Tuesday, 10 August 2021

Here Comes The Sun

Well - the end of May since I last posted a blog account and to be honest, over the time that has elapsed  I've struggled to find both the enthusiasm, or indeed the need, to write another. I've daily read a few other blogs but to be honest they mainly seem to concentrate on what they eat, bake, dust and wash each day, I haven't been able to do much better and so I've stayed quiet.

April was a bone dry, frosty and cold month, May seemed to just rain everyday, resolving April's dryness, and so my last posting hoped for summer in June. Well, for the first half of June that's exactly what we got, we had a couple of separate mini heatwaves of a week or so long, each. People came alive again after the crap Spring. Shorts and T shirts were donned, beaches and the countryside were remembered, re-visited and enjoyed., life began to be enjoyed again, the dark days of Covid receded. Sadly, some people couldn't enjoy that few weeks out of a long and fifty-two week year - oh no, it was too hot, please let it cool down - well unfortunately they got their bloody wish. Much of July and the beginning of August has, here on Sheppey at least, been constantly wet and windy. That weather, combined with the nights drawing in, has made it feel like Autumn has come early.

But joy of joys, after several days of heavy rain and strong winds, today has been very warm and sunny, the raincoats and umbrellas have been discarded, the shorts and T shirts are back on, the beach is busy again. Even better, several days of this weather are forecast, the clock is now ticking, counting down to the first miserable git who complains about summer happening.

Suppose I ought to mention the reserve, not that much is happening, it's very overgrown, worst I've seen it, the cattle are making little impression on the long grass, trampling it more than eating it. The tractor driven mowers have begun to mow the grazing meadows but they are struggling to get under the flattened grass. Bird life is minimal with just a few autumn waders coming through and wildfowl numbers very low, which will disappoint the wildfowlers when they start their shooting season in a few weeks time on the 1st September.

The arable fields surrounding the reserve have all been harvested, with straw baled and taken away and the stubble manured and tilled to leave it ready for the autumn seed sowing. The next event in a week or so will be the arrival of several thousand game bird poults for the winter shooting season - the circle turns really fast at times.

Friday, 21 May 2021

Looking Forward To Summer

 Looking at my previous post this morning I was gob-smacked to see that it was posted two months ago!

Since then we have had a Spring, if you could call it that, like none that I can recall in recent memory. 

Pretty much the whole of April was dominated by sunshine, cold and strong N.E. winds and a long spell of morning frosts. The combined effect of the cold, drying winds and the sunshine saw the reserve dry out at a remarkable rate and by the end of the month it was hard to imagine that it had been so flooded over the winter. Ditch water levels dropped to near summer levels, the water-logged meadows dried out and the ground was cracking up. One of the down sides of all this dryness was the effect it had on the thousands of cattle hoof prints that they had left behind before being taken off the reserve by Christmas. Every hoof  pushing down into the soft, muddy ground, squashed the mud upwards round the print and when these all dried out during April we were left to walk over hard ground that resembled cobbles. It was tiring and painful on arthritic feet and ankles!

So, April ended up as being one of the coldest April's on record and we began May hoping to see a change in the weather and hoping for some rain, amazingly after the wetness of February and March, and some warm Springlike weather. Well, they say, watch what you wish for and boy have we had it. In the three weeks of this month so far it is looking like May could be one of the wettest on record and we still haven't had at least one proper hot and sunny day that has exceeded 20 degrees. It seems like it has rained every day, or part of day, since we began the month. Ditches have recovered to normal water levels for the time of year and with the meadows becoming damp again the grass has been growing like mad, which will please the cattle as they begin returning today.

Another feature of May has been a couple of spells of unseasonable gales. Two days of severe gales a couple of weeks ago had a probable disastrous effect on the local rookeries. With all the rooks nests being placed at the tops of the trees you can imagine how many eggs or chicks that must have been thrown out as the upper-most branches swayed violently in the gusts of wind. This morning as I write this we have endured a night of gale force winds and today, severe gales are forecast. Trees, shrubs and flowers in the garden are being smashed about violently and it's cold. Perhaps if I wish for a calmer and hotter June we'll get a mini heatwave, it's needed.

The breeding season on Sheppey's three main nature reserves has also seen a mixed bag as well. Lapwings, the most important ground nesting bird on the marshes here, got off to a very successful start with large numbers of breeding pairs and very good numbers of chicks hatched. However, throughout April, the increasingly dry ground made sourcing food difficult for the chicks, plus and more importantly, the predation was intense. Gulls, harriers, crows, hawks, all queued up to take a heavy toll of the Lapwing chicks. It has to be hoped that second broods from these  birds during May will go some way to restoring the balance.

