Monday, 17 October 2011

Harrier Counts

The dawn vist to the reserve yesterday morning found it even frostier and mistier than Saturday morning and as a consequence, after two hours both were only just lifting as the sun climbed the sky. So little was seen or heard but I was back again late afternoon yesterday for the first of this winter's Harrier Roost Counts. There are four of us on Sheppey taking part - one at Elmley Hill watching a roost over at Ridham, one covering Capel Fleet west of the Harty Road, one covering Capel Fleet east to Muswell Manor and myself on the Swale NNR. It's a valuable exercise in identifying both what sites are being used by the birds and if they're being disturbed and how many birds there are.

I arrived at the reserve at 17.00 and it was still warm and sunny and without a breath of wind as I made my way across the marsh to the Sea wall. With some time left before the light would begin to fade, I spent half an hour chatting on the seawall with two wildfowlers, the first I'd seen for some time. As we stood looking at a bone-dry and pretty much wildfowl free reserve, they commented on how diablolical the season had been so far due to the drought and how they had very little hope of getting anything that evening, and so it later turned out. We had a chat about all things countryside for a while and then they moved off, and further along the seawall made their way out to the seaward edge of the saltings and pretty much disappeared from sight, as they do.

I walked along to the seawall hide and took up my position on its verandah while Midge amused herself trying unsuccessfully to catch voles under the recently mowed hay along the seawall. Accompanied by the various sounds of the marsh that you get, Curlew and Oystercatcher cries out on the mudflats, a Wren working its way through the reed bed and scolding me, a Water Rail squealing from the same reed bed, I turned and watched a beautiful red sun set below the horizon behind Harty church in the distance. Immediately that you lose the sun a pronounced sense of hush comes across the marsh as dusk starts to settle, and bird calls become more pronounced.

Whilst looking west I picked out a harrier coming along the saltings towards me and putting the scope on it, saw that it was a ring-tailed Hen Harrier - really great, I wasn't expecting one on this first month's count. It travelled the length of the saltings in front of me until reaching those close to Shellness Hamlet and then dropped into the saltings to roost, a traditional roosting spot for these birds for some years. Immediately I lost sight of it I became aware of three Short-eared Owls hunting over the same stretch of saltings and watched them for a while, they are such lovely birds to watch with their lazy, flapping wing actions.
By now the light was just starting to fade and looking west again, I picked up yet another harrier following the same path as the Hen Harrier, this time it was a female Marsh Harrier. It carried on along the saltings until more or less where the Hen Harrier was roosting and to my surprise drew up another female Marsh Harrier from the saltings that I'd obviously missed. These two birds then flew all the way back along the saltings in front of me again and I last saw them disappearing into the pink sky and dusk over Harty Church, clearly they favoured Harty marshes for their roost site. Strange how the one seemed to go and fetch the other though as though it knew it was there.
With the light fading fast now and the mosquitoes biting more regularly, there was one last flurrybof harrier action. Directly in front of the hide and far out on the saltings, a male Marsh Harrier and a juvenile both suddenly appeared in off the mudflats, circled a couple of times and then dropped into the saltings to roost, its a great sight, it really is. Almost immediately after a female Marsh Harrier then shot across the marsh in the near dark and went into roost with the other two, a family group, who knows but I was really glad that it was one of those nights that the two wildfowlers hadn't had the opportunity to fire a shot and disturb the birds.

It was pretty much dark by then and there was nothing left but to make my way back across the marsh again, successfully avoiding scaring up a couple of Mallard that I'd seen drop into the Delph fleet nearby, for obvious reasons. I love walking back across the marsh in the pitch dark, obviously easy because I know my way after 25 years, but it has an almost romantic quality about it, apart from the stumbling over ant hills and standing in cow pats that you do!
It was a really great couple of hours and good to be doing something useful and for me, far more worthwhile than simply chasing rarities around the countryside. Back again this afternoon for the latest WEBS count.


  1. Nice post Derek, watching Harriers and S E Owls is definitely one of lifes special treats, especially with accompanying sounds of the marsh.

  2. Thanks Alan, it was a very good autumn evening, one that will sustain me into the dreaded winter.

  3. Hi Derek, very interesting. Whenever I visit Elmley I wonder where the Harriers roost considering the lack of trees, sadly I always forget to ask anyone by the time I get home!

  4. Kieron,
    Both Hen and Marsh Harrier roost in communual roosts in mostly reed beds and saltings, not in trees as you might imagine.

  5. Hi Derek,
    Sounds great. Three short eared owls at once! Brilliant. How does one get to this particular hide?

  6. James, hopefully you will know where Shellness hamlet is, east of Leysdown. Follow the track that goes out to the Hamlet and park in the car park there. Then simply walk west along the top of the sea wall for around a mile or so and you come to the hide. Its not in the best of conditions but is good enough. If you look at my latest blog "Singing in the Rain", you will see a photo of it.