Saturday 31 March 2012

Between the Cold

Well, between my posting on a cold Sunday a week ago and the cold of today, it has been an exceptional week's weather. Cloudless blue skies and very warm sunshine every day, right up until yesterday evening, but what a shock to the system a walk on the reserve this morning at 7.00 was. I imagine anybody that has been at work all week must be well fed up with today's weather, I know I used to be when I incurred such weeks, for most of us, there's no substitute for warm and sunny.
The walks on the reserve every day this week have been sheer joy under blue skies and the grass has looked greener, the birds have sung louder and a few butterflies have made an appearance, mainly Peacocks around the stinging nettles. Coupled with that, the reserve management have once again re-filled all the new rills and scrapes with fresh water drawn from a borehole to the underground aquifer and so we have had the refreshing sight among the drought dry fields, of water sparkling in the sun. It will only be a temporary measure though because I doubt that such irrigation can be maintained for much longer. The grazing marsh surrounding the rills is so dry that it acts like blotting paper and after just a week a lot of the water will have been absorbed away again.
What has surprised me this week though is the shortage of spring migrants. In perfect conditions of warmth and sunlight I would of expected to have seen at least several Wheatears passing through, but apart from two Sand Martins on Tuesday there has been nothing and I'm certainly not going to maintain my record of recent years of always seeing a first Swallow in March.

A different subject now. I had a bit of a tiff with the Moderators of the Kent Ornithological Society's Forum this week when I made a light-hearted, off the cuff remark, about reacting to a cat that had been watched by another correspondent, chasing a pheasant in his garden. Within a short space of time my comment had been removed from The Forum and when I angrily reacted I was told that two people had complained about what they saw as my suggestion of cruelty to a cat. While I'm no lover of cats, I wouldn't harm a domestic one that was somebodies pet, despite regularly standing in what they deposit on my lawn. But at the same time I can understand why the KOS felt that they couldn't be seen to condone any suggestion of animal cruelty on their Forum and removed my posting on receiving the complaints, and I can live with that.
I do feel aggrieved however, at losing out to people that couldn't at least put their objection in print on the Forum alongside my original remark, at least we'd all know the reasons why.

What does surprise me in all of this is the fact that presumably out there, there are people, and not necessarily those above, that are concerned with the well being of birds on one hand but also, own and protect cats on the other. It has been well publicised that domestic cats are responsible annually for the deaths of many millions of songbirds in this country, and a lot of the time, in somebody else's garden. I find it hard to understand how, for example, a person who would react greatly to somebody harming a Sparrowhawk for repeatedly killing birds on their bird table, could protect and daily release a cat, with the potential to do the same.
I have become quite disheartened with some aspects of the conservation movement in recent times, there are far too many people commenting on the countryside that have far to little hands on, practical experience of both it and what it takes to create the right balance, and in some ways regret that I'm not young enough to enjoy the fun of my younger days, as this photograph shows.

Sunday 25 March 2012

Sunday Bits

The weather today has spoiled a really good week for weather in March. All week we have had really warm and sunny days after early mist had lifted, culminating in yesterday's really warm and sun-filled day, but today here on Sheppey has just stayed very dull and cold with a chilly E. wind. Its been really disappointing and made for a quite brief visit to the reserve this morning, I don't like the cold at the best of times.
However getting back to the Spring-time weather of the rest of the week, all the usual reminders have been evident, as this few days old lamb and its mother show.

Likewise the primroses now flowering in abundance in my wild flower border in the garden.

And alongside that same border the hawthorn hedge that runs down my drive is just coming into leaf and threw up a nice surprise yesterday. I watched a Robin going in and out with nest material in its beak and went and had a look and in the greenest section by the gate, it had a nest. What made my day was the fact that the nest has been built in an old china teapot that I put in the hedge for that purpose a couple of years ago. Unfortunately getting a photograph would of meant disturbing the hedge around the teapot too much and so I just took a photo of the hedge and left it alone.

