Sunday 31 January 2016

A Doggy Tale

Whether you are a farmer, a huntsman, shooter, or birdwatcher even, most people involved with the countryside will want or own a dog at some time, or in my case all of the time. When I went to work for the Kent River Authority in 1966 I was immediately among workmates who were all involved in various country pursuits, people who, because we were normally working on the sea walls and marshes, often brought their dogs to work with them. So, some days it would be a spaniel, some days a labrador but the dogs I envied the most were two Jack Russell terriers owned by a guy who is still a best friend all these years later. These were not just simple gun dogs, these were jack of all trades dogs, that were as hard as nails, that hunted rabbits, rats, stoats, etc., and I dearly wanted one. Unfortunately it was to be another frustrating seven years before that wish came true, when my wife and I finally moved out of our flat and bought our first house. New furniture, new carpets, new puppy, I think the list went and not entirely how my wife's list of priorities went!
The choice of course, was a bitch Jack Russell, the start of a continuous line of bitch Jack Russells that I have owned ever since. Jessie came into my life in 1973 and was to spend 13 happy years roaming the Elmley marshes with me.

Late the following year she had two puppies, seen below and until they reached eight weeks old and the browner one was sold, were nick-named "Whitey" and "Brownie".

I had decided to keep the white puppy and as she'd begun to get used to the nick-name "Whitey" that's what she became, daft as it sounds. They became a formidable team of rabbiting dogs, just as my era of rabbiting on the Elmley marshes was taking off and we spent the winter months through many years catching rabbits on what became the new RSPB reserve there.

In turn, Whitey had a litter of her own puppies one summer and we sold them all.

Jessie finally died, aged 13, as the result of a tragic accident in the winter of 1985/86 and so just Whitey remained as my constant companion when I became a Vol. Warden on the Swale NNR later in 1986. She enjoyed the marshes of the reserve and despite heading into old age, she enjoyed the regular pursuit of the many thousand of rabbits that there were there at the time. Sadly, just a year later she also died, aged 13, the result of stomach cancer. I was devastated but within a few days, was told of a litter of Jackos that were available in nearby Eastchurch and so a week or two later Lucy (below), came into my life, a real treasure of a good-natured dog. And on that subject, throughout all the years that I have owned Jackos and despite their much touted reputation for being yappy/snappy dogs, I have never found that to be the case.

Here Lucy stands on top of one of the old salt working mounds on the reserve one winter's day in all her physical pomp.

When Lucy was around eight years old my then wife and I decided that to avoid being dog-less when Lucy went into old age or died, we would get another dog while Lucy was still OK. My wife wanted a different breed and as throughout my childhood I had always had a thing about Beagles, that was our choice. Finding one wasn't that easy, especially in Kent, but eventually we found a litter for sale in Devon and so Nana arrived and became Lucy's new soul mate. Below you can see Nana taking it easy not long after her arrival, no doubt dreaming about what a high powered rabbit chaser she was going to grow into.

She and Lucy became a formidable pair on the marsh in pursuit of rabbits, although at times, her typical hound's nature became a problem because in the usual hound fashion, when she got her nose to the ground on the scent of something, coming back was not an option. At times in high summer, after she had disappeared into a neighbouring corn field after a rabbit or hare, the only indication of where she was, far in the distance, was the tidal wave of corn stalks moving through the field. Fortunately, when she was a few years old, the reserve's boundary was totally fenced in I always knew that she was contained to a degree. Beagles are the most gorgeous dogs, not only in looks but in nature, they are so emotional, loving and trusting and I find it absolutely repugnant that animal experiment laboratories use them for that very reason.
In turn, Lucy died when Nana was about eight years old and so we immediately set about getting a replacement Jacko and Midge came on the scene, once again sourced from the West Country. This now made Nana the senior dog and below you can see the young Midge and Nana asleep on my bed not long after she arrived. That was not a posed photograph, Nana would regularly sleep with one leg across Midge as though protecting her.

Midge (below) arrived in early 2003 and now, despite having just passed her thirteenth birthday, is still going strong and so far, is the fittest thirteen year old dog that I've ever had.

