Sunday 17 June 2012

Mumbles from the Marsh

The breeding season on the reserve is coming to a close now and it's been a pretty poor one over-all.  The Greylag Geese (above) reared a few goslings but nothing like in previous seasons and the resident flock of white domestic geese (below with Greylags), bred none, perhaps a good thing. Skylarks still heartily above the grazing fields and Sedge and Reed Warblers are still very active in the reed beds but birds such as the Lapwings are pretty much finished now and have already started forming post-breeding season flocks out on the saltings. The Lapwings in particular have suffered a very poor breeding season as a result of the cold and the wet and we're also leaning towards believing that the Marsh Harriers on Harty have suffered a similar fate, although I did see a juvenile bird yesterday for the first time this year.

 It was nice to enjoy some blue skies and warm sunshine though on the reserve this morning and with the Longest Day being celebrated this week a prolonged spell of warm, dry and sunny weather is much needed if we're to have any kind of summer in what time is left. The common theme on many of the blogs at the moment is anguish over the continually bad weather and while suffering an enforced wet day indoors this week I trawled through some of last year's postings by those that moan the most about this current weather. Surprisingly, or perhaps not, I found that they also complained last year when suffering a prolonged warm and sunny spell, perhaps some bird bloggers are like British Rail managers - it's always the wrong type of weather that's to blame!
Me, I'd be more than happy if the next couple of months were hot, dry and sunny, it would make views such as the one below at Harty Ferry in The Swale this morning, more regular and enjoyable.

 Recently, the track that runs down from Harty Church to the sea wall and the reserve has had these sculptured pieces of wood put in place alongside the gate at the end. There are another two at the Raptor Viewing Mound as well, put in at some expense, but not by the RSPB or Natural England I might add, in fact I haven't a clue who actually was responsible.
This one makes reference to the time in 1909 when Lord Brabazon tied a wicker basket to his very flimsy aircraft, put a piglet in it and took it up into the sky. Given that the event took place at Muswell Manor, some three miles across the marsh, I would of thought that putting them closer to there would of been more appropriate and less confusing.

In case I get lost any time, this signpost is also alongside the same gate as the above, pointing the way along the sea wall to Shellness, or back up the track to the church. Its been there a long time and certainly didn't cost what the others did and it could be argued, is more informative.

One final aspect of the topsy-turvy weather so far this year is the growth rate of the grazing marsh. After it had been grazed back to just a few centimetres high by sheep this winter we went through a dry March with it looking pretty grim and useless for wildlife. Just look at it now, it should look reasonably well grazed but the cattle this year are fighting a losing battle, despite chomping away as fast as they can. Unfortunately extra livestock cannot be found at the drop of a hat, in March the grazier was panicking about having too many cattle for how little grass was about, now he hasn't enough - which brings me back to blaming it on the wrong kind of weather!

Tuesday 12 June 2012

Street Scene

Sitting here today after almost 20 hours of continuous rainfall and watching the rain pouring down the gutters to a drain nearby, I suddenly found myself transported back to my childhood in Sheerness amid such weather. With my street being fairly flat the rain didn't exactly pour down the gutter but it did at least trundle along towards the drains, trundling enough for us 7-8 year old boys to have boat races, using old lolly sticks as the boats. There in our short trousers and plimsolls after a night's rain we could imagine our boats racing through all the oceans of the world, and we were pirates and buccaneers and the heroes who saved souls on the Seven Seas. As a child in the 1950's an imagination was the finest gift that you could have, for a while it could lift you out of the back streets, the alleys, the ownership of nothing, and could even turn lolly sticks into boats!

Unity Street was a narrow street among several similar streets, there were no horizons down there, just houses either side, an ambulance station at one end and a secondary school at the other. The sun only shone down from high above, you could never see it rise or set or travel across the sky, you had to go up to the seafront to see that. In our back alley, between our backyard and that of the pub in the next street, was a lamp post with a large glass bowl on top that lit up yellow at night and from my bedroom in my very early years, I thought that that was the moon. My father always entered the pub, the "Blacksmith's Arms", across the alley and through its back yard and sometimes he would take me with him and sit me in the landlord's back room. There, with a Vimto and a large, round arrowroot biscuit, I would be left on my own for a couple of hours to enjoy two things that we never had in our house, electricity and a tiny black and white television. Even rarer, sometimes I would be allowed to watch him play in an inter-pubs darts match and to  enjoy the succulent treat afterwards of the traditional toast and dripping. Many years later when playing pub darts myself, I found out how beautiful toast and dripping tastes with a pint of beer as well.
The alley was between our street and the next one, called Clyde Street, and coupled with the road, served as the main play areas for us then, through far too many summers and winters. Here we would play games such as hopscotch, "feet off ground" and marbles and around fireworks night would watch the older boys put bangers in heaps of dog poo and watch it explode up the walls.

