Tuesday, 29 June 2010


I drove down to Shellness Hamlet earlier today via the usual track and was most impressed, not with Shellness Hamlet but the track - no more is it a roller coaster ride and no more head-butting the windscreen - the Hamlet residents have filled in the pot-holes and levelled the track and its now a nice smooth drive. Its just a shame that despite the track being used by the residents of chalets halfway along it, the Kent Wildfowlers, Swale Borough Council advertising the nudist beach as one of their amenities, and even Natural England, that funding of the track repairs is left to the Hamlet residents. There is a suggestion that they might gate off the beginning of the track as has been done in the past, seems fair enough to me.

I primarily went down to Shellness Point to check out recent reports of some Little Terns on the beach, hoping that we might be seeing some belated breeding but a patient watch from the blockhouse saw not one sighting of a Little Tern and I firmly believe that this is going to be the third year of non-breeding there. There were still a couple of pairs of breeding Ringed Plovers on the beach with around twenty more also feeding on the mudflats, alongside a pair of Blackwits in beautiful summer plumage. Some flower species were nicely in flower however with Vipers Bugloss being the star turn, it has lovely colours and was attracting plenty of bees. There were also Yellow-horned Poppies and Sea Campion but the newly arrived and yellow flowered Dragon's Teeth of the last couple of years seems to have died out again. Its a real shame because it is a lovely and prostrate member of the pea family that loves dry, shingly places and is much loved by bees as well.

It was quite enjoyable sitting out there but the sky was darkening and a chilly wind was getting up and fortunately the impending rain didn't begin until I got back to my car, which was lucky because boy did it rain hard for about twenty minutes. And how those "we don't like it hot and sunny" killjoys must of been jumping for joy right then. I wonder what cold country they spend their summer holidays in? Perhaps they all go together and sit round camp fires to keep warm, play "pass the parka" and tell stories of how lovely and cold it was on their last holiday. Mmmm - I don't know whose saddest, me or them.

Sunday, 27 June 2010

Early risers (it'll become clear)

Driving down to the reserve at 5.45 this morning was the opportunity to experience one of those magical early mornings when everything is just about perfect. Not a whisper of wind, a freshness in the air and light of a mediterranean clarity. The Harty Road itself was like a menagerie of wildlife as young rabbits, hares, pheasants and red-legs seemed to pop out from every verge - not always in their best interests as several corpses proved, although crows and harriers enjoyed the feast.

The thing about that time of the day is not only the superb light but the stillness and how it magnifies every note from every bird, you just don't get that by going out in the heat of the day, or the frantic activity. The first thing I heard on arriving at the barn was a Cuckoo, the first this year on the reserve and this was added too by the haunting calls of the nearby farm Peacocks, they sound really mystical from a distance.

It was only to be a briefish visit today and already by 7.00 the heat was starting to build but picture this. I wandered across one of the grazing meadows, with Skylark song tumbling down from crystal clear blue skies and briefly, at just head height, I had a pair of Marsh Harriers gliding by me just 50-odd yards away - sheer magic. I watched them through my binoculars as they drifted off towards Shellness and just a mile or so away I spotted something else. On the public nudist beach at Shellness several nudists were already up with the lark as they say, and wandering around in the increasing heat. Early risers in more ways than one but I shouldn't mock them. Nearly thirty years ago, when the beach was first opened, my family and several other local families and friends had many enjoyable and harmless times using it for a few years. It was nearly all mixed families in those days and we even begun to take holidays away at a camp in the New Forest but like everything else you move on to other things and none of us have participated for over twenty years.
Fortunately I still haven't mastered how to include photos in my blog so you are spared any of me enjoying such naked delights, although one with a caption of "Black Stork" would be mis-leading in my case - more like "a winkle on the beach".

