Saturday 28 September 2013

Barge at Dawn

As many people will know who wander about in the countryside on a regular basis, many days are the same as each other, can be bloody boring in fact, but now and again along comes one that stands out, that strikes a chord somewhere within. It could be the first swallow in Spring, or the dawn sun sparkling on overnight snow, but for me this morning, it was a sailing barge making it's way out of The Swale as dawn broke across the estuary.

At first there was not a sound as ghost-like, the barge made it's silent way towards the open sea round Shellness Point but as the first tip of the sun rose from behind Reculver, so the birds woke up. A curlew called, followed by another and another, a curlew chorus orchestrated the stillness of the dawn, playing farewell to the barge and it's crew.
And as the sun rose quickly into the dawn sky, a breath of easterly breeze stirred my face and Skylarks began to sing, dawn became morning and the moment was lost, but what a moment it had been.

Unfortunately, the rest of the walk around the reserve was just as it has been now for some weeks, pretty boring. Recent rains and heavy dews have certainly got the grass growing again and it's all looking much greener but water levels remain low or non-existent and hence bird numbers can be pretty much recorded on one hand at times. The other morning along the "S Bend Ditch", normally the best spot on the reserve, I counted 9 Teal, 2 Snipe, 1 Green Sandpiper and 12 Mallard, from experience it'll be after New Year before things pick up again.
Mind you, the weather has got the arable crops across Harty off to a much better start this year. Last autumn it went very wet almost overnight and many fields couldn't be sown with corn and young rape rotted soon after germinating. This year, as the photo below shows, the winter wheat is already off to a flying start, farmers might even be happy.  

 Over the last couple of weeks my garden pond has had regular daily visits from this Heron, fishing for the goldfish therein. The pond is quite large and is home to a good number of both newts and frogs, which was it's original reason for being put there, but many years ago four goldfish were put in there, a huge mistake! They have since multiplied to many, many dozens of all sizes and act like piranhas when it comes to snapping up newly hatched tadpoles each Spring. I now have to rear the tadpoles in a different place in the garden each year - the Heron is a welcome visitor, it's welcome to every goldfish that it snaps up.

 Lastly, while sitting at the computer in my study the other morning, this snail began to make it's way up the outside of the window in front of me. It was quite fascinating to watch it's slow progress to the top and I then wondered, do they have the ability to turn off their suction powers and so simply drop back to the earth below, or do they have to make a slow return journey the same way that they came.

Sunday 15 September 2013

New Dawn

Dawn was just brightening the sky this morning as I turned on to the Harty Road and as I arrived at the top of Capel Hill a mist was rising along the length of Capel Fleet down below me.

 Arriving at the reserve barn shortly after, the dawn sky was beginning to change colour but the most noticeable thing was the temperature, it was only 3 degrees, heralding the first wearing of gloves this autumn.

 As I began to walk across the marsh towards the sea wall a very heavy dew had not only made everything soaking wet but it was clear from the silvery nature of it that we must of only been a degree or so away from our first autumn frost as well. I then heard the distant clamouring of Greylag Geese ahead of me over the sea wall and quickly the first skein of them came came towards me across the marsh, disappearing out towards central Harty.

The photo below shows the Delph Fleet alongside the sea wall, with its typical early morning and  Dickensian look, all mist and eeriness, don't you just love it.

 And so to the top of the sea wall and my first glimpse of the sun as it began to rise in the eastern sky between Shellness and Reculver, something that always makes an early morning walk so worthwhile. To my surprise, because I'd heard no shots as the geese first flew inwards earlier, three wildfowlers were just packing up for the morning and so I stopped to chat to them as they came in. It seems that the geese have begun to realise now where they will be in danger and have started to cross the saltings at each end, rather than where the wildfowlers tend to wait, its amazing how quickly they learn these things.

After chatting with the wildfowlers, I then followed my usual trail across and through the middle of the reserve, hoping to record a bird or two, which turned out to be pretty much the count. 1 Spotted Redshank, 1 Greenshank, 1 Tufted Duck, 6 Snipe and a Peregrine were the best of some very low numbers. The Peregrine was quite amazing because as I wondered along a flock of Starlings crossed within 20 yds of me and all of a sudden the Peregrine swooped through them from nowhere and could of only cleared my head by a couple of yds, easily the closest I've been to a Peregrine!
As I continued around the reserve the sun had begun to pick up strength and with no wind at all, was quite warm on my back and it wasn't just birds in the air. Behind Oare, one of the regular hot air balloon trips was taking place and the balloon seemed to hang in the air for ages without really going anywhere.

And so, back to the barn, where the sun was now lighting up the tops of the willows that we have planted all round it. At this time of the year, the combination of reeds and bushes become quite attractive to migrant warblers as they pass through, and even a Cettis was singing a few times this week.

One last thing, the fox hunt were out again on Harty this week, doing what fox hunts normally do, despite the alleged ban on hunting with dogs. I watched them briefly as they encouraged the pack of hounds through the reed beds of Capel Fleet in the hope of finding a fox, I presume they were "cubbing", looking for young foxes that the junior hounds can be trained on.

Monday 9 September 2013

Cobweb Times

The two photos below pretty much sum up the Swale NNR at the moment, the cupboard is bare, there are very few birds or anything else for that matter. We are experiencing our usual late summer/early autumn dry spell, the grass is just dry and colourless and can hardly be feeding the bellies of the cattle and the ditches are very shallow and stink.

Spot the green stuff, part of the grazing marsh as it currently is, although today's rain may soon make me out to be a liar.

