Thursday 27 December 2012


Continuing my theme of recent posts regarding the flooding at Harty, Sheppey, some of you will recall visiting the two RSPB fields below Muswell Manor, Leysdown last winter in order to spot the Lapland Bunting flock that had built up there. The buntings were feeding on the weed seed in both of the fields and the flock built up to around 60 odd birds.
The two fields are seperated by a raised bund and I took these photos this morning at sunrise, standing on the bund looking towards Shellness Hamlet. All four photos are of the left-hand field, which as you can see, indicates the extent of flooding both on those two fields and on The Swale NNR alongside. Hard to believe buntings were feeding in this field last winter. (Sorry about the darkness of the photos but sunrise was being threatened by approaching dark rain clouds at the time)

Wednesday 26 December 2012

Boxing Day Blue Skies

Getting up this morning at 5.30 as usual, the first thing I spotted out of the window was a full moon setting in the western sky, and a clear sky full of stars at that - actually no rain for once! That definitely meant an early visit to the reserve to take full advantage of a potential sunny and dry morning - such a rare occurrence just lately.
With the area around the reserve barn somewhat flooded and mucky I parked the car at Elliotts Farm on the bend of the Harty Road and spent 10 mins. walking down to the reserve. As you can see from the photo above, it was still fairly dark as I did so and only towards the east was there any lightness in the sky, but it was really great and both myself and the dogs were overjoyed to be out again after spending all day yesterday indoors.

Arriving at, and leaving the reserve barn behind, the next daunting task was to attempt the somewhat hazardous trek across the marsh to the sea wall. Above you can see the gate upright in the flood which indicates where the track is, once through that you turn right and wade through huge areas of flooding and soft mud to get to the sea wall in the distance, not made easy by the limited light.

Halfway across, I stopped to take yet another photo of the flooded grazing marsh. Some of you may recall my posting with the purple toadstool a few months ago, this is where it was taken, hardly condusive to fungi growing now!
It's hard to convey how hard that journey across the marsh now is, you are either wading through water that threatens to flood your wellies, or forever pulling your feet, step by step, out of deep and clinging mud. But hero that I am, I eventually climbed up onto the lofty heights of the sea wall and took in the beauty that is The Swale with the dawn sky behind it. Being Boxing Day, that traditional day for killing things in the countryside by various groups of people, I had anticipated, indeed trekked through mud and water to confirm it, that there would be numerous wildfowlers on the saltings in front of the reserve. A squint through my binoculars though, through the fast improving light, only found one such hardy soul and clearly with no visible wildfowl about he wasn't having the best of mornings. Not long after, once the sky had brightened to that of daylight and the sun threatened the horizon, he cleared off home, explaining to me how depressing and quiet it all has been. I could see what he meant, a scan around the reserve found excessively flooded fields and ditches that had burst their banks, conditions heaven made for wildfowl and yet there wasn't a duck or goose to be seen at all. A few small flocks of Lapwings and Carrion Crows, the odd Curlew and Mute Swan and that was it, how does a reserve with such perfect conditions become so empty, we had a crap summer, surely the winter  isn't going to be as bad.

I carried on back across the reserve by a different route, it took me and the dogs through the current sheep flock, looking a tad unhappy in such wet conditions, although I know little about what's good or bad for sheep. One was trapped on its side away from the flock, it regularly happens with sheep with thick fleeces, after lying down they sometimes find it difficult to get upright again and if left for a long period of time, they lose the blood supply to one limb and can eventually die. A bootful of water later I got across to the sheep and struggled to get it upright by lifting it up and supporting it against my leg until the blood supply returned to the dead leg. I tried to walk it around until it returned to normal but it was struggling and regularly fell back over again and so I rang the grazier and left it to him to arrive and sort out the problem.

