Friday 31 August 2012

A New Year begins

All the fields of gold are gone now, the wheat has been stored away, the haystacks built and the fields cultivated and re-sown with rape and wheat for next year - one farming year has ended and a new one begins.
Its always a bit sad to see the once colourful fields of green and then yellow, whether it be rape or wheat, suddenly reduced to the colourless sight represented in the picture above as they sit dry and dusty awaiting the first of the autumn rains. The frantic pace of arable farming in recent weeks to get the harvest in, now comes to an end and the machinery is cleaned and serviced and stored away until next year.

Another cycle that begins tomorrow is the start of the main shooting season. The 1st September sees the start of both wildfowl and partridge shooting for the winter, with pheasant shooting following along from the 1st October. With the harvest now finished, farms that are active in game shooting will now be concentrating on making sure that habitat and conditions are as ideal as possible for the coming shoot days. Many will have released both pheasant and partridge poults some weeks ago, but some only received and released their's in the last week or so. As a result the start of the partridge shooting is a staggered business, the first being on Chetney this coming Monday but most of those on Sheppey not till the end of September.
Tomorrow, as is my annual custom, I shall be on the seawall of the reserve at dawn to check out the expected "first day" turn out of the Kent Wildfowlers, several who will no doubt of been out on the saltings well before it got light. Hoping to shoot their first duck or goose of the season, I feel the majority will be disappointed this year for some time to come, the wildfowl just aren't there at the moment and with the reserve becoming increasingly dryer, it looks set to stay that way well into the winter. As I have reported in recent postings, the reserve is now as dry as it was after the winter drought and reports in the papers today officially confirming that we have had the wettest summer for a hundred years seem almost farcical where Sheppey is concerned. Getting back to the wildfowlers, its going to be disappointing to lose the early morning solitude along the seawall for the next six months but I guess its all part of sharing the countryside with those with other interests, despite what some might think, none of us have an exclusive right to it.

On the bird front, well as I report each year around this time, The Swale NNR is very quiet bird-wise, the only brief flurry of interest over the last couple of days has been down at Shellness. There a strong, almost gale-force NNW wind at times has seen a moderate movement of seabirds such as skuas, gannets and terns.  A few Whinchats and Wheatears have passed through the main reserve but they and a few Green Sandpipers and a Greenshank, have pretty much been the sum of any recent migrant movement. It gets a tad boring and predictable but is no where near as sad as the thought of the shortening days and cold, wet weather to come, oh to be a swallow!

Wednesday 22 August 2012

Harty Matters

The first sight I encountered this morning on arriving at the reserve was this Small Tortoiseshell butterfly basking in the sun. There was also a pristine Small Copper butterfly close by but it declined to be photographed. While walking round the reserve on Monday afternoon doing the monthly WEBS count, I counted twelve Tortoiseshells, so things are hopefully looking up this year for this now scarce butterfly.

Coming through the small farm spinney that gives us access to the reserve this morning, a sure sign of early autumn was sight of these newly put out pheasant poults. The small syndicate that shoot that area have only put out a couple of dozen birds and so are obviously not intent on very large bags, they seem to concentrate more on Wood Pigeons. Unfortunately the privately owned farmhouse alongside the spinney has several free-ranging cats that have spent the summer wandering the area carrying out what the RSPB call non-effective wildlife slaying. I wonder if they reduce the two dozen poults by several birds, if the syndicate will take the same stance as the RSPB, or look to even the score one time, you will never know!

 In the meantime the pheasants have several weeks before their shooting season begins, but not so the wildfowl, walking round a very dry reserve this morning I was shocked to realise that the wildfowling season starts in just 10 days time. Mind you, apart from their prescence, the wildfowlers are hardly going to have any effect on the reserve for a few months yet, water levels are pretty much back to how they were in the winter drought and wildfowl remain a rare thing. This fact was confirmed on Monday afternoon as we carried out the WEBS survey on the reserve - between three of us we counted one duck, a Teal at Shellness Point. Not much there to be shared between the numerous wildfowlers that will turn out at dawn on the 1st September but it'll be good to have a chat with some of them and swap countryside opinions with people whos'e experience amounts to far more than simply watching Countryfile.
On the subject of country matter as well, I was thinking about the dearth of sheep these days on the Isle of Sheep as it once was, and got to thinking about "dagging." As the year progresses, sheep build up balls of hard dung around their rear end that we used to know as "tag" or "dag nuts". If not removed these "dag nuts" quite often attracted fly maggots and so farmers would round up the sheep, pen them, and then using the same small shears that they used to shear with, would trim off all these "dag nuts" - hence "dagging." Not the best of jobs on a hot day but I presume it still goes on.

