Thursday 27 June 2013

Owls and Twitching

Early afternoon yesterday came the news that a Black-winged Pratincole had been seen on my patch, The Swale NNR and so I popped back out there hoping to double up seeing that, with watching the ringing of four Barn Owl chicks, on the way.
The Barn Owl chicks were still in their downy, pre-feathered stage and not looking all that attractive but it's really could to see all four surviving so well. Hopefully they will go on to fledge successfully this year, last year the three chicks at that site all died while still in the nest but no doubt last year's cold and wet summer must of made hunting for food quite difficult for the parents.

 In respect of the pratincole, I could see that some people were in the Seawall Hide with more making their way along the sea wall and so I decided to wander over to there and have a chat with those in the hide. There were three birdwatchers in there when I got there and shortly after a fourth arrived, looking slightly the worse for wear after power walking along the overgrown sea wall on a hot afternoon from Shellness car park. In between gasps for air, he enquired after the pratincole only to be told that it had dropped down at the back of the reserve and wasn't currently visible. Personally I wasn't too bothered, I have seen Oriental Collared, Black-winged and Collared Pratincoles out there in the past so it wasn't going to be anything new for me, I simply enjoyed the friendly chat between the guys there before moving off again. Lo and behold, a few hundred yards further along the sea wall, while talking to a couple of birdwatching friends, the pratincole rose up into the air and briefly flew towards us before departing the reserve in the opposite direction, for inner Harty. With that, most of the birdwatchers decided to make their way back along the sea wall to the car park, where others could still be seen arriving. What fascinated me was the fact that they appeared to speak to the departing birdwatchers as they arrived back and presumably learnt that the bird had moved on, these new arrivals also turned round and went. Why come some distance on a lovely afternoon, to a beautiful spot like Harty and not bother to see what else the reserve has to offer - a strange breed these twitching types.
This fact was emphasised, also yesterday, when a Kent birdwatcher announced on the Kent Ornithological Society Forum that he had room for two others tonight when he was due to make his way up to the Western Isles of Scotland in order to see the White-throated Needletail that had been discovered flying around there. What an incredible and expensive journey to make in the hope that something as mobile as a bird would still be there when you get there. In the event last night, there came the news that the bird had collided with a wind turbine and been found dead - make of it all what you will!

Lastly, we have actually had a few days of summer this week, with warm and sunny weather to be enjoyed, as these Dog Rose flowers testify.

Thursday 20 June 2013

Shelducks and Burnets

 I got up early this morning expecting to find everywhere wet with rain but it was dry, pleasantly warm and almost sunny so I set off for the reserve at 6.00 in case it did come on to rain and despite being a bit murky down there it was really pleasant. It is now raining as I wrote this at 11.30.
I took the photo of the delightful Shelduck ducklings whilst walking round the reserve yesterday, alerted to their presence by the two parents running in different directions through the meadow, trailing wings, in order to distract me.
The photo below is a tad misty due to the humid condition on the reserve this morning but it shows the grass slopes part of the reserve that lie down below Harty church. The trees in the distance are around the Ferry House Inn. I have raved about this stretch of the reserve before due to it's wild flower meadow appearance during the summer months and it's ability to attract lots of butterflies and moths, particularly 5 and 6 Spot Burnet moths. During this last winter/early spring these slopes were the winter quarters of several bulls which as well as grazing it down, also left considerable hoof prints in the waterlogged soil. I wasn't too optimistic about it's recovery for the wildlife this summer and haven't been along there for a few weeks but a visit this morning was quite joyous. Not only are the grass and flowers re-grown to knee height but countless Burnet moth chrysalis's were everywhere on the grass stems.

To find all those chrysalis came as a real delight to me, I assumed that they would of over-wintered on the grass stems and so been grazed off. Looking up the moth when I got home it turns out that the larva over-winter in the base of the grass and and then climb new grass stems in the spring to pupate, so nothing has been lost by the grazing at all.
The chrysalis below, judging by the dark shape inside, is close to hatching out the moth.

Most of the chrysalis were of the yellow colour below (excuse blurring) and I imagine they are the most recent ones.

On the saltings at the foot of the grass slopes, one of my favourite wild flowers is currently in bloom, Thrift (Armeria maritima). I can never resist featuring this flower every year, it always reminds me of the saltings and the seashore and our combined history out there.

Wednesday 19 June 2013

Old Style Ditching

During my time working for the Kent River Authority on Sheppey during 1966-72, a lot of the work was still carried out using traditional methods and the photo above, taken in the summer of 1969 shows one of them. It's a poor quality photograph but shows me, aged 22, scything my way along the main drainage ditch at Warden Bay, near Leysdown on Sheppey. My waders had been turned down and in my right hand I was holding the 9in long carborundum stone which we used every few minutes or so to keep a keen edge on the blade of the scythe. Most of the work was done the hard way and we were probably some of the last gangs to do it in such a labour intensive and un-health and safety way.