Life in those days generally went in cycles or seasons, there was none of the always on-tap entertainment that there is today and so even small events were always exciting when they occurred. The rag-bone man was one of these events. Several times a year he could be heard in the distance gradually making his way towards and down our street, constantly shouting out for rags, bones and old iron, newspapers even. Newspapers though tended to be a valuable asset around the house - being used to light the fire, draw the fire when first lit and surprisingly often, cut up in squares and hung up in the outside toilet as toilet paper.
The rag - bone man's cart would be followed down the length of the street by most of the children, all echoing his cries and the lucky ones would scrape up some old rags, jam jars, etc and swap them for a goldfish to take home - the unlucky kids were those sent out with a bucket and coal shovel to collect the fresh horse dung for father's garden. Another event, rare enough to only happen every few years, was the arrival of the road repairers. For us kids this really was an event of great magnitude, never to be forgotten, the arrival of the steam roller. Forget the gravel and the tar that stuck to our socks and shoes, resulting in a slap or an early bed, when that great monster came down the road with its prancing white horse, Kentish Invicta badge on the front, occasionally making loud train whistle noises, well us boys were in heaven. We would run alongside and throw lolly sticks or fag packets under its rollers to be pressed into the road surface until it huffed and puffed its way out of the street and be gone.

Sometimes we would have street parties such as the one above, which I believe was for the Queen's coronation in 1953. Apparently I'm one of the cowboys in the front and I can see that my mother is the curly-haired lady third from left at the back. (Double click on the photo to enlarge it a bit).
Under a street lamp half way down the street, for evening illumination (we only had gas lamps indoors), a stage would be erected and bunting put across the street from house to house. Alongside the stage a barrel of beer and several crates of brown ale would be placed and as the evening wore on the men folk would get up and sing, accompanied by mouth organs and rattling sticks. These sticks were something like a broom pole, often with an old boot at the bottom, to which had been loosely nailed dozens of beer bottle tops, when the post was thumped up and down it acted as a form of musical back up, sometimes you see them today being used by Morris Men. Us kids and their mothers, well we had to make do with table loads of home-cooked food and lemonade that were placed down the length of the street, although sometimes the mothers would have a sly drop of sherry or a milk stout or two.
Events like that would normally be our only entertainment during a year, none of us had electricity or television and the radios were powered by accumulators, a form of wet battery, that needed exchanging for a  re-charged one each week. The radio therefore wasn't simply left on all day, as they often are now, they were only put on at certain times of the day, in my house at least, in the early evenings or Sunday dinner times. Sunday roast was always eaten in the company of  "Three Way Family Favourites",  "The Billy Cotton Band Show" and finally "Beyond our Ken". The Sunday roast was nearly always beef or lamb because chicken was expensive and a luxury, often only eaten at Christmas. With it came fresh cooked vegetables, Yorkshire pudding cooked underneath the joint to catch the juices, and suet pudding cooked in a well-used suet cloth. The suet pudding was made big enough so that some slices could be served up with sugar, jam or treacle on as afters. Sometimes one was made with sultanas and currants and served up for afters as "Spotted Dick" - what a treat!

Sunday 10 June 2012

Sunshine Surprise

It was a pleasant surprise this morning to get up at 5.00 to clear blues skies, no wind and not long after, a fast warming sun. As I write this now in the late morning the normal cloud layer is re-forming and the sun fast disappearing, but earlier it was superb.
Anxious not to miss it I was soon off to The Swale NNR, for a brief walk round and the first birds that I came across were these Shelduck ducklings with their parents anxiously circling overhead. They must surely be the prettiest of the British ducklings, and remarkably almost straight away I also passed the remaining couple of a once large brood of Shoveler ducklings. They're a bit distant but double click on the mouse and they come up a bit better.

Unfortunately we also discovered today that there has been one notable breeding failure, the chicks of our resident breeding pair of Barn Owls were dead in the nest box. One possible reason for this could be the degree of wet weather in recent days which has flattened and soaked the grassy areas where the owls normally hunt, making it difficult to locate and get at the small mammals that they feed on.
Given the cracking weather I decided that I'd visit the reserve's shellspit outpost at Shellness Point and so made my way back to the car and drove round to Shellness Hamlet via Leysdown and the now much deteriorated track alongside the sea wall. Parking the car at the car park, climbing the stile and walking along the "permissive path" out to the start of the beach, the first thing I clapped eyes on were the large clumps of the lovely, white Sea Campion. What a lovely wild flower it is.

