Saturday 26 September 2015

Where have all the birdies gone?

I've waited a week or so since my last blog to see if the bird numbers improved on the reserve but unfortunately they haven't. I have been thinking that perhaps I wasn't getting about enough, or looking hard enough but earlier this week I bumped into a birdwatcher from West Kent whose first words to me were "what have you done with all the birds". The answer was "nothing, there hasn't been any birds to do anything with." As I've said on numerous occasions, the reserve will only come briefly into it's own around New Year, when any serious rainfall has begun to flood it up. Even then though, we don't get anywhere near the number of wildfowl that we used to get, especially Wigeon. Over the last few years they, and many other ducks, are to be found further round The Swale, in huge numbers, enjoying the safety provided at the Elmley NNR. Here many years of hard work and expense are now paying dividends as the birds enjoy the huge acreage of marshland and nearby Spitend Bay.
So it's deathly quiet on The Swale NNR but I'd settle for that if it means avoiding the ridiculous scenes that took place at Dungeness this week where a very rare Acadian Warbler from America was found. At one stage that resulted in some 230 parked cars and over a thousand twitchers circling the poor weary bird and when it moved to a nearby garden, that and it's owners were also besieged. One thing's for sure, if I was to ever surpass myself and recognise such a rare bird, I wouldn't be rushing to any pager in order to attract such a stampede of oddballs to my patch.

Anyway, birds or no birds, in this tranquil, sunny and beautiful autumn weather that we are currently experiencing, the reserve looks quite stunning and it's a pleasure to be there just for that. I arrived there this morning at first light and with an air temperature of 4 degrees we were only marginally above the first frost, leaving the grass covered in a heavy dew. I made my way across to the sea wall hide and with no wildfowlers present, stood in complete solitude and watched the sunrise slowly evolve over Shellness Point.

As the sun eventually escaped the distant cloud and rose into a clear blue sky the temperature slowly began to rise and I begun to make my along the sea wall. Looking backwards, the Delph Fleet and it's reed beds stretched out and snaked their way for a mile or so along the base of the sea wall towards Harty church.

 I couldn't resist taking a photo of this lone dandelion seedhead on top of the sea wall, you can see the dew glistening on the grass stems behind it.

 I spent some time making my way across the reserve and then the adjoining RSPB fields, to eventually link up with the Public Footpath/track that runs between Muswell Manor and Elliotts farm. Although it isn't all covered in concrete, many of us locals know this track as "the concrete road" and by the time that I was walking along that in the shelter of the trees and bushes, it was really warm. It's not a regular walk of mine and so, as you can see, the dogs go on ahead, enjoying whatever new smells that they come across. The fox hunt were along here in the week and so they could probably detect where the pack of hounds had passed by. On the crest of the road in the distance, there is a large wooded area that was planted as game cover some years ago, here I had the pleasure of watching some birds at last. Several Chiffchaffs, plus Chaffinches, Robins and best of all, two Goldcrests, were all busily working their way through the bushes as I made my way past. Sheer bliss in the increasingly warm sun, if only we didn't have to have a winter.

Wednesday 16 September 2015

Winter Approaches

It has been a long and wet day today with pretty much continuous rain throughout it. It began for me with my third morning on the trot getting soaked on the reserve and seeing very little bird life for my efforts. Even the large flock of Greylag Geese have moved away, although who can blame them, they were getting shot at twice a day. Birds really have been at a premium this last few weeks, numbers of ducks you can count on one hand and apart from the odd Chiffchaff moving through, the only substantial group pf birds has been a flock of around 110 Linnets feeding daily in a farmland cover strip of Chickory, etc., just over the fence. Clearly the summer is now receding behind us and autumn is well under way.

Although it'll still be some time before the rain makes any major impression on the reserve's water levels and we end up with scenes such as the one below, it's at least re-dressing the balance out there and the effects of the drought are fast diminishing.

The one down side of that is the fact that it is now become increasingly arduous walking round as the cattle do a good job of turning bone dry gateways and tracks into areas of deep, clinging mud, it's amazing how quickly they can churn up areas of wet soil. Mind you, whilst mentioning the cattle, one of the regular topics of conversation just lately has been the speed at which the grazing marsh has become lush and green again. It's been some years since so much grass has been available to the stock at this time of year. The lawns at home have gone the same way, all of a sudden it's a job to keep up with the mowing - a couple of nice frosts would help slow things down.

