Tuesday 31 March 2015

Looking Backwards

There has been little to report from the reserve this last couple of weeks, unlike the Dungeness area, where new spring migrants can be seen on a daily basis, here on Sheppey we're still trying to shrug off winter and spend every day hopeful that at least one Wheatear, etc. might suddenly pop up. The only real talking point, after a several weeks of cold and drying northerly or easterly winds and little rain, is of how dry large parts of the marshes are becoming. Every year we're always amazed at how a habitat so wet or water-logged for months can become bone hard in such a short time, but it does. However, the last few White-fronted Geese finally left for the far north last week and some Lapwings are nesting, so Spring must be close, just wish it would hurry up!

At the same time, I have been busy the last couple of weeks helping my girlfriend type up and complete a joint project that we begun a year ago. With both of us pretty much completing the investigating and writing up of our respective family histories it became clear that one Sheppey family and one person from that family in particular, loosely linked our two families. So we've set about writing a document, coupled with old photographs and stuff, that we will make available to interested family members. It has been an interesting journey and as the person and his family in question lived a good part of their lives on Elmley in the late 1800's/early 1900's, it has also enabled us to discover even more about the history of Elmley that we love so much.

However, as anyone that has researched family history will testify, it is nowhere as easy as TV programmes such as "Who do you think you are" make it look. It involves an awful lot of talking to relatives, visiting libraries and cemeteries, cross-checking minute details, wasting time following false trails and above all, purchasing many old Birth, Marriage and Death Certificates such as the one below, at £9.25 a time, (I have over £600's worth). They are though a very important part of the jigsaw and a way of finding old names, addresses and occupations of people. Note how the one below, from 1842, has simply been signed by the groom and a witness by leaving an X as their mark, because they didn't know how to write their names. (click on it once and it comes up clearer)

I guess when you get into your late 60's as I am, you do tend to find yourself looking backwards more than you do forward. there's much more to look at. I particularly like a quote from the sculptress Barbara Hepworth where she said, "perhaps what one wants to say is formed in childhood, and the rest of ones life is spent trying to say it". I can identify with that, I've never really achieved being able to explain or describe myself, even at this late age. Without doubt, the happiest times of my life were the years 1964 to 1970, and I have spent the rest of my life trying to equal that period of discovery and contentment and failing miserably, until possibly recently.
Wallowing in the mists of melancholia is not everybody's cup of tea but I've always tended to be happier hankering after what I've already experienced, what I can't get my head round is the fact that you have to keep going forward in order to create those memories.

Friday 13 March 2015

Whitefront mornings

The last three early mornings on the reserve has seen beautiful sunny starts with bright sun quickly warming the temperatures, and with Lapwing courting displays going on everywhere the reserve has had a real Springtime feel about it. Yet with summer migrants still to appear it has been the arrival a few days ago of a large flock of winter birds that has stirred the heart strings.
Walking round the reserve's boundary fence three days ago I could hear a large number of White-fronted Geese calling in the field of winter corn just over the fence. The first day there were around 290 but by yesterday early morning a more accurate count of the large flock brought their number up to 330 Whitefronts and a few hundred Brent Geese.
The photos are improved by clicking on one and they all come up a tad better.

These first two photos shows some of the birds spread out across the wheat field as I began to approach from several hundred yards away.

I was wary of getting too close as the Whitefronts can be easily spooked into flight but these were the closest birds with some Brent Geese further back, you can see how they were watching me.

 Mostly Brent Geese below.

 A little later, after I had walked further round the reserve, the whole mixed flock rose into the air and circled round me before dropping into The Flood for a wash and brush up. The combined calls from the two species was quite spectacular, especially those of the Whitefronts, anybody who spends their life on the marshes will know how wonderful and haunting those wild goose calls are - real magic!