A couple of weeks ago I reported in a posting that some swans had been killed after colliding with the overhead power lines along the Harty Road in the early morning light. They had been crossing a section of the lines that had no warning devices hanging from them to warn of their prescence. Unfortunately the lines become quite invisible in the dark or early morning light when flying towards them. However after some prompting by various people, the power company turned up on Friday and installed a lot more of the round plastic hanging discs along a much longer section of the lines. These make the power lines stand out and hopefully more deaths can be now avoided.
Whilst the beautiful weather of the last week has been really enjoyable, it has unfortunately accelerated the drought conditions on the reserve. Several of the rills that we filled a weeks or so ago by towing a mobile pump around have already lost their water content. The marsh around them is so dry that the water simply soaks away in days and its a pretty hopeless situation this year I'm afraid. The breeding season for all manner of marshland birds is looking pretty grim and Lapwings especially look like having a second bad year and all though its still early, few pairs are showing signs of nesting yet.
We still have reminder of the winter as well, these few White-fronted Geese were part of a flock of around 90 birds that is still currently using the reserve before returning north to breed. With the shooting season well over the birds have lost a lot of their timidity and I was able to pass them at around 100yds without disturbing them at all. Unfortunately without a big lens on my little camera this is as good it gets.

Monday 19 March 2012

A Day in my Life

After my excellent posting yesterday about life, times and hedonism at the Ferry House Inn - mmm, perhaps I left out the hedonism bits, but think about it, late night drinking, lots of couples, out in the wilds - Harty Hedonism, it sounds better than Sheppey Sheep Sh..gging and saves on the wearing of wellie boots!
Anyway, where was I, ah yes, after that posting yesterday I was back on the reserve seawall last evening doing by request, an extra Harrier Roost count. It was quite grotty under heavy grey skies, a cold N. wind and some rain showers but if nothing else I had the company of a 122 White-fronted Geese alongside me in "The Flood Field", they sounded amazing, as only true wild geese can.

This morning, buoyed by a near perfect Spring morning of clear blue skies and very warm sunshine, I was once again on the reserve, hoping to catch up on the many Wheatears, Sand Martins, etc, seen on the mainland over the weekend. First thing that I saw again was last night's Whitefronts, still there in The Flood before taking off as I passed by - here they are. The farm buildings in the background look very close and yet they are almost two miles away.

And the Delph seawall Fleet and its reed beds with the geese re-landing further on.

But my mission this morning was Spring migrants and Wheatears in particular and I trecked all round the reserve covering habitat ideal for newly arrived and hungry Wheatears, the old salt working mound below is a typical and favourite stopping off place.

Did I find one, did I heck, I'd once again ignored the fact that here on Sheppey we normally get our Spring migrants a week or two after everybody else. We're normally getting excited about a first sighting when others are yawning bored over yet another Wheatear or Swallow.
But it couldn't be denied that it was a great day and so I took a few photos of the reserve views. The trouble there, besides a pretty basic camera, is the fact that marshland always comes out looking flat, with little perception of variation or distance. Without sensing the vibrant greeness of the new grass and the sound of Lapwings and Skylarks singing overhead it can't compete with the scenic views that you get from hedgerows and woods. Anyway, here's three that show it how I saw it this morning.

Emphasising the new growth out there this morning, this is a thick covering of wild carrot, doing its best to cover an earth bund that we stripped bare and re-landscaped last autumn.

On the same bund there were also many new young plants of Milk Thistle.

But things come to those that are good and on my back along the Harty Road on my way home, as I passed the farmland at Capel Corner, there were my first two Wheatears, such simply joy.

I arrived home, post-lunchtime. Two tired dogs fell asleep on the patio in the sun, and me, nothing else for it - sunbed out, a sandwich, a glass of best white wine, shorts on, a nap in the sun - and today's CD, Fairport Convention, with Sandy Denny singing "Who knows where the time goes" and aged 65, where the bloody hell has it gone?

Sunday 18 March 2012

The Ferry House Inn

The Ferry House Inn, at the very end of the Harty Road, has been around for a few hundred years, looking down onto both the tidal Swale and the site of the now extinct Harty Ferry, which in its hey-day was little more than a rowing boat between Harty and the mainland. The original white-painted section of the Inn still remains externally as it always was but there have been extensions added on and the inside has changed.
Here you see the Inn as it currently is today, looking south across The Swale.

