Sunday 27 November 2011


Sadly, Nana my Beagle had to be put to sleep last Thursday and she has left behind a huge hole in the house that Midge and I are struggling to cope with.

She first appeared in the Faulkner household 16 years ago, after we had travelled down to Devon to collect her. This photo shows her, around four months old and getting her first taste of snow in my garden.

True to her breed, she lived for food and could sniff it out from some distance, and right up to the end would still remind me at 6.00 in the morning and 4.30 in the afternoon, that it was meal time. She could be asleep all day but at around 4pm you would suddenly hear a bark to remind you of the time. She was also an escape artist, once scaling a six foot high fence round my garden, via a bush, to see what was in a neighbours garden. And just like Midge is doing, she spent her whole life wandering the reserve and its neighbouring farmland, enjoying every year to the maximum.
Here she is asleep on my bed with the puppy Midge and in her prime on the reserve, a beautiful dog.

Unfortunately, arthritis, a heart murmur and a tumour, all combined in the end to make life uncomfortable and we had to say goodbye. She will be replaced but in the meantime she is badly missed.

Monday 21 November 2011

Harrier sunset

It was most definitely a day of two halves yesterday. When I got up at 5.30 there was thick mist outside and a dawn visit to the reserve looked pointless. However, by 6.45 here in Minster, the mist had cleared and so I thought I'd give it a go and headed off out. Going through Eastchurch and looking out across the eastern half of Sheppey, it was obvious that visibility at that end of the Island was very limited due to the mist. However it was one of those house-high type of mists again, with blue skies overhead and so I carried on anyway.
Arriving at the reserve in thick mist and hard frost I decided to briefly go across to the seawall and then home again. Despite not being able to see anything, except flying over, the sounds coming from the tidal mudflats were quite spectacular. Curlews, Redshanks and Oystercatchers all called non-stop and somewhere out in The Swale, Brent Geese could be heard "barking" in the mist, you don't always have to actually see the birds for it to be quite magical.
Just then a figure loomed through the mist on the sea wall, a figure carring a long-lense camera on a tripod, someone with a high degree of hope obviously. He turned out to be a guy that comments on my blog, a professional wildlife photographer called Lewis, and he was hoping to get some shots of Short-eared Owls, a slim hope at that moment. We had a chat and I told him that I would be back later in the day for the monthly Harrier Roost count and he was welcome to join me for that, and then I departed for home.

The return trip at 3.00 pm was in far more pleasant weather conditions, clear blue skies and pleasant sunshine, it had been a really good day after the mist had cleared. It had certainly brought out the walkers and bird watchers as well, its the most I've seen around Harty for some time, and why not in such perfect November weather. I stopped at the Raptor Viewing Mound to speak to some and they confirmed that as well as several raptors seen, the 27 Pink-footed Geese were still present at Capel Corner and a Great White Egret had been in Capel Fleet close to The Mound.
With the sun now fast losing its warmth and a chill starting to rise across the marsh, I made my way back to the reserve and across to the seawall, stopping briefly to speak to a couple from Surrey who were enjoying a walk round the Harty circuit. They were also very novice bird watchers and so were well pleased when I pointed out both Short-eared Owls and Bearded Tits to them as their first-time ticks. I then re-joined my photographer friend from the morning on the verandah of the Sea Wall Hide and took stock of the scene.

The sun was just starting to set behind Harty Church to the west, there were four wildfowler's heads just visible way out on the saltings in front of us, and several Short-eared Owls were hunting close by. Suddenly, around 90 Teal came off the reserve and shot low across the saltings towards The Swale like arrows. Thankfully, the two wildfowlers they passed closest to were deep in conversation and before they had grabbed for their guns, the Teal were long gone. That, until I left in the near dark, was the only action the wildfowlers had and you wouldn't of even known they were there. Lewis the photographer showed me some of his superb photographs captured during that day, I decided to keep my cheap little Fuji concealed behind my back and we chatted about his work at Eagle Heights.
The sun was now well gone, a damp cold was setting in and the light was receding fast and yet still no harriers at all, anywhere, just the owls and a solitary Kestrel. However, after constant sweeps of the saltings in the increasing gloom a male Hen Harrier suddenly swept in across the saltings at Shellness and without hesitation, suddenly dropped into the saltings to roost, my first male Hen Harrier of the winter as well. The saltings close to Shellness Hamlet are a long established favourite roost for Hen Harriers and with the light making viewing at any distance increasingly difficult, a female Hen Harrier made its way along the saltings in front of me and I was just able to see it drop in close to the male to roost.