So, that's it - will it be a hot June, I hope so. 

Friday, 19 March 2021

Nearly There

 My last two blogs have made mention of  hints of Spring and yet this long cold, very wet and windy winter has continued to win the day.

But, it may only be the one day but Spring has been around again today. Cloudless blue skies and unbroken sunshine have dominated the day and an almost warm, gentleness has taken over the garden. Bumblebees have been visiting the helleborus, daffodil and heather flowers to feed up. A Robin sang for much of the day from a naked Elderflower bush and the pond sparkled in the sunshine.

The newts have returned from winter hibernation and looked thinner as a result and so I spent an hour digging up earthworms to feed them with. I'd drop the worm segments in front of each of the newts and watched events. Surprisingly, despite having eyes, the newts seemed very short-sighted and it would take several attempts to pounce on the worm but then mass shaking would take place, just like a dog does with a rat. Amazing how many newts that there are in the pond and I so love to see and watch them.

As I said at the beginning, this winter has been loathe to relinquish it's hold on the countryside this year but today has been a pleasant taste of  what's soon to come. Out on the reserve the marsh still has large areas of surface water across the grazing meadows and what isn't covered, is water-logged. Lapwings have begun their happy courtship displays and nesting on any dry parts of the marsh can't be far away. Likewise, the Marsh Harriers high above the reed beds, are courting, high in the sky and their plaintive calls cascade down as they tumble up and down in their "dancing" displays. Skylarks are the avian chorus line, endlessly singing in the background and a constant reminder of how the countryside used to sound for so many people - we are lucky to still have them here.

But it's not all move over winter, Spring is here, the last few weeks have been very cold and grey with icy winds. It's been difficult at times just lately, to find the enthusiasm to plod round the reserve each day. The saving grace has been the winter wildfowl numbers, many still reluctant to spread their wings and fly north, heading home to breed. The reserve this winter has seen wildfowl numbers not seen for many years, the result of the flooding and the cold. Chief among these have been the White-fronted Geese, spreading out across much of Kent but concentrated mostly here on the reserve  to peak at 850 last month but still this week, totaling 590, and a joyous sight to seen and hear. Lately they seem to be spending all day on the reserve's grassland bur roosting somewhere well west of the reserve. This means that each morning around 08.30 they suddenly appear, high in the sky in their V formations and calling with their beautiful "winkling" notes to suddenly break formation and tumble down onto the reserve. There they feed, they wash and pairs split away to court and renew their bond-ships - life can suddenly seem a wonderful place!

Tuesday, 23 February 2021

Spring is now about

 It has been three quite different weeks. First we had the snow and ice, then the rain and the floodwaters and now this week, a feeling of Spring in the sunshine. With dryer, sunnier weather, the floodwaters have already started to subside but the "Flood Field" in front of the Sea Wall Hide is still looking great.

The photo below, taken from the Sea Wall Hide, shows only half of the Flood and this last week most days, it been full of around 1200 mixed duck species and several hundred Lapwings, quite an impressive sight. The water-logged surrounding fields of the reserve have also had their share of birds - Curlews, Redshank, Brent Geese, Greylag Geese, to name just a few and yesterday in the sun a few Lapwing were also doing their courtship displays over the marsh. Lastly, the White-fronted Goose flock that last week totaled 850 birds, has this week shrunk to c.140 birds and so many of them have possibly departed for their northern breeding grounds already.

Obviously, we will probably still have some colder, wetter days to come but at the moment, all is looking and feeling good.

Monday, 15 February 2021

A Milder Feel

 Today it is Monday, a week since the second "Beast from the East" buried our countryside and gardens here in snow and ice.

But overnight the temperature has risen dramatically and that, combined with light rain, has seen the daylight expose a much more familiar landscape to our eyes. Large areas of grass in the gardens and meadows across the road, are already exposed and the pavements, so long dangerously cobbled with footprints frozen into ice, have already softened and are melting into the gutters.  Birds, so long deprived of soft ground and waterways from which to source their food supplies, can hopefully begin to find some food again. Although this will probably not be the case for birds such as Herons and Egrets, they could still end up partially starving as waterways, flooded to twice or three times their width and depth, do not allow access to the fish within.

