Sunday, 31 October 2010



This morning saw a repeat of yesterday with me being on the seawall in the dark, pre-dawn. The only differences were that clock-wise, I was an hour earlier, and today post-dawn was not all clear blues skies and sunshine, it was very gloomy and eventually turned to steady rain around 07.30.
I love walking across the marsh in the dark, it has a Dickensian feel about it, especially when its damp and murky like today pre-dawn. Today there were more birds getting up in front of me in the dark, I disturbed a few Golden Plovers, Redshanks and the odd Skylark and never saw any of them as they disappeared in the dark, calling as they went. I imagine that wandering across the marsh in the dark like that would be quite daunting to someone doing it for the first time and it does pay to have a good sense of direction (for when its foggy) and where the various ditch crossing points are. Years ago on most marshes there always used to be a network of crossing planks across most ditches that you quickly memorised and made for, they were vital in order to avoid having to walk the long way round lengthy ditches. Nowadays, with most farmers and stockmen prefering to do their livestock "looks" from the insides of a 4x4, these crossing points have been left to rot away or removed.
On top of the seawall in the dark I looked out to The Swale and watched a small yacht making its way out to the open sea, its red, mast-top light like some firefly gliding through the darkness. Soon the yacht was overtaken by a fishing boat with its diesel engines throbbing across the saltings towards me, the sea beginning to come to life, even in the dark.
The speed at which the light suddenly begins to take over always amazes me, at first the merest lightning of a patch of cloud above you, then more and more patches, then distance starts to increase and objects begin to take shape. What I had thought was the dark head of a wildfowler sticking up from a saltings gulley turned out to be a clump of Sea Aster, the bright lights on buildings across on the mainland began to fade into the gloomy dawn light and crows began to appear as they made their way back to Harty from their mainland roosts.
Two Little Egrets silently made their way past over the saltings in front of me, like miniature ghosts, then another two and yet another two, they seem to prefer to be in pairs for some reason.

I could now see about a mile in front of me so time to wander along the seawall for a while, accompanied by the non-stop chorus of Curlews out on the mudflats and the sounds from another fishing boat making its way out to the open sea. This time, two dark shapes did turn out to be two wildfowlers out on the saltings, the same two as yesterday, but with no wildfowl being seen at all they never fired a shot for the two hours that I was out there. Quite clearly it was going to remain gloomy, light-wise this visit and to emphasise that point, at 07.00 it started to spit with rain and so I turned off the seawall and begun to make my way back across another part of the reserve. A few Skylarks passed by overhead, probably incoming migrants, then some Goldfinches and a couple of Greenfinches alighted on some nearby teasel heads with much twittering and activity before carrying on to wherever they were going.

The rain had settled in to become quite steady by then and stood for a while and wistfully watched the drops falling into the shallow waters of a ditch and pondered the fact that tomorrow we start November with water levels lower than they were in July. One long-range forecast this week suggested a mild and dryer winter to come, hopefully the dryer bit won't come true, we do need a lot more rain to make the reserve live up to it's wetland reserve status. I recall that at the beginning of the 1990's we had two dry summers with a dry winter in between and it was disastrous habitat and wildlife-wise.

Waking from those ditch-side ponderings I realised that I was getting increasingly wetter and so decided that an early return home was in order and so made my way through the lovely Devon cattle and back to the car.

RECEPTION COMMITTEE (notice the Tower Hide in the background)

Saturday, 30 October 2010


For some reason my PC will not allow me to insert photos into this epistle so it's a tad nude, sorry.

I was on the verandah of the Seawall Hide this morning in the dark and waiting for dawn to happen. It was for no particular reason other than than as a habitual early riser I get peed off at this time of the year having to walk around the house waiting so long for it to get light in the mornings. So today I said sod it and left home in the dark. Those lovely, misty, early dawns of 4.00 onwards in the summer seem so far away at this time of the year but thankfully after tonight, we have dawn starting an hour early for a while, joy, why couldn't it be two hours early!