Immediately below it is the causeway across the saltings out to the water's edge.

And here a view from the car park across to Harty Ferry on the mainland side of The Swale.

The Inn first came into my life in the summer of 1962 as I about to leave school, aged fifteen. My headmaster suggested that I and a friend, given that we were interested in gardening, might be interested in a few days paid work at the Inn where the landlord, his friend a Mr. Samson, was looking to plant a large number of brassica plants. So a few days into our life as non-schoolboys, we caught the Leysdown bus, hopped off at the Harty Road and walked its length across the marsh, to arrive at the Inn. We spent a couple of days in glorious summery weather planting a few hundred brassica plants in a piece of ground that is now a lawned childrens area in front of the Inn. I remember it for two events, the gorgeous cream tea and fresh strawberry lunches that the landlord's lovely wife gave us and the return trip back along the Harty Road. Mr Samson, like one or two current Harty residents, only knew one way to drive the Harty Road, with its tight bends and deep ditches to the side, and that was flat out at maximum speed. Arriving at the bus stop on the main road was a real joy and a surprise that we had survived!

Several years later, my first wife and I, because the Inn had become notorious locally due the then current landlord, a Ben Fowler and his son, made just the one visit. Deciding that Inn owned the rights to the old Ferry crossing and its approach causeway, both Mr. Fowler and his son were regularly very aggressive to anybody that tried to launch boats from there, or indeed simply wandered away from the Inn's car park for a few yards. Fights with them were a regular occurrence. Combined with that, inside the Inn, jollity was very much frowned apon and it was not unknown for people to be thrown out for simply laughing or cracking a joke at the wrong time. Consequently, drinking in there could be a very tense experience, which was a shame because his long suffering wife was a lovely lady who was trying to make a success of a small restaurant there. At one stage Fowler and his son did buy an old army amphibious craft with a view to re-instating the old Harty Ferry but they'd made so many enemies locally that it never got off the ground.

Once again, by this time in the mid-1980's, I finally renewed my aquaintance with the Inn but this time becoming a weekly regular there for a couple of years. I was regularly using a couple of pubs in Eastchurch village at the time and gradually noticed that the regular village drinkers were becoming absent. It transpired that, despite, or because of, it's remoteness, that the Ferry House Inn had now become the place to drink at and so I gave it a visit one Friday night to check it out.
Having run the place down, Ben Fowler had finally gone and there were new landlords, five in total, who were proving very popular. They consisted of two married couples and a single friend and after the three men had left a cross-channel ferry in Sussex, had pooled their money and bought the Ferry Inn. All the people I regularly drank with in Eastchurch were there and more people I knew besides and we all begun a couple of very happy and at times manic years drinking there. I met the manager of The Swale NNR in there and consequently became the Voluntary Warden that I still am, and for a while, the single landlord, who was a devoted twitcher, also became a Vol. Warden.
Weekends there, throughout the year, became riotous affairs and at least once a month, after the pub had closed at night to non-regulars, the landlords would provide a free buffet and we would carry on drinking and eating into the early hours of the morning. On those night, once the pub was closed, the landlords joined in fully with the parties and we were expected to serve ourselves at the bar and leave the money alongside the till, sometimes at 2.00 in the morning we would then all pile in to cars and go to somebodies house in Eastchurch and re-start a party there.
For a couple of years the Ferry House Inn was a fabulous place to drink, party and do lots of other things and we were a really tight bunch of Harty friends. One thing we became adept at, had to I suppose, was the ability to drive a car along a dark and perilous Harty Road when quite drunk and no one that I recall, ever ended up in a ditch. In those days I made many patrols round the reserve badly hung over after just a few hours sleep at home - happy days!
Eventually, as these things always do, people drifted away to do other things, the trade started to suffer, drink-driving laws became more severe, the landlords' marriages went wrong and the place once again moved on. Today it has been much improved, caters for weddings, has holiday lets and is owned by one of the families that farm on Harty. It still has great charm and fantastic views across The Swale, still serves good food and drink and is always worth a visit if you are birdwatching out that way.