Saturday, 26 June 2010

Mad dogs and Englishmen

So far, the hopes expressed in my last posting that summer has begun in earnest are still holding. If we can get at least another few weeks of this weather how superb it will be and redemption for a record breaking winter's cold. The only thing that mars it are the predictable and almost immediate moans from people that seem to have lost the ability to enjoy such weather. I blame it on the recent run of two-season years, where we have had weather reminscent of six month autumns and a six month springs. To suddenly go back to four seasons, which incluse a cold winter and a hot summer, seems to have phased some people who not only complain about it being too hot but the abscence of some wildlife in the heat of the day. Well that's what used to happen, that's how summer used to be, unfortunately only the wildlife seems to have retained the knack of taking it easy in the heat of the day. And do you know what, those same people who find it too hot now will often be found later in the year complaining about it being too wet or cold.

Anyway, I was surprised on arriving at the reserve at 6.00 this morning, to not only find it cooler than I expected but also misty, which prevented any long-distance observations for a while. I had intended to walk the length of the reserve and end up at Shellness Point to check out the return of the Black-headed Gull breeding colony after an absence of two years, but the mist curtailed that for another day. The reserve continues to dry out and the main action, what there was of it, centered around a wide and shallow length of ditching that we know as the "S" ditch because of the way it winds across a couple of fields. One end of this dries out quite quickly and at the moment there are large areas of nice, wet mud.
Here there was my first Spotted Redshank in almost a year, we rarely get them on this reserve anymore, and a Green Sandpiper - autumn migration already? There was also a flock of moulting Black-headed Gulls and a post-breeding flock of around 30 Redshanks. Finally there were also 10 Blackwits, 3 Herons and 4 Little Egrets, its surprising what a bit of shallow water and mud will attract.

Skylarks were still singing their heads off across the reserve and echoing breeding estimates of around 20 pairs so far, although by the same token, Meadow Pipits seem to have almost disappeared for some reason.

By 8.00 an easterly breeze had begun to increase in strength, the mist had gone, to be replaced by some cloud cover, and a few butterflies and things were starting to show themselves. A couple of Small Tortoiseshells continued an encouraging trend for them so far this year and I also spotted an early Meadow Brown and a beautiful Cinnabar Moth. Many Ruddy Darters seemed to be finding good numbers of flies attracted to Elderflower bush flowers and even a couple of Broad-bodied Chasers joined them in the feast.

Finally, as I write this at 10.30 this morning, there's still not much sun and its quite breezy - might that weekend heatwave not quite happen, will those people who dream of balaclavas and wellie boots get a crumb of comfort.

Tuesday, 22 June 2010

Lordy, Lordy - or My oh My if you're British

A second day of very warm and sometimes sunny weather, could this really be summer starting, or are we just briefly between NE's. Whatever it turns out to be I'm enjoying every minute of it, decorating started during last week's depression (me and the weather) has now been been left unfinished. There's only me here so bare bedroom walls are not a problem, just magnifies the "where am I" strangeness when you wake up in the middle of the night.
Being able to walk round the reserve at 7.30 in the morning in just light clothes and in a heat haze is also a real treat - so, so comfortable, no heavy coat, no hands in pockets, no stooped against the cold wind. I was greeted as I pulled up at the Barn by two Sedge Warblers, a hundred yards apart, trying to out-sing each other and hopefully they indicate two breeding pairs. Reddish coloured Darters patrolled up and down the track in the sun and if the bloody things had alighted for a while I might have been able to identify if they were Common or Ruddy's - perhaps that's why they're called Ruddy's.
I wandered across the now quite long grazing meadows, making for the seawall and harried all the way by a pair of Lapwings and several Redshanks that obviously still had chicks unfledged. The seawall directly in front of the reserve has been spared the attention of the Environment Agency's masochistic tractor mower and is a tangle of long, varied and seeding grasses interspersed by masses of yellow Goatsbeard flowers and the long-leaved but tiny-flowered Grass Vetchling. Must be every Environment Agency manager's midnight nightmare but boy is habitat like that home to a multitude of various flora and fauna.
On the saltings the white-flowered Scurvy Grass has now finished flowering and has been replaced by lovely pink drifts of Armeria Maritama - Thrift. On the mixed saltings vegetation I also noticed that some of it was adorned with gossamer tents and a closer inspection found these to be home to large numbers of Ground Lackey Moth caterpillars. These moths are a speciality of the Swale NNR saltings and every year in July the footpath on top of the seawall will often see large numbers of these colourful caterpillars as they come ashore to pupate in the long grass.