So anyway, there I was, standing in the dark as the first glimmers of light appeared over Shellness, something made easier because of a cloudless sky above. Its surprising how quick that it gets light, a couple of small patches above quickly become a much lighter sky and the visible horizon gets further away by the minute. Lapwings begin to "peewit" to each other, Curlews on the mudflats begin to call, two Water Rails, a hundred yards apart in the reed beds "mew" to each other and a light breeze stirs the reedbed tops.

As it gradually became much lighter I was startled to find that I was not alone in this space, just a hundred yards away on the saltings in front of me were the heads of two wildfowlers. Scary, but that's how it is on the Swale nature reserves these days and to emphasise that fact, just fifteen minutes later, two really loud gunshots echoed around The Swale as shooters shot at something from what sounded like the seawall of the Oare reserve, a mile or so away. Judging by the depth of sound that the shots created I imagine that they must of been using the more powerful cartridges designed to kill geese, perhaps Oare has lost a goose or two.

The light increased by the minute to expose a lovely blue sky and Bearded Tits "pinged" in the reedbeds alongside me as I made my way back to the top of the seawall and headed towards Shellness. Before I got that far though, I decided to cut back across the farmland and re-enter the reserve in it's northern corner. As I got there Mallard had begun leaving their corn-fed ditches below Muswell Manor and were dropping into one of the reserve's boundary ditches, don't know why, we don't feed them, but they're very welcome.

I walked back across the reserve, through the cattle that were reluctant to stand aside as Midge and I walked through them, past the old Salt Workings mounds that used to be home to hundreds of rabbits but now house none and headed towards the car.
What of birds - well there were some of the usuals about - Kestrels, Harriers, Coots, ducks, Greylags and some buntings and finches but nothing out of the ordinary and I'll leave it to other Blogs to write long lists of all the same stuff every day, surely it must get boring?

Saturday, 23 October 2010

Firing Blanks


The Kent Wildfowlers that shoot the saltings in front of the reserve are not having a good season so far and I should be jumping up and down with joy and to a degree I am, but unfortunately it also indicates that the reserve is having a disappointing autumn. The photo above indicates why, no water means that the reserve is not able to attract the normal numbers of wildfowl that it would expect to see and wildfowl are what the reserve is all about at this time of the year. Its no real fault of the reserve management, water storage is very difficult on the site and its therefore very depedant on rainfall. It makes for some pretty boring reserve patrols but at least I'm not having to share the area with those killing and maiming the birds.

Talking to some of the wildfowlers recently they allege that membership of the KWCA has dropped this year, presumably as a result of the recession - at least the recession has had one positive effect! Apparently membership is almost £200 a year now, a lot of money when you're taking nothing home a lot of the time. Couple that with the fact that some of the cartridges that are favoured, or indeed necessary now since the banning of lead shot over wetland areas, cost £40 for ten - that amazingly equates to £4 a shot and often, a miss!
Also, the wildfowlers allege, the membership fee does not allow them to shoot all the Association's sites, no, in order to shoot some of the better and coveted sites and extra payment is necessary.

Perhaps the decrease in both local birds to kill and membership is one of the reasons that the KWCA are now expanding into other counties. Looking at their website it appears that not only have they now purchased/leased sites in Sussex and Essex but their latest aquisition is a 10 year lease on 564 acres of saltmarsh on Thornham Marshes, North Norfolk, apparently a site bursting with Pinkfeet Geese targets. I wonder what the local Norfolk wildfowlers make of this intrusion by those from Kent.

One last comment on the wildfowlers concerns the punt-gunning in the Swale, where unfortunately at least one person still pursues this somewhat barbaric sport fairly regularly. This "sport" involves laying flat in a punt that is very low in the water and quietly and slowly paddling it towards a flock of ducks that are floating on the tide. The aim is to get close enough in order to discharge the punt gun at the birds, the gun being something that resembles a length of drainpipe facing forward along the top of the punt. As you can perhaps imagine, if "successful" this can leave a mess of dead or maimed birds on the water, with others perhaps getting away badly injured.
I have a coloured brochure put out by the KWCA, I don't know how recent, and inside alongside a caption that states "Punt gunning on the Swale" is a photo of a punt gunner standing alongside his punt and on its deck are three pairs of wildfowl. No one that I have shown this too so far, including wildfowlers, has failed to identify these birds as either Red-breasted Mergansers or Goosanders, neither of which are able to be legally shot.
Make of these things what you will.