The reserve's management have recently made a few improvements out towards the Point and arriving at the old WW2 Observation Post there is a new sign on its wall asking the public not to walk inside the roped-off section of beach there, with the potential for nesting Little Terns being the reason why. Here is a close up of the sign, followed by a more distant shot of the observation post on the beach.

And just past the Observation Post, the old fencing has been replaced by new posts and roping, hopefully leaving that section of the beach undisturbed. Sadly, with only one Little Tern being seen while I was there, it looks like this year will see yet another failed breeding season for those delightful little summer visitors.

Several clumps of Yellow-horned Poppy were in flower.

Standing at the Observation Post, these are two views - west towards the Point

and East towards the Hamlet.

Vipers Bugloss

The Observation Post across the saltings from the "permissive path".
And on returning back home, a juv. Goldfinch on the sunflower hearts, through the conservatory window.

Friday 8 June 2012

Autumn Starts Early

 Firstly, the last two for a while, of wild flower photos. The three feet high Milk Thistles are now in flower, above and so also, is Weld below.

As I sit here writing this and looking out of the study window, I am faced with a typical October/November scene. Heavy grey skies, bursts of rain and trees bent over in gusts of +50mph wind, with the winds set to stay that way for the next 24 hrs. Its been wet and cool all week, now we have the gales and what's more its due to stay this way well into July, is that really it for this summer, are we already in Autumn.
All through last winter I barely wore the dreaded foot cripplers, wellie boots, and yet they are a necessary requirement every day on the reserve at the moment, here in mid-summer. As well as the obvious water laying along the tracks, when you start to walk across the overgrown grazing marsh you find yourself walking through two-inch deep water concealed by the grass, lord knows how many ground nesting birds such as Lapwings, Skylarks and Pipits have expired in it. And just to add to their woes, with the current gales even birds nesting in trees and bushes are not missing out and are being shaken out of their nests.
The photo below is a classic example of what's happening, I found this Oystercatcher's nest on the reserve a couple of days ago. It had nested OK in a dry, cow's hoof print until the rains came and left the eggs sitting in cold water. It's going to be a very bad year all round for wildlife this year, very bad.

And sort of on that theme, I was amazed whilst watching the BBC's Springwatch programme, during the item about domestic cats and their predation of birds. Not amazed that cat's kill birds, we all know, unless you are a cat owner in denial, that cat's do that. No, I was somewhat gob-smacked on the response of an RSPB spokesman when it was reported that domestic cats possibly kill as many as 100 million birds annually, probably most of them songbirds. He seemed to suggest that cat's weren't a problem and that such figures weren't of too much relevance to bird population figures in this country!
I find it amazing that the RSPB can quite rightfully campaign against the killing by trappers/hunters in Europe of millions of songbirds each year and yet seem to ignore similar losses in this country without calling for action to be taken against cats, or more rightfully, their owners. If  last night's feature had been about the deaths of up to a 100 million protected birds as a result of the actions of farmers or the shooting fraternity for example, protesters would of jammed phone lines and swamped petitions with their signatures. Make domestic moggies responsible and it seems to be acceptable, or at least met with no call for action, as has been the case against dogs and their owners. A dog poos in the street and we're talking a huge fine, a cat kills a nest of rare bids - that's OK.
I find it hard to understand how a "bird lover" can sign various petitions supporting protection of wildlife and yet own and protect a cat and turn a blind eye to what it does.

Wednesday 6 June 2012

On the Road

It's 6.30 pm on a hot and sunny July evening in 1966 and four guys in denim clothes and battered desert boots are standing outside the "Queens Head" pub in Sheerness. The pub had been open half an hour and pints of stout and mild already drunk and now they were outside tossing a coin. "OK, the winning pair go first" was said and duly after calling "tails" two walked off to stand by the boating lake on the edge of town and began thumbing for a lift. The other two were already back in the pub, quaffing more beer, until their turn came to repeat the thumbing exercise an hour later. (The four of us are pictured above, with me in the front).
In those days, with our regulation sleeping bag wrapped in an old dustbin bag and a guitar in it's case, it was generally easy to thumb lifts around the country, despite not looking too pleasant after a few days sleeping rough. Three of us held down permanent jobs but in all our free time at weekends and holidays through the summer months we spent a lot of time in the mid-60's acting out the hippy/beatnik life of the times. If we weren't occasionally hitch-hiking to London or the South Coast, we spent weekends sleeping rough around Sheppey in either an old tent, old buildings, or the seaside shelters, normally under the influence of too much drink and sometimes other stuff.

