Sunday 30 October 2016

Clocking Back

The frustrations of being a bad sleeper and a naturally early waker-upper came home to roost badly this morning. No matter how badly I sleep I always wake up at around 5am and get up shortly after. Last night the clocks went back an hour to bring us into British winter time, that meant when I woke up at my normal 5am, a glance at the clock showed that it was now actually 4am. Great, most normal people will say, turn over and go back to sleep for an extra hour, unfortunately once I'm awake that's it, I can't fall back to sleep again, I get up. So I laid there and thought oh well, if everything's gone backwards by an hour that means instead of having to wait for it to get light at 7.15, this morning it'll be 6.15 and I get to the reserve earlier in the day - wrong!! As I lay there in the darkness I could hear the constant mournful sound of the fog horns out in the Thames Estuary, a couple of miles away. Oh no, and a glance out of the window showed that the fog was so thick I could barely see across the road, I'd only been awake a few minutes and my day had already got off to a bad start.
Normally I quite like being out on the marsh in the fog, it has a real Dickensian feel about it, sounds carry, birds appear from nowhere, but this morning I wanted to be there just as the first glimmer of light appeared in order to see what standard of shooting the wildfowlers produced re. the geese again. Now that wasn't going to happen and so I hung around indoors until the paper shop opened, got the papers, read one, and then by 8.00 the fog was beginning to lift and so I set off. By the time I got to the reserve we briefly had a glimpse of the sun before the fog began to slowly thicken again. I wandered across to the sea wall hide and joined two birdwatchers in there for a chat. They advised that they had passed the wildfowlers as they made their way to the hide and that they were carrying dead geese and so it looks as though the geese are going to take a daily pasting all the time that they continue taking the flight line that they do.
Meanwhile the birdwatchers were hoping for a glimpse of the Crane that has been frequenting the reserve for a few weeks, though not while I was talking to them, and were carrying two of those huge long lenses for photography that are popular these days. They looked terribly heavy and it must be a labour of love to carry them around for any length of distance, although I guess the results make it all worthwhile. As I came round the back of the reserve a while later I could hear the Crane calling and amazingly it had flown in and landed in a field quite close to the photographers and so they must of been very happy in the end.
Going past Capel Corner along the Harty Road the Great White Egret was walking about among the Mallards in the now shallow Fleet there and I pulled up to snatch a photo. On lifting the camera it immediately flew off and so I was left with just the Mallards and behind them a load of Coot. It's still only 11.45, I feel like I've already been up for a whole day, the fog has lifted to leave grey skies and I think it is going to be a long day.

Saturday 29 October 2016

Another Day

It was one of those mornings this morning, pitch dark when I rose at 5.30 and no matter how many times I paced the house, looking for a hint of dawn breaking out to the east, it just stayed heavily gloomy. Eventually, at 7.00 with the dark sky turning slightly lighter grey in colour, I gave in and headed for the reserve with the dogs anyway. By the time that I got there it was a kind of gloomy half light, just right for the Barn Owl that was hunting ahead of me.
Halfway across the marsh, heading for the sea wall, I heard the clamouring of the Greylag Geese before I could vaguely make them out in the distant gloom, a wide number of dark shapes lumbering slow and low across the saltings from the mudflats of The Swale. I stopped and held my breath, would they make it to the reserve, would there be wildfowlers waiting to intercept them. All hell broke loose, shots and more shots echoed round the sky, some birds dropped from the sky, some possibly injured, made a long and struggling glide towards the safety of the reserve, before suddenly dropping from view. As sudden as the shots had been it went quiet again, the remaining geese went inland to the stubble fields and myself and the dogs climbed up on to the top of the seawall.  Four wildfowlers were easily identifiable, they were walking the saltings hunting with their dogs for geese that had dropped and were as yet un-found. Two others remained tucked down and half-hidden, clearly they had been unsuccessful in what had gone on. Much walking and shouting at dogs ensued and eventually three dead geese were found and the wildfowlers began to pack up and I had a chat with four of them as they made their back along the sea wall, carrying their dead geese. It transpired that a total of six geese were shot but one remained un-found out on the saltings, as were the two that were last seen dropping into the reserve, did they die, are they out there somewhere injured, not a good result and one heavily regretted by all sides.

