Wednesday 29 February 2012

Buds are Bursting

For the first hour that I was on and around the reserve this morning, it was sunny and warm with just a light breeze. After that the wind picked up a bit and it came in overcast and murky and a tad chilly. The first hour though made it seem very Spring-like and driving through the small thicket that gives entry on to the reserve (see above), it was evident that things are changing.
The Alder below was in full male bloom with its catkins looking very showy.

Alongside it this willow had all its buds bursting as the silvery catkins were desperate to get out into the warm Spring air and provide nectar for the early bumblebees.

In the same willow tree, just a month or so ago, I put this new nest box and going by the attention the nest hole has had it looks hopeful that a pair of Great or Blue Tits have already adopted it.

Walking across the reserve under a shower of Skylark notes falling from the sky, and the feeling of warm sun on the face, it really did feel as though we were leaving winter behind. The Greylag Geese have definitely decided that because more and more are flying around in pairs now and along the tops of the reed beds the male Reed Buntings now sing their wistful songs. The danger is getting ahead of yourself, there are certainly bad weather days still to come, but it won't be long before that lone Starling rushing across the sky makes you gasp as you think its that first Swallow and fence posts and ant hills are scanned for the bobbing action of the first Wheatear.
But since my last posting we have seen the arrival of some birds that I never thought I would ever find myself getting excited about - ten Coots have returned! The Delph Fleet, much deserted this winter, now looks proper again, and not only the Coots but Pochard, Teal, Wigeon and Gadwall are being seen in small numbers. I love Gadwall, get a close up of the drake and you will see that its feather patterning and colours are as good as any of its more colourful cousins.

And as I walked, soaking up these Spring-time dreams, from high overhead I became aware of the continual and plaintive call of a male Marsh Harrier. It took some finding but eventually through the binoculars I found the bird, almost lost in the clouds, as it turned and wheeled high in the sky in a form of courtship display to some hopeful female far below somewhere.

I turned then and accessed the two RSPG Harty fields alongside the reserve - you can see them below, either side of the old counter wall that runs between them. This counter wall was originally the seawall that bordered Capel Fleet when it still ran across the marshes there, to join up with The tidal Swale. Now it provides an ideal vantage point onto the two rough, grassy fields either side which have consistently this winter given food and shelter to a flock of over 40 Lapland Buntings. They can be amazingly invisible though and this morning I saw none, just two singing male Corn Buntings which are a hopeful sign for a second breeding season there.

Oh, and one last fall back to my last posting, re. the two dead Mute Swans under the power lines along the Harty Road. After receiving my photos, the Kent RSPB contacted the power companies responsible and it appears that their budgets won't run to providing an extension to the warning balls that are currently there on a length of the lines. We are now hoping that Natural England will be able to exert a bit more pressure on the power company.

Thursday 23 February 2012

A Pleasant Day

Blue skies, a warm sun and rising temperatures gave it a Spring-like feel as I walked round the reserve this morning. The reserve still had the typical end of winter bare look about it as we wait for the grass to begin growing again and turn green rather than the yellow that it currently is. The drought-stricken ditches are little more than shallow splashes between the fields, promising little by way of drinking water for the livestock this summer, but on such a beautiful morning as this was the birds at least were ignoring such shortcomings.
Skylarks were doing what they do best and filling the reserve with their beautiful song from somewhere up in the sky and some pairs of Lapwings had broken away from the main flock and were carrying out several display flights over the grazing marsh. The morning had that "feel" about it, when you can sense that things are about to happen, that Spring really is just around the corner and first Wheatears might only be a fortnight away. It lit up the old Forge Cottage in the sunlight, under the blue skies.

Part of the Greylag Geese flock allowed me to pass very close and never did take flight, they've become very trusting over the years and aren't what you could truly call, wild geese, other than the fact that they fly freely.

I had a good look round the ditches and along the Delph Fleet this morning in the hope of bringing to an end a mystery that has plagued us this winter, I was hoping to find a Coot. Since September, this bird, as much a part of the reserve as the grass and the reeds, has disappeared, we haven't seen any. Its really strange, as well as breeding in good numbers every year on the reserve, its numbers in winter normally swell to around a hundred or so. Despite the fact that many of the ditches have hardly any water in them, the Delph Fleet alongside the seawall is still reasonably OK and so the disappearance can't be blamed on the drought, it simply remains a mystery. The Delph also came up trumps this morning when I recorded two pairs of Gadwall and a pair of Tufted Duck in there. Couple that with 30 Mallard, 20 Teal and 8 Wigeon also seen around the reserve and we were getting into heady stuff as far as wildfowl counts go this winter. Until the last couple of dry winters its been unheard of not to get average counts of around 800-1,000 Wigeon each winter.

