longest and coldest winter for many years and after just a few days of lovely weather, some people are already saying "I hope its not going to be too hot this summer" - please - let's have a bit of warm and sunny weather before we start moaning about it being too hot again.

Anyway, back to the WEBS and while I don't know what the counts for the two main roost sites at either end of the roost are yet, for Shy Songbird I can say that at one of them, Shellness Point, where my Saturday blog showed 300 Oystercatchers, that had a high tide count today of 2,000 Oystercatchers.
I count the middle, marsh part of the reserve and my counts reflected the lower, Spring/Summer numbers of birds:-

4 Little Grebe - 1 Little Egret - 2 Grey Heron - 4 Mute Swan - 12 Greylag Geese - 120 Shelduck - 2 Wigeon - 6 Gadwall - 10 Teal - 50 Mallard - 2 Pintail - 14 Shoveler - 18 Pochard - 6 Tufted Duck - 2 Moorhen - 40 Coot - 60 Oystercatcher - 18 Avocet - 110 Lapwing - 2 Snipe - 50 Curlew - 90 Redshank - 40 Black-headed Gull - 6 Lesser BB Gull - 40 Herring Gull.

Being a count that concentrates on waders and wildfowl I have not included the other birds seen today but can mention a ring-tailed Hen Harrier that flew along the saltings, helping me by putting up the Redshank and Curlew that I hadn't seen hidden there.

Sunday 17 April 2011

A Case of You

This morning was a special morning on the reserve - a hot sun and blue sky beat down onto a humid panorama of flat fields and reed beds and in the hazy distance, places that I know faded into the mist.
The marsh was green and fresh and cattle and their new calves grazed happily amongst it all as Lapwings wheeled and dived and Skylarks, somewhere above, serenaded evereywhere with their song. Big skies, a flat marsh and in the distance the sparkle of the incoming sea.
I walked this same scenario in the winter in thick snow, ice and sub-zero winds and now it was pay-back time. Geese and ducks have given way to warblers, buntings and larks. Dead and yellow reed beds are turning green and barely a ripple scratches the seawall fleet.

" I could drink a case of you darling
and still I'd be on my feet,
I would still be on my feet"............Joni Mitchell.

Saturday 16 April 2011

Shellness Sunshine

Bob Dylan in his song "Lay Down Your Weary Tune" wrote:-

"Struck by the sounds before the sun
I knew the night had gone
The morning breeze like a bugle blew
Against the drums of dawn

The ocean wild like an organ played
The seaweed's wove its strands
The crashing waves like cymbals clashed
Against the rocks and sands"

To me, it must be awful to live in the middle of England and never experience the ever changing moods and sounds and smells of the sea. It can be a rolling, crashing orchestra of storms and things, or it can be a glass calm lullaby mirrowing a cloudless sky. One thing is sure, very few days are the same when you live within sight of the sea and its moods.

With that in mind and having carried out a few chores on the marsh part of the reserve this morning I decided to walk the extra mile and go down to a part of the reserve that I rarely mention, Shellness Point. This is at the extreme eastern end of the reserve and indeed is at the extreme eastern end of the Isle of Sheppey as a whole and features a type of habitat that isn't really found anywhere else on Sheppey - shellbeach.
This small stretch of beach jutting out into the start of the tidal Swale is made from the build up over hundreds of years of seashells and shingle and is a very miniature version of Dungeness. It begins to the rear of the small seashore cluster of buildings known as Shellness Hamlet and is no more than half a mile long and is completely flat apart from the prescence of an old WW2 military lookout post. Below, with my back the the Hamlet, you can see the track running out to the Point and its old lookout building (see the end of the blog for more on this building)

This photo, taken from alongside the lookout building, shows the sweep of the beach running out to the Point. Rough, stormy tides in the winter quite often take away from or add to this beach and its shape is forever changing.

Throughout the year, at every high tide, the beach sees the formation of high tide roosts of sometimes thousands of waders, displaced off of the mudflats alongside. Here the tide is just beginning to come in and is pushing this flock of Oystercatchers slowly up the beach. (Double click on the photo to enlarge it)

Enlarge this photo as well and see the make up of the beach which consists mostly of cockle and razor shells. Ringed Plovers favour this beach for their nests and spotting their eggs is an almost impossible task.
To sit along this beach on at high tide on a warm summer's day is like being abroad at times but in winter, with a bitter cold easterly gale and stormy seas, it is a whole different ball game.

Leaving the Point and walking back along the seawall to the grazing marsh part of the reserve, I came across this washed-out Small Tortoiseshell butterfly feeding on a dandelion, possibly a last feed?

And finally, making my way back across the grazing marsh, I came apon my first Lapwing nest of the year, a great end to the morning.

Both Sheerness and Chatham naval dockyards in WW2 were vital and important installations and as such were well defended from attack from the front, i.e. the Thames Estuary. However, there was the worry that on some high tides, small enemy submarines might try and enter The Swale at Shellness and travel it's length to emerge behind Sheerness dockyard at Queenborough and surprise attack from the rear. As a result the Shellness XDO Post was built on the beach there and underwater cables were laid across the estuary from Shellness to the mainland and a little way inside these cables were sunk lines of mines. These cables acted as a form of large trip wires linked to the XDO Post and it was planned that should a submarine, coming up against these cable loops, set off the alarm then an operator in the Post would then active an electrical charge that would then blow the mines and presumably destroy the intruding vessel. A nice posting one would imagine if you happened to be a birdwatcher as well.

