Saturday 31 December 2011

End of the Year

I arrived on the seawall just as dawn was breaking as you can see below and it was both mild and very damp from overnight rain. What you can't see due to the light, are two wildfowlers sitting in front of me halfway across the saltings.
After an hour and no shots fired the two of them were still out there and so I rang one up on his mobile to find out if he had seen much prior to my arrival. Apparently he had bagged one Teal and claimed to have heard some Pink-footed Geese fly along the saltings in the dark, if he was right then hopefully they will be re-found some time today by any birdwatchers out and about. As well as the two wildfowlers mentioned I could just make out the heads of another two at the far end of the saltings by the old barges and that total of four is the most that I have seen out there in the last couple of months, which pretty much describes how few wildfowl there are in the area.

In recent weeks the two RSPB fields alongside the reserve have been attracting both good numbers of birds and as a result increasing numbers of birdwatchers. The principal interest has been increasing numbers of Lapland Buntings, peaking this week so far at 20-22 birds, a number unheard of on Sheppey for many years, if at all.
These two fields, that run between the public footpath that runs down behind Muswell Manor and the edge of the reserve are simply two grassy fields. What makes them so attractive to a large and varied number of passerines however is their progress over the last year.
Three years ago the two fields were part of the neighbouring arable farmland and shot over and were two of four purchased to eventually come into the RSPB's ownership. During autumn 2010 the two fields, after levelling and landscaping, were re-sown with grass seed which by this Spring had produced a good green sward. As I understand it, the fields are destined to become yet another two examples of grazing marsh for the benefit of breeding Lapwings, as though we need more! For whatever reason the fields were left to become totally overgrown and the wide variety of grasses, corn, wild oats and rape, all run to seed before the fields were eventually cut in late September. The resultant grassy base of the fields, packed with all manner of wild seed, first became a magnet this autumn/winter for flocks of a 100+ Skylarks and Linnets and then gradually Reed Buntings and the Lapland Buntings have followed. It has become an accidental example of what you can achieve out there by providing that, in very short supply, that type of habitat and hopefully the senior RSPB management will now re-consider their original plans for the fields.

One last point of possible interest to some readers, Ellie continues to make progress as you can see below. Despite her little legs she now manages to complete an almost full patrol round the reserve in company with Midge. I think she's always going to be a much shorter version of Midge but she has tremendous stamina and character.
Tonight, and not by choice, I have to stay up until well past midnight in order to calm Midge as we endure the barrage of fireworks that now have to be let off each New Year and so panic her.

Monday 26 December 2011

Mild and Quiet

I arrived on the seawall of the reserve this morning just as it was half light from the dawn and was struck by two things, one it was incredibly mild and two, there were no wildfowlers present, which is pretty much unheard of for Boxing Day. In fact there were no visible signs of anyone shooting on the whole of Harty, something I've never known before in this Christmas holiday period.
While its nice that there is no disturbance, etc. from the wildfowlers it has to be tempered with the fact that the reason that there are no wildfowlers is because there's nothing to shoot and if there's nothing to shoot at, there's also nothing for us to see on the reserve, which this morning was pretty much the case. On Boxing Day last year the reserve was covered in snow and completely frozen up except for one small patch of open water in the seawall fleet and yet I saw a few hundred ducks, over a thousand geese and fifteen wildfowlers - today I saw just five Mallard! Talking to various wildfowlers recently it seems that the dearth of wildfowl is pretty much the same throughout much of North Kent this winter, lets hope that it is simply just a case of the mild and dry weather and not an indicator of anything more serious.

Staying on the quiet theme there really were few birds to be seen on the main reserve this morning. Now I don't want to get into the same trend as a few blogs have recently - you know, where they produce an enviable list of birds seen on a particular day and then smugly complain about how quiet it is, but have a look at my main sightings in an hour or so this morning.
5 Mallard
2 Grey Heron
1 Little Egret
2 Marsh Harrier
1 Kestrel
80 Lapwing
1 S.E.Owl
1 Lapland Bunting
1 Wren

OK, if I'd of stayed for several hours I could of added to that list but a wetland reserve at the end of December should have large numbers of wildfowl, plovers and waders viewable the minute you arrive there. It was a strange visit, it was mild enough to grace any March day and eerily quiet as though something had sucked all the birds out of the sky and moved them somewhere else.