Monday 9 March 2015

The Last Harrier Roost count

Yesterday evening saw the last Harrier Roost Count of this winter and while my particular site on the Swale NNR came up with a blank, it was a real joy to be stood on the sea wall there experiencing a beautiful sunset and evening and the sense that Spring was almost upon us.
It was cloudy when I first arrived at 4.30 but then quickly cleared to leave blue skies and sunshine, great visibility and best of all, it wasn't cold. The reason for being there was to record any Hen Harriers going into roost on the saltings between the sea wall below and Shellness Hamlet in the distance. Hen Harriers have traditionally roosted there at night for at least the last thirty years but the days of 20-plus birds doing so are now long gone. However, for the last three weeks a pair had been seen there regularly in the late afternoons and so I was confident of at least two. The result however, despite staying until almost complete darkness, was none, perhaps, given the warm weather over the weekend they have begun trekking back north but it was disappointing.

However, as the sun began to drop towards the horizon and the light gradually began to fade, it was a stunning place to be, with plenty of other birds to see and listen too, marshes can be magical places at the end of the day. I stood on the sea wall by the hide and watched The Flood and it's hundreds of varied waterfowl as they went about their business as the evening gloom gradually began to descend. Wigeon and Teal were forever giving their whistling calls, Coots noisily squabbled as some began to pair off and defend their mates, and some Lapwings were even carrying out their lovely "peewitting" courtship displays. Sounds are really what the marshes are about as the gloom descends, it's haunting, beautiful, Dickensian and what my life as a countryman has always been about, good old North Kent marshes.

The pictures don't really do justice to the particular time of day, the stillness, the bird sounds and the tranquility but if you click on one, they all do tend to come up better.

Here the setting sun had briefly gone behind a cloud....

before finally setting...

to leave behind that mellowness that comes before the dark and the final, last walk back across the marsh, which is now drying out at quite a fast rate in the sun and the wind.

But as I did, the evening was made complete as the beautiful calls of White-fronted Geese came closer in the gloom and 40 quickly circled The Flood before dropping in for the night - I was at peace with the world.

Sunday 1 March 2015

The 1st of March

It was the 1st of March today and if it hadn't been for a gale force and chilly wind smashing it's way across the reserve, it could of been the first day proper of Spring. Continuous blue skies and a sun that was quite warm out of the wind made it feel springlike. As I drove through the farmland spinney onto the reserve, a couple of Chaffinchs were singing strongly and a pair of Jackdaws were noisily showing interest in the hollow part of a half dead willow tree. Even one of the reserve's resident pair of Barn Owls was sitting in a willow tree there sunning itself, not something that you would expect to see, but something that it often does.
The downside this last week has been the fact that we've had a couple of rainy spells which has brought the water levels back up slightly but with strong winds and sunshine at this time of year it is always amazing at how quickly the place can dry out again.
And so, across to the sea wall and a quick peruse through the 'scope to see if the Richards Pipit twitch was still occurring but fortunately, while I was there, it wasn't, just half a dozen well spread out birdwatchers. I did get to speak to one of the, a guy who had driven down this morning from the Midlands (Birmingham by the sound of his voice), to see the Pipit but eventually left disappointed - (who'd be a twitcher). Talking to two other birdwatchers, one of whom was the very rare Barry Wright, it seems that the Pipit had been seen but had been carried by the strong wind to gawd knows where, the strength of the wind was certainly not conducive to finding and watching the bird.
Not infected by "must see the Pipit" disease I then spent a pleasant half an hour in the Sea Wall Hide counting wildfowl and wader numbers on The Flood. The Flood looked particularly nice today, as you can see below, and although wildfowl numbers are gradually dropping, there was still a good variety of birds in there and close by (see below).

120 Greylag Geese
2 Canada Geese
40 Brent Geese
280 Shelduck
200 Wigeon
180 Teal
60 Shoveler
40 Gadwall
80 Mallard
16 Tufted Duck
60 Curlew
40 Grey Plover
120 Golden Plover
400 Lapwing
6 Snipe
70 Coot
1 Hooded Crow
4 Marsh Harrier
1 Buzzard

March can be a very pleasant cross-over month and one in which we see the end of the awful winter months. It can begin with Wigeon and Whitefronts and end with Wheatears and Sand Martins - I so hope so!