And so autumn takes over and people get all lyrical about what a wonderful season that it is, and so it can be, with all the wonderful colours in the woods and mists and dewy cobwebs, etc. etc., but for me it is spoiled by the fact that it heralds in the winter. I really cannot enjoy the winter season for a number of reasons but paramount among them is the short days and the long hours of darkness. Sorry, but for me there is nothing in winter that can compete with being on the marsh at 5.00 on a summer's morning when everything is fresh, the birds are active and the sun is just starting to warm the day up. And of course those late summer's evenings sitting in the garden as it cools down, watching the sun sink low in the western sky, swifts screaming in large gathering overhead and seeing the bats as they start to hawk the twilight for their prey. Being pitch dark and very cold by tea-time for months on end really is a depressing thought each year, some animals really have cracked it by hibernating through the winter. Every October when I pack my tortoises away for the winter I really do envy them the fact that when they next wake up it will be the Spring again, how great is that!

The warm sun is failing, the bleak wind is wailing,
The bare boughs are sighing, the pale flowers are dying,
And the year
On the earth her deathbed, in a shroud of leaves dead,
Is lying........................Percy Bysshe Shelley

Tuesday 8 September 2015

Once upon a time in the 60's

Spring 1966, a chilly early Sunday morning and four dishevelled looking nineteen year old lads were stood at the old Sheerness bus station, (since demolished long ago). Saturday night, as it regularly was, had seen the four of us spend the night sleeping on benches in the nearby seafront shelters. Pubs closed at 11pm in those days and so we would often buy a crate of beer and finish it off at the shelters, talking, playing guitar, smoking a joint, before finally trying to fall asleep where we sat. The tide whispered quietly as it gently broke onto the beach nearby in the dark and ship's engines thumped as they headed through the night towards the docks. It was rarely a long or comfortable night's sleep, hard wooden benches and chilly sea breezes saw to that and consequently by 6-7 in the morning we were stirring again.
We needed something warm inside us, to warm us up and make us feel human again, even if we didn't look it, and so the bus station at the end of the High Street and not far away, was normally our first destination. 7.00 in the morning on a Sunday in Sheerness High Street in those days was like being the only people left in the world, what few places that did open didn't do so until mid-morning and only us and the odd person going to work, broke the silence. Little moved as we stood there looking for signs of life, just the fish 'n chip wrappers from last night's treat at Jacob's fish bar, swirling in the breeze - silent High Street Sunday morning!  But the bus station was our saviour, outside was a hot drinks machine, which for a few pence, dispensed a cup of hot liquid. I say liquid because although there was a grand choice - tea, coffee, hot chocolate or chicken soup, at times they all tasted pretty much the same. I would normally choose the chicken soup, a watery gruel of which most seemed to be congealed and left at the bottom of the cup. But standing there in clothes damp from the night air, prickly-eyed from lack of sleep, dirty and slightly hung over, the soup was at least hot to hands and belly. So there we were, all dressed the same in denim jackets, denim jeans and cheap desert boots, slowly being revived by the hot liquid, until, "what shall we do next" - " let's go back up the beach" - groan, "we've just come from there" - "we could always go round Del's house" - " no way, my old man'll go mad, let's go back to the shelters till the cafe opens later" - so off we trudged, Derek and the Dropouts - that's me in the front below.

Our weekends were always like that during 1966-8 as we enjoyed the freedom and hedonism of those times. Three of us worked all week, one didn't, but we all, for better or worse, kept him supplied with beer in order to eek out his dole money. The weekends and holidays were always spent like that, dossing around Sheppey or hitchhiking to and fro to London and sleeping rough there. We went out on Friday night and didn't go back home until late Sunday night or early Monday, just in time to go to work. We would spend the daytime sitting around in our regular cafe playing guitar, sitting in a park next to Sheerness fairground known as the Paddling Pool, playing guitar, and visiting the pub at lunchtimes and evenings. We slept at the beachfront shelters and regularly in an old tent along the canal bank, or round friend's houses after drunken parties. 
One such party took place during August 1966. It was held at one of the tall, three story terraced houses along Marine Parade in Sheerness, known as "Shrimp Terrace" because of the pink colouring of their brickwork. The regular four of us attended, plus my girlfriend who was quite young at the time and had to be home by 10.00. I think I walked her home before returning to the party but things were getting quite hazy by then but I do recall that she was a tad tipsy.
The party was packed with most of the people that we knew around Sheerness and I mistakenly thought I'd look pretty cool continually swigging from a glass flagon of several pints of cider that I carried perched on my shoulder, pirate style. Much later I also copied the pirate's violent swaying motion, only I wasn't on a ship in a stormy sea!