Thursday, 21 October 2010


It is fringed at the rear by a wide area of phragmites reeds and beyond that there is the top of the seawall. It is currently around 2-3 lower than it would normally be for a lot of the year and in most winters it eventually floods over onto the grassy area to the left, creating a shallow area much favoured by the wildfowl.

Early this morning saw the first frost of this autumn and on the marsh it was quite a hard one. Driving along the Harty Road with a large yellow sun rising and blue skies and white fields, it all looked quite spectacular but I'd forgotten my camera. There were around a dozen or so Corn Buntings on the overhead wires as I drove along the road and a couple of female Marsh Harriers quartered along a narrow section of Capel Fleet by the Raptor Viewing Mound but there was little else of note.
Arriving at the Barn I decided to walk through the reserve to the area we know as "The Banks", a stretch of grassy banks below Harty Church which give excellent views down onto the Swale and across to Oare and Faversham Creek. Four Whooper swans were seen on the Swale there yesterday, plus a Spoonbill, but I saw none of them, just numerous waders and Wigeon on both the Swale and the mudflats. The Wigeon numbers are building up out in the Swale now and most mornings various parties of them fly out from the marshes all around to gradually form largish flocks floating on the tide. Good news unfortunately for one of the Kent Wildfowlers who is that fortunately rare specimen these days, a punt gunner, but more of that in a later blog.
One advantage of being on the reserve is that I get to see the daily return of the Greylag Geese. Pre-dawn they tend to leave the reserve and fly out to alongside Capel Fleet on the Harty Marshes. There they will feed on the young shoots of winter corn, perhaps some of the young rape plants, or on corn itself that is spread along some areas regularly to attract the wildfowl in for shooting purposes. At around 8.30-9.00 a very distant clamouring of geese will be heard and in the distance will be seen two or three large skiens of the geese heading back to the reserve. The closer they get the louder the noise gets and even though its only around three hundred birds it never ceases to provide a superb spectacle for me as they fly down the middle of the reserve, circle round and then "whiffle" down to spend a large part of each day roosting in the same spot alongside The Delph. That spot is normally the grassy area shown in the photo above, very frustrating for the wildfowlers that are often postioned just the other side of the seawall, who cannot shoot too near or over the seawall and the geese know that to the inch!
It must be truly amazing though to see many, many thousands of Pinkfeets flying in like this in East Anglia each day.

Anyway, the frost had jogged my memory about something and so on later leaving the reserve I made my way to a favourite location for sloes. Always best picked after having a frost on them, just like parsnips, I was disappointed to find that there were far fewer this year, but enough for what I wanted them for - Sloe Gin. Such a simple thing to make but a beautiful thing to drink, and I took them home, pricked them, put them in a storage jar with sugar and a litre of gin and licked my lips with anticipation. Nothing like it in late winter when its matured and been bottled and you come in from a freezing cold spell on the marsh!

Friday, 15 October 2010

The Blogger in Another Life

As I've mentioned in previous blogs I spent some time in the 1960's and 70's working for the Kent River Authority around Sheppey. Here are some photos showing what I used to get up to.

Unloading rocks in 1969. As I've detailed in an earlier blog, ragstone rocks for repairing the seawalls were brought in by sea in a small twin-hatched barge and we unloaded them by hand, throwing them over the side. Here we are just coming to the end of 100 ton of rocks that would have seen both hatches full to the top when we started. I'm the shirtless one nearest the camera with the silly goatee beard.

Of all the jobs that we carried out on the KRA this was by far my favourite, scything and cleaning ditches. I prided myself on leaving ditch banks looking as if they'd been mown. Here I'm cutting sea club rush alongside the ditch at Warden Bay and later the cut reed would be raked up and removed.

Mowing what is now the seawall of The Swale NNR back in 1970. You can just make out the buildings of Shellness Hamlet on the sky-line in the background. This was in the pre-tractor days and believe it or not we mowed the seawall round the whole of Sheppey in this way. It took about three months and was very hot and hard work. Love to still look I did then but age 23 is now a long time ago.