Moving on and smelling like the inside of a sheep pen, something the dogs reminded me of by keeping their distance, I still hadn't seen a decent bird. I passed another two duck shooters, sitting round a farmland duck flight pond the other side of the reserve fence, they too had seen nothing resembling wildfowl and were just packing up. However, eventually bingo happened, I came across three Pied Wagtails and with them was a Water Pipit - my first ever, it all turned out a good day, blue skies, sunshine and a new bird, it was worth coming.

Wednesday 19 December 2012

A Year of Extremes

The flooding on the reserve continues to increase by the week and with another series of rainy days forecast for the next week, things look like getting worse. We haven't quite reached the levels seen in the photos above, taken around five years ago, but it's a fair bet that early into the New Year we will have done.
Obviously it makes fantastic and attractive habitat for all manner of wildfowl and wading birds and indeed, they become spoilt for choice so to speak, but it makes it bloody difficult, indeed depressing, trying to find a way round the reserve without wearing chest waders. Unless we get a very dry March, which often happens, conditions look set to stay awkward until at least April, which seems an awful long way away!

Looking back through the year, it's certainly been one of extremes as far as conditions have been concerned.   We began 2012 in the middle of a winter drought and despite a few days of snow cover, it remained dry until the end of the winter. Indeed, by the end of March all the ditches, fleets and rills on the reserve were either dry or containing just a few inches of water and it did not bode well for the breeding season that was just beginning. However, as we now know, things changed dramatically during April and we quickly went from one extreme to the other, during April and May it not only stayed cold but it got wetter and wetter. The water courses quickly re-filled to their normal levels but more importantly, as the vegetation began to grow it stayed both wet and cold for long periods of time and with little sun to dry and warm them, the chicks of ground-nesting birds began to succumb to the cold. Birds such as Lapwings, Redshanks and even Skylarks, struggled to keep their chicks not only dry and warm but supplied with the few insects that there were about. Three pairs of Marsh Harriers nesting in rape nearby all saw their chicks succumb as the weight of the wet foliage saw the plants collapse over the nests, making access difficult.
Eventually our counts for The Swale NNR showed just 26 breeding pairs of Lapwings (a 42% drop on 2011) and only c. 4 chicks fledged. Redshanks also fledged very few chicks and even our resident pair of Barn Owls had their chicks die while still in the nest, presumably due to the parents finding it difficult to hunt for food in constantly wet vegetation.

It was quite frankly a disaster of a breeding season all round, borne out as we went into June, by suggestions that it was the wettest summer on record. That for me, was also a bit of an extreme statement, or it was where Sheppey was concerned, because as June progressed into July and August and we did eventually get some warm and dry weather, the reserve began to quickly dry out again. It certainly wasn't the kind of blistering weather that I would of liked but the reserve continued to dry out and lo and behold, by September we were back to near drought conditions - quite incredible, no water, no wildfowl and few waders! The continuing statements in the papers of how it had been the wettest summer on record all seemed a bit daft as we looked at parched rills and low ditch levels again.
And now, just to complete this year's mad merry-go-round of weather extremes, we are approaching flood levels again across the reserve, could we possibly fit in sweltering temperatures in the two weeks that are left - I somehow doubt that.