The rush to get bales of hay and straw off the fields while everything's still dust dry carries on at some pace and this morning I was watching a stack of wheat straw being created. Its interesting that while barley and even rape straw and of course hay, have good re-sale values, wheat straw hasn't. There is no food goodness in it for livestock and so unless someone can be found that say uses it for house insulation or perhaps livestock bedding, its pretty much a nuicance by-product to farmers. These days as well, they bale it in the much larger, triple-size bales which do not stack anywhere as tightly and safely as the old fashioned small bales that could be stacked easily in the brick-work style.

And finally, the Local Drainage Board have been out over the last few weeks with their machinery cutting and tidying many of Harty's overgrown ditches, as they do every year at this time. Perhaps not everybody's happy with such tidying up but it is necessary and the reeds will be a foot high again in a couple of weeks. It also brings in many Green Sandpipers, attracted by the ability to get along the exposed muddy ditch edges for food.

Sunday 19 August 2012

Perfect weather

I know I posted a similar picture on my last posting but I couldn't resist it again, it is has a tranquil feel and so typifies the time of year. Not only that Blogger has improved its picture format and by double clicking on the photo you can see it it in full size, almost as though you're actually there. Let's hope Blogger retains this format.

Even at 6.30 this morning the temperature was in the low 20's and climbing, and how fantastic it was to be able to walk round in just shorts and a T shirt at that time of day. With the temperature set to reach the low 30's today, well, how much better can life get, I love it but sadly it won't last.
Predictably however, one or two local bloggers, indeed those who've spent half the summer moaning about it being cold and wet, are now complaining about it being too hot and sunny - I wonder if the words ideal and perfect, actually exist in their odd lives.

Walking round this last few days it has been heartening to see the return of one or two species that have been struggling lately. Small flocks of Greenfinches have been evident over the last few days and this morning one flock numbered around 60 birds, hopefully its a sign that the dreaded disease that has killed them by many thousands in recent summers hasn't struck too badly this year. Likewise, whilst only being seen regularly in 2-3's, Small Tortoiseshell are being seen again, which is hopefully an encouraging sign. There were also a couple of Painted Ladies about as well this morning. Green Sandpipers still continue to get up from every patch of mud and shallow water and Little Egrets enjoy the easy fishing in the shallow water that is now very much the norm again.

All in all it was a perfect morning and a real joy to be out in such lovely weather, free of any hint of cold.

Monday 13 August 2012

Idling Along

After being spoiled by several cloudless days recently, it was much cloudier and duller this morning on the reserve but remained very humid and warm, and so that still suited me, anything is better than rain and cold. However, rain is forecast tonight and so there is much activity on the neighbouring farmland to get in the last of the wheat crop and the bales of straw that go with it.
The first sight that I had this morning as I looked across The Swale from the seawall were 17 Common Seals  basking on the exposed top part of Horse Sands in the middle of the channel. Judging by their smaller size and gingery colouring, three of the seals were presumably this years pups. Over the next hour the tide gently rose and slipped gradually across the top of the sandbank and the seals, like small ships slipping anchor, lifted off the sand with it and began to drift into the open channel. There, after at first floating on their backs like humans sometimes do, a yacht came by and one by one their heads slipped beneath the surface and they  were gone, just the ripples marking where they'd been.

