Wednesday 18 April 2012

Rainy Days and Ducks

A visit to the reserve this morning turned into quite a brief event. Heavy grey skies and a near gale force and cold wind were bad enough but when bouts of heavy rain started being driven in on the wind, that was enough for me - was I really sunbathing on the patio a few weeks ago?
You have to feel for what hirundines are already here at the moment, they depend on flying insects for food and they weren't going to be finding many of them today, there weren't even a few mosquitoes hovering over my garden pond. And I felt particularly sorry for the few Lapwings that are nesting on the reserve, watching them trying to cover and stay on, their nests on the ground in the driving rain and wind, wasn't nice. Something else I also noted, was the Coot's nest that I pictured in a post a few days ago with 5-6 eggs, today it had no eggs. Clearly one of the few pest species on the reserve, probably crows, had helped themselves. Crows and hedgehogs are two of the worst culprits when it comes to stealing birds eggs on the marsh but as this nest was surrounded by water, I suspect it was crows this time - they might regret it!

One of the features of the marshes at this time of the year, and the reserve is a good example, are the gathering of small to good-sized groups of Shelduck. These colourful and almost goose-like ducks, form what could be classed as "parliaments" during April whereby both sexes of the ducks gather at regular sites on the marsh prior to actually nesting and to the human mind seem to be generally discussing things among themselves. During these discussions you will also see males occasionally having small disputes between each other as they contest for a particular female's attentions. On the reserve the old salt workings mounds seem to be the favourite place for these gatherings, probably due their height above ground and the fact that they contain many rabbit burrows. Rabbit burrows are one of several types of nesting places that these ducks will use, although surprisingly it isn't often at the site where they first congregate, they will move away to nest, in a rabbit burrow, under a dense bramble bush, under the base of an old building, etc. So if you are out on the marshes and you see these gatherings of Shelduck at this time of year, its simply them discussing who's going to go with who and when the first eggs will be laid - that sort of thing. I'm always amused when these birds get up and fly away if you happen to disturb them, their call notes sound as if they're "chuckling" among themselves.

The ducklings of the Shelduck are quite pretty, being little balls of white down with dark stripes and those birds that nest near to the sea will normally make getting the ducklings to the safety of the sea, as their first priority.
Having achieved all that, the next major issue in the Shelduck's annual timetable, is the moult. Most Shelduck from western Europe fly to Heligoland Bight and form large flocks there as they rest through their moult period. It often results in one seeing, on the sea close to their nesting sites, large flocks of non-flying ducklings of all sizes and ages, being shepherded around by just a couple of adult "foster mother" birds who have stayed behind.

It is certainly one of the most colourful and stand-out ducks of the marshes and is fortunate in that it still remains on the list of birds that are protected at all times, i.e. it cannot be legally shot, although I am advised that it does not have a very agreeable flavour anyway.

Saturday 14 April 2012

The Birds of the North Kent Marshes

Hearing the news recently of the death of the great E. H. Gillam I was inspired to re-visit the book with which he is most known for. In 1950, E. H. Gillham and R.C. Homes had published their ground-breaking book "The Birds of the North Kent Marshes". I was three years of age at the time and so it all went over my head but I recall later reading it as a young lad, after borrowing it from the local library. Last week I bought it from an excellent second-hand book website that is brilliant for such purchases at really good prices, those who regularly look for old, out of print books should check the site out -
The book describes very well both the various habitats along the North Kent Marshes and also the birds to be found there at the time. Sixty years later it still remains a fabulous opportunity to compare how habitats and bird numbers have changed. Prior to the publishing of the book published records of bird numbers were very thin on the ground and the authors do make reference to this fact when quoting what information they used. It has to be remembered that prior to 1950 birdwatchers were probably as thin on the ground as the birds that they were attempting to see, and the best equipment that they had were probably ex-army binoculars and a notebook. No telescopes and wide-ranging and lightweight binoculars, no web-sites and pagers and no daily blogs where some obsessive bloggers could probably if asked, give you the stats on how many times the same Blue Tit has hopped from one branch to another.

