Monday 30 January 2012

Winter sets in

I left home a tad too early this morning, its a lot brighter now as I write this. When I left home it was very gloomy and we were experiencing a few wintery showers which persuaded me to leave my camera behind due to the poor light - that was a mistake.
It seems that winter is due to set in very cold for the next couple of weeks at least, personally not something to be glad of but I assume the few birdwatchers that have been calling for a bit of proper winter will no doubt be trying to get a day off work in order to get their share of being cold. For me, well perhaps a spell of indoors hibernation is on the cards.

Arriving at the reserve barn and getting out of the car, both the biting cold temperature and the damp gloominess didn't make a wander round seem very inviting and as the NE wind began to freshen shortly after, that's how it turned out, it wasn't a long spell out. I decided to head in a straight line across the grazing marsh and up on to the seawall and was surprised when I got halfway across the field to find that what I thought with the naked eye was a line of soil alongside one of the new rills, was in fact the flock of around 70 White-fronted Geese that's been back for a few days. I decided to attempt going round them and so carried on walking outwards across the field as the geese became increasingly vocal. I was surprised given their wild and nervous nature how close I was able pass them by and how all they did was to simply walk away from me. I passed by only around 60-80 yds away and given that the two dogs were running free in front of me it was even more surprising, somewhat dispelling some of the complaints about dogs in the countryside, although I guess I was keeping them in check. Despite the poor light, getting that close was a great opportunity for even my little camera to record the scene and I cursed greatly when realising it was back indoors!
Here I also have to be honest and record an unpleasant and harrowing sight. About a hundred yards away from the flock there was a single Whitefront walking round and calling and a quick look through the binoculars showed that it had a damaged and trailing wing. The result of being shot at? probably a safe bet, but who knows. Anyway as it continued to call, another goose flew up from the main flock and went and joined the other bird, with much exchange of sound between them - almost certainly its mate and they stayed together away from the flock. Clearly the injured bird couldn't fly any distance and at some stage in the near future its mate will have to make the decision on whether it departs with the rest of the flock or stays behind. Perhaps we shouldn't transfer human thoughts into these birds, but its hard not too and it makes supporting shooting very difficult.

About an hour later as I turned back onto the marsh further along, blow me down if I didn't then also get amazingly close to a flock of around 130 Greylag Geese grazing on what grass was left - another great camera shot gone begging!
Yesterday at long last, the water that has been pumped into The Flood scrape finally bore fruit as I spotted 130 Teal in there. Having only seen mainly ones and twos of Teal all winter that was a real treat and hopefully they'll hang around for a bit now. The inland duck shooting finishes tomorrow night so they won't have that problem to face and there is only then three weeks of wildfowl shooting left below the high water mark on the saltings.

Getting back to the cold weather, I was surprised at coming back past Capel Hill farm on the Harty Road, to see two pairs of new born lambs, poor things. I don't think the main batch of lambing there is due for a few weeks yet so possibly one ram sneaked in a bit early without anyone noticing - except for the two ewes that is!

Wednesday 25 January 2012

Early Morning Robin

In the pre-dawn darkness, lit by the odd street lamp, a Robin sang this morning. It sang as early morning cars went by and it sung to the lady waiting for the early London bus. I opened the bedroom window ajar and listened in the cold, in-rushing air as he continued to sing, bold as brass and cocky as a sparrow.
A little later when I'd got up and gone into the garden dark he was still there, atop a bare magnolia bush in a neighbouring garden, looking down at me with half-cocked head as he sang. Just then another Robin close by also began singing and my Robin's attention was lost to that threat close by as they dueled in song across the gardens. Many other birds are rightfully praised for the beauty of their song but for me the Robin's takes some beating, to hear it emerging from the dank fog of a November day or the cold darkness of a pre-dawn January and it can be so uplifting.