The party finally ended for me some time before midnight. I vaguely recalled hanging over a window sill three stories high and being violently sick over somebodies Vespa scooter parked below, the next thing it was dawn the next day. I came too slumped by the window, might even of passed out still hanging out of it, and wondered where I was as I tried to activate more than just one eye, and pull myself up the wall. The scene I eventually surveyed was quite incredible and the silence only broken by varying levels of snoring and occasional farts, but there were bodies everywhere as though somebody had pumped some sort of knock-out gas into the room. Clearly most of the party-goers must of followed my example and passed out or fell asleep where they were and not only that, I had clearly missed out on something a bit special. Several of the couples wrapped in each others arms on the floor had little or no clothes on - for a brief moment to see the more intimate parts of girls that I could normally only admire from afar, so much on display, the severity of my hangover faded. 

I needed to move on and reeling from the pounding in my head, tip-toed quietly to the bathroom where to my surprise I found one of my gang stood awake against the wall. But that was secondary to the rest of the room, stale vomit seemed to be everywhere and immediately, the stench saw mine added to it. We needed to get out and get out fast, before anybody else woke up and the hang-overs and recriminations began and staggered painfully down the stairs and out into the cool dawn air, with me casting a side-ways glance at the scooter that I'd anointed some hours before. We wandered along The Broadway and into the deserted High Street, past the Brewery Tap, Belle and Lion and The Goat, we weren't going home and so there was only one place to go - yes, you've guessed it, the drinks machine at the bus station. Two of us, stood there with teeth chattering, clothes specked with vomit, heads pounding and waiting for Sheerness to wake up.
My diary at the time recorded it as "a good night out" - 50 years later I'd call it a nightmare, a glass of wine and some arthritis tablets are my night-time highlights these days.

Sunday 6 September 2015

Early Birds and their demise.

Looking out of the window at 5.00 this morning the sky was gin clear and starlit and just beginning to show dawn lightness. I waited half an hour or so but then the prospect of a beautiful start to the day was too much and by 5.45 I was on my way to the reserve.
It was a lovely drive along the Harty Road in the dawn half light and what seemed like the whole of Harty to myself. The arable fields are in various degrees of autumn readiness. Some have been deep ploughed in order to bury the seeds of the invasive weed, Black Grass and this year's stubbly wheat fields have been re-sown with rape seed and they have begun to turn green as the lines of seedlings begin to show. Finally, the fields that bore this year's rape crop have been lightly harrowed and await the seed for next year's wheat crop, the annual rotation of crops.

Standing at the five-bar gate onto the grazing marsh as the sky began to turn from pink to yellow and listening to various birds as they began to greet the dawn, is a remarkable feeling that never diminishes with age or repetition. I wonder how many birders of the smug and knowledgeable type, get out and experience it rather than relying on pagers.
I made my over to the sea wall where the sun was just beginning to creep above the horizon behind the hide and followed the dogs up on to the sea wall.

A quick scan along the saltings identified two wildfowlers, several hundred yards apart and one already making his way back along the sea wall. I walked the short distance to the hide and stood outside on it's veranda to watch events. A Water Rail "squealed" close by in the reed beds and and a few, single, Sand Martins and juv. Swallows made their way past, surprisingly heading in a westerly direction. Out on the fast ebbing tide the clamouring of Greylag Geese could be heard. It was obvious that they were on the point of taking off to head inwards to the stubble fields behind the reserve and lo, suddenly up they all rose in a huge crescendo of noise. I quickly looked at the two wildfowlers with my binoculars and they were now barely visible as they squatted down into the gullies out on the saltings, which way would the geese come, who would be the lucky shooter.

The geese turned west along the edge of the saltings, and the wildfowler in front of me must of cursed but the one much further down the saltings and under their possible path, must of had a suddenly increased heart rate. Minutes later his luck was in, the geese, in two seperate flocks, turned inland towards him and began their low and slow flight towards the distant stubble fields. Now I have made no secret of my support for this form of shooting, it can be a real test of both stamina and skill, but these were not Teal flying past at great speed in the blink of an eye, or Wigeon at considerable height that tested the skill of the shooter, no these were great lumbering shapes that simply couldn't be missed and it's difficult to watch what you know is about to unfold.  
As the geese reached the middle of the saltings, calling excitedly to each other, the shots suddenly rang out, one bird crumpled immediately and dropped almost on top of the shooter. It was followed immediately by a second bird but a third, clearly badly wounded, followed it's instinct and tried to keep up with the flock - following it's life-long partner, following it's parent birds - but it was struggling and eventually, it turned in a wide arc and tried to head back to the sea, but it didn't make it, another shot saw to that and it fell dead.