Thursday 22 December 2011

A Special Day

What a superb day's weather we had today, clear blue skies and an almost warm sun, despite being a tad breezy on the marsh, today could of easily been one from March or April. Last night in the garden I found a Common Newt making its way across the lawn and today there was a Great Tit loudly "teaching" to all and sundry - is it really only mid-December?
Last Friday we should of completed the Dec WEBS count but the weather defeated us and so early this morning two of carried out a belated count on the reserve. I don't have the count for Shellness Point yet but mine covering birds on the mudflats in front of the reserve saltings and along to the saltings below Harty church were encouraging. The two stand out counts were 210 Avocet and 1050 Lapwing. 800 of the Lapwing were on the saltings below Harty Church and it is a welcome back to good numbers of Lapwing, they have been in very low numbers through the continuing drought. A few other noteable counts were 180 Grey Plover, 60 Redshank and 100 Shelduck. One absentee in recent months has been Coots. Normally at this time of the year we would see numbers building towards the 100 mark but since the drought set in during late summer they have pretty much disappeared and I can't recall when I last saw any.
On my back round the boundary hedging of the reserve I was also pleased to come across 12 Long-tailed Tits, 2 Blue Tits, 16 Blackbird, 40 Reed Bunting, 26 Goldfinch.

Back at the reserve barn at 10.15 it was obviously to good a morning to waste and so I briefly nipped home to collect Ellie the puppy (only 15 mins each way) and set off again across part of the reserve. I'd left Ellie at home because I assumed that a long walk such as the WEBS would be too much for her little legs but I think I worried unduly, she ran for ages on that second walk of the day. Here below she is in the reserve barn helping Midge sniff out any mice or rats and then out on the marsh itself.

Despite looking beautifully green and muddy, the overall level of water on the reserve remains very low and I'll be surprised if we achieve anywhere near normal water levels this winter. The scrapes in the field that we know as "The Flood" (its in front of the Sea wall Hide), we re-dug this summer and they still remain pretty much dry and so I decided to pump what water that we could spare, onto them this morning. The Pumphouse pumps water from the ditches alongside The Flood onto the scrapes and at the moment that means lowing the ditches from just a foot or so deep to around six inches. However once we can get the scrapes reasonably wet then any further rains do at least add to the depth of water in the scrape rather than simply soaking into the soil. The pumphouse has the ability to pump the water in three different directions by opening/shutting various valves.

This is the main scrape before we started pumping.

And after we had been pumping for a short while.

All in all a splendid morning's work on the reserve and a real treat to be able to get out in such enjoyable weather, we've had the Shortest Day, soon all this Christmas rubbish will be out of the way and we can start dreaming of breeding birds, swallows and butterflies - can't wait!!

Monday 19 December 2011


Yesterday morning I arrived at the reserve Just as light was lighting up what soon became a blue sky. There was a hard white frost and it was bone-chillingly cold but as the light increased and the eastern horizon gradually became a deeper orange, the sun threatened to rise shortly. Actually the shortly took another hour and it was 8.00 before the first orange tip inched it's way above the hills behind Seasalter but with the Shortest Day just two days away, things should start to swing backwards in time before long.
Arriving on top of the seawall,I could just make out the dark shapes of three wildfowlers out on the saltings in the half light, how cold they must of been and for no return. No wildfowl were visible at all on or around the reserve, the only ones audibly and occasionally visible, were Brent Geese out on The Swale. There have been large rafts of Mallard and other ducks recorded lately on the sea off of Shellness but where they are going to on land no one seems to know. The three wildfowlers packed up just after sun-rise and came on to the seawall for a chat before heading home, all teeth chattering and juddering with the cold. Apparently a few Greylag Geese passed along the salting before it got light, none of which were shot, and that was the sum of the morning's wildfowl. Looking at the still dry, new rills and scrapes across the reserve, despite last week's rain, that looks like remaining the case as well. I'm beginning to despair of seeing the reserve properly wet this winter, which could be disastorous for next year's breeding birds.