When it finally became light I made my way down to the reserve with the dogs, having missed going yesterday due to the rain. It wasn't the most pleasant of scenes down there though, after yesterday's rain and in this morning's still damp air, everything was so wet and muddy. The majority of the reserve is also pretty much taken over by sheep as well at the moment and so I made my round the boundary fence of the reserve and decided on a walk across the two RSPB fields. Before I did I left the main pump running in order to replenish the part flooded scrape in the "Flood" field.
The two excellent RSPB fields are still holding really good numbers of larks, finches and buntings and support well the reasons for having that type of habitat out there, a true oasis for wildlife amongst so many well grazed fields. As I walked along the top of the bund between the two fields a mixed flock of around 12 Lapland Buntings and 20 odd Skylarks got up and briefly flew round before re-alighting where they'd come from, 2 Twite passed by overhead and then a flock of around 50-60 Linnets also dropped in to feed. Herons are aso still to be found walking about in the two fields on a daily basis, something I imagine that suggests a probable healthy vole population for them to feed on.
Other than the small birds however, it was a remarkably quiet morning birdwise and stopping to talk to three other birdwatchers by the two fields, it seems that they also thought the same, no harriers or S.E.Owls had been seen by any of us and the White-fronted Geese on the reserve have also moved on in recent days.

A misty and heavy drizzle set in for a while to add to the dampness of the day as I made my back on to the reserve and to switch off the pump. Having done that I turned into the drizzle and decided to head for home, such damp and dull days are not my favourites, the bones start to creak and the arthritis becomes sore, yes, time to hobble off.

Of interest to any birdwatchers intending visiting the Raptor Viewing Mound this week/weekend, the re-surfacing of the Harty Road has begun but it has started at the Harty Ferry end and so it should be a some time before it starts to cause delays getting along to the RVM.

Tuesday 24 January 2012

Waiting for Spring

We're now into those few weeks of the year that I hate the most, the between the winter and spring seasons time, when time seems to drag as we wait for those first few warm spring days to happen. Winter visitors start to trickle away and summer visitors are slow to arrive and we end up in that vacuum of little happening. Saying that, its been pretty much that way since winter begun this time, it and the birds that come with it, haven't really happened. Personally, I've enjoyed the mild and dry conditions for comfort reasons but the two have combined to create a dearth of birds, especially wildfowl, and with a dry spring/summer looking increasingly likely, a poor wetland breeding season looks like being the outcome as well.

This morning as I begin writing this it has taken ages to get light, rain has just begun falling and a day of wet and cold weather is forecast, leading to a not very inspiring, indoor day. However, the twice daily Jackdaw event has just happened to brighten things up somewhat. The flock of some 400 birds strong, feed on the Scrapsgate marshes across the road and at the first glimmer of daylight, down the hill behind my bungalow they come, this great black, cawing mass. They sweep past at just roof-top height, over and between the houses like some blizzard of large black snowflakes, and in an instance they are gone again, to be repeated in reverse later in the day.

I found this, slightly hazy photo in my files this morning (it comes up a bit better if you click on it). It was taken during a light aircraft flight over Sheppey for my 60th birthday in July 2007 and shows the edge of Sheerness and the neighbouring marshes. Those in the top corner are part of the Scrapsgate marshes that lie opposite my bungalow.

These marshes, minus the holiday camp now in the middle, were my playground as a young lad growing up in Sheerness in the 1950's - that escape from the back streets and alleys into the great wide countryside outside the town. Here, between the ages of eight and fifteen, I wondered alone exploring ditches and fields and developing the love for the flat marshland landscape and its wildlife that I still have today.
The long stretch of straight water is the Sheerness Canal as it is known locally and it was originally longer than it is now, so that it ended just short of the sea at both ends. When first dug it was intended as a kind of moat as part of the Sheerness defences necessary due to the town for many years being home to both a naval dockyard and an army garrison.
Looking little more than a bridge from the air, is the main road into the town, which splits the canal into two halves. The bottom half is the freshwater scenic half, full of wildlife and the top half is the sterile half, regularly topped up with seawater, in order to keep Bartona Point lake alongside from getting too low. The very final stretch of beach at the top of the photo, to the right of the canal's end, is known as The Shingle Bank and both that and the Bartons Point lake often feature on the Kent Ornithological Society's website with bird postings. The lake was dug in recent years and now forms a large part of the Bartons Point Coastal Park but in my youth that particular area of the marshes was a restricted area. It was a military firing range where various servicemen came to practise their shooting skills, out in the open air and at large, raised targets.

