Tuesday 26 December 2017

Boxing Day

Boxing Day, a traditional day for getting out and about in the countryside, working off some of those Christmas Day excesses. It is the one day of the year when most forms of the hunting fraternity are guaranteed to be out and about on the same day, whether it be the fox hunts, game shoots, ferreting, or wildfowling. This morning I arrived at the reserve just as a dark, starlit sky was beginning to brighten in the east with a promise of blue skies and a spectacular sunrise. Below is the view across the marsh to the sea wall in the east at 7.15.

Gradually the light increased to reveal clear blue skies and this one, anvil shaped cloud on the eastern horizon.

 Finally, at 8.15, the sun here was seconds away from rising above the horizon.
Alongside the reserve on Boxing Day morning it is only the wildfowlers that I usually see although even their numbers, like the wildfowl they pursue, have gradually dwindled. Ten or more years ago it wouldn't be unusual to see as many as twenty wildfowlers strung out along the saltings near the sea wall, shooting many dozens of geese and ducks. Nowadays their numbers have mirrored the wildfowl numbers and dropped to three and fours and sometimes even none.
And so it was this morning, in the increasingly cold wind and dawn light, I could see three wildfowlers hunkered down in the muddy gullies in front of me, two close together and a third several hundred yards further on. There were no shots fired while I was there but the lone guy packed up as I walked along the sea wall in his direction and he carried a dead Greylag Goose as he came alongside. We walked along the sea wall together, chatting about the shooting that morning before I'd arrived, or more to the point, the lack of it. It transpired that between the three of them out there in the dark just two shots had been fired and one of them by him had killed the goose that he was carrying. Presumably a nice organic meal, tasting far better than anything shop bought.
I left him to carry on home and re-traced by steps back along the sea wall to have a brief chat with the other two wildfowlers now coming towards me. It was their first visit to that particular site and as now becoming the norm, their first words to me were "where are all the birds", to which I replied "there's no bloody water to attract them". It was good to chat to them - about our dogs, shooting in general, doubtful wildfowl breeding prospects for another potential dry Spring coming up - and then I left them and headed off to wander through the middle of the reserve.
So, almost twelve months since last New Years Eve, I'm having the same conversations as then - where's the water, where's the birds, it's looking quite sad.

Saturday 23 December 2017

Duck Numbers

Having been awake very early this morning, well 2 am. to be honest. I was wandering around the house from 5.30 waiting to go down to the reserve. But a combination of only being two days past the Shortest Day and weather stuck in a pattern of heavy grey skies, mist and day-time murkiness, saw it still pretty much dark at past 7.00 and so I went anyway.
By the time that I got to the reserve (The Swale NNR), and had begun to walk across the marsh with little Ellie close by me, the darkness was just beginning to turn into a slightly lighter dawn. A couple of gunshots had rung out and so I knew to expect some wildfowlers out on the salting once I got on top of the sea wall and so it proved. There were two fairly close together and one other several hundred yards away from them. The two together immediately had a few more shots at birds that I couldn't see in the gloom and that was it as far their shooting went. I walked along to the lone guy, who by then was packing up and had a brief chat with him, he'd not shot anything. Then a little later, walked back to chat to the other two. They had shot just the one duck and so three wildfowlers had probably spent at least three hours sitting in mud, cold and darkness for a pretty poor return, not the slaughter that people like to accuse them of. Between us we spent a little while discussing what is turning out to be one of the poorest wildfowl shooting winters for several years, which goes hand in glove with the fact that the reserve is recording record low numbers of wildfowl and waders as well.
The days when ducks such as Wigeon, Teal and Mallard would leave the reserve each morning in their several hundreds, thousands sometimes, now seem well behind us and just a distant memory. I can recall counting flocks of Wigeon floating down The Swale off of the reserve in several thousands and yet I've seen just one this winter so far. Numbers that high probably haven't occurred for about ten years but as recent as five years ago there were still some respectable numbers to compare this month with:
Dec 2012
Wigeon 760
Mallard 190
Teal 140
Lapwing 900