Emptying an eel fyke net at Elmley in 1979. This ditch is now part of The Flood on the RSPB reserve. In those early days of the reserve we were given access twice a week by the warden, to set and empty our nets, as long as we did it out of open hours. Doubt we'd get the same offer these days.

The end of a few hours rabbiting on Elmley RSPB in 1981. There is a glimpse of my two dogs at my feet. We used to spend most Sunday mornings in the winter down at Spitend and Windmill Creek doing this and sometimes Peter Makepeace, the first RSPB warden there, would come out with us.

Wednesday, 13 October 2010






I spent a couple of hours at Warden Point this morning, hoping to find a decent bird or two, such as Yellow-browed Warbler but weather conditions were not ideal. A strong and cold N. wind was rattling through the trees and as well as causing a lot of noise, was causing the leaves to constantly flutter, making the movement of small birds very hard to pick out. I walked underneath the trees alongside the tarmac track running down to the holiday camp and clearly there were a lot of Goldcrests in them, I could hear them, but saw very few due to the leaf movements. There were also a lot of Robins, Great Tits and Blackbirds there as well but no other thrushes. Two Great Spotted Woodpeckers and several "Yaffles" also put in an appearance but no Flycatchers, Redwings, Shrikes or YBW's. I walked the length of the football field to the cliff edge but here it was devoid of bird life, probably due to the gale that was coming in off the sea and blasting across the top of the cliff edge.

So, nothing to be gained by hanging around there, I walked back to the car park and took the unmade track opposite which led down and under the huge radar tower and ended up at the white painted Manor Cottage. Here in the bushes opposite, the vagrant guy is still in residence in his tent, although I never actually saw him in person this time. I could hear a few more Goldcrests here in the bushes and got my first Brambling of the year, sitting atop a bush under the radar tower, but little else.

A return visit to where I started off, amongst the tall trees and bushes by the tarmac track, still found no more than Goldcrests, Robins and Tits and so I decided to go home and mow my lawns, a far less favourable alternative.

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Harriers and WEBS


This morning saw the weather back to grey clouds and a cold NE wind which made it less pleasant walking round the reserve. Fortunately, despite a strong NE wind, the last two days have been cloudless and sunny and quite warm out of the wind.

On Sunday the first of the six monthly winter Harrier roost counts took place at several sites around Kent. Basically this results in an observer in place at each regularly known site ready to count the two types of harrier as they drop into their evening roosts, it also means that you are there until it is pretty much pitch dark. Can get tricky if you're trying to make your way back across a wet and muddy marsh in the dark.

My site is obviously the Swale NNR and I arrived at 5.00 Sunday afternoon in order to enjoy a walk across the reserve and the late sunshine before it eventually got dark at 6.30. The most enjoyable part of the walk was finding that there were no duck shooters out that evening, not on the saltings, the new ponds, or in Capel Fleet. Very unusual for a Sunday evening and normally the cause of much disturbance to roosting harriers, who generally roost in either tall reed beds on the marsh or the saltings.
I ended up in the reserve's Tower Hide, which gives excellent views across all of the reserve and the surrounding marsh and watched a beautiful sunset but no roosting harriers. A couple of female Marsh Harriers did carry out a bit of late hunting across the reserve but they left before the light closed in. That's often the way for the first count but walking back in the near dark and listening to the various sounds across the marsh was worth being there.
It was not all bad news though because at two other sites on Harty there were counts of 9 and 67 Marsh Harriers going into roost, with the 67 all going into one small reed bed.