But going back to my childhood, aged 8-10, an age these days considered far to young to be out there on one's own, I learnt all about the trials and tribulations of falling in ditches, crossing water-logged marshes and wandering amongst live-stock. I would return home muddied and wet but triumphant, with tadpoles, voles, slowworms and dare I say it, birds eggs to be blown.
An education that was priceless and free but is seldom sought by today's youngsters, or encouraged by many parents.

Friday 20 January 2012

Comments, Morning Gloom and Willows

While I now seem to be able to post blogs properly again, I'm not sure that readers will be able to read any comments that become attached. For some of us this Blogger system seems to get more confusing by the day. Anyway, if you do want to contact me about any of my postings, my E-Mail address is at the bottom of my Profile and I'm happy to accept comments that disagree with me just as much as those that do. Can't be getting like one blogger, who screens out remarks that contradict his opinions before we actually see them - so you only read nice comments and he's always right - a very sheltered way of life!

Anyway, back to the real world and here we are a month past the Shortest Day and yet to me the mornings seem to be getting darker rather than lighter, Ok it's a gloomy day today but it took till 8.00 to get properly light. It seems that every minute we gain in the afternoons is being added on to the mornings at the moment. You can see how dull it was this morning in the attached photos, fortunately I'm not an avid photographer and so the light doesn't bother me too much in that respect.

We've now had a large flock of sheep introduced to the reserve, for reasons I've yet to understand or be convinced of, and boy are they skittish. It seems the minute that you get within a 100yds of them the whole flock runs off, en-mass, giving the impression that I or my dogs are chasing them. I decided to give that half of the reserve a miss this morning and so stayed in the area around the reserve's barn and cutting some willow whips for planting seemed a good idea. So I walked back up the track to the small farm thicket that we enter the reserve through, its nice and bare and vegetation free at the moment, which gave me a chance to inspect the several nest boxes I'd put there last year. Around 50% of them had been used and I'll add one or two more in the next couple of weeks.
The one shown below is only about 10 yds away from the approach track and yet in the summer the Cow Parsley grows so tall in the thicket that the box was completely hidden.

Along the edge of the thicket is a line of Crack Willows which are cut back every 3-4years by the elecricity board because they grown up underneath overhead power lines serving a farmhouse a small way away. It was done last spring and the re-growth as you can see, is quite rapid and privides ideal whips for pushing into the ground. Willow roots ridiculously easily when sinply pushed into the ground and I simply go along the edge of a ditch and push the whips into the soft mud at the edge and hey presto, nice willow trees or few years later.

As I've mentioned in previous blogs, its something I've been doing for around 20 odd years, with some good results. See these mature willows in front of and screening the barn.

These ones in the foreground were whips, about three foot long, that were pushed in along a ditch just two years ago, with another mature line in the background. Its giving a new type of habitat around and spreading out from the barn, and attracts and feeds passing migrants such as ChiffChaffs and Willow Warblers.

Wednesday 18 January 2012

Blogs and Birdwatchers

I'm hoping that this latest posting does actually publish. As those of you who read this blog will have found this week, when attempting to open the "comments" you end up with a blank white screen, or I did when accessing it on somebody else's PC. It seems that due to having an IQ of 1 when it comes to PC's and twiddling with my blog on Saturday night, that I have managed to erase the back up governs of my blog and every attempt to get into it comes up with a blank screen which states that my browser is no longer supported by Blooger. And yet looking in my history of the last 300 subjects I found my last creation attempt and find I'm still able to create a posting through that, well providing this publishes that is. Its not satisfactory however and due to the fact that I now also have problems maintaing a constant broadband link to the internet, I'm awaiting a visit from a computer guy who will hopefully be able to sort out both problems.
I also intend joining the modern world and getting one of these new-fangled things called a Laptop and need his advice on a good, basic model to buy.

So in the meantime, it seems as though comments on my blog will not be able to be made or read, although my E-Mail address is on there, and if the blog disappears for a while you know why. It's a real pain at times being PC illiterate.