Latly, I took a walk across a hay meadow between the reserve and the Shellness car park, part of the neighbouring farmland. Several years ago this field and those carrying on from it all the way round to the Raptor Viewing Mound on the Harty Road, were sterile arable fields. However the farmer, no doubt buoyed by reasonable subsidies, but who cares in this case, decided to revert the fields to grazing marsh. He re-seeded them with a mixture of grasses, clovers and vetches and after a poor start due to the part flooded/part bone-dry conditions, the fields have now made superb hay fields that are grazed by cattle in the winter and cut for hay in July.
To walk through them now is like going back in time, they are full of so many insects, grasshoppers and butterflies and it is one of those times when farmers and subsidies work together in the right direction.

My oh My, what a morning.

Sunday, 20 June 2010

Summer blues

I've just returned from my usual early morning visit to the reserve and having once again endured the permanent Northerly wind tunnel that is Kent at the moment, its difficult to sound positive. Yet again this morning found me wrapped up against grey skies and a cold wind and walking round in conditions very much like you would expect in March/April - how many times have we made those remarks this summer!
One effect of this continuous wind on the reserve is its drying effect on the water levels and by marking a ditch level and re-checking it just a couple of days later you can see it has lowered and this is particually obvious in any shallow pools left on the marsh, they have virtually all dried up.

The first thing that I encountered was a dead hedgehog - definitely dead but I did at first wonder, given the weather, if it had been fooled into thinking it was time to hibernate again.
What else, oh yes, a final total of about 180 Blackwits trickled their way along the saltings towards Shellness and dropped into the saltings to wait for the tide to recede. They appeared to have been coming from the daily roost over at the Oare nature reserve. I noticed last summer that they appeared to have a daily flight-line between the mudflats off Leysdown/Shellness for feeding and then back to Oare to roost.
A pair of Barn Owls were out daylight hunting for food for their chicks and even allowed me to walk to within yards of them as they sat on fence posts. The two birds are noticeable different in colour in as much as one is much whiter than the other, especially on the upper parts.

Hares have appeared on the reserve a lot more this year and are seen every day now and this is a really pleasing event. Harty in general maintains a very healthy Hare population and by spreading onto the reserve it will help protect these animals from the increasing amount of hare hunting that takes place now on the farmland.

No butterflies or dragonflies this morning but then hardly expected in the conditions.

Wednesday, 16 June 2010


In reading my last post today you might wonder why the "Dragonflies" are mention in the title, well I forgot to mention that bit. Here it is.

While standing in my garden pond this afternoon giving it a tidy up, I noticed two exuviae on reed stems and then found two newly-hatched female Emperor Dragonfly. They were superb and I was both enthralled at seeing them and chuffed that my pond reared such amazing and large dragonflies, it makes things all worthwhile.

Winds, Birds and Dragonflies

What the heck is happening to our weather. Since the year dot it has always been the case here in Kent that our prevailing wind is from the South West and yet it seems that for the last nine months the exact opposite has been the case. The North Easterly seems to have blown for ever this year and is still plaguing us at some strength this week, and for the immediate future by the look of it. Facing the northerly shoreline as I do here in Minster, its a real pain and is playing hell with my taller flowering plants just as they are starting to look good and makes it difficult to here a lot of bird life when on the marsh.