After the wildfowlers had gone, I carried on along the sea wall for a while before catching the sound of approaching geese, the exciting yapping of Barnacle Geese! 18 of them came in from The Swale and circled round me before going back out towards The Swale, what a lovely sound they make. With another 40-odd seen over mid-Kent the same morning perhaps birds are beginning to move in from the Continent, although one would normally expect to see good numbers of White-fronted Geese before or with the Barnacles.

Yesterday afternoon/early evening I was back at the Sea Wall Hide, enduring relentless cold, for the third Harrier Roost Count. This time fortunately, there were no wildfowlers out on the saltings and I had the increasing gloom to myself, but the cold was a bit of an endurance test, just standing there looking through a scope. It turned out to be one of the best I've ever had for Hen Harriers roosting on the saltings though. Immediately I put the 'scope up and look towards Shellness, I spotted a ring-tail (female) HH drop in and disturb a superb, pale grey male HH, which re-alighted a few yards away. Gradually, as the light lessened, single ring-tail HH's made their way along the salting past me and down to the Shellness end to roost. Eventually I ended up with 1 male HH - 4 ring-tail HH's and 1 female Marsh Harrier - a really good count for there in recent times!

Arriving back at the barn and my car in the near dark I was encouraged to see a Barn Owl out hunting. Whether this was the poorly one from last weekend I couldn't say but I was encouraged to see it. However there was a down-side to the owls in the week, looking round for a possible dead adult, three decomposing bodies of young Barn Owls were found. They had been dead for some time and had no rings on their legs and as we had rung the first brood of three chicks we could only surmise that the adults had had a second brood that didn't survive after fledging.

Thursday 15 December 2011

Adey comes to Sheppey

Adey is an unusual name from my family's history and is one that I would love to have been called. Unfortunately it was allowed to die out before it got to my turn to be named but I'll take you down the path it took until then, hopefully it won't be considered a boring indulgence.

Adey Faulkner was born in Ospringe, nr. Faversham in Kent in 1822, and his father, also an Adey, had been born in 1796. By 1847, exactly a hundred years before I was born, he had moved across The Swale and was living at the eastern end of Sheppey, and thus starting the Faulkners' link with Sheppey. Its also a pretty fair bet that he came across via the small boat ferry at Harty Ferry, one of three along The Swale at the time.
During the first three months of 1847, aged 25, he had married a 20 yr old Doddington girl by the name of Mary Marchant and within four years they already had two children.
So by 1851 Adey was working as a farm labourer and living with his family in a small farm cottage at Stonepitts Farm, out on the marshes, two miles below Eastchurch village. In those days there were a great numbers of these farms and their small cottages strung out across the bleak and waterlogged marshes of southern Sheppey. Rose Cottage and Cod's House at Elmley are a couple of the few that remain. Like all the farm cottages on the marshes in those days, Adey's would of had no sanitation, no lighting other than candles or oil lamps and water gathered from either a well or even ditches. The malarial mosquitoes which abounded on the marshes saw many people suffering with and often die of, the ague (malaria)and periods of extreme cold and snow in the winter months must of been particually excruciating to bear.
To compound the misery at the time, these workers cottages were only available while you were employed by the owner and you often found yourself sharing with other families, despite the cramped conditions. Become unemployable and you and your family were homeless again.
The 1851 Census at the Stonepitts cottage Adey was in illustrates this quite clearly:-

Adey Faulkner 28
Mary Faulkner - wife 23
Adey Faulkner - son 2
James Faulkner - son 5 mths
James Newman - lodger/farm labourer 26
Harriet Newman - wife 20

Much later in 1909, Stonepitts Farm was bought by the Aero Club who were desperate to move from their airfield at nearby Muswell Manor, Leysdown. They immediately began turning it into both an airfield for their members and an aeroplane factory for the Shorts Bros.. It of course then went on to became both a military airfield in WW1 and WW2 before ending up in its current form - several prisons. The photo below shows Stonepitts Farmhouse in 1911, surrounded by the early aeroplane sheds.

