Tuesday 26 March 2013

Never Ending Winter,

Well, this never ending winter goes on, this March will almost certainly go down as one of the coldest on record and if the Met Office forecast is accurate, the whole of April could go the same way. I'm still visiting the reserve most mornings but as someone who doesn't enjoy the cold too well, it's not an enjoyable time at the moment, it's simply an endurance test each time. Walking across those exposed marshes at the moment is like being inside a cold store with the blowers on, that bitter cold E wind is unrelenting in it's ability to freeze any piece of exposed flesh. I guess I have the dogs to be thankful for just now because their daily desire for a good walk does at least get me out and about, otherwise I'd probably spend the whole day stuck indoors,wasting my life away. Certainly any decent bird watching has suffered, it's an effort at times to stop in the cold and put the binoculars up. One thing that is obvious though, is the fact that this last week, wildfowl numbers have continued to drop on the reserve by probably 50%, perhaps they've gone south looking for warmer weather! Oh for one of those warm, sunny, May mornings, sitting on the sea wall with spiders spinning webs in the grass alongside me, butterflies flitting by, the constant calls of Redshanks and Lapwings on the marsh in front. Oh for anything but a never ending winter!

It was interesting last night to read the latest posting from a mid-Kent blogger. He announced that his idyllic local patch of woods, hedgerows and small fields is likely to be part destroyed by both the building of a new school and the clearance of a tree nursery. His patch records compiled over the last ten years look likely to be consigned to history. It is another small example of what so many of us in this country are now experiencing, a new development on our doorstep and no matter how big and widespread they are, there is still the clamour for the profits that even more will represent.
Here on Sheppey, developers are currently three quarters of the way through building a new housing estate of many thousands of houses, which when completed will be the size of a small town and it is all taking place on what was virgin farmland on the southern slopes of Minster. Even more worrying is that just across the road from that another similar sized amount of current farmland is also alleged to be owned by developers, and so it goes on.
 No matter how wide open the view from our window might be, we should never be so smug as to think, it will never happen here, because there is every possibility that it will. This current government, and I'm one who was foolish enough to vote for them, seems to have a paranoia about seeing undeveloped countryside and just hours after last week's budget a senior Tory minister had a meeting with the heads of most of the construction companies. At that meeting he apparently promised that this current government are now going all out to reduce the red tape that allows local councils to block or delay new housing/shop developments in the countryside. Tomorrow the new National Planning Policy Framework comes into effect and with it a new "presumption in favour of sustainable development". The green light is being well and truly lit for a headlong and unrestricted rush to concrete over much of the countryside and if we think it's bad at the moment, it's due to get a darn sight worse!

As for me, well, outing my own degree of smugness I like to thank heaven for the marshes of Sheppey, at least they're not likely to be built on in my lifetime, no, but there's no reason why a line of giant wind turbines couldn't be erected there! Already sitting on the sea front watching the ships go by has changed there to watching the turbines go round and turbines are regularly rumoured for Harty marshes. If I thank heavens for anything now it's the fact that I'm 65, I've lived on Sheppey through it's best years and I won't live long enough now to see the 12x8 miles housing estate that it's set to become.

Tuesday 19 March 2013

Weather Extremes

Over the last several days the weather this March has continued to veer between very bad, to reasonable and back to bad again, but rarely good. As I mentioned in my last posting, Friday the 8th saw many hours of continuous rain that re-flooded the reserve again and this was followed on Sunday 10th by arctic winds and frequent and heavy sleet and snow showers. That day was due to be our last harrier roost count of this winter and so late afternoon on that Sunday saw the four of us that count in the harriers to their various roosts on and around Sheppey, set out in some appalling weather. As I made my way across the flooding and mud on the reserve towards the sea wall hide there was an icy E. gale blowing that chilled me to the bone and I got soaked once in a heavy and gusty sleet shower. At least I had the shelter of the hide from which to do my count in the decreasing light but even in there I gradually became colder and colder with every snow shower and gust of the icy wind.
No such luck for another of the guys, whose regular watching point is on the edge of the high ground behind Leysdown, where he has a view down across the Leysdown marshes towards Capel Fleet and Harty. A couple of times I saw his dark shape in the distance disappear as the white fog of a heavy snow shower was blasted across the hillside engulfing him. But each time he would quickly re-appear, like some dark scarecrow but still looking through his telescope and I did shiver at the thought of what such exposure must of felt like, although his comment after was simply that "it was a tad chilly". The other two observers suffered a similar fate apparently but the roost counts were encouraging, despite being down on previous years.
I had 2 Hen Harriers go into roost on the Shellness saltings, at two sites on Harty a total of 39 Marsh Harriers roosted and finally, at a site on the mainland opposite Elmley, 33 Marsh Harriers roosted.

The following day three of us were due to carry out our last WEBS count on and around The Swale NNR but the weather was even worse and common sense prevailed. The arctic NE wind was gusting to excess of gale at times and a combination of -5 degrees chill factor and heavy snow showers made the thought of one of us standing in that in such an exposed place as Shellness Point for a couple of hours, a definite no go and so we cancelled the count for a couple of days. It was a good decision because two days later on the Wednesday of last week, the weather had changed yet again to light winds and sunshine, certainly not Spring but far better. My section, all the main marsh part of the reserve, which included The Flood field, now very much living up to it's name, not only looked superb in the sunlight but was covered in record numbers of wildfowl and waders which some counting from the Seawall Hide. Here is a flavour of what I saw there.
210 White-fronted Geese - 70 Greylag Geese - 10 Canada Geese - 5 Barnacle Geese - 350 Brent Geese - 450 Shelduck - 900 Wigeon - 1100 Teal - 190 Mallard - 200 Pintail - 30 Shoveler - 14 Pochard - 14 Tufted Duck - 110 Coot - 30 Avocet - 130 Grey Plover - 150 Lapwing - 800 Dunlin - 18 Snipe - 60 Blackwit - 120 Barwit - 280 Curlew  - 180 Herring Gull - 1 Hooded Crow and a few other bits and pieces.  That was just my count and despite one of the others having a poor count, I feel sure that the guy at Shellness Point would of also had a few thousand mixed waders at the high tide roost.
For the three of us that have done these WEBS counts on the reserve for many years, it was our very last count, we have retired from them, we are all past our middle 60's in age and enduring weather conditions as described above, on a specific day, can often be a commitment too far these days. We will still continue with the harrier roost counts next year and will still continue to record on the reserve most weeks but it will be when it suits us. We feel it is time to hand over the WEBS counts there to younger people if they can be bothered, because it's surprising how many of these counts are undertaken by older people.