Monday 17 December 2012

Harrier Roost Counts

Arriving on the seawall yesterday afternoon at 3.15, ready to carry out this winter's 3rd Harrier Roost Count, this was the scene that greeted me. The saltings were part covered by a high tide of around 6.0 metres in height. The water gradually receded, as did the light, but it had the effect of deterring any Hen Harriers coming into their traditional roost site on the saltings down towards Shellness Hamlet.
I was also surprised to watch a lone wildfowler and his dog make their way along the seawall later than usual and somehow find a way to get out to the seaward edge of the saltings, without disappearing down any of the flooded rills. The tide was ebbing fast as he positioned himself out there and large parties of Wigeon, Mallard, Shelduck and Brent Geese were drifting past on the fast moving tide, fortunately well out of his range, he could only watch them pass by.
It was indeed one of those late winter afternoons when a high tide one side of the seawall and a well flooded reserve the other side, combined to make very attractive conditions for a wide range of birds, in large numbers. Out on The Swale were some largish flocks of the birds mentioned above, all drifting with the tide and they all seemed to be eventually funneling into the bay created by the shell spit of Shellness Point, which itself had a reduced area due to the height of the tide. On the Point itself, the daily high-tide roost of waders displaced by the tide was well packed with large numbers of Oystercatchers, Dunlin, Knot, etc. and at regular intervals these would all rise into the air and swarm around like distant mosquitoes above a pond, well I was a mile away!
The flooded conditions on the reserve were just as productive and there was a mixed flock of c.500 Brent Geese and 40 Greylag Geese, there were Redshanks, Curlews, Herring and Black-headed Gulls, Mallard, Teal, a couple of Water Rails squealing in the Delph reed beds, Skylarks, Mipits, Reed Buntings, a Sparrowhawk and finally, two Bearded Tits on the reed tops. It was a noisy and scenic winter's dusk and by 4.00, as the light faded fast, the first of three single ring-tail Hen Harriers made it's way along the saltings towards Shellness where it dropped into a raised section of vegetation. It was soon followed by the other two harriers but just as they were about to drop down the wildfowler discharged three rapid shots at what seemed to be an empty sky. He repeated that shortly after and I can only assume that he was trying to scare up the wildfowl that were passing by on the tide with the hope some would pass over him. Unfortunately all it did was to twice startle and scare up the harriers and as I left for home they were still slowly circling round.
All that was left then was the trudge back across the reserve through much surface flood water and areas of clinging mud churned up by the feet of the cows and sheep. It's tiresome hard work in the daylight but in near darkness, trying to avoid the deepest of these areas is quite daunting and I eventually arrived back at the car both wet and wanged out, with two Jack Russells looking very similar - the joys of volunteering for surveys!

So, in the end my count for the evening was just the three Hen Harriers, but along one section of Capel Fleet on Harty 32 Marsh Harriers went into to roost in reed beds, with only one being a male bird. Elsewhere, at a Kemsley reed bed, yet another 32 Marsh Harriers roosted and there 5 were males among those. More counts have yet to be declared but I would expect another 40-50 Marsh Harriers from another Harty site so it all looks good, for Marsh Harriers at least.

Wednesday 12 December 2012

Scarecrows and Frost

Four weeks ago the field above was green and lush with 3in high winter corn. Two weeks ago a flock of 600-800 Brent Geese found it and spent every day then after, eating the green leaves and gradually mowing their way across it from one end to the other. They have left the corn no higher than the soil it is growing from and although with mild weather it will almost certainly recover, it will be some weeks behind where it should be. Somewhat "after the horse has bolted", the farmer has now put a couple of scarecrows and a gas gun into the field and since then the Brents have not returned, but I think that's more a case of nothing left to eat than being scared off.
The extent of lost corn foliage is quite great and its easy to see why farmers eventually lose their patience with the geese and apply for licenses to begin shooting them, although the license issue is greatly flawed.

After a night of severe frost and freezing fog here on Sheppey, this morning after the fog cleared, turned out to be quite scenic with blue skies and sunshine lighting up the hoar frost covering every bush and tree. Here below you can see the frosted hedgerow along the Harty Road, which incidentally, was packed with Fieldfares and Redwings as I drove past.

The concrete track running down to the reserve from Elliotts Farm looked equally as impressive.

On the reserve itself this morning, I never saw that much because shortly after I got there the mist rolled in really thickly again and stayed like that for an hour, before disappearing just as quickly. At first it was quite weird because I had sunshine in front of me and closing in fast behind was a thick wall of mist. It was a bit like a film I saw one time with Jamie Lee Curtis in it, called "The Fog".

Any way, as I say, the mist cleared, the sun re-appeared and I couldn't resist this second photo of another one of the neighbouring scarecrows, this one looking quite ghostly as it stood there.