Monday 28 April 2014

Perambulations of The Swale

There was an increasing E wind blowing this morning that brought in alternating weather types. Mostly there was distant sea mist, low cloud and coolness but occasionally there were brief bursts of sunshine and warmth.
The good news is that at last we have good numbers of avian summer visitors arriving on the reserve and I heard the first of those as I parked at the reserve barn - a Cuckoo. In all as I perambulated round, I recorded a total of 14 Sedge Warbler, 6 Reed Warbler, 2 Yellow Wagtail, 2 Whitethroats and numerous Swallows.
After leaving the barn my first visit was to a nearby Coot's nest that I photographed a week ago with several eggs...........

joy, today the eggs had begun hatching.

Several hundred yards round the marsh and the joy became short-lived, the Coot's nest in these reeds was empty, with several eggs on the bank alongside, pecked open. I guess we can credit this piece of non-breeding to crows and those who can find no reason for them being culled.

Amazingly, just half a dozen yards past the ruined Coot's nest I came across this Dabchick's nest on the other side of the ditch, where two chicks had clearly just hatched. One was hidden in the reeds and the other was still on the nest. Yes, I know it's hard to be seen but the white speck to the left in the nest is it's white egg tooth - try clicking on the photo once and it should come up a bit better.

I made my way up onto the seawall and sat on the only seat along there, a concrete sluice set into the side of the sea wall. Many years ago this sluice used to control the flow of water from the Delph fleet alongside, through the sea wall and out into The Swale - these days it is redundant because the saltings have completely grown over the area of mudflats that the water used to flow across. I sat there for a while and listened to the Sedge Warblers and Reed Buntings singing alongside - although neither of them are what you would call good singers, and looked skywards for a while hoping in vain for that first Swift.

A little further along the sea wall I took a photo of this section of reed bed that I have been seeing most of the winter. An old line of fencing runs into the reed bed from the wall and somehow dead reed stalks have positioned themselves on it in this fashion.

Also on the top of the sea wall, the Alexanders was in full flower and swarming as usual, in St. Mark's Fly, bang on target for St. Mark's Day April 25th. Many of the Sedge Warblers were feasting on these.

Walking on to the old Delph crossing by the Sea Wall hide, I was surprised to come across this nest/roost of tiny yellow and black-spotted ladybirds. They were about half the size of an ordinary ladybird and there were over a hundred of them.

From the sea wall hide I first counted the large flock of Avocets in the Flood Field and the very low number of wildfowl left and then took these photos of Tufted and Pochard ducks in the Delph alongside.

Finally, as I skirted round the edge of the grazing marsh, a Redshank got up close to me and alerted me to a possible nest. This was the result. Redshanks always make their nests inside a clump of grass but this one had had the top roof of grass obviously grazed off by the cattle nearby, leaving it's eggs exposed like a Lapwing's. But it was still incubating them and hopefully will be successful in seeing them hatch out of harms way.

Sunday 20 April 2014

Where's the warmth gone

It was a murky sort of a morning early this morning with fleeting glimpses of an orange sun. It was also cold in a fresh E. wind but no where near as cold as yesterday morning was. Yesterday at 07.30, with grey skies, a couple of heavy showers and a strong NE wind I was as cold as I've felt for several weeks and to complete the wintery feel, a ringtail Hen Harrier came drifting by the barn as I arrived. I felt sorry for the swallows as they came zipping across the reserve, heading into that icy wind and probably wondering why they bothered.

Anyway, back to this morning and though the clouds began to threaten, it remained rain free as I wandered around the reserve where, unlike many other places, spring migrants still remain very thin on the ground. The Whitethroats still haven't returned to their usual overgrown spinney by the entrance gate, there are just a couple of Sedge Warblers but no Reed Warblers yet, or Cuckoos, and even Wheatears and Yellow Wagtails are only appearing in odd ones and twos. It is tempting to call it a late Spring as far as migrant birds go but it's normal these days for our birds to arrive a couple of weeks after the other side of The Swale.
What is apparent though is the fact that the annual rapid transformation from flooding to dry/rock hard ground is now well under way on the reserve. The last time I posted the view below several weeks ago, the dogs were having to swim across the gateway, today the water is little more than a puddle that will be gone completely in a week's time.

Alongside the gate, the willows and ditch alongside are also now showing the white tide marks that record the eventual height of the water during Jan/Feb.

Below is the now dry and cracked bed of what until a month ago was a large flood area stretching out into the marsh, it never fails to amaze me how fast the marsh dries out each Spring, although after today's rain things might revert.

We're still maintaining some large areas of flood in the Flood Field though and around 90 Avocets, Gadwall, Teal, Shoveler, Black-headed Gulls and Med Gulls and several pairs of breeding Lapwings are favouring that area at present, it looks great. Avocets are remarkably good swimmers as the photo shows.