Talking of birdlife, having suffered with a complete absence of finches on my bird feeders all winter I am now enjoying a complete resurgence of both Goldfinch and Greenfinch and the odd cock Chaffinch, whole family groups at times. I was standing quite close to the feeders this morning watching some young Goldfinches and their parents devouring sunflower hearts in the early morning sun when whoosh - a Sparrowhawk appeared from nowhere and without a slightest halt, snatched a young Goldfinch mid-sunflower heart and was gone. There's always a lot of press about Magpies doing so much harm to songbird numbers (which I don't particually believe in) but if it is the case then Sparrowhawks must be well up there with them. I was not amused and I suppose it'll be back on a regular basis now.
Watching Springwatch at the moment is quite an eye-opener on that subject when you see the amount of small birds that the Kestrels feed to their young. But I guess that's life, everything has to eat and we do make it easy for Sparrowhawks by attracting all their dinners to one prominent spot in the garden, why fly around in the countryside when you have a selection all there on a bird feeder in a garden.
Talking of sunflower hearts as well, my local Farm Shop here on Sheppey, is selling 20kg sacks of hearts for £22.50, which I consider great value, especially when you think what carriage would normally cost mail order.

Sunday, 13 June 2010

Early Mornings

Yesterday morning, having woken up to the joy of blue sky and sunshine, I left home at 5.30 and drove down to the eastern end of the reserve at Shellness, arriving at 6.00. The down side of doing that was having to endure driving along the Shellness track to get there. This mile long stretch of unmade track doesn't have potholes, it has craters, which are often full of water so that you can't see how deep they are. Its a real obstacle course and I recall many years ago someone commenting that anyone living at the Hamlet who was pregnant would almost certainly have a girl, because that track would shake the balls off any boy!

The first thing that I saw on stepping onto the beach top were numerous plants of Vipers Bugloss just coming into flower, its a lovely plant and is a great favourite of bees along there. Close by there were also specimens of Yellow Horned Poppy, Sea Campion and just the one plant of Sea Spurge.

The tide was very low so bird life along the beach to the Point was fairly sparce with most birds being strung out across the mudflats. I knew this would be the case but my main reason for going out there was to check up on any Little Tern breeding this year on the beach. Unfortunately I never saw or heard a single tern and therefore as has been the case this last few years, we appear to have lost them as a breeding species at the moment. The only birds of any note out there were several pairs of Ringed Plovers, 14 Grey Plovers on the edge of the mudflats and a pair of Avocets with two flying juveniles.
For the second year running also, there were no signs of any breeding House Martins on the Hamlet buildings, which is a shame because they had bred there for many years until recently.

This morning I left home at the same time and went down to the reserve proper but today the sky was quite cloudy and the air was surprisngly chilly when I parked at the barn at 6.00. Friday's rain had managed to put a slight covering of water over the muddy scrapes in the Flood, which I don't surpose will last long and it hadn't attracted any special birds. The pair of Avocets and their chicks had gone, hopefully the chicks had survived and perhaps they were the ones I saw at Shellness Point yesterday. Other than that there were just a few Lapwings, Oystercatchers and Shelducks in there. The Swallows nest in the "Tumbledown Hide" now has well grown chicks in it, so that has been a success so far.

Despite the chilly conditions a few dragonflies hawked along one of the ditches, feeding on swarms of flies that to me, looked very much like Mayflies but didn't seem quite big enough. Despite reading up on Dragonflies recently I still have great difficulty identifying them because the bloody things never stop moving! you could go boss-eyed watching them for any length of time, I don't know how people manage to get photographs of them.

Apart from that it was an enjoyable walk round but with little out of the ordinary to record except just two things. I had a fly-over Spoonbill, fairly high, which circled the reserve but then carried on eastwards towards Shellness and I found a small clump of Field Forget-me-nots. We have some Water Forget-me-not along one of the ditches but I haven't found the Field variety before.

So it was then back home to breakfast, newspapers full of "butterfingers" and the prospects of another week of summer slipping by with no particually hot and sunny weather forecast.