Dec 18th 2017
Wigeon 0
Mallard 373
Teal 10
Lapwing 30

Compare also the counts of the same birds species at the Elmley reserve, just a few miles away, on the same day this month:

Dec 18th 2017
Wigeon 7017
Teal 1000
Mallard 1395

The biggest reason for so few birds at The Swale NNR in recent years, I guess has to be two very dry and mild winters, both wildfowl and waders need large areas of part flooded or waterlogged  habitat in which to bathe, feed and safely roost. There are none of those areas on the Swale NNR at the moment as I have repeatedly mentioned on my blogs, but then again, Elmley is almost just as dry. But the wildfowl had begun to favour Elmley before these recent dry winters, lured perhaps by the huge acreage of safe grazing meadows and wet areas and large tidal bays alongside that were safe from any shooting.
So, for the moment at least, the marshes at the eastern end of Sheppey remain pretty barren when it comes to wildfowl and waders and myself and my chums the wildfowlers will have to be content with what slim pickings that we get.

Thursday 21 December 2017

The Shortest Day

Today is the Shortest Day and boy, is it doing it's darnest to prove it. Today is the second of two really damp, low cloud, misty and drizzly days when the best that could be said of the daylight is that we've had eight hours of twilight and the best description of it is Dank! Everywhere and everything is wet, the roads are wet and mucky and as a result my car looks like it has been used for rallying, it is so filthy, the garden is wet and muddy and even the walls inside my garage are wet. What a difference from the beautiful, dry, bright and frost day featured in my last posting. Gawd, this next couple of weeks can't rush by fast enough, goodbye Christmas, welcome New Year and the increasingly longer days.
And talking about Christmas, this year, possibly because I'm reading more blogs, although it's in the media as well, I've been driven nuts by people who seem unable to accept that some people actually dislike Christmas and even harder to understand, that people don't have some kind of medical or mental condition because they actually enjoy being on their own on Christmas Day. Long periods of my adult life have been spent on my own over Christmas, yes, I have gone out to Christmas dinner at people's houses  but it's such a joy to speed off home as soon as possible and simply shut the door and be on my own.
There is so much falseness about Christmas these days, so much expense, so much debt, so much one-up-man-ness, so much guff about the need to be together, so little religion and the simplicity that Christmas started as years ago. There are also the once a year Christians, who go to Christmas Eve Mass and tell all their friends about how they're doing all the right things  On a phone-in on the radio this morning there was a whole feature about the quest for, and finding, the latest must-have and expensive toys and some parents stressing out about not finding said toys for their spoilt little darlings. Is that Christmas, I'm so glad that I dislike it and shun it and so amused that people find me odd.

Tuesday 19 December 2017

Such a Frost

The thick mist/fog forecast for overnight didn't appear but a severe frost did and everything was covered in white when I went out to the paper shop at 6.00am. Later, as the sun began to rise in the dawn sky, I arrived at a white reserve in a temperature of -3 degrees.

Everything was covered in a white frost and it looked pretty bleak and foreboding.

 The reserve's cattle just carried on carrying on though, despite the fact that the grass that they were eating was frozen.

At first it was like walking round inside a freezer unit but gradually, as the sun began to radiate a semblance of heat, the frost began to lift and things became more comfortable.

A couple of small parties of Greylag Geese flew into the reserve from their overnight roost on the neighbouring farmland.

