Sunday 31 July 2011

Hot and Sunny

My day got of to a great start early this morning when I found an E-Mail on my PC from an ex-Sheppey-ite living in Melbourne, Australia, who wrote to say how much he enjoyed the blog - thanks Maurice, it was much appreciated.
And then off to the reserve and the joy of walking across it in hot sunshine, it was absolutely superb, perfect weather, I do love the heat.

Walking across some baked grazing marsh Midge suddenly shot up in the air like a Harrier jump jet and began circling at some distance and very warely, the Grass Snake below. He was a lengthy specimen which quickly sped off and disappeared down a dis-used rabbit burrow.

(Double click on the photo and enlarge it and look at the eye - scary).

I made my way to the best part of the reserve again, the grass banks below Harty church, which in the heat and sun were alive with butterflies and moths. These low-tide photos look across The Swale from the banks towards Faversham and Oare. (Double click on each to enlarge them and better see the view). The sandbank in the middle is known as Horse Sands and most weeks of the year is a favourite laying out spot for Common Seals.

Along the banks the Spiney Restharrow is still giving good displays of its pink-purple flowers.

Once again, as I said the other day, Burnet moths were much in evidence, see this 5-Spot Burnet on thistle.

On the way back along the Harty Road I stopped at the top of Capel Hill and took this photo looking down across the marsh and Capel Fleet.

And this one looking across the corn fields to Eastchurch in the distance.

Saturday 30 July 2011

Grey Day No.2

It was another disapointing walk round this morning weather-wise with grey skies coming in off the sea with a chilly wind and once again, not what the stupid Kaddie on BBC had promised (by 2.00pm it was gloriously hot and sunny). The only thing that brightened things up, depending on your point of view, was some guy who jogged the whole length of the seawall in front of the reserve completely naked. It looked a bit painful to me with his meat and two veg. slapping to and fro.
Having cut across part of the reserve I hopped over the fence and made my way across part of the farmland, where the profusion of wildflowers has made things much more interesting in recent weeks and there I found a couple of blackberry bushes that gave me my first snack of the year of quite juicy berries. I also came across a nice clump of wild snapdragons, Common Toadflax, as below.

As is the norm each year, the grazing fields alongside the Shellness track have been left to grow and during this week the hay has been cut and dried and now awaits baling. (Notice the wind pump in the background, which supply a "wader pool" with water)

This one has already been baled and cleared and now awaits some unlikely rain before greening up again.

Because of the hot and dry Spring this year, the hay crop has been quite poor and many farmers are reporting a 50% reduction on the number of bales per field as against previous years. This is already seeing prices per bale almost trebling and I imagine that any farmers with a supply this winter will be making some pretty good profits.
One of the commonest birds on Harty at the moment appears to be the Green Sandpiper and because of the amount of mud showing in most of the ditches, each one seems to have two or three Green Sandpipers in it - all in all this morning on the reserve and the farmland, I must of seen around 30 or more. I also saw my first autumn Wheatear and too my surprise, an over-flying budgie, poor thing.

One last feature from this morning is this example of numerous, mostly square and shallow "pools", that are on the saltings along the front of the reserve. They have been there all of my 60 odd years and none of us locals know what caused them and more importantly, why nothing has grown in them. The spartina grass that makes up most of the salting along there is extremely vigorous when it comes to colonising the mud and yet not one of those pools has anything growing in it. Is there something toxic in the mud in each one? although that seems unlikely given the amount of times that the saltings have been flooded by Spring Tides. Its a mystery that could do with being solved.

Friday 29 July 2011

Another Grey Day

Well, as I start this blog today its early afternoon and the first day of the 2nd Test Match is not going well with England already five wickets down to India, I've had to walk away from it! Its also yet another warm but grey and sunless day, what a joke this summer and its forecasts have been, although we did actually get a couple of hours of hot sunshine late yesterday. I was also amused yesterday to read a local blog that I follow, why I don't know because its always pretty boring, to see that after the writer and some of his "followers" had spent the last few weeks complaining about the constant bad weather, that he then complained yesterday about it being too warm - work that out!