Which was not the case for poor old Nana, from the age of twelve she started to suffer with arthritis, which for the first couple of years was manageable with drugs. But over the last two years she really struggled with the lack of mobility. At times, because she still wanted to come out with Midge and I, I would take her, give a short, slow walk of a few hundred yards and then let her sleep in the car while Midge and I walked the reserve. Eventually, she developed an inoperable cancer behind a nostril which reduced her breathing ability greatly and we had to say goodbye to her. She lived to sixteen, a very good age for a Beagle and I still miss her greatly, her gently nature made her a very special dog amid all those that I have owned.
I seriously considered getting a second Beagle to replace her but was fearful that another could be what Nana had meant to me, plus, I had to consider the fact that my old legs would never be up to pursuing another long distance young Beagle round the reserve. So it was another Jacko and a real star came into my life - little Ellie. Below she is posing like some young upstart, with Midge, just after I bought her and a better replacement for Nana I couldn't of bought, and apart from when it comes to rabbits and mice, she is the most placid and friendly dog you could wish to own.

Below you can see the very first time that she came out on to the reserve with Midge and I and Midge showed her the way round some rabbit burrows, not that she took a lot of notice. Today she is four years old and it is very likely that she will have the honour of being the dog that accompanies me into my sunset years, it is unlikely that I will replace Midge when she dies.

Wednesday 20 January 2016

It takes a Pipit

It's interesting in some ways, to see Sheppey a bird watching, or should I say twitching, hotspot at the moment .One or two of us that bird watch the area on a regular basis know how good it can be most winters but few other people visit until a rare bird lures them in. This winter we have the Shorelark on Minster beach and the Richards Pipit on my patch, The Swale NNR. Both had been known to us for a little while before others found them and immediately broadcast the fact to the world in general.
The Richards Pipit, or at least, a Richards Pipit, was in the same place along the sea wall last winter and you never know, could of been there all summer as well.
As is my habit, I tend to be out there just after dawn and therefore miss a lot of the people that daily trudge the sea wall looking for the pipit. However of those I've seen or spoken too, it's clear that they tend to be of two types - the in, tick and out types and those that can be bothered to look at what else the site has to offer. The latter are often amazed at what they see, a Hooded Crow, White-fronted Geese, S.E.Owl's, male Hen Harriers, even a Twite or two and yet they'd of missed all of that if someone hadn't found a Richards Pipit for them.

Couple such excitement with a trip to Minster Beach, just a few miles away and they will of had a twitching good day. The Shorelark is along a shingle bank sea defence just a mile or so from my house and as I write this I can see from my window, people with scopes looking for it. I have walked over there a couple of times and had a look at a bird that is far more delightful to look at than the rather plain and non-descript Richards Pipit. The Shorelark is a very easy bird to get within a few yards of as well as it scurries about looking for food among the stones and the weeds but then I guess that where it comes from it doesn't normally have humans with cameras and scopes encircling it on a daily basis and therefore hasn't learnt fear. Generally, what I've seen there, most people have been content and delighted, to get within just five or six yards of the bird but there has also been the odd one that has to get that extra yard closer. That disturbs the bird up to fly further along the beach and off everybody then scurries to sometimes disturb it on again.

Roll on the Spring!

Monday 18 January 2016

Dawn and Dusk

Yesterday (Sunday) saw me on the reserve at both ends of the day and both times the weather was dry, grey, very cold and not too enjoyable.
In the morning I arrived on the sea wall just as daylight was breaking in the eastern sky, or at least the heavy grey skies were getting brighter to eventually become daylight. Walking across the wet grazing marsh to get there I was struck by the fact that I couldn't hear any of the usual geese flock stirring, which was unusual. Scanning the reserve as the light increased it was clear why, there were no geese on the reserve, especially the Whitefronts, something that hadn't occurred for a couple of months. A little while later, talking to two wildfowlers as they came past, I asked if they'd heard or seen the geese pre-dawn but they said that they hadn't, just a few Wigeon in the dark. So a bit of a mystery and a disappointment to one guy a little while later. He came walking along the sea wall from Shellness, ahead of the now daily pipit twitchers that were starting to appear, holding one of those round sound receiving dish things up in the air. I had a brief chat with him and it appeared that he had been hoping to get some sound recordings of the White-fronted Geese but while I was there, had to make do with Brent Geese calls. The sea wall was starting to get busy again and so I left for home.

I was back there again by 15.45 in order to carry out my part of the monthly Harrier Roost count that is co-ordinated throughout Kent and Essex all at the same time and for the first time ever, I left both the dogs at home. It was very cold and to get across to the sea wall the dogs have to swim through some patches of deep water which is OK if they stay constantly on the move to keep warm. However, an hour or so sitting on the sea wall wet through in the cold, wouldn't of done old Midge any good so I left them at home. It felt strange not having them there with me but when I got back indoors, froze to the marrow, there were the two dogs, laying on their backs with their feet in the air, warm as toast - who was the idiot.
The photo below shows my view across the harrier roost area towards Shellness just as dusk was settling in, what it doesn't show is how bloody cold it was, my feet in the dreaded wellie boots were numb.