So, just the two Hen Harriers there this month, it'll be interesting to see how the other three observers on Sheppey did at their roost sites. And before I left in the near dark, with Lewis now departed, I got out the Fuji and took this photograph of the sky behind Harty Church with mist just visible, lifting off the marshes.

Friday 18 November 2011

Up and Downs

I found this photo in an old album the other day. It is my good self in early Spring 1963 and just approaching my 16th birthday. It'll be of no particular interest to readers of this blog except I was sitting on part of an old building that stood where the Raptor Viewing Mound now stands. Look carefully and you can see Capel Fleet in the background, running north east towards Leysdown. I haven't a clue what the building was, or had been, all I know is that a friend and I cycled out to Harty that day from Sheerness and we took some photos. It'd be nice to say that even at fifteen I had just seen Sheppey's first Marsh Harrier or something, but I'd be lying, I was simply having a look round Harty and anyway, within a year or two I'd become a bit of a long-haired beatnik and birds took a back seat for a few years.

I bumped into another couple of really nice birdwatchers this morning as I left the reserve, well I say bumped into but what I mean is, as I suggested in yesterday's blog, I made a point of stopping and chatting with them rather than being some person disappearing into the distance. I believe that they were a father and son and early in our conversation they told me that they came from London and were avid fans of my blog - cue for a long and pleasant chat with my fans - such nice and sensible people!
The trouble with all this new interaction with passing bird watchers is that I'm beginning to feel that I should know more than what I do. While I can talk for hours about Sheppey's countryside, its wildlife and its history, I've always been a bit of a lazy birdwatcher and despite watching them for fifty-odd years and having a pretty good knowledge of them, I've never bothered with the finer points. Take a Rough-legged Buzzard for instance, I find people asking me for example, was it a second winter, or third winter bird - gawd! I haven't a clue, its just a Rough-legged Buzzard as far as I'm concerned!

To another subject now and I've made no secret over the last year of my change of attitude regarding wildfowling and my increasing friendship with many of them. Yet just as all this back slapping and adoration between each other is going on along the sea wall, along comes one of the shooting fraternity to kick me in the goolies and encourage my bird watching critics to say - I told you so!
This week in his regular column in the Shooting Times, a gamekeeper has made the suggestion, which has been building momentum for some time amongst the shooting fraternity, that Brent Geese should be put back on the shooting list. His reason for suggesting that - there's loads of them now and it'd be nice to be able to shoot some - what a pathetic reason and a load of crap! There's the shooting fraternity under attack from antis from all sides and they start suggesting something that will harden the attitude of even more people towards them. And if the simple arguement is, despite their protection, that there's lots of them, presumably they could argue the same case for shooting Shelduck.
Anyone that regularly watches Brent Geese around the coast will know full well that they fly low, fly slow, stay very close to the shoreline and are very confiding birds. A few wildfowlers sat on the edge of some saltings will easily be able to kill large numbers of these birds as they take advantage of the birds' non-fear of humans - and for why? I'm advised they're not pleasant to eat, so will we see them simply thrown away. Its also suggested that once shooting them begun that the birds would soon wisen up and become more wary and harder to shoot, really, and how many would be shot easily, before and if, that happens.

It's been an up and a down couple of days, tomorrow looks set fair, lets hope we get back on an even keel.