The downside is the ever increasing number of eaten eggs that are now being found around the reserve, we're battling hard to control the numbers of crows and magpies that are present but it's always an uphill struggle on most reserves. I get really angry after identifying new Lapwing or Avocet nests, only to find after a couple of days that their eggs have all been taken by the likes of corvids, foxes, hedgehogs and I show no sympathy at all to the first two species, they are far too numerous and destructive.

So far this Spring I have seen more grass snakes on the reserve than I have totalled over the last twenty-odd years, it's great to see so many and I wonder if that's the reason why the reserve's frog population seems to have dropped considerably recently.

The breeding list this year also looks like it's going to be devoid of a pair of Barn Owls for the first time in many years, one bird is still seen irregularly but the second bird disappeared during the winter, it's a big loss.

In summary, it's not the most exciting time on the reserve at the moment, we could definitely do with a sudden rush of migrants to spice things up.

Monday 14 April 2014


For many of us who are actively involved in the countryside and what happens in it, the BBC television "Countryfile" programme has become little more than a weekly advert for countryside tourism in recent years. Sure I still watch it, the young female presenters are always attractive and what's left of the countryside always looks nice, but rarely do the BBC dig beneath the surface and show the warts and all side of countryside management. It's been a long time since we had a countryside programme that could equal "Out of Town" with Jack Hargreaves, a programme that was never afraid to show the side of the countryside that involved country pursuits and things getting killed. My hopes were raised therefore to read, prior to yesterday's programme, that it would contain a feature on Britain's disappearing farmland birds and that one person being interviewed in the programme was Robin Page, who has firm but well balanced views on how best to manage the countryside for wildlife.
But true to form, the good old BBC simply skimmed over the surface of the subject. First of all the regular kicking post, Britain's farmers, took a lot of the blame, and rightly in some cases but almost as if to apologise for suggesting it, they then showed a farmer wandering around spreading a bag of wild bird seed. This then had what looked like an old bit of library footage tacked on to make it look like, wonder of wonders, all of these farmland birds immediately sprung out of the hedgerow behind him - Jesus and the loaves of bread came to mind!
The worst bit for me however, was when they finally came to Robin Page, who I feel sure, from reading his articles, would of given a lengthy discourse on necessary pest controls such as the trapping and culling of species such as crows, magpies and foxes to aid the existence of farmland birds. But no, instead of showing him talking about a wide range of measures, they simply cut it down, deliberately in my mind, to a few minutes of him complaing about the resurgence of Buzzards. This made him look like a bit of a countryside villain but no doubt retained the appeal of the programme to those like "bunny huggers" who think that the countryside is always all things bright and beautiful. And on that subject, some misguided fool obviously thought he/she was doing right at the weekend by releasing a crow from one of the reserve's traps. I wonder if that same person would deliberately smash a nest of Lapwing's eggs, yet they release a crow to likely do the same, as the number of eaten eggs that I find around the reserve each Spring testify.

Talking of farmers, let's go to my patch, the Swale National Nature Reserve. The next three photos show what farmers can and do achieve. The fence line is the reserve's boundary and 10-12 years ago the ditch to the right of it was just a bare banked thing of little attraction to wildlife until the neighbouring farmer planted thousands of young trees and bushes all over Harty. The result is now this example, a thick hedge of hawthorn and bramble, combined with the tall reed growths, that give habitat to all manner of birds, including Cettis Warblers.

 In the photo below the farm tractor was out today breaking down the soil in a narrow cover strip round the winter corn that will be sown with maize ready for the game birds and next winter's shooting season.

 Below we have some photos taken today from the Sea Wall Hide, showing the Delph Fleet in the foreground with Tufted and Pochard ducks and the Flood Field behind.

Here we have a view between two of the old salt-working mounds on the reserve, with a crossing plank in between. It combines three views, the reed beds of the Delph Fleet, the seawall and in the far distance, the hills of the mainland.

 This year has to be one of the earliest that I've known for the rape fields to be in flower, a beautiful and welcome sight but this year tinged with a slight worry. In recent years Marsh Harriers have been known to nest in some rape fields but clearly if that occurs this year then an early harvest will almost certainly see un-recorded nests of young lost to the combines.

I found this tight ball of caterpillars and webbing in a hawthorn bush on the reserve this morning. I presume that they're a type of sawfly but stand to be corrected.

Lastly we have Ellie and Midge watching a distant rabbit...

..... and convinced that if they stick their noses far enough down it's burrow that they might catch it, but they never did, this time.

Friday 4 April 2014

Martins Gone Missing

Of all the birds that have either reduced in numbers, or disappeared all together on Sheppey in recent years, it is the demise of Sand and House Martins, Swifts and even Swallows that has dismayed me the most.