Just as the morning visit, once again there were no geese on the reserve, even the Brent Geese had gone down to the winter corn by the Shellness track. So my main entertainment was the large number of Curlew out on the mudflats of the bay behind Shellness Point. Their constant bubbling calls as the light began to quickly fade gave the area that lovely marshland atmosphere. In between constant surveying of the harrier roost area for any sighting of them, I could see a couple of people approaching along the sea wall from Shellness, unusual with it fast getting dark. 
It was three-quarters dark by the time that they came past me, almost too dark to see much of what was going on down at the distant roost site but finally, and probably by pure luck, I saw the ghost-like pale grey plumage of two male Hen Harriers drop into the saltings to roost. The light was that bad by then that I doubt that I would of made out the dark brown plumage of a female harrier if one was there.
The couple said that they were staying at the Ferry House Inn for the weekend and were fascinated with how magical, remote and Darwinian the marshes alongside the reserve were in the fading light. They had hoped to see all the geese that they'd heard about but I told them that for some unknown reason the geese hadn't been about all day. They had not walked more than twenty yards further on when all of a sudden the clamouring of hundreds of geese came into earshot and out of the gloom and against what brightness was left in the grey clouds above, came several skeins of geese. Some were in V formation, some were just in loose flocks, and they wheeled about over us with a great noisy mixture of the Greylags' farmyard goose calls and the higher, chuckling calls of the White-fronted geese. Some then flew the length of the reserve and disappeared into the darkness but could then be heard coming back out over The Swale and appeared to drop down on to the tide out there. The remainder, mostly Greylags, spent the next half an hour or so, circling the reserve in the darkness and were still calling wildly as I made my back across the marsh to the car.
It was a truly magical episode, like some old black and white Peter Scott film - the couple stood with me on the sea wall and we all marveled at what we were seeing and hearing - the North Kent marshes at their finest. 

Wednesday 13 January 2016

The Three T's

Many local wildlife blogs at the moment are full of the usual reviews of last year's exploits/tick lists and then this year's targets of both species numbers and resolutions. Can't say as I've ever been one that makes tick lists or make resolutions, except perhaps to drink less red wine, which rarely works.
Since I turned sixty, eight years ago, I guess my main target each year is to still be able to get out and about on the marsh just as much at the end of the year as at the beginning, physically I mean.
When I retired in 2006 I had completed thirty-four years employment in Sheerness Docks, nineteen as a stevedore unloading/loading ships and fifteen in management. Those first nineteen years involved, among many other things, working in frozen meat boats in temperatures as low as -15 degrees and chilled fruit boats which were damp and cold. Couple that with a lifetime of wandering around cold and wet marshes and it's no wonder that I've ended up with some arthritis, and joints that just ache anyway.
So as every winter gets physically more painful to experience, my yearly target is quite simple - to keep getting out on the reserve for as long as possible and to simply enjoy the wildlife I encounter by being there. Putting physicality aside, neither of those two targets see any lessening of my lifestyle because in reality I've never been a Ticker, a Twitcher or a Traveller.

ATicker - by that I mean that I have never set myself personal tick lists at the start of each year, lists that set out how many different types of birds that I have seen the previous year and which I would hope to add to in the current year. In the thirty years that I have been part of the team involved with The Swale NNR, I have always sent in lists of bird types and numbers seen on most visits, have recorded breeding bird numbers, have carried out WEBS and Harrier Roost counts and some national census's and yet I still couldn't tell you what my life-time species count is.

Twitching - well my dislike of that branch of ornithology has been documented by me on numerous blogs over the years, it and the people that pursue it have never appealed to me.

Travelling - well that partly goes hand in glove with twitching. I could say that Sheppey is my patch and that's as far as I travel to see a bird but really that would be inaccurate because there are parts of Sheppey that I rarely visit, despite it's small size. No, The Swale NNR has been my patch for the last thirty odd years, it's all I need and is normally as far as I travel to see birds. I won't even go as far as nearby Elmley to birdwatch, even when rare birds have turned up there, especially now that various restrictions are being applied.

So to summarise, my 2016 resolution is to carry on doing what I've been doing for the last thirty-odd years - enjoying the solitude of The Swale NNR with my two dogs and seeing what wildlife comes to me, rather than chasing my arse going looking for it elsewhere.