A little later, chatting with the two wildfowlers on the sea wall, both with a brace of dead geese slung over their shoulders, I felt no real compassion for the dead birds, they were just four dead geese. It's witnessing the actual flying into their death bit that is the only part that I find moving and yet I have killed countless rabbits in my lifetime - strange.
Anyway, after a pleasant chat about all things shooting, we parted our ways, they towards the Shellness car park and the dogs and I across the reserve. We crossed the reserve and then the RSPB Harty fields and ended up at the track below Muswell Manor where I half-heartedly had a look along Capel Fleet for yesterday's juv. Montagues Harrier, but it never showed. And so back along the track/concrete road towards Brewers and Elliotts farms and along the tree line as we went, in the warm shelter from the breeze, we followed a Painted Lady butterfly. How many more sightings of those or any other butterflies will there be I wonder, the nights are getting cold, the dreaded winter gets nearer.

Wednesday 2 September 2015

Early Start

A quick glance out of the window as I got up at 5.20 this morning was enough to see that the sky was lightening in the east and what's more it was cloudless, and so with a beautiful start to the day in prospect I was on my way to the reserve by 5.50.

Driving along the Harty Road was far better than yesterday's journey, there weren't the dull grey and threatening clouds for a start and it was also beautifully quiet. Yesterday morning of course, was the 1st September - the first day of the wildfowl shooting season for this winter and the duck shooters were certainly out in force. The stretch of Capel Fleet between the Harty Road and Windmill Creek, for instance, sounded at times like a battle scene from WW2 - such were the rapidity of gunshots going off, gawd knows how many shooters were along there.  Closer by, near Capel Corner, there were also three shooters from nearby Capel Hill farm having their own private little duck shoot and a couple of miles away, below Muswell Manor, another syndicate could also be heard.
And what was the attraction - several hundred low and slow flying Greylag and Canada Geese, that if the shooters were honest, required very little shooting skill in order to down them. For the last few weeks somebody has been heavily spreading corn along the water's edge each day to attract the birds and then hey presto, you can't miss.

But that was yesterday, this morning was serenely quiet, a hint of mist briefly rose as in the east the sky was turning pink, hinting at the rising sun just below the horizon.

I carried on and eventually parked at the reserve's barn and letting the dogs out of the car there, the chilliness in the pre-sun air soon became apparent. To my surprise a Pipistrelle bat was continually flying round the barn and seemed to be attempting to get up under the eaves, I've never seen a bat there before but a new colony would be very welcome and exciting.
I began the trudge across a very wet marsh, not wet as in puddles, although it was muddy in places, thanks to the cattle, but very wet grass from a heavy overnight dew, that hinted that a touch of frost might not be too far away in the future. How did summer become autumn so abruptly! And talking of autumn, fresh and tasty looking small mushrooms have appeared since the weekend, I made a note in my mind to bring a bag tomorrow in order to take some of them home. Fresh, dew-covered mushrooms, bacon and an egg - so nice!

But a gunshot woke me from my salivating and as I glanced towards the seawall I was just in time to see a bird falling from the sky, clearly my reason for being there so early were there, some wildfowlers. Climbing up onto the top of the seawall, it was easy to see that there were just the three Kent Wildfowlers today, unlike the ten there yesterday morning for the first day's shoot. I left them in peace and quiet and wandered off along the seawall for almost an hour, before returning as they began to pack up and walk in from the saltings towards the seawall.One of them had retrieved the shot bird, a Greylag Goose and we had a chat for some time about tasty goose dinner he had coming up, the forthcoming winter and shooting season, and the unnecessary and senseless slaughter of so many wildfowl yesterday along Capel Fleet by ignorant duck shooters, not true wildfowlers. To many people I suppose, a duck is just as unnecessary dead whether it's been shot by a duck shooter or a wildfowler, but there is a huge difference in how the subject is achieved. Wildfowlers tend to be solitary soles who sit out on the tidal saltings in very muddy conditions, enduring all kinds of weather, in the hope that a goose or a duck might happen to fly their way. Over these first two days thirteen wildfowlers shot just one duck and one goose - compare that with the mob-handed duck hunters sitting in comfort round corn fed duck ponds inland on the Harty marshes. They can sometimes shoot as many wildfowl in one session as the wildfowlers total together in a whole season.
I've grown to admire the wildfowlers and enjoy my chats with them along the seawall in the winter and do you know, I might even get to eat a goose this year for the first time since I was a child.