Yesterday, I risked driving along the narrow road across the marsh. It was indeed risky, covered along much of it's length in hard-packed ice and with a very deep ditch alongside it's whole length, not a lot of room for error there! I managed to get on to parts of the reserve and endured an arduous walk through snow drifts and across frozen areas of water. Because of the frozen conditions there were no waterfowl present, just small flocks of Skylarks, struggling to find any sustenance from grassland buried under snow, and an odd Snipe flying up from the inner parts of reed beds. It was a pretty bleak scenario but if nothing else, it gave me and little Ellie some much needed exercise.

Something that did fascinate me as I made my down the track that led to the reserve's barn, was dozens and dozens of empty snail shells. The grass alongside this track was quite thick and springy and the snow hadn't completely covered it, presumably allowing a member of the thrush family to gain access to the small, yellow snails hidden within, bring them out to the frozen ground and hammer them open.

This morning, now that the early rain has finished, I'm about to depart for the reserve again and with a mild and rainy week ahead forecast, guess it'll soon be a return to the more familiar territory of too much water and too much mud and hopefully, the return of many hundreds of wildfowl and waders.

Just returned and the good news was the sight of 850 White-fronted Geese and 520 Wigeon on the reserve, among other birds.

Thursday, 11 February 2021


 After the rain came the snow. "Beast from the East 2" turned up during Sunday. It snowed quite heavily for a lot of the day and covered the garden and drive to a depth of several inches. By Monday morning we were not only in Lockdown but also Housebound due to the snow. During Monday we cleared drives and paths and watched it snow and cover them again. The road outside, on the bottom of a hill was entertaining, as cars convinced that they could drive up it on compacted ice and snow, slid back down sideways and often got stuck in awkward places.

On Tuesday the sun came out, the roads thawed and dried out and I was able to drive the 50 miles to have my first Covid vaccination at a mass vaccination centre. But a thaw was not on the cards, it snowed lightly overnight and also froze and during Weds we had some very heavy snow showers that covered all my diligent drive clearing again.

Weds night saw it snow for a lot of the time and we awoke to another 2-3 inches on top of what was already there in the gardens but luckily the salt on the roads kept them clear - I cleared the drive and the pavement outside again. Through today (Thurs), the sun has shone from blue skies and despite the temperature outside side only being around one degree, a slight thaw seems to have set in. It encouraged me to try and reach the reserve, it must of been heaving in un-counted wildfowl and other birds - birds that I've missed seeing since Saturday. Unfortunately, the one narrow road across the marsh  was still covered in compacted ice and snow and with a deep ditch to one side of it, the risks were too great - perhaps tomorrow.

Wednesday, 20 January 2021

Flooding and Ticks

 As readers will have read in my last couple of postings, it has been getting progressively wetter by the week here on Sheppey this week is the third consecutive week with rain almost daily and often heavy. As a result the reserve that I spend most of my year wandering about on and carrying out my Voluntary Warden duties, has now reached the point where it is not really enjoyable to try and get round it. The photo above was taken a few years ago and currently we're beginning to approach those kind of water levels again. As you can imagine, wading through large areas of such water and soft, clinging mud that almost sucks one's wellies off, is none to enjoyable. Twenty years ago, when these scenes were almost annual, I was in my fifties and it wasn't too much of a problem, almost a challenge, but not now. Plus, when you're a little, short-legged Jack Russell, like the one that always accompanies me, it becomes quite aquatic and grim. So at the moment my daily visits are limited to walking the farmland perimeter as best as I can. 

The other problem that the reserve faces in such times of flooding is the fact that the reserve not only receives all the water that drains off the higher arable farmland alongside but that the whole reserve itself  has to drain across it's whole length to just one 12in. pipe at one end, so it's a slow process. One winner in this situation though is the attraction that it is presenting to the wildfowl in the area, especially now that the wildfowlers that would normally be alongside the reserve trying to harvest some of these ducks and geese, have been stopped by the Kent Wildfowlers Association in order to comply with Covid regulations. 