Those two authors simply had a few old and sometimes doubtful records of other people and their own hard won observations to go by, and how well they presented them. The Systematic List is particualy eye-opening and indeed surprising, for instance I was amazed to read that Pheasant were rarely seen on Sheppey prior to 1948. For me also, I was struck by how regularly the fact that birds were shot cropped up. It seems that in the pre. Protection of Birds Act (1954) days and many years before they wrote the book, that anybody curious to know what the strange bird that they were looking at was, simply shot it in order to have a better look. Have a look at these few examples from the book.

Rose-coloured Starling - one was seen near Rochester and shot from a flock of Starlings and recorded in the "Zoologist" for 1857.
Golden Oriole - in the "Zoologist" for 1868 it was reported that a female had been shot in an orchard near Faversham.
Commom Crossbill - as many as twenty were obtained by one man and others were shot at intervals until January 1869.
Woodchat Shrike - a male was recorded as having been shot at Murston in July 1868.
Firecrest - apart from one shot at Rainham in December 1860...........this is the hardest one to understand. Anybody who has tried to photograph a Firecrest will know how rarely they stand still and so to manage to shoot one must of been a rare feat, and for why?

Clearly both birdwatching and bird protection have come a long way and the mention in the book of the the duck decoys scattered around the marshes also raises a valid comparison. These large and tall, tunnel-shaped decoys made of wire netting were built over fleets and wide ditches and wild ducks were lured/driven into them on a regular basis and then caught and killed. The book makes mention of the fact that in the mid-19th century great numbers of wildfowl were weekly taken and sent to London. When you also consider the amount of un-regulated wildfowl shooting that was also going on at the time by a large number of the population, it does make today's wildfowling bags pretty piffling by comparison.

Its a really good book that invites a lot of nostalgia from a time when there was a lot more habitat about and birdwatching was a simple past-time that only required a pair of binoculars and a notebook - pretty much how I still do it today!

Tuesday 10 April 2012

Another Side

After yesterday's cold, wet and windy day, this morning I enjoyed a much more pleasant visit to the reserve. It was sunny and warmer and looked a lot fresher after yesterday's rain and the visit got off to an excellent start with a singing Willow Warbler appropriately, in the willows by the barn. That's an irregular bird for the reserve and 1-2 a year is normally maximum and so it was a lovely sound to hear on stepping out of the car.
I had initially decided to start the visit with a look along some of the ditches for Coot's nests to kick off this summer's reserve breeding counts but one of the very shallow ditches surprised me by containing large clumps of Celery-leaved Buttercups along it's length - it wasn't there last year. The two photos below illustrate it.

That side-tracked me for a while as I wandered off and took a few more photos of wild flowers. This first one, White Dead-nettle, is a very common and probably ignored one which illustrates how beautiful some of the ordinary ones can be if you get up close.

Just as this common old Dandelion is, I think they can look quite stunning in the sun.

One that I have featured before is this Milk Thistle, still a few feet short of its ultimate height.

The earth bunds that it grows on were bull-dozed lower and wider last autumn and it appears to have spread the seed over a much larger area and we now have carpets of it appearing all over the place.

After that it was back to the ditches and the hunt for Coot's nests, which to the low water levels wasn't too successful, in fact I only actually saw 8 Coots themselves.

One of the reasons is illustrated in this photograph. In a normal Spring, the base of the sedge stems along the ditch side would normally be a foot under the water and the Coot would build its nest among them, not possible when its like this.

Eventually though, I did find one, with five eggs and built in the middle of a ditch in some dormant bullrushes.

Just ten foot away from the Coot's nest was a half-finished Mute Swan's nest with one of the swans heading towards me with a menacing look.

