Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Water returns

At last, the recent rain has begun to make a slight difference to the reserve. Some of the shallow rills that we dug across the grazing marsh are now showing an inch or two of water in their base, the ditches are losing their stagnant look as fresh water begins to re-oxygenate them, and the grass is beginning to re-grow. There;s still a long way to go in respect of water levels but at least things are looking fresher and I'll refrain from saying we need a lot more rain, after saying that last October and incurring the wettest winter for a hundred years!
The last couple of weekends have also seen some beautiful dawn skies, around 6.30 time. The first was taken as I drove along the Harty Road and the second 20 mins. later as I began to walk across the reserve towards the Sea Wall hide. It's always the best time of day to be out, any time of the year.

 Bird-wise however, the reserve has remained frustratingly quiet and if it wasn't for the daily to and fro flights of the resident Greylag Geese (seen below), it would be very boring.

Their numbers flucuate between 100 and 300 at times and they tend to roost overnight in the "Flood Field" in front of the Sea Wall hide, fly from there at first light to the marshes below Leysdown, presumably to feed, and return a couple of hours later. For around a month they have had three White-fronted Geese with them, which like the Greylags are very approachable, making their origins a bit dubious and also for a couple of weeks, 40 Pink-footed Geese. They disappeared a week or so ago but were re-located on Sunday along Capel Fleet, presumably the wide, open stretch between "Capel Corner" and Windmill Creek, a favourite area for a lot of wildfowl due to copious amounts of corn being spread along there on a regular basis. This of course makes the Pinkfeets increasingly vunerable to being shot as that stretch of water is heavily shot by the neighbouring farmers, hence the corn as bait.

To emphasis how quiet the reserve has been recently, let's compare some of it's wildfowl tallies with the old RSPB part of the Elmley NNR last weekend, (Elmley figures in brackets).
Greylags, inc. 3 Whitefronts - 100 (700)
Canada Geese 0 - (400)
Shelduck 0 - (61)
Wigeon 0 - (2000)
Teal 10 - (1500)
Little Egret 2 - (28) 
Little Grebe 4 - (50)
Pintail 0 - (5)
and Lapwing 50 - (1500)  
Clearly there are obvious reasons for those differences, Elmley has the advantage of a huge acreage with better water levels and the large, sheltered and un-shot Spitend Bay at high tide but despite it's smallness the Swale NNR could and should, do better if it wasn't so dry.

Throughout some of Kent, our annual winter Harrier Roost counts begun last weekend. These counts that are carried out once a month on a Sunday evening, through the six winter months, have given valuable information on favoured roost sites over the years. Most importantly they have highlighted the sad decline of wintering Hen Harriers in this area. On Sheppey, their traditional roost site has always been the saltings close to Shellness Hamlet and last winter, for the first time, I never recorded a single bird on any of the six counts. This autumn we are still waiting to sight a Hen Harrier anywhere so far and the beautiful painting of a male Hen Harrier at the Shellness blockhouse could soon be seen as the headstone marking the death of such a beautiful bird.

On the subject of shooting and harriers (not at harriers I hasten to say), the attempt at counting roosting harriers along the wide reed beds of Capel Fleet between the Raptor Viewing Mound and Muswell Manor, was thwarted on Sunday night by heavy rain and duck shooting alongside the reed beds. I mentioned this disturbance problem last year and it is clearly now a regular Sunday night occurrence in the winter which means that counts along that stretch will now have to be done on Monday nights. Quite ridiculous when you consider that the whole length of Capel Fleet has SSSI, SPA and Ramsar status and should be free of such disturbance but I'm reliably informed that as shooting was already taking place before the designations, it couldn't be included in the list of factors listed as damaging to that particular site. Should that be the case it makes the designations a tad pointless, especially when you consider the shooting improvements that regularly take place along there and the fact that the Hunt always push their pack of hounds through the whole length of the reed beds in order to flush out foxes. 
Mind you, Natural England, who administer these designations, have been so stripped to the bone, staff and authority-wise, that I imagine that they're now having to share the pens that they push, let alone go out into the field and witness such protection shortcomings.


  1. Hi Derek,

    That's a very evocative comment about the Hen Harriers and desperately sad to hear of the lack of sightings. Hopefully more will be on Sheppey. Isn't it ironic and sad that the RSPB magazine are listing Sheppey as a good place to see them in winter.
    I used to live in Kent for a couple of years but now live on the edge of the Peak District so I've seen both angles of the Hen Harrier situation ie both breeding and wintering seasons. I'm sure you're aware but talking to local raptor ringers and monitors has brought home to me how grim the outlook for Hen Harriers and other raptors breeding on the uplands is. Hen Harriers are in the worst shape but Peregrines and other raptors are in freefall on the uplands. Despite constant denial, unless these birds are being "disappeared" by aliens from the planet Zog there must be a connection with the activities on driven grouse moors. There is no concrete evidence to convict any one but you may have heard of the recent disappearance of two of this years clutch of young Hen Harriers on grouse moors. Bear in mind that 4 of 14 young Harriers that were tagged and two have gone missing. Who knows where the un-tagged birds are!
    Please bear this in mind and let's make the connection between what happens in the winter with what happens on the uplands; it's all connected and don't forget that your taxes are being used to pay for the environmental damage caused to these moors in support of artificially high grouse numbers.

    I do hope you see some Hen Harriers this and other winters to come.

  2. Thanks for your comments Arnie and so nice to get some from your neck of the woods with your better informed and local knowledge. I am of course aware of the problems affecting birds of prey as a result of some people's actions on the grouse moors but Mark Avery is being silly when he suggests stopping all grouse shooting, better a licensing scheme as someone else from the RSPB suggested.
    Just two days ago I saw a beautiful male HH arrive over Sheppey from the north, so things are looking up.

  3. Hi Derek,

    A small but very significant point of clarification; Mark Avery isn't calling for a ban on all grouse shooting but on DRIVEN grouse shooting. It's this industrialization in pursuit of increasingly large bags which is causing the destruction of the upland ecosystem.
    For example, the GWCT et al say how much they love waders and the good they're doing (which they are) but do you really think they'd care less if Curlews were found to carry bulgy eye and might be transmitting it to grouse? I think like the Mountain Hares and Hen Harriers they would soon become persona non grata on the moors.
    I believe licencing will be ineffective for a number of reasons; who's going to police it for one? Mark Avery sums up the reasons against well at http://markavery.info/2014/08/21/licensing-driven-grouse-shooting-work/
    Please spare a couple of minutes to read it along with the comment from Terry Pickford who has worked as a raptor conservationist for over 40 years in the Trough of Bowland and describes the current situation as the worst he has experienced. Then reflect upon whether licencing will work.

    On a positive note, great news about the male HH!
    On the other hand, one sighting of a male HH is "looking up"? When we have enough moorland to support several hundred breeding pairs...?

    Best wishes,

  4. OK Arnie, despite reading Mark Avery's book and finding out more about him, I still find him a tad irritating but will read his blog and see what he has to say.