Also in 1851 and living on Sheppey, were the Thomas family, who lived at Parsonage Farm, near Halfway village in the centre of Sheppey. Thomas, like a big percentage of Sheppey at the time, was also a farm labourer and his second daughter Martha was born that year. Ten years later in 1861, the Thomas family were housed in another farm cottage, this time somewhere along the Harty Road but Martha aged just 10, was
living, and working, at nearby Elliots Farm as a Housemaid. Martha was would marry into the Faulkner family a little later.
Also by 1861 Adey Faulkner and his ever growing family had moved from Stonepitts and were now living in a cottage at New Rides farm along the Leysdown Road below Eastchurch. Adey continued to be employed as a farm labourer, as was his son Adey, now 12 and employed as a Carter.

This general merry-go-round of families moving from farm to farm was typical of the period as both farmers and their labourers struggled to earn a living. During the last quarter of the 1800's there had been a gradual shift away from agriculture to industry and even in those days, an increase in the amount of imported food, so farmers were seeing their profits starting to drop. It was a very traumatic time for the farm labourers and their families and they were constantly moving from farm to farm, as jobs were easily lost for the slightest of reasons. Adey Snr, to his credit, seems to have managed to stay employed throughout these times and even ten years later in 1871 was still employed as a farm labourer and living at New Rides Farm, aged 49, and by today's standards probably looking like an old man. Not only that, with his wife Mary having died in 1861 and his three sons all left home, he now found himself lodging there in a cottage with another family.

Adey Jnr meanwhile had moved a few miles further along the Leysdown Road, was employed as a farm labourer and was living with a family of seven and two lodgers, all crammed in to No.5 Tills Cottages at New House Farm. This farm is still there today, sits on high ground looking south across Capel Fleet and the Harty Road below and also towards Elliots Farm where the young Martha Thomas had been working ten years before. Fate however, now found the 19yr old Martha living back with her parents and alongside Adey Jnr at No.3 Tills Cottages at New House Farm. Clearly they had also been doing some courting because in the autumn of 1871 they needed to become a married couple with their first son, Adey, being born in early 1872. My eventual Grandad Albert was also one of his four siblings. Unfortunately, this baby Adey was the last in the family to be named so but we can follow him on until his eventual death and the demise of the name, in 1926.

1872 was also monumental for the fact that schooling for children became compulsory and as a result two small schools were built at Leysdown and Harty. The Harty schoolhouse was alongside Harty church and was only pulled down a couple of years ago to make way for the new bungalow there. Imagine the children from the many farms and cottages dotted across the whole of Harty making their way there on foot using just tracks and footpaths across the marshes in winter! Ironically this new education system also had the unfortunate effect of increasing the poverty experienced by these already poor farm workers' families, because it limited the earning ability of children to provide cheap labour on the farms. They were now expected to attend school every day and were only allowed to leave at thirteen if they had gained a School-leaving Certificate. No Certificate meant compulsory staying on for another year. Local school records also highlight the poverty suffered by these families with children arriving at school wearing no socks and often even no shoes and frozen cold with no coats or jackets.
Quite which school Adey's children would of gone to I don't know but I imagine that the Leysdown one would of been much easier to walk to from Till's Cottages than the much further Harty one.

Adey Snr was to eventually die in 1884, aged 62, but before that in 1881, Adey and his family were now to be found living in a cottage at the far more pleasant surroundings of Whyburns Farm in Minster. Minster since the year dot had always been the dominant and ruling parish over most of Sheppey and was to remain that way for a few years more until Sheerness began to spread out from the hulks of the dockyard there. The village was on high ground, warmer than the wilds of Harty and most importantly had shops, churches and schools all close by. The farm, of which the farmhouse still remains, was situated alongside Wards Hill Road, just below the village, and ironically I now live further down the same road. Adey was employed there as a Waggoner, and although it wasn't a huge farm it did encompass part of what is now known as The Glen village green and park.