One common bird on both the reserve and the surrounding farmland is the Red-legged Partridge. I'm always surprised when reading other blogs to see the authors recording this bird as almost a rarity and adding it to their year lists. On The Swale NNR none of us bother to record either this bird or the Pheasant because we consider them to be basically "artificial or plastic" birds because they are released by the thousands each year on the farmland for shooting purposes. But I suppose if you only see the odd one each year its worth bumping up your year list with.

And lastly, while I was doing all that, Ellie and Midge were doing "any other business" and inspecting rabbit holes, or at least Ellie would if she could get in.

Monday 9 April 2012

Reflections on a Rainy Day

Well I guess it was pretty much guaranteed, announce a hosepipe ban and shortly after it will rain. Its cold and windy today with rain for much of it, and while the rain amounts are not going to make the slightest impression on ditch levels they could at least encourage the grazing meadows to green up and grow a little, and perhaps also, help a few crops. It'll mean for a little while longer that people won't have to disconnect the outside security lights so that their furtive midnight excursions with the hosepipe and sprinkler aren't suddenly lit up for any insomniac neighbour to spot.

I went to the reserve earlier today and endured a cold and wet hour walking round with the dogs while I carried out my daily checks of things. I saw little of note and it seemed hard to imagine swallows wanting to be here on such a day, insects must of been at a real premium.
In the book "The Wind in the Willows", the swallows spoke to Ratty of their reasons for returning each Spring - "the call of lush meadow-grass, wet orchards, warm, insect-haunted ponds, of browsing cattle, of hay-making..." - not too much of that today I think.

While writing the above, two horse riders went by on the road outside my study window. Now I have absolutely nothing against horse-riders, I love to see the countryside being enjoyed by most people, but I have never been able to understand what enjoyment that both horse and rider get from this form of it. Galloping a horse across open fields, or along a sandy beach, must be very exhilarating for both, but sitting astride a horse going at a speed that quite frankly my two tortoises could overtake, I don't get it and the horses always look bored rigid.

Reading an old diary the other day, I was reminded of the old trot-line days. When I was on the Kent River Authority in the 1960's and we were working along the sea walls of The Swale, we would often put out trot-lines in order to catch fish. Trot-lines were simply two posts pushed into the tidal mud a few yards apart. Between the two posts would be strung a length of fishing line with baited hooks hanging from it at regular intervals. Leave the line slack enough so that the hooks were just touching the mud and that was it, the next day at low tide there would hopefully be a flatfish or two caught on it.

On the subject of countryside matters I have been heartened in recent days to receive a few lengthy E-Mails from people praising my recent and previous blog postings concerning both rabbiting and a less blinkered approach to wildlife and conservation. These people were a mixture of hunting naturalists and naturalists who have never hunted but who firmly believe that realistic conservation requires a degree of pest control. I also had confirmation of the fact that many nature reserve wardens don't always practice what they are paid to preach, i.e. behind the scenes they do employ pest controls - you simply have to. In these current drought conditions locally, early Lapwing breeding counts have already shown a greatly reduced number of pairs actually nesting, a nature reserve would not being doing its job of conservation if it simply stood back and watched crows for instance, remove eggs from those few nests that there are.
The people that I have mentioned above, are those that have many years of experience actually out in the countryside, that have sat and watched life and death amongst wildlife at all times of the day and sometimes night, and know exactly what management is required to achieve the best balance for all of it. It is far too easy to dismiss them as people who simply like killing things because some are simply birdwatchers and photographers.
Without doubt, some of those that have criticized these views in the past rarely, if ever, actually get involved in proper countryside management - simply volunteering on a nature reserve would give them a wider perspective on what actually happens. You cannot limit your experience to watching Countryfile or filling up the bird feeders every day and then try and tell people that you know what's best for the countryside, its a million times bigger and more complicated than that.