Monday 11 January 2016

Wetter and Muddier

The first event this morning was the very sad news of the death of David Bowie. I never bought his music but he was so much an icon of an era, hearing his music always takes me back to the happiest years of my life. R.I.P.

Today began in it's now pretty much guaranteed way, dark skies, heavy rain and coldness. Yesterday I gave the reserve a miss, not something I do often but I needed a break from wading through water and mud all the time. Instead I walked the short distance from my home to the Minster beach Shingle Bank and joined a few birdwatchers enjoying close views of a very obliging Shorelark.
Sheppey is doing quite well at the moment for birds because on the reserve as well are a Richards Pipit, a Hooded Crow, White-fronted Geese and Hen Harriers.
But it was back to the reserve today as three of us carried out the monthly WEBS count on the 13.00 high tide there. Below is the entry gate onto the marsh, a wade through foot deep water starts the walk round off. (Apologies for the poor quality, the light was pretty dire)

There were several birdwatchers on the sea wall as I trudged along it, counting various birds as I went. Mostly they were looking for the Richards Pipit, which was proving to be quite elusive, although it was reported as seen this morning.
I eventually found a pretty good variety of birds but numbers were lower than I was expecting, especially the waders and plovers, possibly many were on the water-logged arable fields further inland. The stand out birds for me were the White-fronted Geese, they're numbers continue to gradually inch up and today they were at a this winter high of 270 birds. The newer additions to the flock had probably brought another visitor with them because feeding within the flock was also a solitary Barnacle Goose. What else, ah yes, the Hooded Crow put in it's usual appearance, once again staying remote from the resident Carrion Crows. Duck numbers were abysmal for the time of year and the degree of flooded grass available to them. I recorded just 190 Shelduck, 40 Teal, 20 Mallard, 2 Shoveler. 1 Pintail - a few years ago we would of been counting several hundreds, if not thousands, of ducks.
The heavy skies, poor light and low bird numbers did little to ease my winter blues and it was time to head back across the marsh and home, though that trek was just as dire. Below is the route across the grazing marsh........

......and here is one of the boggy crossing points, with Ellie about to sink up to her shoulders in it.

Thursday 7 January 2016

A Turn for the Wetter

Well, I've just come back from the reserve wet through, the second soaking in three days as torrential rain has hit just as I'm half way across the marsh between hides.
It's been just four days since my last posting and a mention that so far this winter it hasn't been as wet as the previous two and in that short time things have changed dramatically for the wetter. Each of the last four days and today in particular, has seen bouts of heavy rain and as a result a lot of the grazing marsh is now waterlogged and in places, under water. Those conditions unfortunately, have meant that the cattle have created some pretty awful areas of deep mud in gateways and along tracks and even the grazing fields, while looking green, are riddled with deep foot-holes. Couple that with the fact that few graziers walk anywhere these days to look at their livestock, everything is done from quad bikes or 4x4's, which leave their own trail of ruts and tyre marks in the soft areas. For the next 2-3 months it now makes for some challenging access routes around the reserve for both me and the two dogs, either wading through seriously deep water or getting bogged down in clinging mud. Worst of all, the continual painful wearing of wellie boots. As a result, the cattle were taken off the reserve yesterday and back to the stock yards for the next two or three months.
It's been a difficult balancing act this winter with the cattle and the grazing conditions. In an ideal winter the cattle would be taken off the reserve in Nov-early Dec and then cold weather and regular frosts would hold the grass back from growing much, if at all. The mildness of this winter has seen the grass growing at an unprecedented rate which would leave it too long this Spring and therefore less than ideal breeding conditions for the reserve's main target species, Lapwings.
And so we're back to this, the dogs are walking ahead of me on part of the main track round the reserve, or at least, Ellie is, Midge in her old age is not so keen and I know how she feels.

Lingering darkness and poor light has also been a feature of the early mornings in this wet weather, this view across The Swale was at 9.00 in the morning!

But one huge up-turn in recent days, thanks to the waterlogged conditions, has been the rise in bird numbers and variety. With the boggy ground making it easy for birds to probe for earthworms and the like, Lapwing, Curlews, Redshanks, etc, are returning in daily increasing numbers and they are joined at high tide by the birds that normally feed on the tidal mudflats. So all of a sudden, bird wise things are looking up, bolstered by the wonderful White-fronted Geese, whose numbers creep up by tens and twenties each week, currently there are c.190 birds. You can't help but be inspired by the beautiful wild goose calls of these birds as they rise each morning and flight to find food. So much better than the boring farmyard goose type calls of the resident Greylag Geese.
Below, you can see this party of Whitefronts as they flew over me this morning to feed on the grazing marsh at their favoured end of the reserve. The main threat to these birds is the shooting on the farmland throughout Harty but so far they seem to have survived OK and with only three weeks left of that season, hopefully that will remain the case.