The first of these to go were the Sand Martins and they had gone by probably the mid 1960's. I had a few years after that where my bird watching dropped off and so they might of hung on a little later than that. The cliffs on Sheppey's north facing coast range between Minster beach and Warden Bay to the east and are pretty much the highest land on the whole of Sheppey. In the main they are made up of London clay and are continually eroding and collapsing to form treacherous boggy areas at lower levels. However there is one shortish stretch at the end of Oak Lane in Minster where the soil is of a much sandier type and certainly during my childhood in the 1950's, was home to a substantial Sand Martin colony each year. This short stretch of sandy cliff fell away in largish chunks just as regularly as the rest and still does today, but always seemed to do so to still leave a sheer face with a drop of 50-80yds that was ideal for the Sand Martins.
Why the colony was eventually abandoned all those years ago I don't really know. It was some miles from my home on foot for a 12-14 year old and I only visited it a few times before my major teenage years took over with other interests, but I suspect that it has a lot to do with the rapid colonisation over the last forty years of the cliffs lower and middle slopes by both willow and silver birch. The cliff face where the birds nested was an exposed, deep face with nothing in front of it except the open sea to restrict flight access but that has not been the case for many years now. The area in front of what used to be the nest colony is now full of silver bush and willow bushes that have grown to the height of the top of the cliff, masking the cliff face almost completely in places. Whatever the reason, they are a bird only ever seen passing over Sheppey in very low numbers these days.

House Martins are an enigma because the majority of their previous habitual nest sites on Sheppey are still there, clearly the reasons for their absence are due to factors away from Sheppey, a substantial drop in numbers perhaps, or a shortage of insect life. Throughout my youth and certainly as recent as the 1980's, House Martins were still a fairly common nesting bird on Sheppey and a large number of the older streets in Sheerness would normally have one or two pairs in attendance. Today those streets and houses continue to provide the same nest sites as they always did but in 99% of the places no House Martins have been seen for years. One small colony of 3-4 pairs hung on as recently as 3 years ago on some fairly new Old People's apartments in the town but now they have failed to return for the last couple of years. For countless years there were also two significant breeding colonies in Sheerness Docks totaling around 20 pairs, but by the time that I retired in 2006 this colony had dwindled down to 4-5 pairs at best and although lack of access has not enabled me to see if this colony is still active, it's unlikely that it is, although the buildings still remain in-situ.  Whilst I haven't checked out every single potential site still remaining on Sheppey it's pretty clear that apart from 3-4 pairs nesting at Shellness Hamlet in recent years, that the House Martin has pretty much been lost as a breeding bird on Sheppey.

Swifts too, always a lovely sight and sound as they formed large flocks high overhead on warm summer's evenings, are becoming less and less common to see as a breeding bird on Sheppey. While once again, a reduction in flying insects must be partly to blame, the lack of nest sites is the greatest reason. In Minster where I live, the largest breeding colony since the year dot was always at the old Sheppey General Hospital in the center of the village. A large number of the hospital's buildings had formed the Minster Workhouse for over a hundred years, until it was closed in 1934 and re-opened as the hospital. The old condition of these buildings provided numerous nest sites for a large colony of Swifts right up until the site was demolished four years ago and replaced by a new housing estate since. A few pairs still hang on at some old houses nearby but the large gatherings overhead in the summer here in Minster are now sadly, a thing of the past. One particular small area of older streets in Sheerness still retain a number of pairs but apart from that the skies over Sheerness remain far, far quieter Swift wise, than they used to be.

To complete the quartet there are the Swallows and while they still remain as a breeding species in fairly good numbers on Sheppey, even their numbers appear to have reduced in recent years.  In their case I believe that a reduction in suitable nest sites is the one of the biggest reasons. With a large rise in horse paddocks around Sheppey, often with associated stabling or store sheds, the Swallows should be doing a lot better but access for nesting via broken or open windows and doors is greatly denied these days for security reasons. Also, I know of two sites on Harty where Swallows are still allowed access to nest in good numbers, up to sixteen pairs in one case. But the owners increasingly find that the amount of droppings that the birds produce through a season in their sheds does become a slightly annoying problem, so perhaps this is another reason why some people deliberately deny the birds access.
On the Swale NNR we have had odd pairs of Swallows nest when sites became available. The last pair to nest were in a very small and old bird hide that had become so rotten and mouldy that we had nick-named it the "tumbledown hide". We put a sign on it telling the public not to use it and I deliberately left a viewing flap open for the swallows and they successfully nested the first year. They returned the second year and had a nest with eggs that was doing OK until I found two elderly lady birdwatchers in the hide having their lunch. The head of one was only a foot or so below the nest and the parent birds were flying round outside in some agitation. On entering, I politely remarked on the "no entry" sign on the door and pointed to the Swallow's nest which they were keeping the birds from, but apart from acknowledging both, they steadfastly refused to leave the hide and the next day the eggs had been deserted.

It's not until you spend a couple of summers deliberately monitoring the skies overhead that you realise just how quiet they have become in respect of the birds mentioned above, or at least, that's certainly the case here on Sheppey. I particularly miss the House Martins, they always brought busy bird life into quiet back streets that were normally devoid of bird life for many months of the year, it should always be a privilege to share your house with them.