Wednesday 4 April 2012

Country Ways on Spitend

There was a time in the late 1970's when a friend and I were carrying out our rabbit and eel catching expeditions across Elmley, that we used an old GPO Sherpa van to do it in. We had bought the old red van, which was unsuitable for the road, and little else to be honest, for a few pounds and used to leave it parked at the start of the Elmley track, alongside Straymarsh Farm there.
It was a real wreck of a van and we were surprised that it went for around the year that it did. It was that bad, that due to a leaking petrol tank, we by-passed the tank by having a fuel pipe go direct into a petrol can in the cab, that we brought with us every trip. But as a conveyance of many smelly eel nets, old bread baskets for carrying them in, plus rabbiting gear and three dogs in the winter, it was ideal, and my ten year old step-daughter learnt to drive in that as we trundled across the marshes.
Two or three times a week that old red van could be found parked at various places on Spitend, Windmill Creek, or the marshes either side of the Elmley track as we went about our countryside pursuits. Eventually it was replaced by a big old estate car of mine that had failed it's MOT and like it's predecesor, it was also left unlocked by the start of the track, one look at the mud, blood and slime inside was enough to deter any thief and they only had a scrap value anyway.
Here you can see me alongside the old estate car at the end of one very cold winter's morning spent rabbiting.

My step-daughter, who is now a 42 year old mother, still has fond memories of those days spent driving that old van and sitting in the back amongst baskets of writhing eels or dead rabbits. Despite her young age at the time, she not only drove the van but would happily wade into a ditch in the summer months to rescue an eel net that had come adrift from its stake and to this day, still remembers the names of the birds and animals that we used to see, she even learnt how to skin rabbits. As far as I was concerned that was a priceless education of the ways of the countryside for her to learn and she regrets none of it.
They were such happy days and we all spent an awful lot of time on Spitend in the pre and early RSPB days, rabbiting, eel netting or just simply wandering about, sometimes with Peter Makepeace the first RSPB warden. In those early days when the reserve was first open, he used to allow us a free hand to do as we liked, as long as we was finished by about 10.00 in the morning when the first visitors would start to appear. He didn't think it was right for some of the more squeamish Members to see what both he and us got up to behind the scenes. Spitend in those days was still a remote and unspoilt piece of old Sheppey and one of the things that I recall from my Kent River Authority days out there in the 1960's was Spitend bay, about half a mile before Spitend Point. Here at low tide we discovered by walking out onto the mud at low tide, that there were the remains of hundreds of old clay pipes laying in the mud. It must of been a dump of some sort many years before and the pipes were the old, long-stemmed type that you would see photos of old farmers smoking. Mostly, due to their fragile nature the stems and bowl were in two pieces, but sometimes we would be really excited to come across a complete one. The bowls often had a different pattern on them I had a complete one for years in a cupboard and bitterly regret losing it some time ago.

One last thing on matters of the countryside, how many of you saw the Oare nature reserve blog two days ago and the photo of a wild mink in the car park there. Those vicious killers are the very last thing that you need hanging around a wetland nature reserve, lets hope that it is caught and "dealt" with, with all due haste.

Tuesday 3 April 2012

Moving On

Double click on the photos and they come up better.

Well that's enough of fish 'n chips and scoops of crackling, and given that it's clouded up, no sun bed and glasses of Pinot Grigio either, today it's back to the serious stuff and cups of tea.
Saying that, the walk on the reserve this morning was once again carried out in warm sunshine and under blue skies, despite it's daily contribution to the current drought, this recent weather has been really nice and it'll be a great shame to go back to the cold and possibly, even mud on the tracks. And talking of drought, I took a couple of photos this morning to illustrate once again what it means on the reserve. I took this photo at the end of the "S Bend Ditch" (note the blue skies). After a normal winter this track would remain impassable in walking boots until at least May/June due to it being flooded across.

Likewise, alongside it is another part of the "S Bend Ditch". It never did re-fill this winter and should be wall to wall water at this time of the year, it just looks sad and almost dry now.

Just think, in many years time when people are saying "where was you in the Great Drought of 2012", those photos might illustrate it. I doubt I'll be answering the question, my ashes will probably be blowing in the wind by then.
And continuing the drought theme, just look at how these Water Vole holes have become exposed by the ever dropping ditch levels. These are the voles back doors, holes that should be a foot below the water level as the water mark on the sedge shows. These are their hidden escape route should an enemy enter by the exposed and higher front doors - it doesn't bode well for the rest of the summer.