Wednesday, 9 June 2010

Summer time

I made a mid-morning visit to the reserve this morning and it was a regular placid summer's day with warm sunshine and little wind.
Duck numbers have dropped right off now and the most noticeable of them now are Shelduck. Mostly because they gather in small groups around the Salt Working Mounds where a lot of old rabbit burrows are, which some of the ducks are possibly using as nest sites, as is their habit. I certainly haven't seen any Shelduck creches yet. Come to that I have seen virtually no ducklings of any other variety either and the 20 odd pair of Greylag Geese left on the reserve at the moment have only produced around a dozen goslings. Why the wildfowl have bred so poorly I haven't a clue, perhaps they're just late this year.

Bird life in general was also placid this morning and most of any noise to be heard was coming from the pairs of Lapwings and Redshanks still with chicks, that called alarmingly as I passed by. Other than that, it'll be left for the rest of the summer to the explosive and long carrying scratchy song of the Sedgies and the gentle repetitive notes of the Reed Warblers.

Part way round the marsh, the big black bull, cows and calves had all decamped on the track that I needed to take and were chewing the cud. I tucked Midge the Jacko under my arm and made my through the herd and found them all most obliging. A slap on the side got most of them to move out of the way, although they never seem to be able to do it without ejecting a stream of foul-smelling manure into your path first! Their equivelant of two fingers I suppose.

Butterflies are gradually starting to increase, in varieties if not numbers and I had a few each of Small Heath, Red Admiral, Painted Lady, Large White, Common Blue, this morning. Even better, I had my first two Cinnabar Moths. A cracking Moth and I love to see its stripey caterpillars swarming all over the Ragwort in the summer.

Our "Flood" field, where most winters we have some large flooded scrapes, is now drying out far too fast and since just the weekend the water left in the scrapes has reduced by 50% to leave very little. I would imagine that even that will be gone in several days time to leave just large areas of bone dry mud but in the meantime the pair of Avocets are still there with their two chicks and creating all kinds of wars, as witnessed on Springwatch most nights.

Saturday, 5 June 2010

Hot and Steamy

Another glorious day, (well it is as I write this) and I arrived at the reserve very early in order to enjoy what for me is always the best time of the day, even in winter. An area of mist quickly cleared and over the next couple of hours as the sun increased in power it turned hot and steamy - luvvly, jubbly weather! Hard to realise that some people are still in bed and missing all that, still it means I get the place to myself most days, or at least until September 1st.

All the usual residents bird-wise, were busy rearing young or serenading each other, a few raptors criss-crossed the sky overhead and it was just fantastic to be out and about. Notable by their absence at the moment out there are butterflies. After the brief flurry of good numbers of Peacocks in the Spring, presumably overwintered ones, I've only really seen one or two other varieties but presumably we're very close now to the main hatch of all the grassland varieties such as Meadow Browns, Small Heaths and Gatekeepers.
Another thing that is becoming noticeable as the vegetation begins to grow like mad is the absence this year of rabbit grazed areas. I've already spoken of the reasons for few rabbits this year but the small field in which our Tower Hide stands illustrates what their absence can mean. That field has always held a good population of rabbits and this is the first time in my 23 years out there that it hasn't been grazed down like a bowling green, at no harm to the reserve or its habitat. Similarly many other areas are showing signs of becoming overgrown for the first time this year.

On the subject of vegetation, its a good time to mention three of the reserve's star wild flowers now that they are beginning to come into bloom. Two of these I'm not aware of growing anywhere else on Sheppey and those two are Milk Thistle and Houndstongue.
Milk Thistle grows on the bunds and Salt Workings Mounds and has large, variagated light green and white leaves with vicious spines on each of the leaves. Its flower stem grows to a few feet high with one purplish thistle like flower to each and its seeds have been used by herbalists for thousands of years to treat chronic liver disease
Houndstongue is a smallish flower growing to about a foot high and with small, bright scarlet flowers. Its leaves when crushed have a strong smell of mice urine, so best not to fall into a clump of it. About 15 years ago I found the very first single specimen of this flower on the reserve and since then it has colonised about fifty per cent of the reserve, especially the dry areas. It seeds, as anybody walking through the plants will find, are coated in a velcro-like coating and therefore they are easily spread round the place by the livestock, etc. Later in the summer, on getting back to the car, I regularly have to clean loads of the seeds from off my boot laces, socks and trousers.
The last of the three, which I have mentioned before, is Spiny Restharrow, which grows along the grass banks of the reserve below Harty Church. Its a small and low growing, woody plant and as a member of the pea family has typical, small pea-like pinky-purple flowers and nasty gorse-like spiny foliage. I thought the reserve was its only site on Sheppey but have heard that there is some at Elmley.