And just to rub in the fact that Spring is getting close, as I write this I'm watching, with little joy, a pair of Magpies collecting twigs from my hedge as they begin nest building in a neighbour's garden.
And to finish, yet another photo of Midge and Ellie as they inspect another empty rabbit warren, Ellie is still not convinced that these brown, furry things actually exist, despite what Midge tells her.

Sunday 19 February 2012

Tales of Woe

It was a frosty start as I left for the reserve this morning and only just getting light but the sun was up by 7.15 and it was soon a glorious sunny morning with clear blue skies. Travelling along the Harty Road is a tad distressing at the moment as it means driving past the bodies of two dead Mute Swans that have unfortunately collided in flight with the overhead power lines. For many years a length of these power lines have had plastic warning balls hanging from them but the swans' current flight line is taking them over a section without these warning balls. The photo below, taken in poor light yesterday, shows the birds. I have E-mailed the photo to both Natural England and the RSPB and asked if they can request the power company to extend the warning devices.

Despite the fact that it was still only half light when I arrived on top of the reserve seawall, the only three wildfowlers there were already packing up and so we stood on the seawall and had a lengthy chat. Seems that although there is still the one day left tomorrow of the shooting season these guys will not be returning now until September 1st when it all begins again. The absence of wildfowl this winter has meant that their shooting season has been pretty much a non-event and definitely their effect on the reserve has been virtually nil.
We stood and discussed the reserve in general and while we did so remarked on both the absence of birds in general and how dry it remains. Obviously the two are linked and the dryness is a major concern, here we are just coming to the end of the winter and the reserve has no more water on it than it had at the end of last summer. Local water companies are calling for drought orders, reservoirs are two thirds empty and we haven't even started the dry and hot weather of the spring and summer yet. Its going to be quite grim and birds such as Lapwings, that depend on wetlands for their breeding success, are going to struggle badly in this area.

And to carry on the depressing Lapwing theme, look at the two photos below, which were taken from the seawall early this morning. Regular visitors to Shellness and the reserve will recognise these fields as the grazing fields that stretch between the reserve and Shellness car park and all the way back along the track to Muswell Manor. For the last ten years or so they have provided perfect habitat for all manner of wildlife, the Rough-legged Buzzards hunted across them this winter and large numbers of Brent Geese used them. More importantly they provided vital breeding habitat for the hard-pressed Lapwing, but now they are currently being ploughed up!
I don't know exactly why the farmer is ploughing them up, he has always been happy to receive subsidies for maintaining them as such vital habitat. However it has been suggested to me that a new edict is on the agricultural horizon that will insist that all grass pasture that has been around longer than five years will have to permanently remain that way. Clearly many farmers will not want to lose the option to be in control of what they do with their land and so there is a rush to plough up such grassland. This hasn't been confirmed as the reason for what's happening at Shellness and I stand to be corrected but one thing that can't be denied is that the preservation of vital Lapwing habitat on Sheppey has taken a backward step.

Sunday 12 February 2012

Dawn, Snow and Harriers

I left home this morning in temperatures of -5 and just as the first glimmer of light was showing in the sky. As I drove along the Harty Road, I stopped at Capel Corner to have a look at the large number of Mallard and some Mute Swans that were congregated around one small, pond-sized piece of unfrozen water in the Fleet. Mallard were the only duck species there which was surprising, given the +1000 Teal that had been there earlier in the winter.

By the time that I had arrived at the reserve and begun walking across the marsh towards the sea wall, the dawn sky was just starting to brighten up, as you can see below. A week after the snow fell it still looked, and felt, pretty bleak. The lights behind the sea wall are a large cable laying vessel that is moored in The Swale and is engaged at the moment in linking the wind turbines out to sea with the receiving station on the mainland opposite.

There were virtually no birds about, which was hardly surprising given how frozen up it was, and so after an hour, knowing I was going back late this afternoon, I cut the visit short just as some light snow began to fall. I just had time to take this photo of some of the sheep and the frozen grazing fields before a mini blizzard started up. In just 10 minutes everywhere was white again which was not exactly what was forecast and for me, was quite depressing.