Over the weekend I visited the reserve both mornings at dawn and was lucky enough to be able to witness a couple of beautiful sunrises over Shellness Hamlet. Laying in bed is never better than being on the marsh at that time of day, watching a new day coming to life and listening to the various birds out on the mudflats waking with it.

Walking round the reserve at the moment is an experience with little expectation, there are a few ducks in both the seawall fleet and what water there is left in the "S Bend Ditch." Uusually one or two Green Sandpipers and Greenshanks will get up from the mud along the "S Bend Ditch" and odd Wheatears pop up as they pass through on migration but there's certainly no large numbers of anything, except perhaps the Greylag Geese. It'd be wrong of me to mention dawn in September on the reserve without mentioning both the Greylags and the wildfowlers, because they both feature in a typical dawn at the moment.
Just as the first brightening in the eastern sky begins to appear, then the Greylags that have been out on the mudflats of The Swale during the darkness, will begin to stir. They become increasingly vocal until eventually in a huge whirring of wings and a crescendo of calls, the whole flock takes to the air as a mass of dark shapes and heads across the saltings towards the stubble fields of Harty. Shots ring out from unseen people hidden in the rills of the saltings and down will come several of the birds as the rest of the flock scatter in haste to clear the seawall into the safety of the reserve. Its a very brief respite though because as they just as quickly exit the rear of the reserve and fly over the stubbles, they often find themselves the target of guns there too. Unfortunately for the geese where shooting is concerned, they do fly very slow and low and are difficult to miss at times and as a result they do prove an irresistible target to those people that enjoy their shooting. Having said that, I'm always surprised at the end of each shooting season to see just how many Greylag Geese survive each time, it's not quite the carnage that it seems that it might be, the geese quickly wise up to flight lines that they can take that will see them fly across areas safely.
Which I suppose, given what I have just written, will cause some people to question my support of wildfowlers in recent times. All I can say is that I admire a lot of the conservation work that the wildfowlers do on the land that they own or lease these days and I'm glad that huge areas of important habitat are under their management rather than being developed. I'm happy that if wildfowl are to be shot then that its by genuine wildfowlers, who kill far, far, less than most farmland duckpond syndicates do - but I still can't quite enjoy the actual shooting out of the air bit.

Lastly, I'll leave you with another view across the reserve in its current very dry state.      

Monday 2 September 2013

September First

Yesterday was of course the 1st September and it not only saw the start of Autumn but also the start of the shooting season and as I always do, I saw it in by a visit to the reserve at dawn. I left home just as the sky was showing signs of brightening in the east and it was still only half light as I arrived at the reserve and began to make my way across the grazing meadows to the sea wall. There was a chill in the air but I was still warm enough with just a shirt and jumper above my trousers and I couldn't help thinking back to the February Harrier Roost count. It was an hour before dark that Sunday afternoon as I followed the same route across to the sea wall but boy was it cold, and not only cold but I was hunched up against heavy snow showers brought in by a strong and icy wind - how far away that all seemed yesterday morning.

My main reason for the traditional early start was to see and hear the extent of shooting that was going on around Harty that first morning. Wildfowlers have a thing about being out on that first morning just as birdwatchers do about seeing the first Swallow, they might not bother for a few weeks afterwards but that first morning is special in their minds. On the top of the sea wall the light was beginning to increase, the sun hadn't yet risen but the sky was turning pink in anticipation and highlighting the aircraft con-trails as it did, seems most planes were going south-east. A first scan along the saltings with the binoculars couldn't spot any wildfowler's heads sticking up from the various rills out there, surely it wasn't going to be a no show, that would be a first in twenty-seven years of patrolling out there. But no, a second sweep finally found the camouflaged head of one such hopeful sitting out there and at the same time I could hear the resident flock of Greylag Geese beginning to become increasingly noisy out on the Swale mudflats, they were surely about to take off and flight inwards across the saltings. As I picked them out with the binoculars they did just that, around 120 of them flying in low, slow and tightly bunched towards the sea wall and the reserve and presumably to the disgust of the lone wildfowler, as they were all around 300 yds from where he was positioned. They carried on across the reserve but then, for the first time in two weeks, did not head straight to a corn stubble field alongside the reserve to glean the spilt corn, but veered off and chose another field a few hundred yards away. That was strange but it turned out to be very fortunate as I was soon to find out.

By then the sun had just started to peep above Shellness Hamlet and a Sparrowhawk skimmed across the grass tops ahead of me, a bird always seeming strange to see in a marshland habitat and it scared up a dozen or so Teal that I hadn't noticed before then. I crossed back across the reserve and took the rear route round towards the Tower Hide. Whilst wandering along the reserve's boundary fence there I suddenly became aware of a shooter hidden in the vegetation on the other side of the fence which surprised me as I'd heard no shots at all that morning, other than in the distance from the Capel Corner area along the Harty Road. I stopped for a chat and it transpired that he and four others, who I later saw as I continued walking, had been hoping to ambush the Greylag Geese as they dropped into the usual stubble field. Clearly the geese had indeed been fortunate that morning, or over intelligent, by their new choice of feeding field, because the shooters, having watched them using the same one all week, had positioned themselves perfectly under the usual flight line. Some things are meant to be and for the geese a hat trick was beckoning and that came shortly after.
After a bit more countryside chat I left the shooters to their wasted vigil and carried on, back to my car. Half an hour later I watched as one of them in a vehicle drove round behind the geese in the nearby field deliberately scaring them up in the hope that they would fly towards his waiting companions. The geese however, were on a roll and having none of it, they simply flew out into the middle of the reserve and settled down there for a nap and a preen. It was 3-0 to the geese yesterday, they will get caught up with at some stage but it was amusing to watch their good fortune on that first shooting day.