In respect of birdwatchers, its been amazing this winter to see the number of birdwatchers that appear to have discovered the eastern end of Sheppey, in the main due to a good supply of decent birds I suppose, but its been good to see so many people discovering the place. The Raptor Viewing Mound last weekend was a classic example, drawn out by excellent weather, people packed it and the Harty Road most of each day and got good views of many birds. The only down side at times, has been cars using the lay byes along the road as parking spots, which can cause passing problems at times for through traffic.
I understand from Kent Highways as well, that commencing next Monday, they are due to start a completer re-surface of the whole of the Harty Road and so therefore access along it could be problematical. It's a much needed stretch of work that in the short-term at least will be joyous for both drivers and their cars and hopefully it'll be a few years hence before the huge weight of the farm vehicles rendures it broken up again.

Saturday 14 January 2012


Unfortunately, something is preventing me from both opening your comments and replying to them on the actual posting page. I can read them from within the set up of the blog but once again can't reply and cannot figure out why.
So please continue to send your comments, I love to read them, but for the moment I can't reply to them.

Friday 13 January 2012

Early Harty

I was having a glance through the late Sheila Judge's excellent book "The Isle of Sheppey" for the umpteenth time the other day, it really is head and shoulders above any other book on Sheppey's history. As a result I found myself picking out a few mentions of Harty's early history, although they were fairly scant. Clearly it wasn't one of the most hospitable or habitable parts of Sheppey, something that could still be attributed to it today, thankfully.

In 1873 the stock from a Bronze Age foundry was discovered at Harty, stock consisting of various moulds, knives, hammers, etc. This hoard was able to yield valuable information on the methods of bronze casting in the first century B.C. This might not neccesarily be the earliest find relating to Sheppey as others have been found around the Island but I relate only to those found at Harty
Julias Ceasar arrived in Kent in around 55 B.C. and although he seemed to be only aware of the Island in passing, remarked on the number of sheep grazing there. As a result, by the time that he had left Britain, the Island was known as Insula Ovinium - The Island of Sheep, which has slightly corrupted into how it is still known today.
A hundred years later, Claudius invaded Britain and some Romans were stationed on Sheppey. Although no major sites of buildings have been found, some smaller items have. On Harty specifically, roofing tiles, Samian ware and coins of Constantine have been found and nearby at Shellness, a kiln for burning shells. Roman coins have also been found in the Leysdown area and so possibly the eastern tip of Sheppey and the high ground of Harty had some strategic importance in guarding both the approaches to Sheppey and the back door that The Swale represented. As someone who has stood at the Raptor Viewing Mound on numerous occassions and near froze to death, one thing's for sure, if the traditional pictures of Roman soldiers dressed in thin tunics and sandals are correct, they must of found it a bit draughty around their bits in the bleak mid-winter!

The Romans were in Britain, and possibly Sheppey, for around four centuries before finally leaving in the fifth century, after struggling to repel repeat attacks from various Germanic tribes with diminishing forces. As a result, by A.D. 442 the Saxons were now the dominant invaders in Britain and unfortunately it wasn't long before the country had returned to the ruinous disorder of pre-Roman times. Various fortifications from that time have been found on Sheppey and the remains of a moated earthworks at Sayes Court are said to have been of Saxon origin. It has also been suggested that Harty got its name from Saxon origins, being called at one time Harteigh, after the Saxon words Heord-tu, meaning land filled with cattle, which is currently apt.
Despite the visit from the Saxons and a later lengthy occupation by the Vikings, no other remains from either race have been reported as found at Harty. The Vikings initially did much damage in Britain when they began to invade regularly, as is quoted for A.D.893. "Three hundred and fifty sail of ships under Haeston arrived in Sheppey and spoiled it, the like they did four years later."

Little else relating to Harty appears until 1066 when in the Domesday Monarchorum of the time it is noted that an earlier version of Harty Church was obviously in place because it was paying annual dues to the Archbishop of Canterbury. The current, tiny church was built in the 13th Century and even in these modern times services are still lit by candles and oil lamps.