Thursday 17 November 2011

Tomorrow is a Long Time

"Tomorrow is a Long Time" is a Bob Dylan song from the 1960's and one of many favourites of his that I have and it could in some ways describe my spell on The Swale NNR asa Voluntary Warden. I was only 39 when I accepted the offer from the Nature Conservancy Council, as Natural England was called in its early form, to become a Vol. Warden on their Harty reserve. I accepted with a touch of trepidation and wondered what tomorrow would bring, and yet here I am at 64, a quarter of a century later, still hobbling round the reserve - tomorrow really has been a long time!

And yet, I suppose because its always been a part-time thing and for the first twenty years, not an every day thing, it doesn't feel as if twenty five years have sailed by, it's seemed a lot shorter. But it's certainly been a long education in the ways of the countryside and at times, the closest thing to private meditation, as I've spent most of it through choice, in isolation with just my dogs and my thoughts for company.
And when I look back over the countless memories and sights I've experienced throughout that time, I have realised that it has taken me the whole, first twenty-four years, to achieve in my mind the correct balance in order that I can be fully at peace out there. Only during this last year have I been able to accept that the wildfowlers are not the aliens that I've always seen them as, seen the surrounding farmland as a huge contributor to the local wildlife habitat and as a result sort of trebled the size of the reserve, and lastly, accepted that effective pest controls are a vital tool in successful reserve management. There were times when I seemed to be running around the reserve at all hours, and getting stressed out single-handedly trying to retaliate against various shooting factions and farmers in general. But this year Karma has descended over this old curmudgeon, as I was called recently, and so I don't "chase" anymore, although that's possibly because the arthritis in my feet has altered the word to "hobble".

But seriously, to sit on the seawall now, as I've mentioned before, and spend an hour or two swapping gossip and memories with some of the wildfowlers, especially the older ones, is a real delight now. Many of those, like me, have been out and about on those marshes at all hours for around fifty years and there's some great tales to be told of ducks, geese, rabbits, eels, ferrets, terriers and of poaching and farmers. Its took me a long time for me to realise that we do actually have a lot in common, apart from killing ducks that is.
There were times as well for many years, when the sight of birdwatchers advancing along the seawall or going into a hide, would see me going in the opposite direction, because it meant having to talk to people and I preffered to remain as the figure in the distance. But these days I find myself looking forward to a chat with many of them and sometimes guide them across unofficial parts of the reserve, if they don't walk too fast.

And the reserve itself, has that changed over the last twenty-five years. Well the one fundamental thing that hasn't changed, which is a success, is that it still remains the same example of an old piece of grazing marsh, still looking as it probably did a hundred years ago. However, when I started there, there were six viewing hides with a circular route round part of the main reserve. Today there is currently just one hide and no access at all off of the sea wall.

So its been a long learning curve and a privelage to conduct it out there but what will the next tomorrow bring. One thing's for sure, I certainly won't be celebrating any half century as a Vol. Warden out there and it really is one day at a time now, rather than planning for the tomorrow's. Perhaps the next step is as Dylan sings in the title song:
"I can't see my reflections in the waters
I can't speak the sounds that show no pain
I can't hear the echo of my footsteps
Or can't remember the sound of my own name.............

Sunday 13 November 2011

Gloom Free Dawn

Despite getting up as usual just after 5.30 this morning, I hadn't planned to visit the reserve today but a glance out of the window just after 6.00 showed a starlit sky - could we really be looking at a gloom free dawn, too good to be missed, I was off!
The view below was taken over the reserve's barn just as I arrived, a spectacular sight as the light began to increase.

Getting up onto the sea wall this was the dawn view looking across The Swale towards Seasalter.