Hard as it was, this was my favourite job on the KRA and the one that I considered myself to be best at. We were responsible for two major drainage ditches, one draining part of central Minster for about 2-3 miles across fields and into the sea by the Whitehouse restaurant and a similar length one at Warden Bay. By the time that we normally begun ditching in late summer they were normally well overgrown and the one that we cleaned at Minster, Scrapsgate ditch, would normally only be identified as a dark green stripe running through the fields of grass. There the darker green reeds would have completely filled the ditch to the same height as the top of the ditch banks too effectively strangle any potential floodwater from flowing.

Scrapsgate ditch was a great ditch to clean each year, it began with the long rear gardens of houses running down to it on one side, it then ran through grass meadows, underneath a line of willows and hawthorn, back through some meadows and finally, through a holiday camp and out to sea. Two of us began the scything, one on each side of the ditch and starting at the top of the bank with great swishes of the scythe, we cut our way down to the water's edge. My aim, which I like to think was normally achieved, was to leave the ditch banks looking as well cut as a lawn and after that the reeds and sedge would be cut to just below the surface to leave a free flow of water. Scything, like many countryside skills, was all about having a natural feel for it - a continually sharpened blade, a correct angle of cut and most importantly, wanting to be there doing it. Put me in a pair of waders, a scythe in my hand and I felt like I was successfully carrying on a countryside tradition that had been going on for hundreds of years. I got great karma from that and was proud of what I achieved each year but we were obviously the last to do it, soon after I left the KRA the job was done and still is, by a tractor with an extending arm. 
After we had cut a fair length of ditch in this way and raked away the cut grass and reeds, the hard work would begin, we would put down our scythes and turn to long handled ditch rakes. These rakes were a long and strong wooden pole, like an elongated hoe handle but about twelve foot long. At the end were three or four metal tines, curved like claws. These rakes were used by snatching the metal end into the ditch and snagging a clump of reed roots and then pulling it out and swinging it up onto the ditch bank and gradually we opened up the base of the ditch as best as we could. Swinging the weight of a clump of wet and muddy roots round on the end of the pole was extremely hard work and by the end of a day doing this your back, shoulders and wrists felt like they'd been stretched on a medieval rack. But if nothing else it left us with well tanned and muscular bodies and the sense of achievement that you get from a hard day's work, but it was a low paid job, when I left in 1972 I was earning £9 to £12 a week and overnight went into Sheerness Docks on plus £150 a week. 
For some of us though, before married life and mortgages increased our financial needs, it was almost enough to simply be working in the countryside and to experience and learn about all the wildlife that you encountered each day. Water Voles were still common then throughout most of the ditch systems, although I doubt that we did their habitat much good in the short term by the removal of their food supply and natural cover. Grass snakes were also seen regularly, swimming across the ditches, there were all the regular waterside birds and flowers to identify and learn about. One day there was even the panic of me pulling out a short object with fins, on the end of my rake, that looked suspiciously like a small bomb of some sort. Needless to say it was gently lowered to the ground and we ran to the nearest phone box to ring the police. The bomb disposal guys arrived a few hours later and it was indeed an unexploded incendiary bomb, nothing too dangerous but not what you want to see on the end of a rake.  

Saturday 15 June 2013


Visitors to the Swale National Nature Reserve at Harty, Sheppey will now find two new information boards, one at Shellness car park and the other (above) at the end of the track down from Harty church.
The reserve currently looks as good as it has done for many years and is also enjoying a very good breeding season and so is well worth a visit.

 Continuing the reserve improvements being carried out by Elmley Conservation Trust (ECT), the new Seawall Hide has recently had steps and a handrail installed for ease of access.

The installation of the signs means that access to the Tower Hide at the rear of the reserve is now available, access is through the gate illustrated below, around three quarters of a mile along the top of the sea wall from the Shellness car park (details on the information board).
On going through the gate, follow the top of the bund until the first gate at its end and then, turning left, follow the boundary fence round to the hide. Please return the same way.

Thursday 13 June 2013

Never Starting Summer - Part 2

 It's getting damm near impossible at the moment to be able to write a blog about the great outdoors without mentioning the atrocious weather we're experiencing. Battling my way along the top of the seawall this morning it was a case of, close your eyes, re-open them again and what month is it - October? - nope, its mid-June and a week away from the Longest Day. I was struggling to make headway in a near gale-force W wind as overhead dark grey clouds sped by across the sky, wavelets scudded along the surface of the fleet and the reed beds waved violently to and fro. The two photos, above and below, illustrate the heaviness of the sky and how dull the light was. Just look at the sky racing towards me along the top of the seawall and how dark it looked across The Swale, more like dusk in winter than 10.00 in the morning in mid-summer.