Anyway, in the real world, where we're glad of anything that resembles a summer, the good news on the reserve is that we at last have the limited use of a bulldozer and a digger in order to try and rectify at least part of the last 15 years of non-maintenance. Today the bulldozer was in "The Flood", the compartment in front of the Seawall Hide, beginning to re-profile the reel-ways that snake across it. These reel-ways are areas of shallow water and insect life that in the Spring are valuable areas of habitat for Lapwing and Redshank chicks. There is much that these machines need to do on the reserve but they are expensive to hire and budgets are tight.

If the current dry conditions prevail it will unfortunately be many months before this work shows any value and they hold water, but it's so great to see some work taking place. The reserve is currently bone dry and rock hard and if it follows last years pattern, which it looks like it will, it will be Christmas before any substantial water is to be seen on the surface. If you double click on these photos and enlarge them you will see how dry the place looks.

Along the saltings edge the Sea Lavendar still looks good and colourful.

The last place that I visited this morning was the area that we know as "The Banks". This long and narrow stretch of the reserve is below Harty Church and slopes down to the saltings. It was grazed in the early Spring but has been left alone since then and has turned into a great example of hay meadow, full of various wild flowers, especially large areas of Spiny Rest Harrow and Trefoil. It is easily the best part of the reserve at the moment and is hosting large numbers of butterflies as a result. This morning it was apparent that a hatch of good numbers of 6-Spot Burnet moths was taking place, the first photo shows one emerging and then the second, two getting it on together.

Lastly, the Mink trap in one of the ditches. This hasn't caught any Mink and I have closed the entrance but it remains in place because of its attraction as a platform for Water Voles. Look at this photo of it and the amount of dropping and the fact that club rush stems have been eaten there. I haven't actually seen a Water Vole on the reserve for a few years, but this proves that they are there.

Sunday 24 July 2011

Summer Really but Seems like Autumn

It's only been several days but it seems like ages since I posted my last blog but then it seems like ages since we've had both a few days of hot and sunny weather and anything interesting to write.
I got up this morning buoyed by forecasts of unbroken sunshine for most of the day and warmer temperatures, and walked round the reserve under grey skies and a strong N. wind, OK it's cheering up as I write this but summer it ain't, it's so autumnal. This is borne out most mornings by the fact that pretty much all the bird life on the reserve is made up of autumnal passage waders, there were 22 Green Sandpipers, a Common Sandpiper and a Greenshank on the soft mud of the "S Bend Ditch" this morning. We're also in that silly season where Oare reserve on the other side of The Swale are having to lift sluice boards to release excess water and expose mud and yet on our reserve its getting so dry that every time a cow pees we see it as a blessing.
See the photo below of a ditch that I have posted photos of a few times this year to monitor the water dropping and now consider that the crossing plank was under water in February.
The winter is long enough most years without it almost starting at this time of the year, a run of hot and sunny days would be so nice please before this alleged summer finally ends, it would also be nice if it did happen, if a few people didn't moan about it.

Continuing round the reserve this morning I made my way up on to the seawall and spent a pleasant half an hour or so talking to some KWCA wildfowlers - yes, it's only five weeks away! There were six of them - two regulars showing four new members the shooting areas and explaining to them the do's and dont's. I enjoyed the chat and we discussed breeding birds, farming practices, shooting prospects, etc. One subject of concern to us all was the fact that over the last few years, that once very common and iconic duck of the countryside, the Mallard, has continued to decline in numbers quite badly nationwide - who'd of ever thought it. But we've seen it on the reserve in recent years, very few broods of Mallard ducklings are being found or recorded. Let's hope the decline can be arrested and it doesn't go down the same path as the Grey Partridge, will it cause duck shooters to show restraint in respect of such knowledge, I doubt it in the immediate future,especially those that shoot large bags around the commercial ponds.

A visit to Shellness Point one morning last week to look for an albino Herring Gull that was impersonating an Icelandic Gull was fruitless but I did record a new wild flower for the reserve, a large clump of Ploughman's Spikenard, which I somehow walked away from without photographing, bloody stupid, so you'll have to look it up but it's a tallish plant with pretty featureless flowerheads.
Alongside that plant on the upper part of the beach at the Point was also a huge spread of quite thick lichen, I haven't a clue what it's called but it's very impressive and is shown below.