It is also worth noting here that in Kentish records for the time the position of Waggoner or Carter was generally regarded as a fairly prestigious and well paid one. They would be responsible for the complete welfare of the farm's horses, without which little could happen. As a result the Waggoner would be employed on a year's contract, guaranteeing his family their living regardless of weather and sickness and would often receive other benefits such as free cottage, coal and faggots. Whether Adey was beneficiary of such a standard of living is unknown but it would be nice to think so. And if he needed a constant reminder of the price of failure, just a few hundred yards up the road was the Sheppey Union Workhouse!

It is difficult to know exactly but it appears throughout this potted history that our Adeys all managed to stay one step ahead of unemployment which was quite credible and seemed to involve regular moves to new farms. As a result, by 1891 he left Whyburns and was now living with Martha and their sons at Ripney Hill Farm, halway between Minster and Sheerness and only a few miles from Martha's birthplace at Parsonage Farm, she had almost travelled in a full circle. The majority of Ripney Hill Farm is now covered by the Sheerness Golf Club but in 1891 both Adey and four of his sons were working there as Farm Servants, I assume that was another name for labourers. The average wage for the farm workers at the time was less than three shillings a day and in an effort to improve conditions for themselves and their workers, in 1894 local farmers formed local branches of the National Agricultural Union. A large number of the farm workers joined this Union in the hope that it would bring better security but there is little to suggest that it actually did.

The last record of Adey and Martha and their family, including the younger Adey, mostly living together was in 1901, they were living in the short High Street of Minster village itself. The High Street even now, is still barely much more than a hundred yards long but in those days was full on both sides by mostly wooden shacks on both sides of the street, some of which had become shops. Eventually in the 1920's many of them were destroyed in a fire that quickly spread along the High Street.
In 1901, despite now living in the very heart of the village, the Faulkner's had hardly improved their situation, the shacks were in very poor condition and things such as water and oil for lamps still had to be bought from the daily cart rounds, or water sometimes bucketed from a local communual well.
Here Adey and three of his sons were as usual still employed in the area as Agricultural Labourers, although there was an indication that times were changing. A fourth son was lodging in Queenborough and now employed as a railway plater on the Island's new railways.

Adey died there in 1907, aged 59 but for some reason I cannot find Martha's date of death. Their son, the last Adey, by 1911 was living as a boarder at Neats Cottages, between Queenborough and Minster and working as a labourer. Eventually he died in 1926 and is buried in an un-marked pauper's grave in the Sheppey Cemetery, which I have located. The last of an unusual name.
One last photograph that I must share with you, is that of my Great Grandmother Martha in her later years in Minster. There are those that say I have inhereted her severe look - I prefer to think that even then someone might of mentioned the word twitcher.

Saturday 10 December 2011

Brent at Dawn

The first glimmers of dawn light were showing to the east as I left home this morning for the reserve after first clearing a frozen windscreen on the car, it had been a cold night!
As I turned on to the Harty Road I glanced back towards Eastchurch up on the hill and was struck by the night's full moon gently slipping down behind the village and adding to the coldness of the scene.

When the sky is clear, as it was this morning, its amazing how quick the light increases and by the time that I pulled up at the reserve it was almost full daylight, with a lovely blue sky changing gradually to pinks and yellows the closer it got to the horizon.
I alighted from the car to the regular weekend dawn chorus of shotguns going off at various point around the farmland marshed behind me, the commercial duck ponds were suffering their regular attacks. As I crossed the reserve towards the seawall the grass underfoot was covered in hard frost, crunchy and firm and so much easier to walk across than the wet and the mud. Up the seawall steps and my first peruse of the saltings in both directions for any wildfowler heads that might be visible out there. Nope, none - the story so far of this shooting season, the wildfowlers have been very few and far between out there this winter - talking to them I doubt collectively if they've shot much more than a dozen or so birds over three months!
Still a dozen too many you might say, fair enough, but compare that with the scores shot around the commercial duck ponds on the farmland, each visit!