And a small P.S. - I rarely get any comments about each blog, it would be nice to get some, to know if I'm writing anything interesting for other people, rather than just satisfying my own ego.

Thursday, 3 June 2010

Four Points of View

I've just come back from an early morning wander round the reserve and Wow! what a difference to my posting of just a couple of days ago. To park at the barn and walk through the five-bar gate into such beautiful habitat and weather is a real privilege, and it costs nothing. With a really warm sun beating down, just a light NE breeze and everything lush and colourful the reserve looked as good as it possibly could do.
And so much wildlife going on, not just the obvious bird life that dominates your eyes and ears - even an ordinary looking ditch, if you get down to its level, has so much going on. Marsh frogs, damselfles and dragonflies are easily seen along its length, but in the water itself there are swarms of water fleas, stickleback young, water boatmen, snails, etc,etc. So often we walk past a ditch and dismiss it, but actually taking the trouble to do what we used to do as kids and dangle oneself over or alongside it, can reap enormous benefits, it is heaving with life that you don't normally see and its worth spending time looking at that under-water world.

I did what I so often do on mornings like today and walked across the grazing marsh and up onto one of the numerous sets of old Salt Working Mounds that are dotted across the reserve. I have never been able to find out exactly how they functioned in the production of salt but they form excellent vantage points from which to just sit and take in the day and its views. The one big advantage that a marshland habitat has, regardless of the time of year or the weather, is the big skies and the distant views, not for me being hemmed in by trees and things as you are so often inland.
And what of the four points of view that I had as I sat there. Well to the north and the west the farmland is pretty much split into two halves. The westward rises quickly towards Harty Hill and the church and is made up of small arable fields, each surrounded by thick and overgrown hedging and some small thickets of medium sized trees. It is perfect habitat for all manner of wildlife and does come up trumps in a big way on those points. The more northerly farmland, which stretches all the way to Leysdown, is pretty much dominated by a mixture of flat arable and grazing marsh with almost no hedging at all, just the typical marshland scene that you see as you come along the Harty Road.
To the east the reserve stretches out towards Shellness Hamlet, the sea, the wind turbines on the Kentish Flats and Herne Bay. Despite being the most remote and bleakest part of the reserve it has the beauty of the ever-changing shell beach jutting out into the entrance to The Swale, and views across to Seasalter and Herne Bay and distant Reculver.
And lastly, and probably the best, is the view looking south. It looks onto the seawall fleet and its large reed beds, the seawall itself, the saltings, The Swale, Seasalter, Faversham Creek and Oare, and behind them all, the woodlands of the North Downs. This morning, despite it being low tide, The Swale sparkled beautifully in the sun, the seawall reed beds were full of the sound of Sedge and Reed Warblers and overhead was one of my favourite sounds, the calls of two passing Med. Gulls. Even the mound that I was sitting on began to come back to life as I sat there, for it is normally home to a good colony of rabbits. Despite by being ravaged by over-zealous pest controls in the winter, dare I say it, a few baby rabbits began to come out to play in the sun - delightful, and hopefully something to be left better alone this winter.

So, to take the time to enjoy the sights that we often don't notice or rarely record, can be quite magical and can be much more enjoyable than simply recording the same repeat list of birds each day. The Four Points of View, if you have them where you are, are worth recording.