Perhaps I'll write about more recent history at a later date but one item from Sheila Judge's book did catch my eye and is worth relating here. Apparently around 1571, Mote Farm, which was part of the Manor of Sayes Court, was sold by a John Chevin to a Thomas Paramour. However, John then declared that he was under age at the time of the sale, having resold it to John Kyne and Simon Lowe. Those two gentlemen brought a law suit, called a "writ of right", against Paramour for recovery of the land, but they lost the case and Paramour was given possession. This came about because on receiving the writ of right a trial of battle was demanded by Paramour, and awarded by the court, a regular way of deciding a legal action at the time.
The Queen intervened and ordered that they were not to fight themselves but the formalities had to be observed. Therefore Champions chosen by each party, properly dressed in full armour, met at Tothill Fields, Westminster, on the appointed day. Apparently four thousand people had also gathered to watch, such was the enjoyment in those things.
The Justice of the Common Pleas were also present as Judges of the Duel, but when, after much formal ceremony and making of proclomations and declarations, the non-appearance of Kyne and Lowe was recorded, a non-suit was requested and made, and the land judged to belong to Paramour. What a tame end to a much anticipated day!

There are currently two major farmers who own most of Harty and who in the past have allegedly had their disputes, wouldn't it be great if we could reinstate such ways of settling disputes - the Battle of Capel Corner, or the Ruckus at the Raptor Mound, maybe.

Wednesday 11 January 2012

Marching into Spring

Walking across the reserve this morning under blue skies, sunshine, light winds, mild temperatures and with Skylarks singing, it would have been so easy to assume that it was a typical March day, it was so Springlike. Obviously there are grotty days still to come but this morning really had that feel that Spring was just around the corner, hopefully this year it is. Its guaranteed that this weather won't suit everybody, what weather does, and reading other blogs this week there are those that still want a cold blast to hit us because they feel that they've missed out on some cold weather birds, but for me, loads more of today's weather please, its so uplifting.
See how peacefull and fresh the farmland alongside the reserve looked this morning, you can almost hear the Skylarks singing.

I first had a walk across to the sea wall to see if the Whitefronted Geese were still insitu in the Flood and yes, they were, feeding alongside the resident Greylag Geese. A rough count totalled a 160+ birds so my proper count of 167 on Monday was probaly still about right. What a lovely sight and sound these geese are, I just love their high, "winkling" calls as they communicate with each other, so much more exciting than the brash, farmyard geese calls of the Greylags. These birds spend most of the day feeding fairly close to the reserve's Sea Wall Hide and so are easily watched by any passing birdwatchers. That point came back to me when I eventually got home and realised that despite having my camera on my back I had still completely forgot to take a photograph of the geese.

Despite the beauty of the day it was hardly wall to wall birds on the marsh and even harriers were hard to come by today, I eventually saw just the one Marsh Harrier, and for the first time in weeks, no S. E. Owls. Other than that it was just a few Skylarks and Reed Buntings, an Egret or two and a couple of Herons. But I could see two birdwatchers making their way along the raised bund between the two RSPB fields and so, guessing that they were looking for the Lapland Buntings there I walked over to have a chat. They turned out to be two long-time Kentish birdwatchers, Bob Bland and Alan Woodcock and while watching the Lapland Buntings this morning in near perfect conditions, had managed to raise the count to around 50 birds, a phenominal count for recent times. Most winters, birdwatchers will be lucky to see or hear just one or two Laps. flying past overhead, so what has caused this number to all appear in such a high number. The two RSPB fields are about as good and seed laden as you can get for these buntings but how the heck so did so many find their way to exactly that spot, or are they always there flying round in the winter and have called each other in. Apparently 90 is the highest count recorded in Kent in the last 30 years so there's still some way to go but what a blinder these birds are just at the moment.

After that there wasn't really a lot more bird-lfe left to see and the real event of the morning was carrying on being able to enjoy such beautiful weather as I walked round - a return to cold weather - not for me I'm afraid, I'm happy to miss seeing a Redwing or a Waxwing this winter.
One last note, it appears that we have a pair of Barn Owls back at the reserve barn again this year, which is really good news.