So, which direction to walk, I went west along the sea wall, heading for the stretch of reserve that lies below Harty Church. As I have mentioned before, these narrow grassy banks that run down to the saltings below the church, are a favourite part of the reserve for me with their views down The Swale and across to Oare. Looking across to Oare I could see a couple of wildfowlers on the saltings in front of the West Flood, presumably hoping to surprise any wildfowl leaving it, but instead they were shotless and instead stood around talking, its sometimes hard being a wildfowler - should I say that, oh well.
On the mudflats below the banks were several hundred Brent Geese, bathing, preening and generally cackling and barking away, they sound at times, like a pack of fox hounds away in the distance.

Eventually, they began to rise up in regular small flocks and make their way over me towards the farmland, a cackling, brent-full sky of birds.

They were heading for their current daily feeding area on the adjacent farmland, see them here towards the top of the field.

The field was sown this autumn with a silage grass mixture that will produce one or two cuts of silage next summer. It must be very lush and palatable for the geese at the moment, why mess about on mudflats! Technically, as long as the field doesn't become water-logged and muddy, the grazing by the geese won't do a lot of harm, just as a lawn does in the warmth of the Spring, after the geese have moved on, the grass will quickly shoot away to produce the silage crop that the farmer expects. Wether he will see it that way is a different matter, there could be trouble ahead as the song goes.

A sadder event occurred when I visited the reserve yesterday morning. As I parked up I became aware of one of the reserve's resident Barn Owls sitting atop a post alongside the car. That was unusual, they don't normally allow me to get that close. Getting out of the car with my camera, I was allowed to get within a few yards before the bird weakly flew off to quickly land in some long grass close by. For whatever reason, the bird doesn't look well and I fear that we shall find it dead there in the coming weeks, a real shame.

Thursday 8 December 2011

Another Side of Winter

In my previous posting I made no secret of my dislike of the winter cold and the conditions that come with it, and yet there are times when I find myself having nostalgic thoughts about winter's past and how we did things. Perversely these normally occur when I'm laying on my sunlounger in the garden on a hot summer's day, glugging some chilled white wine (sipping is out of the question). I suppose its that normal thing whereby when you're in one season you find yourself dreaming about another, just as many of us are currently dreaming about next Spring.
Anyway, while I'm glugging away and staring up at a hot July sky, I find myself sometimes thinking about cosily sitting in front of log fires, with it cold outside, and mulled ale and hot chestnuts and all the atmosphere that goes with it. I suppose the modern day equivalent is the central heating full on, a glass of red wine and a bag of dry roasted - hardly something for our grandchildren to be nostalgic about! But what I'm recalling are wintery events that I've read about or heard, not my depressed memories.

Of these and easily the most nostalgic for people of my age, is Dylan Thomas's "A Child's Christmas in Wales", narrated by himself in that lovely deep Welsh voice of his. He describes so perfectly a typical winter childhood in those hard times of the 1930's and despite the fact that mine was in the late 1940's- early 1950's I was shocked at easily he was also recanting my very own memories of those times.
The fact that it always seemed to snow, the snowball fights wearing old socks as gloves, the same presents that old bosomy aunties always gave you every Christmas - the knitted scarves and matching gloves and the jars of bullseyes, the mechano sets for "Lttle Engineers", and one of my favourite Stocking presents at the time, the packet of sweet cigarettes. Dylan describes the event as "and then the packet of sweet cigarettes, you put one in your mouth and stood on the corner of the street and waited for hours in vain for an old lady to scold you for smoking a cigarette and then with a smirk, you ate it".

Its a real nostalgia trip through the childhood of people of my age and should you ever get the chance to listen to it you will not regret it.
And before we leave Dylan Thomas behind, what about a verse or two from his poem "A Winter's Tale"...........

It is a winter's tale
That the snow blind twilight ferries over the lakes
And floating fields from the farm in the cup of the vales,
Gliding windless through the hand folded flakes,
The pale breath of cattle at the stealthy sail,

And the stars falling cold,
and the smell of hay in the snow, and the far owl
warning among the folds, and the frozen hold
flocked with the sheep white smoke of the farm house cowl
in the river wended vales where the tale was told.