Monday 12 March 2012

A Sunny Sunday

Yesterday had to be the best day of the year so far, cloudless and sunny all day and very warm during the afternoon. Apart from the drought, which looks like it could end up being quite serious, yesterday's weather gave rise to thoughts of the impending season, Spring migrants, butterflies, long daylight hours, one or two birdwatchers complaining about it being too hot, all the ingredients of another superb Spring and Summer.
I began the day just after dawn, walking round the RSPB fields at Harty and having a look to see if the Lapland Buntings were still there, and if they were they didn't show for me. There was one encouraging sight there though, three male Corn Buntings were holding territories in the fields and singing constantly, if you can call the "jangling of keys" singing. Another noticeable feature on both those two fields and the Swale NNR alongside now since the ploughing up of the neighbouring grazing fields, is the increase in Hares. Clearly the loss of their habitat has forced them to move on but hopefully it will see them safer in such places because the Beagle pack was out on Sheppey last week doing what beagles do best and chasing hares. I know its illegal now but if you deliberately walk a pack of hounds through hare countryside its quite clear what the outcome is going to be. Its really annoying at this time of the year because hares have, or are about to have, young.

After an afternoon enjoying the sun in the garden, Man Utd's win, City's loss and England winning the rugby, I went back to the reserve late afternoon for the 6th and last of this winter's harrier roost counts. They begun in the mists of October, went through the snows of February and ended yesterday as Spring was heralded in by a beautiful and sunny March evening. As I walked across the reserve in the sunshine, Skylarks were singing, Lapwings were wheeling and diving in their courtship displays, I had a spring in my arthritic feet and a mole had clearly started off with a stagger before straightening out again, or was it the other way round.

I also found the first Lapwing's nest scrape, using the remnants of an old cow patt, a few wisps of grass to line it and eggs won't be far behind.

On to the top of the sea wall then, to wait for the light to eventually begin to fade and the harriers to come in to roost on the saltings. The two small cable laying ships were still anchored in the Swale in front of me and its always fascinating to watch them become more prominent as the light gradually ebbs away. In the early evening sun they don't really stand out that much but gradually as it begins to get dark the lights on the vessels begin to take on more prominence until its just you and them in the solitary darkness of the marsh. As I waited I watched the vessels through my scope in the increasing dusk and could see one or two crew members in the lit up bridge doing whatever they do. Curlews "bubbled" away on the mudflats and a Water Rail mewed in the reed beds alongside me, its a mystical sensation to be out there on your own at that time of day, and the sun finally sank behind Harty church.

Its only then that the harriers begin to come into roost, suddenly appearing from seemingly nowhere, and they made their way low along the saltings before suddenly dropping down to roost for the night. One or two stayed together but generally they roosted singularly and they were all female Hen Harriers. I counted seven in the end, my best count this winter and I look forward to seeing them back again in the autumn.
By then the dimming of the day was complete and as the last rays of light across the marsh slipped away, I turned and made my way home.

"I hear the ancient footsteps like the motion of the sea
Sometimes I turn, there's someone there, other times its only me,
I am hanging in the balance of the reality of man,
Like every sparrow falling, like every grain of sand".........Bob Dylan

Wednesday 7 March 2012

Relieving the Boredom

I was sitting in the conservatory over lunch, watching it rain and blow a gale and relieving the boredom by watching the uncommon winter sight of Goldfinches on my sunflower hearts feeders. The photo below shows one of them - I know its not one of those "count the individual feathers on the back" close-ups that are the norm these days on blogs, but at least you can see that its a Goldfinch.
Anyway, whilst watching them I was struck by how wasteful they are when feeding. We go to the trouble of providing de-husked sunflower seed and yet the birds still twirl it around in their beaks as though de-husking and end up dropping two thirds on the ground below. Once again, unlike other blogs, I don't have legions of mixed finches photogenically marching across my lawns sweeping up this dropped seed, just the odd Collared Dove, and so much of it just rots, or flashes "canteen open" signs to the local rats.
Looking at my regularly deserted, bird-wise, garden and seeing these photos on other blogs of gardens swarming with finches, I often speculate if there is a secret E-Bay site where you can buy stuffed finches by the dozen to scatter round your garden in order to take such photos.