It's been quite apparent for a few years now that the traditional four seasons of the British year don't seem to be happening anymore. We only seem to be getting a six month winter, with it's alternating mild and cold spells and then a six month early autumn. Perhaps I'm being a bit extreme but with this current grotty weather forecast to last into July surely autumn won't be far behind any warm and sunny spell that we get.

However, the Yellow Iris below were doing their best to brighten up one of the ditches with their own brand of sunshine.

Also, whilst walking along one of the now, near dry rills, I accidentally disturbed an Oystercatcher from it's nest and three eggs as seen below. They're a tad late, but what isn't this year, but hopefully three chicks will soon be joining all the other wader chicks that currently wandering around the reserve.

Driving back up the farm track after leaving the reserve, a pair of Pheasant were wandering about ahead of me and I was surprised to see a week old chick suddenly emerge from the long grass and join them. It disappeared as quick as it came and so I couldn't get a photo of it but hopefully it wasn't the only one of a brood. Predation and cold, wet vegetation take a heavy toll on game bird chicks while they're still at the fluffy stage.

Tuesday 11 June 2013

The Never Starting Summer

As this year's endless winter began to encroach on what should of been early Spring, people in their desperation, often referred to it as the "never ending winter," it now seems that we are experiencing a "never starting summer."
Almost mid-June and the Longest Day and this morning I had to have lights on in the house because it was so dull outside and was almost tempted last night to put the central heating on for half an hour, although perhaps that was just me and old age. In fairness though, walking round the reserve this morning, despite the dullness of the day, it was at least much warmer - the relentlessly cold NE wind has finally swung round and become a warm S one. Such small joys this summer but how I long for a couple of weeks of proper summer - hot and sunny days from dawn to dusk, butterflies constantly on the wing, sitting by cool water watching dragonflies and fish rising to the fly. A real summer, where after just two weeks of it the words drought and "it's too hot" suddenly start appearing - that's what we need, not this warm weather and grey skies or sunny skies and cold winds. Will it happen yet, who knows - will people moan if it does, course they will.

I was disappointed this morning, walking along the reserve seawall, to see three people out on Horse Sands at low tide. Horse Sands is the large and long sandbank in The Swale off Harty, between Sheppey and the mainland. The sands have always been a popular low-tide roost and feeding site for all manner of wading birds and wildfowl and in recent years, a place most days where you can often see 20+ Common Seals resting between tides. At this time of the year as well, there are often pups with the adults.
This morning at low-tide there was an inflatable boat on there and three guys wandering around with fishing rods and obviously, no bird or seal life. More worryingly though was the fact that they appear to have driven in ten, evenly spaced fence stakes along the low-tide water line and I can only assume that they intend to either hang fishing line and hooks, or nets between the posts in order to catch fish between the tides. This whole thing, which is possibly illegal, gives rise to two main concerns, the hazard that these posts will become to small boats and yachts whilst invisible under the water and possible disturbance and harm sustained by the seals.
If fish are being caught on lines and nets then they will become attractive to the seals, which could become injured as they try and take them. In turn, if the fishermen are finding half-eaten fish in their gear when they return, they could take preventative measures against the seals. Perhaps I'm reading too much into what was happening there but it didn't look good and it was at least the second day running that those people have been seen there.

Further to the mention of my very first Adder sighting in Surrey in my last posting, I am also seeing increased numbers of Grass Snakes on the reserve this year. Over the last three weeks I have already seen three, not a lot by some people's standards but more than I would see in any one year most of the time. All a bit strange when you consider how cold it's been most of the time. Perhaps like us on the odd hot day this year, they just throw caution to the wind and throw off their clothes, or skin in their case, and become extra visible taking advantage of it - a bit like the nudists at the Shellness nudist beach!

Sunday 9 June 2013

March winds and summer sun

The weather this last week has once again thrown up one of those "when did we last" weather questions that have been do dominant this year so far. This week it was a case of when did we last have NE winds persist so strongly in June. Every day this last week it has been the same pattern. The walk round the reserve being undertaken each morning with a coat on and head down into a strong and cold wind under heavy grey skies - weather reminiscent of a typical week in March. If it was March it would be considered reasonable weather but in June when your thoughts are on warmth and dragonflies, bees and butterflies, it wasn't pleasant and greatly spoiled each day. The afternoons also repeated themselves in that by lunch time the sun would burst through, blue skies would dominate and if you could get out of that dammed chilly wind it was really warm. In the afternoons the wind was silly because on one side of a hedge you could be roasting but on the other, windy side, you'd almost need a coat back on. What's next in this year of unusual weather patterns I wonder, snow in summer, surely not and that would be stretching the memory bank.