Dylan typically takes a simple observation and packs it with extra words because he loves the sound of words, but if you say the words slowly to yourself you can picture great flakes of snow silently blowing down across a Welsh valley and its farm and farmyard animals and feel the intense cold of it all.

And as always, as I lay in that summer sun, competing with Dylan Thomas in the nostalgia stakes was my old friend "The Wind in the Willows".
Take one of my favourite chapters - The Wild Wood - where we find the Mole slipping out of the house on a bitter cold winter's afternoon - "it was a cold still afternoon with a hard steely sky overhead, when he slipped out of the warm parlour into the open air. The country lay bare and entirely leafless around him, and he thought that he had never seen so far and so intimately into the insides of things as on that winter day when Nature was deep in her annual slumber and seemed to have kicked the clothes off. Copses, dells, quarries and all hidden places, which had been mysterious mines for exploration in leafy summer, now exposed themselves and their secrets pathetically, and seemed to ask him to overlook their shabby poverty for a while, till they could riot in rich masquerade as before"....

How often have we all experienced those bitter cold, steel grey days when sniffing the air you just know that snow is not far off. And lo and behold, when you get up in the morning there it is, a thick layer of fresh snow, captured perfectly for me in those great words my Ratty in the same chapter of the book. Emerging from their overnight stay in a hollow tree in the Wild Wood Ratty exclaims "hello, hello" - "what's up, Ratty" asked the Mole - "Snow is up replied the Rat briefly: "or rather, down. Its snowing hard".

So I suppose there is a lot of nostalgia and warm feelings about events that happen during the winter but its the enduring of the winter that defeats me - best read and remembered from the comfort of a sun lounger in the middle of summer, I can fit them into my life then.

Sunday 4 December 2011

An Odd One Out.

I was on the reserve earlier today and what a cold, grey, breezy, not properly light and gloomy visit it was. These cold and gloomy days that are only around eight to nine hours long are very much not my cup of tea. I hate having to walk round weighed down with winter clothes on and my body rigidly tensed against the cold. I hate it when its only light for four hours either side of lunch time and having to spend so much time indoors looking out at darkness or gloom. The photo below from this morning records nothing other than how cold and grey it all looked.

However, reading several of the regular blogs lately, it seems that I'm the odd one out - no surprise there to many who read my comments - but in this context I refer to this deep winter period and my loathing of it. Several of the other writers are hoping for some proper winter weather, snow even, purely to apparently increase the bird species and numbers that are being seen. Mind you even those guys portray some contradictions in what they say - when its sunny and bird-boring they call for cold, grey, more like it winter weather and when they get that weather, plus the birds, they then complain that its too gloomy to photograph them.
Some of these people seem to spend every day either working or birdwatching, with nothing in between - no mention of spouses, or mowing the lawn, or shopping, or decorating - just the constant hope that if they stay out long enough each day that they might add one more bird to each month's list. Its easy to imagine them emerging from a violent storm that has wrecked their houses, stepping over the wreckage and saying, "wow, I bet there's some birds about today".

No, I hate this weather, I spend it looking forward to the passing of The Shortest Day, praying for a mild January and February and at last, that first warm and sunny Spring Day. Oh to feel a hot sun soaking into my bones, a cold glass of wine at hand, light till 10pm and sitting outside watching swifts overhead and bats hawking round, and of course, just a couple of hours each day birdwatching - does that make me the odd one out?

Friday 2 December 2011

After the Rain

Sheppey finally had several hours of prolonged and fairly heavy rain last night, easily the most noticeable rain for several months - no longer can we say it never rains on Sheppey!
And after the rain came the sun, under clear blue skies and steady sunshine this morning, the reserve looked quite beautiful and green, and had the feel of March or April about it.
Arriving at the reserve I briefly watched the constant small flocks of Brent Geese that were leaving The Swale and flying across the reserve to alight and feed on the neighbouring farmer's fields of winter corn and silage grass. By the time that I moved on the flock was reaching +700 birds and I fear that prevention measures will have to be taken by the farmer before very long. The photo below shows part of the flock, which despite being several hundred strong, had very few juvenile birds amongst it.