Anyway, back to hitch-hiking and the normal aim of a night such as the above if we were heading for London, was for the two pairs to set off an hour apart and to close the evening in "The Falcon" pub at Falconwood on the old A2, for a last drink before closing time. If we achieved that then the four of us would then bed down in a wood close to the pub, enduring the elements tucked up in our sleeping bags. Surprisingly, despite the uncertainty of lifts and often quite a bit of roadside walking without them, we often achieved meeting up again at "The Falcon", although sometimes a lift gave one pair the opportunity to end up close to our ultimate destination in London, normally the Walthmanstow area, and we wouldn't meet up again until the next day.
The actual hitch-hiking was good fun, providing lifts were plentiful, it wasn't so good walking long distances along roads in rain and wind, and we would normally attempt to get off of Sheppey via a lift, before we actually begun walking and thumbing. It was also fairly safe in those days and the only regular incidents that I recall were those when cars would speed past close to our outstretched arms and attempt to hit the hand with their wing mirrors, I've suffered a few bruised hands as a result of that. Other than that we often received lifts from some really interesting and chatty people, who I hope, were surprised to find that we were a lot nicer and intelligent than perhaps our appearances might of seemed. One particular lift that we got as we were heading home out of London, was from a Scotland Yard detective, who put a shiver up our spines. He gave us a lift all the way back to Sheppey as he was going to join up with his wife and children in a caravan in Leysdown and had just finished finished working on a man hunt in London. Some days before we had hitch-hiked up there, a guy called Harry Roberts had murdered three policemen and provoked a huge man hunt, which we vaguely knew about. Apparently the afternoon before our lift home, the police had finally caught and arrested Harry Roberts, hiding in a a make-shift camp deep in Epping Forest and not that far from where we had been sleeping the night before - scary!!

A lot of our hitch-hiking tended to end up in the Walthamstow/Leytonstone/Epping Forest area because we knew a hippy girl there and although we slept rough at night, we could often leave our sleeping bags and guitars at her place during the day. Some evenings she also took us into her local pubs or to see up and coming groups - sometimes, one of us might even get to sleep at her place!! Other times though, we also made for Central London and hung around in the Trafalgar Square area, sleeping in the parks at night and naively, it wasn't until a few years later that I found out that not all the guys there after dark were looking for somewhere to kip down. Trafalgar Square could be good during the day then because there would be good numbers of hitch-hiking guitar players laying around there, swapping songs and tales of the road and we learnt a lot. We even got searched a few times by Police, checking for any drugs that we might be carrying. In the summer of 1966 we must of appeared in the photograph albums of many American tourists, who were anxious to take photos of us "typical British beatniks".

How did we keep clean, well, a lot of the time we didn't, dirty denim jeans and jackets, long hair and beards were the image and to be honest there weren't too many opportunities for a wash. Occasionally however, we would make use of some of the public toilets of the time, where for 3p old money you could hire a towel and a bar of soap and stand at a sink for brief wash, they were some dodgy places but luckily we looked more ferocious than we actually were. So often, after several days wandering around we would re-appear back home looking somewhat the worse for wear and I sometimes had to have a bath at my girlfriend's house before I dared go back home proper. I recall one evening that we headed out of London on the A2 and begun thumbing for home but three hours, some rain and many miles later, we were still lift-less, wet and weary. We gave in and slept in our bags behind some bushes at a lay-by alongside the main road, wet, tired and dirty. It was like that sometimes, if you didn't get a lift you kept on walking many fume-filled miles into the night.
But they were the bad bits, sometimes we came across unexpected surprises as we bummed around, even more surprising given how rough we looked. One night the four of us had slept through torrential rain in our sleeping bags in Epping Forest near Woodford and had had to dry them out in the sunshine the following morning. The next evening, after having a few beers in the "Green Man" pub in Leytonstone, we came out to find it raining again and ended up sitting in an underpass under the road, contemplating having to stay there in the dry all night. A woman, a few years older than us, passed by and returning a little later with some shopping, stopped and asked if we were thinking about staying there all night, to which we said probably because of the rain. She then said that she lived in the flats across the road, that her husband was away and that we were welcome to bed down there for the night, which did seem a better alternative to the cold concrete floor we were sitting on. So back to her flat we went, wondering slightly if we were going into a trap but no, there was a living room, kitchen and bedroom and we were told to lay out our sleeping bags on the living room floor. There was however, one condition, only three of us were to sleep on the floor, the other was to sleep with her, so coins were tossed but unfortunately this blogger was one of three sleeping on the floor that night.

The 1960's really did live up to how they have been portrayed and this is just a small snippet of what we got up too as teenagers at the time but we certainly took full advantage of all the things that were on offer, sometimes too fully at times, but we've all survived.