Continuing with the weather theme of last week, the morning after our WEBS count was also one of warm sunshine out of a chilly breeze, to the extent that I accidentally stood on the tail of a first lizard of the year, which it promptly discarded as they do in order to escape. It is shown in the photograph above, still looking a bit cold, lethargic and tail-less. Since then the weather has returned to a cold, wet and windy mode and winter continues to eat away at what should by now be Spring, the title of my previous posting still rings true!

Saturday 9 March 2013

Spring Will Be a Little Late This Year

The frogs in my garden pond have been busy this last few days and nights producing copious quantities of spawn, a cluster of the frogs can be seen immediately above the spawn. Hopefully the arctic blast that is forecast for the coming week won't kill off too much of the spawn and I'll be able to put a good number of the eventual tadpoles aside in a large bin, to safely grow on to adult hood away from the attentions of the pond's goldfish. If only the local herons would visit the pond more frequently I might be able to get the goldfish regularly culled, they swarm like piranhas around the newly hatched tadpoles each Spring.

A brief visit to the reserve this morning proved to be a fairly depressing experience after yesterday's 14 hrs of almost non-stop rain. Water levels had returned to those of 5-6 weeks ago, we were back to square one, so to speak. A cold mistiness as well all added to a general air of intense dampness and wet that was so much at odds with how the reserve had progressed to by Tuesday just gone. After a couple of weeks of drying and fairly mild weather, we ended up on Tuesday with a day of warm sunshine that had Peacock and Small Tortoiseshell butterflies fluttering around the barn doors and Lapwings carrying out courtship displays, it all looked like Spring was apon us. This morning I splashed my way through the surface water lying across the grazing meadows and checked on a couple of newly created Lapwing nest scrapes that I'd found earlier this week. They were sitting in an inch of rain water but luckily no eggs have been laid yet. Likewise a Coot's nest in the barn ditch that was half built yesterday but today was completely under water, the ditch's water level had risen a good foot, or more, overnight. Clearly one warm day doesn't make a Spring, anymore than one Swallow makes a summer but this year Spring is still looking like a forlorn dream at the moment, we could wake up one day and find ourselves in summer, having missed it all together.
It wasn't just the reserve either, the farmland all round it was just as water-logged. Over the last fortnight, as it dried out, tractors had finally been able to get on it and carry out some harrowing operations prior to putting in crops that they weren't able to in the wet autumn. Judging by the water-logging visible this morning this will now be set back several more weeks and its looking pretty much like a write-off year this year for some crops. Livestock operations will also be hampered on the marsh grazing fields unless they dry out and begin re-growing fairly quickly, cattle and their new born calves, currently held in winter stock pens, will have to be held there longer in order to avoid damaging the water-logged fields.

Wheatears were seen in Sussex and Devon earlier this week, but as the song goes, "Spring will be a little late this year" -  hopefully they won't regret being the first summer visitors to get here.

Sunday 3 March 2013

A Sunny Look Forward

The first sight that assailed me early this morning as I arrived at the reserve barn, was the sun breaking through the clouds, yes the sun, a rare sight recently. Not only that, it got sunnier, with patches of blue sky breaking through and with no cold wind, it felt great, it felt like Spring was just around the corner. Clearly the birds felt the same because Skylarks seemed to be singing from most patches of sky, the whistles of Wigeon and Teal were everywhere and even a few pairs of Lapwings were performing their aerial courtship displays. To round this "feel" of Spring off, I found the first newly created Lapwing nest scrape. Yes, not only was Spring in the air but I had one in my step as I walked round.
The reserve has had a real, proper look of a wetland nature reserve just lately, with large areas of flooded or boggy grass permanently covered with shed loads of wildfowl and waders, feeding, roosting, washing and now courting. Many ducks are back in numbers that we haven't seen for some time and as I said recently, even the Coots have got back to there normal winter flock sizes, some can be seen below.

I don't normally do lists of birds on here that much, I find that those lists can get a bit repetitive and boring on a daily basis, much preferring to simply describe the general goings on and gossip from the area, but for a change, here's a few of today's sightings.
2 Little Egret - 3 Grey Heron - 2 Little Grebe - 30 Mute Swan - 70 White-fronted Geese - 5 Barnacle Geese - 50 Greylag Geese - 600 Brent Geese - 300 Shelduck - 3 Tufted Duck - 160 Pintail - 600 Teal - 700 Wigeon - 20 Gadwall - 60 Shoveler - 200 Mallard - 1 Buzzard - 6 Marsh Harrier - 1 ringtail Hen Harrier - 1 Kestrel - 2 Barn Owl - 110 Coot - 800 Lapwing - 20 Meadow Pipit - 2 Bearded Tit - 1 Hooded Crow - 80 Carrion Crow - 20 Greenfinch - 8 Chaffinch - 16 Reed Bunting.