Last year I was given a new re-print of a fabulous old book called "British Birds in their Haunts". Despite being originally published in 1862, I've been surprised whilst reading through its 600-odd pages, to see how akin to today's knowledge on birds it was. OK, there have been a few name changes and habitat losses down the years but the knowledge imparted in the book is remarkably as it is today.
Each bird has its own write up, illustrated by a simple but effective pen and ink style drawing and what makes the book particularly delightful are the accounts of each bird's habits and associated folk-lore. Take the Common Swift for example.

After recognising that the bird was only a summer visitor, it goes on to state that "it never proceeds far north and occasionally even suffers from un-seasonably severe weather". It went on to refer a case from Deal in July 1856 where after a mild but wet day the temperature suddenly fell till it became disagreeably cold. The Swifts were sensibly affected by the atmospheric change and fluttered against the walls of the houses and some even flew into open windows. The witness to this occurrence was then surprised when a young girl came to his door and asked him he he wanted to buy a "bat", which he quickly identified as a Swift and that they were dropping down in the streets and the boys were killing all these "bats". Going outside it was true enough, the children were charging them everywhere and on arriving at the church in Lower Street he was astonished to see the poor birds hanging in clusters from the eaves and cornices. At intervals, benumbed individuals dropped from these clusters and many hundreds fell victim to the ruthless ignorance of the children.

As I have already stated, some names have changed, the Corn Bunting was then known as the Common Bunting and the Reed Bunting as the Black-headed Bunting. It is also interesting to see the Wagtails that are listed - White, Pied, Grey and Grey-headed but no Yellow. However their is one called Ray's Wagtail (Motacilla Rayi), whose description is clearly that of a Yellow Wagtail.

All in all its a fascinating book and if you get the chance to purchase it, it's well worth it. It was published in these modern times by You might also find it at Amazon.

Monday 5 March 2012

Water and Walls

I went down to the reserve this morning but after an hour and half of being pumelled by an icy cold NW gale I gave up and did what most of the birds seemed to have done, and cleared off. Boy, if ever a day was designed to be the opposite of last week's glorious weather, today was. Clouds raced across the sky in a gale that was touching 50mph at times and it was alternatively dark or bright depending on the cloud cover. Over the seawall, the high tide in The Swale was higher than it should of been as the tide was funnelled in by the gale and white-capped waves raced down the middle channel.
But it was not all a waste of time - part of the reserve has water again, no, yesterday's rain was not of the monsoon variety - the borehole is working again! Regular visitors along the seawall of the reserve might of noticed a small shed at the western end of the grazing marsh, this housed a generator that sits over a borehole sunk into the underground aquifer. Until the generator broke down a few years ago we pumped water from this borehole into the shallow rills at that end of the reserve in the Spring to maintain the conditions required by the breeding Lapwings, etc. The reserve management has now replaced the defunct generator with a mobile one and water is once again flowing again, as you can see below as the first rill fills up.
The supply of this water will be limited and to only that end of the reserve but its going to be a major benefit to the reserve and the Lapwings there.

And on an entirely different subject, I came across the two photos below in one of my albums today. They are from my Kent River Authority (KRA) days and were taken in September 1971 on the seawall between Sheerness and Minster. A few years after the photos were taken the seawall was completely re-built and is now higher and much wider and is protected on its seaward side by huge rocks barged in from Scandinavia.
However in those days it was an old and narrow and basically just a clay seawall covered in small rocks and cemented. Unfortunately, due to the force of the tide on that northern side of Sheppey, the cement and rocks would regularly need replacing as they got washed away. Prior to the building of the new seawall the KRA carried out inspections of the seawall and were horrified to find out that over the years large areas of the original clay seawall had been eroded away and in places it was literally a concrete shell over large holes. So, before the new seawall could be built, it was deemed necessary for us to spend a couple of months there pumping in concrete at high pressure to replace the missing clay. So we first went the length of the seawall drilling holes up and down it and pushing a wooden peg into each hole as a bung. One of us, normally me as in the photo below, would then go along and at regular intervals pump concrete into one of the holes until it begun to force the bungs out in that immediate area.
Like everything on the KRA in those days, everything we used was archaic. The only way we could seal the hole around the pump spout as the cement went in was to use a rubber sorbo ball on the end. We would have to hollow out a hole through the ball and then push it over and up the spout so that it became a seal round the hole in the wall. The pressure behind the concrete going in was so graet that you only had to lean the pump over slightly and break the seal and you got covered in the stuff, as my overalls below show.