Yesterday afternoon the three man Swale NNR team carried out our monthly Wetland Bird Survey (WEBS) count, a national count done at high tide to count all wetland bird species. Yesterday's was spectacular because of a very high Spring Tide that was being pushed in roughly by a strong ENE wind. For the two observers at each end of the reserve, which included parts of the saltings, this meant an earlier start in order to count the birds before they were moved off their normal roost sites by a tide that eventually covered the saltings. I don't know the full amounts yet but apparently the wader counts at Shellness Point, where the beach normally escapes the highest of tides, were quite spectacular and higher than this time last year.
Me, I always count the bit in the middle, the marsh and surrounding farmland, and this because of the continuing drought, was spectacually poor. For instance, I walked the whole length of the "S" Bend Ditch and got just one Green Sandpiper, its very unusual to not even get one single duck in there. My duck tally for the whole of the marsh was a miserly 35 Mallard and 4 Teal which is quite ridiculous but the ditches are just so low or dry.
That fact also creates a problem with my two dogs, because after a good run they do enjoy a swim and a drink in a ditch and so despite my shouts of "NO", in they plunge. The result in just an inch of water over three foot of stinky black mud is Nana the Beagle coming out with four black and smelly legs up to her shoulders and Midge the Jacko changing from white to all over black with a whitish face and looking like the mascot for the Black and White Minstrels. Not pleasant in the back of the car on the way home!
Anyway, back to the WEBS and for me the best count was in a field of newly-sprouted winter corn next to the reserve and here I had a final tally of 1,000 Golden Plover, an exceptional count for this time of the year!

It was a busy couple of days and this morning, although cold and cloudy, it was just nice to wander about and not particually count anything.

Monday, 11 October 2010

Sheppey Crashes

A Gloster Grebe two-seater aircraft that crashed just behind Eastchurch Primary School on the 10th April 1930. It had taken off from RAF Eastchurch (now the Prison) on a training flight. The RAF instructor was giving a Naval Telegraphist flying training in aerial gunnery as part of a five-week course. Whilst carrying out a series of spins as they descended from 2,500ft the engine began to cough on and off and the plane was seen to dive down behind Eastchurch village. Several villagers rushed to the scene and managed to pull the two occupants from the plane but they died from their injuries soon after.

This Dornier 17Z-3 from 2/KG2 Squadron was shot down by two British fighters over Hornchurch on the 26th August 1940 and eventually crash-landed two miles south-west of Eastchurch at 3.40pm. three of the crew were captured and one was killed.

This American Flying Fortress crash landed into the sea off the old Coal Pier, Sheerness in May 1943. It had been badly shot up on a bombing raid and was trying to make it back to base. Floatation bags were put round it and it was towed ashore onto the beach. It was decided to scrap it and to do that it was decided to cut off the wings to make transportation away easier. Men from Sheerness Dockyard, experienced in burning metal, were brought in and during this operation one of the aircraft's fuel tanks, inspected and said to be empty, blew up, badly injuring two of the dockyard men.

This American Flying Fortress, nicknamed "Hang the Expense", crash-landed at RAF Eastchurch in early 1944. Apparently returning to their base in East Anglia from the crew's 13th mission to bomb Frankfurt, they were hit by Ack-Ack as they came over Ostend. Substantial damage was sustained by the aircraft, including loss of the rear gunner's compartment and the rear gunner and the plane just about made it back to the first available airfield, Eastchurch, escorted by two P-47's. Here despite getting bogged down in the water-logged grass landing strip, all the remaining crew were OK. Amazingly, the rear gunner turned up at the end of the war in a German POW camp!

Saturday, 9 October 2010

Misty and Murky

The small farmland thicket that we drive through to get onto the reserve. The short track leads to the barn and the Five-bar gate. As you can see the photo wasn't taken this morning.