Late afternoon, after several hours of slighter milder weather that had cleared the fresh snow, I was back at the reserve for the fifth Harrier Roost Count of the winter and as usual my station was on the seawall monitoring the saltings on the seaward side. It was a tad busy this visit, with ten wildfowlers out on the saltings and I anticipated the possibility of disturbance from shooting but it turned out to be the opposite. Talking to a few of them as they returned back along the seawall prior to it getting dark, it seemed that the cold had weakened them and they had packed up early. In fact for the time that I was there, stood on top of the sea wall in a cold N. wind and in slushy snow, shaking with the cold, I fortunately never heard a sound from the wildfowlers.

With the light beginning to fade and a murkiness hovering over the saltings in the distance it began to look as though no harriers were going to appear this visit. But all of a sudden they began to appear out of the increasing gloom and made their way down to the saltings at the Shellness Hamlet end. First a ringtail Hen Harrier dropped in, then two female Marsh Harriers, then another ringtail Hen Harrier, then a single female Marsh Harrier. It was getting difficult to see the birds then but just as I was thinking of packing up three more harriers appeared together and circled the saltings in the gloom and much straining of watery eyes confirmed them as three more ringtail Hen Harriers just before they dropped into the vegetation.
So 5 Hen Harriers and 3 Marsh Harriers were my best roost count this winter so far and it made the cold and the stumbling across the marsh in the dark with two terriers that kept disappearing, all worthwhile.

Friday 10 February 2012

Cats and Rocks

For the third time this week I was woken up at around 3.00 in the morning by my Jack Russell Midge barking madly in the conservatory as she looked into the back garden. A neighbouring cat has taken to wandering across my garden in the middle of the night, triggering the security light. This ends up with me opening the door, Midge going up the garden at the speed of light and the cat just clearing the six foot high fence inches ahead of the dog, but one of these nights she will be successful!

Cats are the only pet that I can think of that have the twin luxury of being able to roam their neighbourhood shitting in gardens and killing wildlife and yet be legally protected whilst doing so. A dog being shut out every night to do the same would quickly be carted off to the Pound and the owner prosecuted.

Unless of course, you are a biased cat owner, it is generally recognised that domestic cats are one of the worst predators of wildlife in gardens and the countryside and responsible for the deaths of many thousands of songbirds each year. Even more surprising is the fact that many people who rail vigorously against those that hunt or trap pests such as crows and magpies, own and protect cats. When you point this out to a cat owner they tend to come up with the same response every time - the cat is only out following its natural instincts. Yet when I reply, fair enough then, myself and my dog will follow our instincts and treat it as we would any other wild predator such as a fox, it quickly becomes this cute cuddly pet that wouldn't hurt a fly. I wouldn't put my dogs in their gardens and don't expect their cats to be in my garden, simple as that - seems fair enough to me.

I came across the photo below today whilst unsuccessfully looking for some old snow scene ones. Its an old faded one of myself from around 1968/69 when I was still working for the Kent River Authority. I think it is along the seawall of The Swale, close to the Kingsferry Bridge but could be at Elmley. Judging by the roll neck and coat it was in the winter time and I was rock-pitching the base of the sea wall. As I have explained in previous postings, we would roughly shape the rocks square with hammers and then punner them into the clay of the sea wall to create a level defense against erosion from the tides. The punner was the long round wooden thing that I was holding and with this and a lot of hard thumps, the rock would be driven into the clay until level with those around it.
These days they just tend to tip a line of loose rocks along the base of the wall but in those days the stone-pitching was something that we took great pride in and still today long lengths of sea wall still remain as we repaired them all those years ago, testament I like to think, to the skills that we once had.
Looking at the wall behind me it is clear that we hadn't been at that site long because there was a lot of driftwood laying round. Just above me on the wall were our grub bags because we often had to sit out in the open for our meal breaks and therefore if it was very cold we would sit round an open fire on the wall, burning nearby driftwood. After a lengthy spell at one site we would normally have cleared anything flammable for half a mile or so in either direction. In fact, being the fire-lighter was quite a treat because you got to have a walk along the sea wall for driftwood whilst the others were working.
That has just reminded me of an amusing incident from that time. Our toilet in those days was as you expect, out in the open and we would simply walk further along the seawall with a sheet of newspaper. One particually lazy guy was away for ages and we suspected that he had simply used it as an excuse to have a long break and when he eventually came back we accused him of that. But he quickly countered with the reply, no, the piece of paper blew away in the wind and I had to chase after it!