Here in the South East, our hosepipe ban starts at midnight tomorrow and so, despite the cost that will no doubt show on my new and compulsory water meter, I gave the lawns a good soaking with the sprinklers. It won't last long but if nothing else it was a joy today to watch several Blackbirds triumphantly catching worms in the softened ground. We've barely started the breeding season and already the thrushes must be struggling to prevent their young starving in the nest, it's going to be tough for them, just as it will for hedgehogs. Dust dry ground is hardly going to provide them with the worms, slugs and snails that they need after emerging from hibernation.

Moving on, there seems to have been an explosion of Mediteranean Gulls here on Sheppey in the last few weeks. Hardly a day goes by without them passing over my garden calling in that conspicuous and unforgettable way of theirs. Cycling along Minster seafront yesterday lunch time they were everywhere, battling it out with their Black-headed cousins for bread being thrown by the public.
And lastly, a couple of days ago I was watching two pairs of Marsh Harriers taking nest material into a large field of rape here on Sheppey. Aerial displays, food passes and carrying of nest material all made for exciting stuff to watch but what a shame that they've chosen to nest in the rape, with numerous safer reedbeds to choose from. As the photo below shows, the rape is already beginning to flower which means it will almost certainly be harvested well before any harrier chicks get the chance to fledge and fly out of harms way.

"woke to my hearing from harbour and neighbour wood
and the mussel pooled and the heron
priested shore
the morning beckon
with water praying and call of seagull and rook
and the knock of sailing boats on the net webbed wall
myself to set foot
that second
in the still sleeping town and set forth"..........Dylan Thomas

Monday 2 April 2012


I carried out my normal daily patrol round the reserve this morning, seeing all the usual stuff, that I won't bore you by listing. There were just two birds that stood out, a pair of Sandwich Terns making their way down the Swale between the two Harty's. There really does seem to be a dearth of summer migrants at the moment and given the lousy weather forecast for the next two weeks, that doesn't look like changing much.
Back home, I went for my customary cycle ride around Minster at lunch time and then given the unexpected very warm and sunny afternoon I spent an hour doing what I do best, laying in the sun enjoying a drop or two of chilled Pinot Grigio.

It was while laying there that I thought of, for no particular reason, crackling. Now people of my age group will know immediately what I am talking about, the younger version, brain-washed by low fat diets, won't.
When I was a curly-haired young boy living in the back streets of Sheerness, there was a small fish 'n chips shop in the next street, Clyde Street, that was generally recognised as having the best fish 'n chips on Sheppey. I haven't a clue why that was because he never seemed to do anything different to me, but then I was just a young boy in short trousers. All I know is that fish 'n chips in those days was a once a week treat and every Saturday lunch time I was sent out to get the family lunch of them.
Oh what a joy that was, to be crammed into that tiny shop with its special smell and hear people in turn ordering their "cod 'n chips" or "rock 'n chips" and sometimes even, a posh person ordering Skate! On a winter's day I could of stood in that warm and smelly shop for ever, ah, but then came my turn and those special words - "do you want crackling with it" - oh joy - do I.
A scoop of crackling - those delicious and succulent bits of batter - sheer heaven to eat, just like toast and dripping was before the PC brigade taught us different.
So anyway, off I would go, back down the back alley to home, but did it end there, did it heck. I became adept at picking a hole in the newspaper wrapping, eating most of the crackling through it and then re-wrapping the family package. Getting home, my mother who knew what I did and because I was her favourite, would always say, "it looks like the mice have been at this wrapping".

To me that scoop of crackling was the best part of the Saturday dinner, its a real shame that the rest of the family rarely got to experience it and let's face it, it and much like it, never did any of us any harm. Where have you seen an obituary that states "he died by eating crackling wrapped in newspaper".