It was thoroughly murky and dull on the reserve at first light this morning and never improved all the time that I was there. The light and visibility remained constantly poor despite a freshening SE wind, which was surprisingly humid and no doubt adding to the conditions.
By the time that it had got fully light, if you can call it that, Midge and I had made our way through the cattle, across the reserve and up on to the seawall. A scan round with the binoculars though found virtually no birds moving at all, just a few hundred Starlings and a couple of Herons. There was a lot of duck "quacking" going on but that amusingly, was coming from one of three local wildfowlers sitting just in front of me on the saltings. Apparently they buy these alleged duck imitator things and sit out there blowing through them for all they're worth in the hope of attracting a duck or two, they also have a Greylag Goose version as well. Bit like the toys that we used to get in Jamboree Bags as kids - which pretty much says it all in respect of the wildfowlers.
Anyway, there was bugger all for them to shoot, or for me to see, so after carrying on along the seawall for a while I cut back across the reserve and continued on then across the neighbouring RSPB fields. The newly sown grass seed has really taken off on these fields now and they look impressively green and grassy and should look really good by next Spring. In two hawthorn bushes at the northern end of these fields I flushed out several Song Thrushes, counting sixteen in all and obviously there has been an inward movement of these birds this week.
These fields connect with the footpath/part concrete road that runs from the rear of Muswell Manor across to the Harty Road and so I walked that back as far as the farmland thicket. My meanderings had taken about an hour and a half up to that point and yet still I hadn't seen any wildfowl at all, although I could hear some Greylags along Capel Fleet somewhere. A couple of Marsh Harriers lazily quartered across the newly sprouted winter corn fields in which a solitary Heron stood like a miniature scarecrow in the gloom, and I saw little else until I started to walk through the thicket. Here all manner of birds started to appear in the sycamores, willows and ash trees in there. Wood pigeons and Stock Doves exploded in all directions, a couple of Blackbirds scolded me and yet another ten Song Thrushes appeared in ones and twos. Best of all though was the instant sounds of some birds in there that I haven't seen for a couple of years, Goldcrests. After the total absence of these little treats last winter, it was great to see them back again now and hopefully with the winds due to be from an easterly direction for a few days, hopefully we will see a lot more come across the North Sea. A visit to Warden Point looks on the cards. I stood there for some time trying to identify how many that there were but could only positively count four birds before I moved on, plus a Chiffchaff.
Just to complete this good little spell, as I walked back to the car down the track above, a Cettis Warbler called from an overgrown ditch alongside it.

We have the first of the winter's monthly harrier roost counts tomorrow evening on Harty so that will give me an opportunity to see what and who is about at the other end of the day. This is followed on Monday afternoon by a WEBS count with extremely high tides that will cover all of the saltings, so a couple of interesting days to come.

Monday, 4 October 2010

Need some more rain




An ariel photo of the "S" Bend Ditch that I took three years ago. In the bottom RH corner you will see the thin yellow line that is the seawall going off to Shellness to the right.
The yellow field at the top of the photo is the farmland and alongside the boundary is where the new duck-shooting ponds have been dug by the farmer.
I had a look at the "S" Ditch this morning and there is a new puddle at one end of it, so we have the start of re-filling it.

Saturday, 2 October 2010

A Rainy Autumn


"my birthday began with the water-
birds and the birds of the winged trees flying my name
above the farms and the white horses
and I rose
in the rainy autumn
and walked abroad in a shower of all my days..........."

So wrote Dylan Thomas in his Poem in October, and I just love that line "and walked abroad in a shower of all my days."
I guess its something that we all do at times as we walk in the countryside, we reminisce, we remember that special bird or plant, we think of good times back home, we hum a favourite song - we experience a shower of all our days!

Its been quiet this last week on the reserve as we've more or less said goodbye to most of the summer birds. Now and then there's the odd "last one" that pops up in a reed bed or bush but apart from the still occasional blanket waves of hirundines passing over, we now await the winter visitors. The initial spearhead of these arrived in Kent this week as odd Redwings were seen around the coast and these were followed in The Swale by the first 1,000+ Brent Geese. I could hear them on the mudflats across The Swale early this morning as I made my way along the seawall in the half light of a quite spectacular dawn. Dark skies became blue as the light increased and several con trails across the sky, all seemingly leading back to Manston, gradually turned from white to pink as the sun rose above Whitstable.
That's another autumn sign as well - where the sun rises. In the summer it rises above the wind turbines on the Kentish Flats, then by October as it rises later, it has moved round to behind Whitstable before it appears and then in mid-winter it rises from behind Seasalter.

The rain still hasn't made any impression in the dryer ditches, I had a look at the "S" Bend ditch this morning and while the mud is now well wet we still haven't that first film of water across it yet. But its had an effect on other parts of the reserve, the grazing areas have greened up and the grass is making an effort to put on a bit of growth before the first frosts hold it back. The cattle will be glad of that, they've had a pretty lean time this last month or two and have been turning to the phragmites and bullrush leaves. The first mushrooms have also started to appear, always a nice treat at this time of the year, chopped in an ommlette or soaked in garlic butter and fried whole - yummy!