P.S. A correspondent has just advised me that latest figures show that there are an estimated 10 million cats in this country, each killing an estimated 3 wildbirds per annum - that's 30,000,000 songbirds killed each year by cats!!

Tuesday 7 February 2012

Snow Scene

I made a visit to a snow bound reserve this morning but with a blanket of snow across the whole reserve and all the waterways frozen solid, the only thing there was, were lots of sheep.!
Bird-wise on the grazing marsh, there were very few to be seen, a couple of fly-over Curlews, a Snipe that got up from a frozen ditch side and two or three Marsh Harriers - it was quite bleak. Obviously the majority of any birds that there were about were going to be out on the soft, low-tide mud of The Swale but I wanted to stay walking round the flat marsh, so therefore missed out on the birds there.
Mind you, Ellie thought it was quite amazing, all that white and cold stuff, all so new to a near five month old puppy.

Looking across the reserve towards Harty Church, it had am almost lunar feel about, quite bleak.

The other most obvious thing as you walk across the flat of the snow fields is the wildlife trails. Its quite amazing to see just how many fox and hare trails criss-cross across the reserve, rarely seen but obviously there, as were these geese prints.

And these of hares. Hare prints were everywhere, perhaps just one being very active, who knows.

Up on the seawall there were signs of much activity, dog footprints and human ones were all along the top - wildfowlers or simply dog walkers, hard to know. And then the big surprise, the ancient old Seawall Hide had had its steps sawn off and removed - no more access for anybody! A phone call to the reserve's Estate Manager found that for Health & Safety reasons the hide had been closed down (it was pretty much falling down) and so that's it. Two new hides along the sea wall are proposed some time this year but until then the reserve now has no public access onto it and no hides at all, just viewing from the top of the seawall.

Lastly, it was sad yesterday to hear of the unexpected death at the age of just 50 of Gordon Allison, the Elmley RSPB manager. Although we swapped some local bird news I didn't know him that well but he was a very likable and enthusiastic guy at carrying out what was both his job and his hobby.

Thursday 2 February 2012

Wind Chills

Sitting in the conservatory this afternoon with unbroken blue skies and sunshine outside and a temperature inside, without heating, of 78 degrees, it was hard as I supped a glass of red wine, to equate with just how cold it was outside. But cold it was and the afternoon temperature here on Sheppey barely rose much above freezing all day.
I arrived at the reserve at around 9.00 this morning, after a slight hold up along the Harty Road for the re-surfacing work. This work is dramatically changing the appearance of the Harty Road and making it a real joy to drive now after far too many years of having the bottom of cars damaged due to it's subsided nature. With a bit of luck the majority of the road should be re-surfaced by the weekend.

The constant and strong E winds of the last few days, combined with the zero temperatures, have have introduced a wind chill that has both dried out and frozen the grazing marsh and its surroundings. Many of the smaller ditches are also beginning to freeze over and consequently most of the ground feeding birds such as Lapwings and Golden Plovers have left for softer and warmer surroundings. Walking round the reserve this morning was notable for two things, all the thousands of livestock footprints had frozen hard and it was not comfortable walking over ground that mimicked cobbles and then there was the wind!
Inland birdwatchers who are doing their birdwatching today among trees and hedgerows and thinking it is cold, should try walking across Harty marshes into a wind with a sub-zero wind chill, coming straight off the sea and with absolutely no shelter, as I did, it was certainly an endurance test for a couple of hours. At times it felt as if the wind was going through you rather than round you and the skin on the face was being peeled off, I won't give in to it but it's certainly not my choice of weather.

And what did I see for such personal heroics, well bugger all to be honest, unless you count the huge flock of sheep that have pretty much stripped the reserve bare of grass. One or two Lapwings trying to find a bit of soft ground round the ditch edges, 4 White-fronted geese and a dozen or so Greylags, 1 Jack Snipe and 2 Common Snipe and that was pretty much it. Oh and a large flock of assorted corvids, mostly crows, who had resorted to picking at maize cobs from the old game cover strips on the farmland because the ground on the reserve was so hard.

So it was back home then, to the warmth of the conservatory where sitting in there in the sun it felt like I was looking out to a sunny summer's day, or was that the wine, well going out to shut the canaries up soon dispelled the summer bit.