Wednesday 4 January 2012

Wishing for Rain

In my last posting I was suggesting that we wouldn't be likely to see the flooding of previous winters. We then had the rain of yesterday morning which culminated in a lunch time cloudburst of rain and hailstones of an intensity that reduced visibility to just a few yards and I can't recall ever seeing before in my lifetime. Afterwards I had an E-Mail from a blog follower who suggested I might want to limit what I wish for.
In early morning sun then, which lasted less than an hour, I arrived at the reserve this morning hoping to see much improvement in the water levels for a change, but can't say that any was over obvious. Certainly the grazing marsh itself was much softer to walk and the various tracks have muddy puddles along their length but the only really glaring difference was the amount of mud churned up in the gateways by the cattle. It makes for difficult and smelly progress at times (its not all mud) and when your legs are only three inches long like Ellie's, it's definitely not appreciated, it brings the nose into to close a contact.
But getting back to water levels, the photo below shows how far we still have to go. This ditch is the point where after the reserve has flooded to an optimum depth all over, the excess water then flows over the top of the pipe in the photo and into a drainage ditch on the neighbouring farmland. January for the last three winters has seen this pipe over-topped by floodwaters.

Likewise, this was one of last summers newly dug rills on the grazing marsh this morning. The intention is that this and all the others will be full of water this Spring in order to gradually dry back and provide insect life round the margins for the wader chicks - obviously still some way to go.

But its not all doom and gloom and praying for rain of biblical proportions, this is how the new scrape in the field that we know as The Flood looked this morning. Over the last three weeks, when the ditches alongside have allowed it, I have been gradually pumping their water onto the scrape to arrive at how it now looks. Its still not as wide as will eventually be and will need a season to develop some insect life and vegetation but it is already rewarding me. This morning in there, were 48 White-fronted Geese and 18 Greylag Geese and a spattering of Lapwings - great stuff, and the largest flock of Whitefronts that we've had this winter so far.

Finally, for those who always ask about her, Ellie continues to progress how I would wish. Here from this morning are two photos of her and Midge inspecting a rabbit warren that is sadly vacant.

Sunday 1 January 2012

A new day, a New Year.

Well here we are at the start of a new year and with several hours rain this afternoon and evening and some more forecast this week it would be nice to think that we could get to the levels of previous winters (below) before the Spring, but I think that's very unlikely.

I was still awake at 02.30 this morning, not because of any New Year's Eve celebrations, not my thing, but because people will insist on sending huge amounts of pound notes into the air at midnight with so much noise. Not the end of the world as such, people get their fun in all sorts of ways, but if like me you have a dog that is petrified of fireworks and takes a lot of calming down it can be a tad distressing and irksome. Especially as always, you get the morons that still have to let fireworks off until gone 02.00 in the morning, meaning several forays back out of bed to re-calm the dog down again.
Anyway, despite that, I still got up at 05.30 as is my way but didn't leave for the reserve until 9.00 seeing as it was a damp and gloomy sort of morning, although very mild thankfully.

I'm not in to all this mad scramble to count birds on day one stuff and so decided to simply give the dogs a run on part of the reserve and round the edge of the RSPB fields today and count birds another day. The RSPB fields had attracted a number of birdwatchers anxious to get the increasing flock of Lapland Buntings there onto their lists and some were lucky as at one stage a total of 30+ were counted by one local birdwatcher. They can be extremely frustrating birds to see there because unless they get spooked up from feeding in the not very long grass they still remain amazingly invisible. I managed to see one party of around 20 get up and even better, in a flock of around a dozen Linnets I had my first 4 Twite on Harty for well over ten years, something for me that was as good as any much rarer bird.

Eventually I made my back along the Harty Road and called into The Raptor Viewing Mound to chat to one birdwatcher there who turned out to be Kevin Duvall the warden of Oare Nature reserve. It was good to meet him for the first time and we swapped chat about both our reserves and other stuff before being joined by several other birdwatchers. Its been good today to see so many birdwatchers out and about enjoying the countryside and I enjoyed being able to point this group in the direction of the Lapland Buntings which they were looking forward to adding to their day lists.