I also found several plants of Sea Holly, which I quite like and which has an improved version that is popular in garden planting.

And lastly, back on the reserve, the Teasel is in flower and despite having quite minimal flower heads, seems to be very attractive to both bees and butterflies as this Red Admiral shows.

Friday 15 July 2011

Feelin' Better

(Double click on each photo to get in closer)

Wow, if I'd of been asked what I needed to lift my spirits then this morning on Harty was about it - clear blue skies, hot sun and at last, no wind. And to cap it all, butterflies were everywhere, they react to the sun and warmth just as I do. It seemed as though every head of thistle flowers or clump of ragwort was covered in Red Admirals, Peacocks, Meadow Browns, Whites and Skippers. The whole of this was being patrolled in front by small squadrons of Common and Ruddy Darters, doing just that, darting to and fro snatching small flies. Also overnight, Gatekeepers seem to have had a mass hatch and were being attracted to the ragwort, as per below.

I'm a great believer in ragwort, not only do its large clumps brighten up a dry and sad looking marsh in summer but its beloved by so many different insects and butterflies. And at last I'm beginning to find more of its main beneficiary, Cinnabar Moth caterpillars. They always make me think of burglars in their stripey T shirts.

Another flower now coming into bloom is the Common Fleabane, if you want to find Skipper butterflies this is the flower to look on, they love it. A word of warning though, don't do as I did some years ago and plant some in the garden, it spreads like wildfire by creeping roots and is almost impossible to eradicate - but I do get plenty of Small Skippers!

After that I wandered round to the "S Bend Ditch" which, just as it did last year is now receding fast, but its one redeeming feature on a dry and yellowing reserve is the fact that it is currently the one place attracting birds. This morning on the soft mud I counted 14 Green Sandpipers and a few Lapwings but yesterday was even better. Then I had 16 Green Sandpipers, 1 Common Sandpiper and 3 juv. Little Ringed Plovers and some Blackwits - amazing what a bit of soft mud does for passage waders. I took this photo yesterday when the light was a lot worse but it shows the very shallow water and exposed mud quite well. Another month and it will look like the second photo from yesterday, which shows the start of the Ditch, about a hundred yards further back.

I still get wound up when I think that when we had a prolonged spell of this weather in the Spring that some people complained about it being too warm, still -

"Its a restless hungry feeling
that don't mean no one no good
When everything I'm a-saying
you can say it just as good
You're right from your side
I'm right from mine
We're both just one too many mornings
An' a thousand miles behind"....................Bob Dylan

Wednesday 13 July 2011

A Retrospective Moment

"Been down so long it looks like up to me" - was the title of a book written by Richard Farina in the 1960's. Until his untimely death in a motorcycle accident Richard Farina was married to Mimi Baez, the younger sister of Joan Baez. Some years later I connected with that title because it seemed a pretty good description of my life, but that's another story.

But in a spell of being more down than up just recently I trawled backwards through parts of my life, using You Tube to look at some of the music, re-visiting real people, real singers and unfortunately, mostly real dead. Janis Joplin singing "Summertime" in 1968, played back to back with The Doors and "Riders in the Storm" - wow, good music - pass the bottle and fill the glass stuff! Red wine and rum now but it never was so in the 1960's, it was beer and stuff. We never got into all that sniffing and injecting stuff but grass was a regular feature, we either got drunk or we had a "smoke". I've never smoked so I rolled the joints and the others smoked them while I got drunk - I think most Sundays of my late teens and early twenties were spent in bed getting over hangovers.