Two weeks ago I hastily predicted, after a brief flirtation with some rain, that the drought here on Sheppey was now over. No, that brief spell of dampness that saw grass begin to turn green and crops in the fields begin to germinate, has been followed by non-stop drying winds and some sunshine. In short, the moisture that fell on that gloriously wet weekend was gone within 24 hours and we haven't seen any since. Today as I write this, the sky may be grey but it's almost warm and walking the reserve is no different to walking a concrete road, it's bone hard and dust dry. Looking at the Met. Office long range forecast well into December, it is set to stay mostly dry and increasingly cold and so the drought goes on.

Thursday 27 October 2016

Reading the Paper

Reading my Daily Telegraph today I came across the photo below, used as an advert by some company or other. It was of Dylan Thomas and his wife Caitlin in c.1938 in his regular watering hole of Brown's Hotel, Laugharne in Wales. It is one of my favourite photos of Dylan Thomas.

I first discovered Thomas in the mid 1960's, curious to see who it was that Bob Dylan had allegedly named himself after. I began with his poetry, wrote poetry in a similar vein and becoming hooked, looked deeper into his life and found someone that I could easily admire and identify with. All these years later, looking back through the various books that I have collected about his life, it is clear that in many ways the facts of his life were falsely presented, although he did work hard at times to give people the image that they expected. And oh to have the balls to do what he did, aged 39, and literally drink himself to death one night because he couldn't face being forty. I can't say I like a lot of his poetry, just a dozen or so exceptional ones, but his stories, including the great Under Milk Wood, are fantastic, but for me there is one outright winner. Dylan reciting his "A Child's Christmas in Wales". To listen to that, in his beautiful Welsh voice, reminds me so much of how my childhood winters were.
In the same paper, a female columnist was going off about the fact that the Pope has decreed that the practice of keeping a loved one's ashes at home should be forbidden, or scattering them somewhere for that matter. I have no interest in religion at all and was moving on until one thing in her column caught my eye and made me chuckle. Did you know that there are some companies who will happily bake your loved one's ashes into a drinking mug, that's taking having a drink with your dad a bit too far! 
On the subject of loved one's ashes as well, I've always been intrigued as to what exactly is in those urns that people have on their mantle-piece or wherever. Are they really the ashes of a loved one, or the ashes from a coffin, or a mixture of the two - anybody know?

Saturday 15 October 2016

We Had Rain

Well, I said in my last post, it was getting colder and indeed it did, with every day until this morning having North East or Easterly winds creating quite a drop in temperatures. Not only that, we also had rain at last, several early mornings and late evenings were wet. It was never enough to make a zilch of difference to the water levels on the reserve but it has penetrated the soil to an inch or two, causing the grass to begin growing again. Not only that, it has wet the soil on the neighbouring arable fields and rape and winter wheat seed that has sat in bone dry ground for six weeks, has finally begun to germinate and grow.
This morning however, the wind had swung round to a milder SW direction overnight and it was a beautiful and mild autumnal start to the day. Below you can see my view across the marsh as I arrived at first light today, with a light mist rising and the sea wall in the distance.

 Looking westwards you can see some of the cattle and the wind pump.

 and here this calf was busy trotting through the mist, anxious to catch up with it's mother.

This direction sign at the foot of the seawall looked like some biblical cross against the dawn sky.

and the sea wall hide and the various colours of the brightening sky. I was tempted to enhance the colours but decided to leave them as they naturally occurred.

Getting on top of the sea wall I easily spotted this wildfowler out on the saltings, one of four, that was just packing up for the morning. Bird-wise it was a very quiet morning in the calm and warm setting, as the wildfowlers confirmed when I chatted with them. Very few ducks were seen and certainly none shot but their biggest concern was the hoards of mosquitoes that bit them non-stop as they sat out there.