Buoyed by the overnight rain and the fact that a couple of the smaller, dry ditches now had a film of water in them, I carried on to have a look at the "S Bend Ditch" - surely it must have a covering of water in it, the rain last night was really heavy at times - the photo below shows the result, not even a dribble's worth. Obviously the bed of the ditch was so dry after the prolonged drought that all the rain had simply soaked into the ditch bed, we are going to need almost monsoon proportions to re-fill it!

Oh well, Midge and I carried on, we moved through the herd of cattle, with Midge walking between their legs, we left the marsh and walked up on to the reserve and looked out in to The Swale. It was low tide, most of the birds out there on the mudbanks were invisible from the wall but a birdwatcher could be seen making his way out on to Shellness Point - Snow Buntings, that's a thought, I must go out to The Point this weekend and have a look for them.
We wandered about for a while longer but I was thinking of the puppy back home on her own and so we didn't spend as long out there as we would normally and eventually we regretfully left the blue skies and the sunshine behind.

Some of the birds that we saw were:-
700+ Brent Geese - 200 Mallard - 2 ring-tailed Hen Harriers - 5 Marsh Harriers - 1 Peregrine - 1 Kestrel - 2 S.E. Owl - 3 Green Sandpiper - 2 Snipe - 1 Green Woodpecker - 6 Bearded Tit - 3 Wren.

Thursday 1 December 2011

Time moves on

The Tower Hide at the rear of the reserve is no more, on Tuesday it was pulled down and burnt, all that remains are a few Elderberry bushes to mark where it once stood. It had been in-situ for over twenty-five years and was badly showing its age and had become a liability in respect of health and safety. This was borne out when it was pulled over to reveal that half of the thick uprights that it stood on were rotten at their base, severe gales this winter could of seen its demise anyway.

This now leaves the Sea Wall Hide below as the sole survivor of the original hides that once rung the reserve, and as regular visitors will know, that itself is far past it's best and probably due to suffer the same fate as the Tower Hide.

Regular visitors will have also noted that both of the previous entry points onto the reserve along the seawall have now been closed and in effect that there is no access on to the main reserve in front of the Sea Wall Hide now at all. Why, you might ask. Well, with the need to access the Tower Hide now gone and the narrowness of the reserve along its length, most of it can be viewed easily from the seawall and the most recently closed access point across the Delph fleet was always a bad thing. In a normal winter it was hardly useable due to the marsh beyond being flooded and in the breeding season it allowed people to walk across the marsh within feet of nesting Lapwings and Redshanks.
But all this doom and gloom needs to be viewed as a short term event, estimates are being sort for the provision of at least two new seawall hides next year which should make viewing the reserve far more comfortable, especially once the newly dug scrapes and rills fill with water. Other improvements are also being considered, so hopefully next year will see the reserve being re-born so to speak.

There has also been a few new improvements to the habitat out there made this week, this time on the farmland. The farmer that owns the grazing fields that run from the Shellness track, across to the reserve, has dug several shallow scrapes across them. These fields in recent years have been host to numerous breeding Lapwings but have suffered from quickly drying out, these scrapes should help increase the survival rates of Lapwing chicks by providing much needed insect life at a vital time. Once again a much maligned shooting farmer has ticked some very important boxes for wildlife.

Lastly, can I say how touched I've been at the comments and E-Mails that I've received expressing sympathy over the passing on of Nana. Dogs are not everybody's cup of tea and I can understand some people finding it all a bit over the top, that's fair enough, but anybody who has had the companionship of a dog over a long period of time will have known how I felt.
But time has to move on and descisions made and I decided to get another companion for both Midge and myself, and the result was another Jack Russell, called Ellie and seen below. She is only nine weeks old and in the picture seems to be daring anybody to get in the conservatory door, but at just 8 inches high, she's kidding herself. So, as anybody who has brought up a puppy will know, the next few weeks and months will be beset with non-sleep and tension as she tries to chew her way round the house and train me to her way of thinking, and Midge is trying to recall how blissful it was to be able to sleep without having her ears chewed.