Saturday 9 April 2011

Sunshine Saturday

Not as hot as I would like it today due to a chilly on-shore E breeze here on the coast but still very pleasant away from it.
The rape fields are now starting to come into mass flower and they're always one of my favourite sights and smells in the Spring. Given the hardness of the winter this year I'm surprised that it is this forward so early. But how it brings beautiful colour to the uniform green of the arable fields and what an early bonus for all those bees, etc. that are looking for sustance at this time of the year. I even love the stong smell of the pollen as it drifts across the fields, but then I don't suffer from hay-fever.

This view from The Tower Hide this morning shows The Flood looking particually good at the moment and hopefully the birds feel the same.

Over on the saltings the Scurvy Grass is now coming into flower in large drifts. This flower was so named because its leaves were a valuable source of Vitamin C for sailors suffering from scurvy.

This Reed Bunting appeared to be looking for directions, or perhaps he was there to show the way.

Finally, after much looking, I eventually managed to find the first Coot's nest this morning. So unusual for there not to be many about on the reserve, this time last year I had already counted around fifteen nests and we ended the year with a total of 39 nests.

Lastly, doble click on this photo and the bee/flys come up really well. Although I captured this one on a hawthorn leaf, every year these insects swarm across the ground in huge numbers, rarely rising more than a couple of inches high. They seem to prefer dry soil, especially around rabbit holes. They look very similar to a Worker Bee but presumably aren't and I would love to know what they are.

Friday 8 April 2011

A Peek at my Patch

It was another fabulous pre-weekend morning on the reserve today and I thought that I would show you round just a small part of it, but before I do that I couldn't resist cheekily quoting this paragraph from the Wind in the Willows. The Mole had just given up on whitewashing and spring-cleaning and gone up into the spring countryside.

"It all seemed too good to be true. Hither and thither through the meadows he rambled busily, along the hedgerows, across the copses, finding everywhere birds building, flowers budding, leaves thrusting - everything happy, and progressive, and occupied. And instead of having an uneasy conscience pricking him and whispering "Whitewash" he somehow could only feel how jolly it was to be the only idle dog among all these busy citizens. After all, the best part of a holiday is perhaps not so much to be resting yourself, as to see all the other fellows busy working."

Perhaps these photos, to people used to the packed-in colour of woods and hedgerows, will seem a bit featureless but the marsh has just as much going on, it just doesn't look like it unless you're there to see and hear it. If you double click on each photo and enlarge you will see that there is often quite different scenery in the background.

This first one is the start of the walk, looking over the five-bar gate from the barn.

All round the barn are many. many willow trees and bushes of different shapes and sizes and all have been started over the years by me by simply pushing into the ditch sides, small branches broken from the trees. These ones are the latest addition, pushed in just two winters ago.

Stepping through the gate you get this view looking west across the flatness of the marsh. The bushes and reedbeds to the right are part of the neighbouring farmland.

Having walked across the marsh and climbed up on to the seawall you come across large clumps of this wildflower called Alexanders. Not one likely to feature in too many people's snapshots of wildflowers because of it's lack of pretty flowers but in late March it grows at an incredible rate and makes around three feet in just a couple of weeks. Its pale, fluffy flowers are quite attractive to insects when they first open.

This view looks across the field that we know as "The Flood" and in the background you can see the Tower Hide and further behind, the holiday camps of Leysdown.

Another view, over the Delph reedbeds and onto the flat marsh, now recovered from the winter flooding.

The view west along the seawall, with The Swale in the distance and behind that is Oare nature reserve and Harty on the mainland side.
Amazingly, while I was taking this photo, I had a pair of Bearded Tits calling in the reedbed to the right and three Med. Gulls gliding by along the saltings to the left.

Looking east, compare this photo taken in January to the one after of the same view taken this morning.

Part way along the seawall you come to the Delph Fleet crossing, which allows you access onto the reserve.

Standing on the crossing, this is the view east down The Delph. You can see the top of the Sea Wall hide in the background. Soon these reed beds will be a riot of green growth and echoing to the sound of Reed and Sedge Warblers.

Immediately over the crossing you are into the field of Emmitt Casts, or ant hills, which these two Greylags were wandering through, grazing as they went.

A poor photo of a distant Shelduck.

As the reserve starts to dry out after the winter floods, these small splashes of water and soft mud are left behing for a while. They attract large numbers of flies and beetles and are a vital piece of habitat for Lapwing and Redshank chicks as they begin to hatch out and move around.

This swan was quite happily slowly moving down the ditch, paddling with just the one leg and resting the other.

And so back to the barn with its surround of willows bushes and home.

Wednesday 6 April 2011

What a lovely day

(Double click on the photos and enlarge them and bring them to life)

My day today began at first light with a Willow Warbler singing in my neighbour's garden, a great start.
Not really much to report from the reserve, other than what a glorious day. I was down there for two hours yesterday morning and got both soaked and cold in the wind and the rain, today was very warm and sunny. It was one of those days where even if you don't see much special it was just a privilege to be there.
The best birds today out there were two Wheatears and a Willow Warbler and once again a backdrop of the mournful cries of the Peacocks.
Lapwings have got off to a slow start this year and so far breeding pairs seem to be well down on the previous couple of years, although its still early days yet but there are few with eggs either.
I posted a picture of the Milkweed plants a few weeks ago and this picture shows that they are beginning to put on growth and will eventualy get up to about 3-4 feet in height.

I came across this Marsh frog having a sunbathe, he didn't think I could see him but obviously I could, it seems surprising that a creature that relies on being wet and slippery enjoys sitting out in the sun.

Going back through the entrance copse I stopped to listen to my favourite finch song, that of the Chaffinch, what a lovely sound that is. While there I noticed that one of four nest boxes that I had put in there had got a pair of Blue Tits nesting in it. I never managed to get an adult coming and going but here is the box.

And lastly, the Corn Bunting flock along the Harty Road had decreased this morning from 42 on Monday to just 2 today, here is one of them looking down on me from the overhead wires along the road.