To complete our archaic equipment there was no super, modern ready-mix lorries supplying the concrete, we did it ourselves. Each day two of our lorries would back up to each other on the main road and on one, two men would shovel sand and cement into a large mixer, which would then be fed into a hopper on the other lorry and then pumped over the seawall to me on the other side.
It was quite an easy operation for both myself and the pump operator, as you can see by his bored look on the lorry, but the two guys preparing the concrete shoveled away like billy-o all day long feeding the mixer.

Friday 2 March 2012

Spring was here - briefly.

Well as I write this blog mid-morning today its cold, misty and damp and the weather of the last four days seems like a dream already. With rain, sleet and stronger winds forecast for the weekend here it's now looks grotty for the weekender birdwatchers, but despite now being retired, I had my share of such frustrations. But it has been great this last few days and as well as getting in an hour or two of early sunbathing yesterday, I also got out for my first warm bike ride of the year.
The sun also brought out the first flush of primroses in my garden,

and overnight the frogs appeared and set about laying spawn in the pond with great vigour and much wrestling.

Its doubtful that I'll visit the reserve today, its too misty and damp and I'll give my aching feet a rest I think and anyway it gets a tad boring recording the same birds every day.
The farmland around the reserve has been been quite active over the last few weeks, with the ploughing up of the Shellness grazing marshes to the fore. The cultivations have certainly gone some way to improving the soil if nothing else. Huge tonnages of the white gypsum were spread across the fields pre-ploughing to act as a soil conditioner. When I was an apprentice gardener I was taught that gypsum helps prevent clay particles sticking together and therefore creates a more open soil structure, rather than the typical clay that is either water-logged in winter or cracked in the summer. Manure from their huge cattle stockyards at Eastchurch was also spread and then the ground ploughed. It has been suggested that the fields will be sown with maize this year which is normally harvested in the autumn, with the whole plant being shredded during harvesting to be used as cattle feed.

Elsewhere on the farmland there has been much shooting taking place along the hedgerows and in the spinneys as several syndicates use up their options to carry out regular pest controls in the form of pigeon shooting over the rape fields. Until you see the huge size of some of these Woodpigeon flocks and then walk into the rape and see how much the plants have been stripped of leafage, its difficult to understand the justification for these measures. The National Farmers Union claim that annual pigeon damage in East Anglia alone costs farmers up to £53m, with 77per cent of growers suffering losses. Clearly such losses would cut no ice with those that oppose the culling of any pest species but never mind and lets us move on to another piece of reality. Hopefully anytime soon, those same pigeon shooters will turn their attention to the large crow flock that is roaming part of the reserve and the farmland. Currently the flock is averaging around 120+ birds and although it will reduce soon as some birds move away to breed there are always those that don't.
All the indications this year, as a result of the deepening drought, are that Lapwings are going to have a very difficult breeding season on Sheppey at least. All the new rills and scrapes that we dug on the reserve to provide shallow water and muddy fringes teeming with insect life for hungry chicks, are currently dust dry and pretty certain not to improve. Every Lapwing chick that we can hatch and fledge this year will have a vital role to play in a decreasing population and so its hardly rocket science to realise what effect a roving flock of crows will have across the breeding fields. Whole clutches of eggs are stolen and eaten on an hourly/daily basis and its very easy to lose a large part of a breeding season to these birds - so their numbers have to be reduced, simple as that.