At first there wasn't a lot of bird activity, a look across the fields to the Shellness track proved that the Rough-legged Buzzard does seem to have moved on and only a couple of Marsh Harriers were gliding low along the sea wall.
However as I made my way across one of the reserve's grazing fields I suddenly hit apon a remarkable treble of birds. Standing in the grass just twenty yards away were five Short-eared Owls, all bunched together shoulder to shoulder. I wondered if they'd roosted overnight like this or were just discussing breakfast, but whatever, they didn't hang around and rose up and began to lazily disperse. As they did, a Great White Egret flew low across the field directly above them and eventually dropped into the Delph fleet alongside the sea wall, where it was yesterday.
I was well chuffed but it hadn't finished yet, just a hundred yards further on a Lapland Bunting flew overhead calling repeatedly - trebles like that don't happen too often and coupled with a beautiful November morning of blue skies and sunshine, it was one to remember. The true essence of simple, solitary bird watching on the same, regular patch and getting the maximum enjoyment from it.
I moved on and with the sun rising higher in the sky it lit up the cattle contentedly grazing in the dewy fields, emphasising that lovely, desolate nature of the marshes that I love so much.

Some even came to say hello.

I was only out for an hour and a half, but what a glorious way to start a day and rounded off back at the barn by three Long-tailed Tits working through the willow trees.

Friday 11 November 2011

Birds at Last

After a barren spell for birds, going back almost to the Spring and due mainly to the extremely dry conditions, the eastern half of Sheppey, including The Swale NNR, has had a dramatic surge in bird records since the end of October.
It pretty much all began on the 20th October as we carried out the monthly WEBS count on the reserve, which produced one of the lowest wader counts that we've ever had. As the count came to a close, two of us found ourselves watching a Rough-legged Buzzard, circling high above the grazing fields alongside the Shellness track until it eventually drifted northwards into Harty.
A week later it had begun to be seen again along the Shellness track, with increasing numbers of Short-eared Owls and on the 28th Oct we saw two RLB's at the same time on the reserve. That was a real bonus, coupled with a probable eight S.E.Owls the same afternoon but two RLB's were rarely seen again and it petered out to just daily sightings of the one again, lasting until the last reported sighting last weekend.

Obviously the increase in bird watchers that the birds caused brought many more pairs of eyes to the area and besides the RLB, regular and increasing numbers of S.E.Owls were being reported, with up to ten some days. Watching these owls hunting the fields and saltings with their slow and moth-like wing actions is always a joy but to see them in these numbers is quite spectacular and yesterday a total of fifteen were seen! Throughout this same period a Great White Egret started making forays across the Sheppey marshes and this too began to be seen along Capel Fleet at Harty, until sightings of this bird also doubled up to become two on regular occassions. It was starting to get quite impressive and quite novel to see that end of Sheppey featuring on a daily basis on various bird websites and for me, used to spending quite a solitary time on the reserve, I found myself talking to all kinds of knowledgeable and interesting bird watchers - yet another rare event.

This Tuesday 8th November, with things quieting down again I decided to walk out to Shellness Point to look for Snow Buntings and was chuffed to find the reserve's first nine of the winter on the beach there. My joy was a tad short-lived however, when having been home for a few hours, it turned out that another birdwatcher had been out to Shellness after me and found the next rarity, a Great Grey Shrike. I have never seen one of these birds and despite one or more of these being seen throughout the area over the last few days, I still haven't, but what an impressive list of uncommon to rare birds over the last three weeks.

Moving off of that subject slightly, The Swale Wader Group were ringing on the reserve a few nights ago and also came up with some interesting observations, if I can steal their thunder a bit. This group have been catching and ringing mostly waders on the saltings of the reserve for many, many years, normally in the middle of the night. One night this week they caught a total of 85 waders which included two re-trapped Bar-tailed Godwits - re-trapped meaning that they had been caught and rung before.
The first of these two re-traps had originally been rung at Shellness in December 1997, making it 13 years and 10 months old but the second was even more impressive, it had been originally rung at Shellness in December 1994, making it 16 years and 10 months old. So many hazardous journeys to and from Sheppey to its breeding grounds in the near Arctic and yet still getting back after all those years, how wondorous is that.
N.B: An hour after posting the above, I went out to the Harty Road and finally saw my first Gt. Grey Shrike, although I'm getting sleepless nights wondering if I'm turning into a mini-twitcher - god forbid!