Moving to an entirely different subject, I was reading an account the other day of a person's experience with ticks on dogs and it got me thinking of my experiences. In the years running up until the 2001 Foot and Mouth outbreak, ticks used to be real problem on my dogs, mainly because the marshes that I frequented here on Sheppey, were always holding large numbers of grazing sheep, something that Sheppey (Sheepey) has been noted for over many centuries. Sheep ticks were the constant reason why many forms of wildlife on the Sheppey marshes were often covered in the awful blood-sucking pests, my dogs included, although curiously, rabbits never seemed to carry them. Many were the time that my dogs would catch a stoat or ferret gone wild and I'd find that the animal's head was covered in many large ticks, all sucking the life out of them. Adult ticks would drop off the sheep and literally sit on the grass or any other vegetation and then simply wait for a warm blooded animal to brush past and then crawl on, lay it's eggs and look for a top up from the animal's blood. Fortunately, apart from one Beagle, all the dogs that I've had over the last fifty years, have been smooth haired, mostly white, Jack Russells and so it was relatively easy to find the ticks in their coats. It was necessary though, to regularly sit down and search through the dog's fur and seek out any ticks that might be using the dog as a meal. Mostly it was the odd one or two but there were occasions when it was possible to find many dozens of newly hatched ticks, all no bigger than a pin head and all in need of picking off before they grew any bigger, luckily, I got a perverse pleasure from squashing each one.
However, after the mass culling of livestock during the F&M outbreak, the livestock farmers on Sheppey re-stocked with mostly cattle and so the tick problem has mostly gone away.

Tuesday, 12 January 2021

Where Have all the Birdies Gone

 After last week's 48 hour deluge of rain, we had several days of dryer weather, including a couple of severe frosts. Last night saw it rain throughout, although not heavily, and tomorrow and Thursday are forecast to see it rain for much of both days again, so back to square one with some possible flooding.

On the Swale NNR here in Sheppey, where I'm now entering my 34th year as a Voluntary Warden, the water levels look as good as they've been for several years. The ditches, fleets and shallow rills are full, and the grazing marsh is either waterlogged or covered in largish areas of surface water. It looks how it used to look most winters up until several years ago - a good example of a typical winter on the North Kent marshes. Sadly, that seems to be where the comparisons currently end, despite the perfect conditions, recent walks across the reserve have been noticeable for the lack of birds. 

In those "normal" years that I reflect back on, such conditions would of seen bird numbers, at times difficult to count, there were so many. Golden Plover would of been spread out as far as the eye could see across the waterlogged fields, several thousands at times and they would be joined by similar numbers of Lapwings and other wading birds.The large areas of surface water would of been inhabited by all manner of ducks - several hundred Wigeon, Mallard, Shoveler and Pintail. The sounds when a passing Peregrine Falcon or Harrier went by, scaring the huge flocks up, was both deafening and visually spectacular.

Today, as it has been for some time, it was the sheer absence of birds that was so marked. There doesn't seem any reason for walking across deserted, waterlogged fields that once would of been swarming with birds, as I've described. In all honesty, apart from a few hundred Brent and Greylag Geese that feed daily on a neighbouring field of winter corn, alongside one end of the reserve and a couple of dozen Mallard, where are the birds. Where have all Golden Plover gone, everything's right for them. Even the wintering White-fronted Geese, that had been with us since well before Christmas and totaled 230 at the beginning of the month, haven't been seen or heard for the last week or so.

It's a worrying trend and it doesn't seem to end there, gardens around here seem to be suffering the same dearth of birds, unless you count House Sparrows, I had 72 on or around my bird table a couple of days ago and that's fairly normal. But no, I live in a very rural part of Sheppey, both mine and the gardens all round me are full of shrubs, trees and flowers and yet finches coming to bird feeders are a rarity and even Blue and Great Tits are mostly absent -  the count for my RSPB Garden Birdwatch will be sadly depleted this year!

Tuesday, 5 January 2021

It's raining

 she's got everything she needs

she's an artist, she don't look back,

she's got everything she needs

she's an artist she don't look back,

she can take the dark out of the nighttime

and paint the daytime black... Bob Dylan

apart from that, well, here we are just a few days in to 2021 and already it feels like 2020 Part Two. Today sees us here in North Kent enduring our second day of non-stop rain and cold Northerly winds. Weather forecasts promise yet another 24 hours of this weather, in the meantime fields are starting to flood and gardens round here are leaking from every orifice.  Dark skies, the sun a forgotten spectacle, the buzzing of summer meadows, bees, butterflies and swallows like a distant planet and yet, in a long few months, I'll be talking of hard dry ground, praying for those precious few drops of rain to wet the dust. I guess, like birthdays, these things go round and round, they get better, they get worse.

In the mean-time the rain and the wind continue to batter the conservatory windows, I fall asleep, I wake up, I fall asleep, and the 70 odd sparrows around my bird table jostle for every last seed of budgie mix. 

15.30 and the light is fading fast, cars have their lights on, winter at it's extreme, two months to go until Spring peeks over the hill.