Sunday 3 January 2016

Moving On

Well it's already the third day of the new year and tomorrow most people go back to work after a long Christmas break and us retired patch watchers can get back to normality after, in my case, birdwatchers twitching Twite (who'd of thought it) and wildfowlers on the saltings every morning. Below you can see four wildfowlers at dawn this morning as they looked for a duck that had come down after being shot - they eventually found it. Mind you, despite various wildfowlers being out each morning and some evenings over the holiday period, there have been very few birds shot and it should be a fairly quiet last seven weeks of their shooting season, it normally is.

Despite it being a grey, cold and breezy early morning, I walked through the mud along the top of the seawall and past the wildfowlers, to have a look at the farmland set-aside area where the Twite were seen a few days ago among a large flock of Linnets - this morning there were no birds at all in the weedy area. Nearby however, out on Horse Sands at low tide, there were around 30+ Common Seals stretched out on the sand - nearly 100 were recorded a few days ago, numbers are definitely rising.
It wasn't the best of mornings to hang around though, heavy and prolonged rain had been forecast from mid-morning onward and it was obvious, looking at the darkening of the western sky. that it wasn't that far away. I walked back along the sea wall and crossed onto the grazing marsh in order to walk back across it to the barn and my car.
I never heard or saw the c.160 flock of White-fronted Geese at all this morning but I'll guarantee that they were tucked away somewhere on the reserve near the Tower Hide. Yesterday, after spending several days hoping to spot them, I finally recorded the two male Hen Harriers as they left their roost on the reserve in the dawn half light, they really are a stunning bird.

Walking back across the grazing marsh the visiting Hooded Crow flew across in front of me, fairly close, before alighting some way away. (sorry about the distant photo)

By lunch time the rain had set in with a vengeance, several hours of steady rain but I guess we were due our turn  because it has been more damp and drizzly this last few weeks than actually raining properly. To emphasis that the photo below(in poor light), was taken this morning and it's green grass all the way across to the Sea Wall Hide, waterlogged and muddy perhaps but not under water.

Where as this photo, of the same view, taken in January 2014, shows how wet it was in both the January of 2014 and January 2015, we're a long way from that so far.

Friday 1 January 2016

A Frosty First Day

After being kept awake after midnight by mass fireworks going off all round (some people seem to have an awful lot of money to burn), I had a couple of hours sleep and then got to the reserve just as a spectacular dawn was appearing in the eastern sky. We also had the first hard frost of this winter.
Below is the view from Capel Hill across Harty marshes as a spectacular dawn began to come to life.

After stopping at the Raptor Viewing Mound to speak to three birdwatchers who were peering into the gloom through their telescopes, trying to add as many birds to their New Year lists as possible, I arrived at the reserve barn as the sky was beginning to brighten and change colour.

This one, taken from alongside the barn and looking across the grazing marsh, shows a light mist that quickly formed and hung around for about an hour, making bird counts difficult.

And yet, by the time that I had walked across the marsh to the top of the seawall, where this photo was taken, the sky had changed colour again, you can just make out the silver strip of The Swale between Sheppey and the mainland.

I could see another birdwatcher further along the sea wall in the mist and the poor light and so walked along to him for a chat. There were three wildfowlers out on the saltings and so I didn't want to go out into the reserve and disturb the geese and risk them getting shot, much as I get on with the wildfowlers, I'd much rather the White-fronted Geese remain unscathed. Gavin, a local birdwatcher, was searching for the pair of Hen Harriers that have been roosting on the saltings near Shellness for around a week and I was anxious to see them for myself.  Did we see them, did we heck, unlike most other people that have been out there lately.

The mist had more or less cleared and the frost was thawing, all in all, it was a really nice morning to be out so early, although I needed to be elsewhere quite early and so had to head back across the marsh. A flock of c.130 White-fronted Geese were ahead of me, grazing the marsh grass, and so I circled round them at around 150yds distance and they totally ignored me and as I did that, the Hooded Crow flew past. It had been a brief visit but made spectacular by the sunrise and the geese, that'll do until a longer walk there tomorrow.