And what did we drink, well it certainly wasn't wine, although I do recall the drinking of something called VP Sherry because it was cheap and effective, no it was mostly beer. None of the lager stuff that became fashionable later on either, no, in the 1960's it was bitter, Brown or Light ale and mild.
Brown and Light ales were by the bottle and the others came from the barrel and out of the hand pumps. Brown and Mild was a regular drink, as was Light and Bitter but me, I drunk Stout and mild, a thick, sweet mixture of Courage Velvet Stout and dark mild. Mild in those days came via the barrel and usually in two forms. There was the properly brewed and supplied mild and the slops mild. It was still legal in those days, though not for much longer, to utilize all the left overs from unfinished glasses at the end of the evening. These slops from glasses and the pump drip trays were all poured back into an empty barrel in the cellar and this disgusting mixture was re-served to customers as "mild". It wasn't too bad if you was mixing it with a bottle of beer but on its own, especially if it had a lot of lemonade content, it was quite awful.
Where did we drink, well for those readers that know Sheerness, we drank mostly in the Queens Hotel", a small pub that had the distinction of being the first and last pub in Sheerness, depending on which way you was travelling. In those days it also had outside toilets, which meant when it was raining hard you got soaked getting there and sometimes soaked being there, there was no proper roof - pubs were tough in those days! The first time I ever went in there I was sick across the bar and the landlord, but I got over it and so did he, eventually.

Seems hard to believe these days but in the mid/late 1960's we were Sheppey's original hippies, seemed as if there were only a couple of dozen of us. We grew our hair long, we wore denims, we played guitars and mostly, for protection from ridicule I suppose, we all took over and used the same cafe in the town all day long, Den's cafe. We mostly all worked but on weekends and holidays slept rough, did beer and pot, didn't wash, and hitch-hiked around - there were no limits, no morals and no pressures. It was a great time, easily the best ten years of my life and I could write chapters on our experiences and do you know, I often envy those that died when it ended.
In 1953 Dylan Thomas drank himself to death, aged 39, because the best times were all gone and in 1970 Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison and Jimi Hendrix all died - sometimes surviving ain't all its cracked up to be.

Me (the alternative Bob Dylan) in 1966

Saturday 9 July 2011

Good Farming

How rubbish the last few days have been with the constant gusty winds, wind is the one element that I hate above all others.
Anyway, on the reserve this morning the wind wasn't as gusty, the sun was out and it was really pleasant and warm. The "S Bend Ditch" remains the best place to see any birds now as it continues to dry back. This morning there I had 8 Little Egret, 5 Herons, 7 Green Sandpiper and 20 Mallard.
After that I crossed over onto the adjacent farmland, as I do several times each week, because quite frankly, it has better wildlife than the reserve at the moment. On a good sunny day like today the tracks across it are hedged with all manner of wildflowers which attract countless butterflies, bees, etc and birds are everywhere. Look at the track below that I walked along, see how the various wildflowers have colonised it.

Bring it up closer and it compares with any garden border.

And then look at the butterflies that the flowers attract - a lovely Red Admiral.

A pristine looking Peacock.

Nearby were hedgerows and small thickets deliberately planted by the farmer and when farmland gets that good, well I think its well worth the price of some shooting during the winter months and anybody that can't agree that stand to deny themselves and wildlife a lot of pleasure. Get the balance right and there's room for everything - to everything's benefit.

That's not to say that the reserve was all doom and gloom, the water lilies in one ditch continue to expand each year.

White Melilot was in flower.

As was Great Willowherb.

And the much maligned Ragwort, so beloved by all manner of butterflies and other insects.

And on Shellness beach the Vipers Bugloss continues to expand and delight all manner of insects in such a barren place.

As did the Yellow-horned Poppy.

Wednesday 6 July 2011

Missing Things

A disappointing change in the weather was apparent today, cooler, a blustery wind and some heavy showers - not to my liking at all, much better the heat and dryness of the last few days. Time to be inside and write about several missing things.

I was talking to a good friend the other day who mostly wanders about on the marshes below Eastchurch Prison. One of the things that we discussed was the apparent absence this year of Marsh/Edible frogs across the marshes. I managed some photos of both in the Spring but since then I've had few sightings and even more noticeable has been the absence as we walk round, of the clamouring calls of the frogs. Normally at this time of the year, especially when its hot and humid as it has been recently, one would start calling and there would then be a massive ripple effect of calls right across the marsh as all the others joined in to answer. This year so far it has been noticeably quiet and we could only come up with the suggestion that the prolonged intense cold of last winter possibly killed many off whilst in hibernation.
Staying on the subject of Marsh/Edible frogs, and I'm talking about normal years now, something that has always puzzled me is the fact that I've never seen spawn of these frogs in any of the ditches. As anybody with both common frogs and a garden pond will be familiar with, every spring the pond is full of large clumps of spawn, so why do I not see the same on the marsh - do they do something different?