Monday 10 October 2016

It's Getting Colder

Well the weather remains very dry here and looks set to remain so for a while yet but one thing that is changing is the temperature, it has taken a noticeable move downwards. North Easterlies have set in and freshening winds are bringing in the cold from Scandinavia and Poland. On the marsh early today, under the customary clear blue skies it was cold enough to need the winter coat and jumper and my fleece lined winter trousers will be next to be worn. However once the sun began to climb in the sky it turned a fair bit warmer, it was a pleasant walk round. Now, as I sit in my study mid-afternoon and looking across the Thames Estuary to the distant Essex shore, heavy grey clouds are starting to flood across the sky in the moderate ENE wind, might it rain - doubtful. But the clear signs of Autumn are there and I always approach every autumn with a sense of foreboding. I hate those long dark nights and short dreary days of winter that follows, the severe gales and the damage that they cause.
But back to the reserve and while there may be a lack of water, it has been turning up a wide range of birds this last couple of weeks, especially birds of prey. After the excitement of the Osprey and Pallid Harrier it has been the turn of both a male and female Hen Harriers, both adult birds and down from the north of England for their customary winter stay here on Sheppey. White-fronted Geese and Short-eared Owls have begun appearing, no doubt coming in from the Continent on the Easterly winds. The largish owls look quite delightful as they make their all day hunting flights across the fields and saltings of the reserve. On Sunday while walking round the reserve, I not only saw a pair of Ravens, still an uncommon bird here, but also a Common Crane which has been around for a few days. The rather naff photo, taken at some distance in poor, early morning light, shows the Crane in a stubble field alongside the reserve.
Going back to the Easterly winds, elsewhere here in Kent they have also started to push over from Scandinavia the first winter thrushes, Redwings and Fieldfares. Bramblings, Yellow-browed Warblers and Shorelarks have also appeared and so we kiss the summer goodbye for another year.

tonight a great orange moon came up
it came up above the trees
and hung there in a cloudless sky.
I tried t write more about you
but it kept on hanging there
makin the words seem like a lie.

tonight I had t ring you up
t tell you about the moon
and had you seen it as well.
because it wasn't just the wine
or the heat outside
makin it feel I was under a spell.

tonight the moon was my friend
because you came over
and we drank a bottle or two.
but it wasn't just the moon
that made it what it was,
it had a lot t do with you.

Friday 7 October 2016

Green and Yellow

It seems like the only thing that I have to write about this last few months is our never ending dry spell and it still goes on, to the degree that people probably believe that I'm making it up! I was down in Surrey at my partner's house for a few days this week and could only look in envy at her nice green lawns. We had a pleasant walk on Wednesday along the nearby River Blackwater, it's not a very wide river and it is surrounded in places by great, large oaks and other trees as it winds it's way gently through the water meadows. But it entrances me to see lovely clean water continually flowing past and seeing the water weeds all straining to go with it to wherever it is going. I found myself comparing it with the current ditches and dykes back here on Sheppey, now either dry or just a simple inch of stagnant water and black mud that have lost all semblance of what they should represent on the marshland habitat.
As I drove back on to Sheppey yesterday morning it was like driving into the dry, arid countryside of southern Spain in mid-summer, none of the green meadows of Surrey here, just endless fields of whitish yellow dryness and baked and cracked ground. My garden was just as depressing, 50% of the lawns are dead and cracked and half of the patio slabs are visibly sloping downwards due to the ground shrinking beneath them. For the last couple of weeks I have been trying to dig over and prepare a new rose border ready for roses that should arrive next month and that became almost comical. I was having to jump up and down on the spade in order to just get it to penetrate the soil before turning huge clods of clay that wouldn't break up. Eventually I resorted to watering the soil for several nights in order to soften it up to a reasonable degree and then had another go at digging it.
But despite the dryness and lack of most things wildfowl, there were some rays of light last week. At the extreme western end of the reserve, on the saltings below Harty Church, an Osprey on passage back to Africa, stopped off for a few days. Several times it was seen to go out over the tidal Swale and return with a fish that it ate on a post on the saltings. Just before it departed for good it was replaced by a much rarer juvenile Pallid Harrier, which replaced it at almost the same spot. Seen best from the rear of the tiny Harty Church, the bird attracted a largish number of twitchers, an external congregation worshipping a bird rather than the Man Above. The bird finally flew across The Swale on Sunday afternoon and didn't return, taking with it the twitchers, who have no time for ordinary things.

See the dry and dusty track across the marsh (sorry about the light quality, it was a gloomy morning)

 The cattle looking for some nourishment in the dusty and yellow conditions.

 The view across the grazing marsh

and the start of the seawall and it's yellow adjoining field.

 One of the reserve's ditches, reduced to an inch of stinking water in the bottom of it.