A comment that is being shared between some of the local bloggers at the moment is one of how quiet it is bird-wise at the moment and how hopefully the impending autumn will bring about a rush of passage birds and things will all be rosy again. It does seem with some of these bloggers that unless they can go out and find loads of birds of many varieties every visit, that they have little else to write about, they must surely see other events unfolding as they walk round, why not write about them. It might even make the odd repetitive and boring blog, more interesting.
This morning as I walked round, pretty much simply dawdling along and idling the time away, with no particular target species or counts in mind, its surprising what you see and hear and how such wildlife kaleidoscopes can mark your year and yet some fail to write it all down and share it. As I wandered round this morning at the speed of an arthritic tortoise and musing on how well the Spice Girls looked last night, butterflies rose regularly from the vegetation, Gatekeepers, Meadow Browns, Small Skippers, a pristine, new-hatch Common Blue and heart-warmingly giving a ray of hope, the odd Small Tortoiseshell. Its the time of year when you find the odd Mole, trapped on the surface because it can't dig back into the rock-hard ground, either that or Ratty has gone off and left him.
The rock-hard ground then leads your train of thought to realise that yes, despite the wet summer, the ground is bone dry, the rills have dried up, ditches are low again, and are we heading into another dry winter, it could easily happen. Two Whimbrel circle the reserve at some distance, "whinnying" non-stop as they go and once again your thought train goes into over-drive. They remind you that its nearly autumn and autumn means nearly winter and winter means warm fires and sloe-gin, and only the heat of the sun breaking through the clouds drags you back from such depressing thoughts - winter, oh no, don't do winter! Glancing up and onto the farmland, the last cuts of wheat are taking place and where there stood rape a few weeks ago, it has now been cut, its straw stacked and the soil lightly harrowed ready to receive the seed for next year's wheat crop shortly. As the wheat straw is baled and collected that to will immediately be re-sown with rape seed and so the cycle quickly goes on.
A Buzzard watches me approaching from his perch atop a hawthorn bush, not sure if its me or the two dogs he should be watching, and eventually drifts lazily across the stubble fields, or grattens as we used to call them. Some bales have been left dotted round the field edges to serve as butts for the game and pigeon shooters although there's no sign so far of any game-bird poults being released in the area, perhaps the game shooting will be much restricted this year. I hope not as the shooting needs the habitat and vice-versa and if one goes, both go and we couldn't afford to lose the habitat.
In the ditches the Yellow Water Irises that lit the place up with their bright yellow flowers in the Spring, are now bent over with the weight of large, green seed pods, all ready to ripen and burst their seeds into the water below. And still barely a Marsh Frog has been heard croaking this summer, a really worrying sign and something that takes much away from the atmosphere of the place.

So all of this and much, much more, is seen, heard or thought about in an average day as one idles along and yet so few write about it in their quest to record the same birds most days.

Saturday 11 August 2012

Swale Barges

 The annual Swale Sailing Barge Match took place this morning from Harty Ferry. Here are few photoes taken from the reserve seawall as they began lining up for the start at 8.30. There were 11 barges in total and dozens of smaller boats of various sizes and type. (double click on the first photo to bring them up a bit better)

Thursday 9 August 2012

Misty Reflections

There were more signs of Autumn on the reserve this morning, A multitude of cobwebs stood out in the longer vegetation, sprinkled as they were with dampness from the mist, and a rare butterfly these days, the Small Tortoiseshell, put in an appearance as they sometimes do in late summer.

The thick mist and humidity certainly added to the autumnal feel this morning and did little for any long-distance sighting of birds but close to hand the signs continued of the "escape" beginning to happen. A constant stream of almost entirely juvenile Swallows, casually made their way south across the marsh, circling the grass tops at regular intervals to snap at insects, and the first two returning Wheatears, an adult pair, flashed white rumps in the mist. Annually, many of us envy that ability to simply fly south and escape the cold and the wet, returning just as the Spring begins again but few of us manage it.