The scarcity of eels was another point of discussion, they are almost at the point of being classified as an endangered species now. In the 1970's-early 80's both of us used to either rod fish the ditches or spend every week of the summer fyke-netting across Sheppey's marshes and big numbers of eels were always guaranteed. Out of curiosity a couple of years ago I dug out my little lightweight rod, secured some garden worms and tried my luck in some perfect looking ditches in mid-summer. Four two-hour sessions produced a total catch of just two eels, which I returned to the water, but numerous Rudd. It was a really depressing experience and echoed the plight of that once common bird the House Sparrow - who'd of ever thought it. In all probability the excessive catching of returning elvers by the millions has had a lot to do with it.
By the way, most of Sheppey's fleets and ditches are full of Rudd and have been for around 30-40 years - how they originally got there is anybodies guess, just like the goldfish that one often comes acroos as well.

My pet subject on scarce things, as anybody who reads these posts regularly will know, is rabbits. The trouble with trying to convince people that this is indeed a fact, or at least on Harty it is, is that people go out for a drive and see say ten rabbits and class that as loads of rabbits. The trouble is that that number these days doesn't multiple all the way across the marsh like they used too, they are probably just one small isolated pocket of rabbits. Yes, there will always be some examples of big numbers, but in general, when you walk large areas like I do on a daily basis, its then that you realise just how few you are seeing. Land management staff can be guilty of the same tunnel vision and still talk at times as though rabbits are eating their way through the countryside in numbers like they were in Victorian times.
I have video footage taken on the Swale NNR around 15 years ago which shows around 400 rabbits on just one salt-working mound alone and the mound was stripped bare of any vegetation, it was just dry soil. Multiplied through the reserve we used to have thousands of them and they were a real problem but nowadays you couldn't total anywhere near 400 rabbits on the whole reserve and all the mounds and banks are overgrown. Obviously good news for some people, especially farmers, but I miss seeing them in good numbers and their shortage is missed as part of the local food chain by other wildlife. And why have they reduced so much, well disease is the biggest factor. They were always reduced each summer by myxymatosis but normally each autumn the survivors would quickly re-breed and recover their numbers but around the time that I took the video footage a new virus appeared on the scene. I can't recall the name of this one but it has been quite lethal and had a devastating effect on the rabbit numbers and isn't just seasonal as the myxy was. It has left large areas almost rabbit free and even where they are in small numbers, over exuberant culling by people who should know better, has reduced them still further.
Will I be believed? I doubt it, people still historically see the rabbit as a pest in the countryside and still to be found in the thousands, and many land managers will say that just one rabbit left is one too many!

Those of us who are members of the Kent Ornithological Society will have received our free copy of the 2009 Kent Bird Report this week. This booklet is an excellent and well written record, with photographs, of Kent bird news and most records of sightings and breeding. It is produced by an extremley hard working team of volunteers who in publishing this 2009 Report have through hard work brought the Reports as up-to date as they can be.
Reading through the Report I was surprised to find one recurring comment however, and this has nothing to do with the writers - a lack of breeding reports for Stodmarsh. There are breeding records for most other sites/patches but none, not even estimates, for one of the largest and most visited reserves in Kent. How can this be?
Quite clearly Natural England as the reserve's managers have failed to play their part but I'm also surprised that the regular local team of watchers there, that have even created blogs for the area, haven't managed any counts.

Monday 4 July 2011

The Legendary Me

No, not me, but the title of the Wizz Jones CD that I was playing as I wrote this posting today. Wizz spent the 1960's becoming a great blues guitarist around the folk club circuit in England and that album was released in 1970. The old boy is still going strong and I saw him perform at Whitstable Folk Club just last summer.