 Ice on the surface of the sea wall fleet, the only decent amount of water on most of the reserve.
So anyway, that is how it looked at first light this morning, a reserve frozen in time, pretty much how my frame of mind is at this time of year. Just holding my breath and waiting for the Spring to spur things into new life, just going through the motions. Yesterday, over lunchtime, the regular three of us carried out the monthly Wetland Bird Survey at our designated sections. Mine, the main marsh part of the reserve, came up with a reasonable variety of wildfowl and waders but as usual, thanks to the lack of water, nothing substantial numbers wise. Totals yesterday, among others, of  80 Greylag Geese, 70 Mallard and 110 Shelduck, look pretty pathetic when as recently as 5-7 years ago, when the Flood field was indeed flooded, we were counting wildfowl in the thousands.
I returned later in the afternoon yesterday to then take part in the monthly Harrier Roost Count. It was an amazing sunset in the still, December afternoon but then turned pretty cold as I paced up and down the sea wall waiting for the dusk to increase and my target species the Hen Harrier to suddenly appear  and drop into roost. Eventually, if any did do that, I missed them in the gloom and registered a nought, although up to four have been seen coming out of the roost at dawn in recent days, so Hen Harrier numbers looking better. At the same time, elsewhere on Sheppey, the regular Marsh Harrier roosts were being counted and came up with the amazing total of 103 birds going in to roost, Sheppey really is a national Marsh Harrier stronghold these days. 

Friday 15 December 2017

A drop of water

Since my last post we have had a few more rainy spells and at long last a trickle of water is beginning to return to the reserve. Take the ditch below, photographed a month or so ago.....

....and how it looked this morning from a slightly different angle. It's only an inch or two of water and several other previously dry ditches are beginning to look the same - it may not be the feet of water needed but it's start.

While on the reserve this morning, under dark skies and a bitter and strengthening N. wind, I watched a Merlin hunting. Out over the saltings it flushed what looked like a Skylark and gave chase. The frantic Skylark rose up in to the air before plummeting downwards on several occasions, all the time being harassed by the Merlin making stoops at very fast speeds. If only the poor Lark would of landed in the vegetation it would of survived OK but it continued to keep flying up and eventually the Merlin snatched it and took it away to eat.
My rear garden, with it's canary aviary to one side, is not all that huge and this autumn I have spent a lot of time stripping out bushes in particular that had become very overgrown and were providing little for wildlife.  (Now that the large shrubs have gone the area at the top of the garden is bigger than it looks in the photo.) It looks a tad bare now but I have already begun planting plants that will cover the fences over the ensuing years, plants that will provide food and interest to insects of all kind. The same will apply to and bare areas in the borders, most things that I plant have to attract and feed bees and butterflies, etc., I'd rather plant wild flowers or some weeds, than pretty flowers that give back very little. Hopefully next summer I can post photos of it looking full and colourful.

Sunday 10 December 2017

Days Past

During these short, dark, damp, cold days of winter I often find it easy to open a bottle of red wine from my collection and sink into melancholia. Days and delights, often well gone by - long, hot and delightful days with the sun on one's back, warmth in the bones, a treat round every corner on a dusty road. Does it matter which road that we take, let's see where we end up, will there be a nice pub at the end - sitting in their garden, a hot sun on one's back, a nice pint of ale in the hand. Those subtle delights carrying on into a warm and daylight evening, the last warm rays lingering until 10 pm or past.
At times such events seem to stretch back so far - was last winter really so long ago, did we really do so and so well back in March, the coming back after a hot day out, the warm and lingering evening, the BBQ, the wine, the mosquitoes and the bats as darkness gradually crept in. Playing silly CD's into the enveloping darkness, Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, Barry Manilow - another bottle - why not, and the eventually falling into bed, contended people.

Today started in the early hours with icy rain, which turned to snow at 7.00, giving us our first light covering since 2011 and then turned back to rain for the rest of the day. It's been cold, been wet and to be honest, bloody awful, and neither I or my dog have been out and the corkscrew is hovering. Will it of made much difference to the dryness on the reserve, without going there I know it won't of done as far as the ditches are concerned, but it will of made the surface of the ground muddier, especially where the cattle have walked. Rain is also forecast for tomorrow and so at last, are we finally coming to the end of our drought.
My rear garden at 8.00 - two hours later it had all gone.