On mornings such as this, you find yourself bathed in a warm melancholia and simply walking the marsh and reflecting on what the year has been like thus far. The winter began in great style with the arrival of two Rough-legged Buzzards, large numbers of Short-eared Owls and Lapland Buntings that increased throughout the winter months to reach record numbers in just two small fields. These sightings were countered however, by another winter of greatly reduced wildfowl and Lapwing numbers and, for the first time ever, no Coots until the Spring.
We enjoyed the unseasonably warm March but ended it feeling very despondent at the drought conditions that prevailed and their likely impact on the coming breeding season. It might be that things might of been better if those conditions had prevailed because for the next three months we endured a constant diet of cold, wet and windy conditions. The vegetation suddenly grew like mad and ground nesting birds either saw their nests washed out or their chicks dying from being forever wet and cold, or starving due to a lack of insect life. Lapwings were especially badly hit and on both Elmley and The Swale NNR there were both less breeding pairs and a big drop in successfully fledged chicks. At the same time, the grazier on both reserves, seeing the parched grazing conditions in March, reduced his cattle numbers for the summer season only to get caught out by the subsequent surge in vegetation that the smaller herds have never been able to keep up with. Whilst we are still rounding up the breeding numbers for The Swale NNR, it is clear without looking at any totals that it has been a disaster and probably one of the worst seasons in the reserve's history.

The breeding season aside there have also been a few other changes on The Swale. The remaining hides were removed/made inaccessible due to their rotten condition and the reserve was in effect temporarily closed to visitors. Once expected planning permission is granted by the local Council in the next few weeks, the purchase and erection of two replacement hides will take place and hopefully by the winter, visitors should be able to view the reserve in comfort again. What else, oh yes, Natural England, apart from still owning the site, finally cut their ties with it by doing away in June with us Volunteer Wardens. We are officially no more so to speak, although NE's contracted managers of the reserve, Elmley Conservation Trust, still encourage us to continue as we were.
The three of us that regularly monitor the reserve also decided to reduce the number of monthly WEBS counts that we do, this year, with none for March, April, May and June, which has made a difference to the monthly bird totals. Although we're all retired, we have and by sheer coincidence, all, for various reasons, seen our enthusiasm for regular recording in general this year, drop away. Will that enthusiasm return, well I can't speak for the others, but me personally, I can't say. I have struggled with various aspects of the conservation movement in recent years, with my own changing views, with other's blinkered and narrow views and their failure despite those views, to actually contribute anything meaningful and physical to conservation.
Perhaps it is just a morning's misty reflection but I get the feeling that some things are dragging towards an end.

Wednesday 8 August 2012

Nothing To Say

 DOUBLE CLICK ON THE FIRST PHOTO TO BRING THEM UP SHARPER. (there were pretty heavy skies this morning so the light wasn't too good)

There's been a sailing barge in The Swale off Harty this week, with a strange sail. Perhaps its a spare sail while the proper one is being repaired or something, but from a distance it gives the boat the appearance of a Viking longship and is quite spooky.

Aside from that, its dreadfully uninspiring out just lately and its obvious from the dearth of postings on other Kent wildlife blogs, that others are finding it the same. Several have cut back quite a bit on how many postings they now make each week and some haven't posted for a few months, although that could simply be lack of interest. But with us now going into the fag-end of summer and the majority of birds now moulting and therefore off their food, silent and skulking, there's not much to flash the binoculars at. The reserve has stayed remarkably green this year but that and the overgrown state of the grazing marsh, are the only real indications of a wet summer. Water levels are back at normal summer levels and apart from the daily dozen or so Green Sandpipers scattered around the reserve, there's few other birds about, especially wildfowl. Walking round in warm and sometimes sunny conditions and seeing so few ducks, it's hard to believe that the wildfowling season will be starting in just three weeks time. There won't be much shot, that's for sure.

The farmers have been out in force the last few weeks, desperately trying to pretty much get in three crops - hay, rape and wheat - all at the same time. Wet weather has seen the harvesting of the first two held back until quite late this year and I believe that some of the rape had to be sprayed with a substance that prevented the pods from bursting open when they did eventually get on it. The late harvesting of the rape was quite ironic because in one rape field alongside the reserve three pairs of Marsh Harriers nested and we fully expected the young to be lost to the normal combining operations. The very late harvesting of that field this year would of easily seen the young fledge first but sadly, all three nests failed due to the continually sodden and cold state of the rape after egg laying.

So, at the moment, all that's really going on is the wheat harvest and its strange to see that happening this year without huge clouds of dust following the combine harvester.