It was hot and sunny from the word go on the reserve this morning, just superb, unfortunately it never lasts long enough. The Flood has completely dried out now and the "S Bend Ditch" is heading that way with more and more mud becoming exposed. This morning it had attracted 7 Little Egrets, 4 Green Sandpipers and the first two returning Teal.
Up on the seawall the Ground Lackey moth caterpillars have started leaving the saltings now and making their way onto the sea wall to pupate in the long vegetation. I found these two this morning as I walked along the wall.

Despite the continuing reports of large numbers of butterflies inland, especially Large Skippers, butterflies in general still remain in low numbers on the reserve, a good mix of varieties but low numbers and I've had a total of just 6 Small Skippers so far. Another big disappointment this year has been the absence of Cinnabar Moth caterpillars, despite large amounts of Ragwort I've found just the one caterpillar, can't remember the last time this happened.

I made my way off the reserve and spent some time wandering across some of the farmland and came across an adult female Marsh Harrier and three recently fledged young. They had nested in a corn field and it was nice to know that they had fledged before combining starts. Before they all flew off one fledgling stayed long enough for me to quickly get this photo

And lastly, how many of you remember this stuff, Barley Grass. As schoolchildren we used to throw it at each other as darts and as it usually had tiny black beetles in the darts we used to throw them into each other's hair shouting "fleas in your hair"

Saturday 2 July 2011

A Harty morning

Before 6.00 this morning I was driving along the Harty Road and across the marsh, in conditions just about as good as you can get them, clear blue skies, very warm sunshine and no wind - Harty looked a real picture. All along the road Hares, of a wide age range, got up in front of me and disappeared into the various crops. I love Hares and at the moment on Harty, despite attention in the Spring from the beaglers, they are doing really well and are everywhere. Rabbits also, especially on the Reserve, have been making a recovery from the excessive and unecessary culling last winter until that is, myxy made its annual return recently. This one with swollen eyes and genitalia had just been dispatched by Midge - its vital to isolate the infected fleas as best as one can, and of course, reduce the rabbit's misery.

My first destination this morning was the end of the farm track, which we know as the "concrete road", to collect a bag full of Canary Grass for my canaries. And on my drive along that track what did I find in my path but this male Peacock. He was outside the privately owned Brewers Farm, having moved down from outside Harty Church, some two miles away, in recent times - perhaps on his summer holidays!

He was a magnificient creature and knew it and I was much in awe of him at such an early time of day. After stopping alongside him I briefly crossed over to the reserve. Here, underneath the Tower Hide steps, I came across a Woodpigeon's nest in an Elderberry bush that was growing up and between the steps.

And noted that Teasel was beginning to come into flower.

and despite it only being early July, that blackberries were starting to form on the bushes. As I took this photo an agitated Whitethroat appeared with a a large grub in its beak and, assuming it had a nest there somewheres, I moved on.

Back to the "Concrete Road" on the farmland, split on oneside by fast ripening wheat and on the other by a line of willows that the farmer planted some ten years ago to enhance the bird populations.

This photo shows the dark green "cover strip" that the farmer sowed this Spring all around his crops. It is a mixture of barley and corn and maize and canary grass and other seeds all beneficial to wild birds, as well as the game birds.

And finally, I went back out there at 11.30 to have a look at the annual Harty Church flower festival. This tiny church sits on the edge of the marsh and is also on some of its highest ground. The photo doesn't do the various stalls justice, there were so many of them, but I was after a picture of the church itself, which was decked out inside with huge numbers of flowers.

The rear of the church has little ground but looks down to The Swale and across to Oare nature reserve, it is a beautiful site.

And to round things off, how about this from Rupert Brooke:-

"Breathless, we flung us on the windy hill,
Laughed in the sun, and kissed the lovely grass.
You said, "Through glory and ecstacy we pass;
Wind, sun, and earth remain, the birds sing still,
When we are old, are old..." "And when we die
All's over that is ours; and life burns on
Through other lovers, others lips", said I,
Heart of my heart, our heaven is now, is won!"