Tuesday 8 November 2011

A Bit of Snow at the Point

This morning Midge and I drove out to Shellness and walked out to the Point to have a look at the high-tide roost. The weather was a far cry from the last time that I was out there several weeks ago, watching a film crew on a hot and sunny day. Today it was grey, chilly, gloomy and damp and never really got properly light - and to think that when it was warm and sunny a few weeks ago some birdwatchers were complaining and hoping for this wintry weather, to better the bird watching - takes all sorts I suppose, I know which I prefer!
Anchored on the tide and fairly close to the Point were a total of eight vessels of varying sizes, all to do with the cable laying operation that is going on between the wind turbines out to sea and the new receiving station on the mainland at Graveney. This is the biggest of them, which is a lot bigger than it looks in this photo and of a night has so many lights on that it illuminates the beach at Shellness.

A second vessel was anchored close to the Point, looking ghostly in the gloom. The dark area on the beach of the Point is around 900 Oystercatchers and 400 Dunlin that were roosting there, so it would appear that the vessels are not disturbing the roost very much.
I followed the path out to the beach at the very tip of Shellness, careful that Midge and I never disturbed the wader roost and faced into the bay there. Almost immediately I heard the familiar and budgie-like twittering of Snow Buntings and just along the beach of cockle shells there were indeed 9 Snow Buntings busily looking for seeds. Unfortunately the light and the range were just a bit too much for my little camera to take photos.
In all along the beach of Shellness Point this morning I had a total of 900 Oystercatcher - 400 Dunlin - 5 Cormorant - 12 Knot - 50 Turnstone - 4 Grey Plover - 70 Brent Geese - 9 Great Black Backed Gulls and the 9 Snow Buntings. On the saltings alongside I also had 8 Little Egrets.

And one last surprise for the time of year, was this specimen of Vipers Bugloss still in flower.

Thursday 3 November 2011

Mild November

Well it hasn't been the brightest of days today, so I stayed at home and didn't visit the reserve at all. But although its been gloomy it certainly hasn't been cold, almost warm in fact and especially so for the first week in November.
Along the top of the seawall at the reserve we have just the one large dog-rose bush and yesterday I was surprised to see amongst the hips, this newly-opened flower, quite remarkable. Everytime that I pass the bush I pick off a hand full of hips and scatter them one at a time along the side of the seawall in the hope of getting more bushes established for the wildlife. Despite being such a simple thing, I always feel that the dog-rose flower is one of the most beautiful of all the rose blooms.

And take a look at this rose bush in my garden, photographed just an hour ago, it still has as many flowers on it now as it did in June - quite amazing.

While sitting in the conservatory this afternoon, watching great, dark grey clouds being pushed across the sky in the wind and turning it increasingly gloomier, I watched Bumble bees still actively working the flower heads of that great favourite of theirs - Verbena bonariensis. It seems to flower almost to Christmas and is always there to feed a late bee or butterfly that chances by. Its all so remarkable for the time of year.

With the clouds getting heavier and rain not far away, its starting to get dark already, or so it seems. As I look out of my study window and across the Scrapsgate marshes, the Shingle Bank and the Thames Estuary, a container ship is passing by for Grain and the lights of Southend are beginning to twinkle in the gloom. The daily winter flock of corvids are beginning to rise up off the Scrasgate marshes and circle round before passing overhead to their evening roost. By mid-winter, this flock wiil build up to around 400-500 birds strong and consist of mostly Jackdaws and a few crows.
Just as the first chinks of light start to appear in the sky in the morning this great flock pass over my house and go out on to the Scrapsgate marshes across the road. Here they seem to stay the whole day, feeding on the grazing meadows. Then as the light starts to fade in the late afternoon, up they all rise and for a few moments, spread across a large tract of sky and cawing madly, they make their back east over Minster. I haven't a clue where they all roost but its a great joy to see so many Jackdaws still on Sheppey and this daily event is repeated well into the Spring.

And lastly, the Sloe Gin that I started up in September, has now turned a lovely rich beetroot colour, the hardest part now will be to avoid sampling it until at least the New Year - gawd!