The breeding season on the reserve has now peaked and it's now more a case of seeing what young birds have survived both the weather and predation. At the moment it looks as though both Lapwings and Redshanks, especially Redshanks, are set to have much better seasons than of late and the perfect conditions in the Flood field have seen what is probably our best Avocet breeding colony recorded. What has been difficult, with the increasing height of the vegetation in there, is just how many Avocet chicks have been produced but I have seen a few chicks running around. Another thing with Avocets once they have young chicks is their habit of moving the chicks away from the breeding area. The parents and chicks can become quite nomadic at times and currently on the reserve, several pairs have walked their chicks away from the Flood and are now to be found along the muddy rills that are a spread around the flat grazing fields. If nothing else it can reduce concentrations of chicks being found in one place and therefore reduce the predation risk.

But to go back to the weather this week, it really hasn't made for an enjoyable time on the reserve. Standing on the seawall in early June in the same coat that you wore in the winter, being buffeted by cold winds and watching the tall reed beds being smashed to and fro isn't fun. I find myself thinking about Reed Warblers and the nests that they twine between the stems, will those nests have been wrenched apart by the wind action. In all probability it's just us humans that react to such unseasonable weather in the way that we do, wildlife probably just take it as it comes and adjust, perhaps we should stop believing what is forecast for us weather-wise each week, perhaps we should forget about sayings such as "flaming June" and simply think "flipping June".

But a bit of good news, I'm down at the girlfriend's in Surrey as I write this and whilst walking round a huge area of heathland yesterday, in glorious warm sunshine I might add, I saw my first ever Adder basking in the sun. We don't have Adders on Sheppey, or the habitat that suits them and so both were a real bonus for me. Couple that with a Red Kite flying over her garden during the afternoon yesterday and if nothing else a bad week is ending on a positive note, albeit I've had to get away from Sheppey and that nagging NE wind for it to happen.

Tuesday 4 June 2013

Sunshine and Debating the news

At very long last, or so it is forecast, we are going to have more than a couple of successive days of warm and sunny weather, this summery weather could last for a whole week!
If you lived on the North and East coasts of Kent this morning then you might of laughed at that forecast, the weather was nothing like it. On the Swale NNR at 10.00 this morning, the winter coat was back on as strong and blustery NE winds blew in non-stop heavy grey clouds in off the sea - it was not a pleasant walk round and certainly not warm! Eventually, from lunch-time onward, we had unbroken sunshine but back home it was a case of two halves, the back garden out of the wind was very warm, walk round the front of the house and almost a coat was needed.
 Anyway, that aside, in my book May and June have to be two of the best months of the year, everything looks so lush and new, young life is everywhere as the breeding season reaches it's climax, wild flowers begin to flower and in yesterday's sun retirement seemed a wonderful time of life.
The first and by the look of it, only pair of breeding Mute Swans on the reserve this year, are now parading their cygnets and the lovely ruby-red Houndstongue flowers are beginning to emerge - shame the plant stinks of mouse urine.

Because of the lateness of the Spring, the hawthorn's blossom is more a case of June flower than May flower this year but it still looks good all the same.

 Buttercups are at last giving sustenance to insects.

I even found this one patch of the tiny-flowered Field Forget-Me-Not, something I can't recall seeing on the reserve before.

Water Crowfoot is also flowering and, if you look closely, also feeding a lone bee.

 Even the normally boring ditch-side sedge is trying to compete in the flowering stakes, debatable if its winning or not.

Finally, this "Kate-ern" or Grey Heron, seemed happy to stand around long enough for me to get a photo of it.

The remains of Natural England were both in the news and debated last week. I have made mention of the demise of this once credible organisation before in my blogs but last week it was finally revealed just how far down the plug-hole that they have sunk. The RSPB revealed that Natural England have kept secret the fact that they have given the gamekeeper on a large shooting estate a licence to remove the nests and eggs of four pairs of Buzzards - because they were interfering with the rearing of thousands of pheasants that were being reared to be shot. So there we have it, birds of prey, protected in law, are now being sacrified so that thousands of artificially reared game birds can be be reared undisturbed in order to create profits for a wealthy landowner in the winter. The fact that some of these wealthy owners of shooting estates are also MP's that appear to be using Natural England to benefit their estates rather than species that are, and should remain protected, makes it all the more galling.
I have supported shooting in recent times, where the habitat it creates, manages and maintains, benefits wildlife in general but this takes things to a whole new level that cannot possibly be supported and I am as pissed off as most other people concerned about wildlife in this country.