Monday, 28 February 2011

Emmet Casts

A visit to the reserve earlier today was not a pleasant experience due to the weather. It failed to get fully light and there was an icy cold N. wind blowing across the marsh pushing in bouts of near sleety drizzle and rain. It was if we had taken three steps back into mid-winter again. As a result I didn't stay there too long but did note a couple of long stay species as usual.
The flock of White-fronted Geese, currently numbering around 290 birds, were grazing on the water-logged grazing marsh in front of me as I made my way across to the seawall. As seems to be the case in recent years, once the shooting season finishes the birds become surprisngly trusting and allow you to get quite close before they take off, and even then they only move a short distance away.
The Hooded Crow is also still there, socialising with an increasing flock of around 150 Carrion Crows, obviously shooting these seems to be having the opposite effect.

Yesterday, while it was actually sunny and pleasant, I took the two photos below which detail some of the many ant hills on the reserve. I don't know about nationally, but certainly locally, these ant hills were/still are known as Emmet casts, using the old name of emmet for an ant.
These emmet casts are concentrated into only a few of the grazing meadows on the reserve but where they are they are very numerous and give an almost lunar appearance to a field. They are the work of the Yellow Meadow Ant - Lasius Flavus and tend to be a prominent feature of old pasture land.
There was an interesting article by a Tim King in Britsh Wildlife a few years ago that describes the history and life-style of these ants really well and which I am indebted to for much of this information. Apparently this particular ant is not the first one to invade abandoned arable fields, only appearing after about ten years. However, once thay have become established their casts, or hills, create regeneration sites for plants, oviposition sites for insects, a food source in winter for some birds such as woodpeckers and corvids and north and south facing slopes which act as micro-habitats for plants and insects.

These casts or hills, or mounds, contain numerous galleries where the ants raise their broods and increased temperatures at the soli surface may speed up the brood's development. On a warm summer's day the workers move the pupae around beneath the surface, following the movements of the sun. Apparently most of the energy to support the 8,000-40,000 ants per mound comes from farming underground aphids that live on the roots of nearby plants. The ants spread out and away from their mound beneath the soil in order to locate these aphids which are then "milked" for their honeydew and this is then taken back to the mound and regurgitated to their sister workers. It has also been suggested that in late autumn the ants collect aphid eggs and store them in their mounds before replacing them on suitable plant roots in the following spring, thus farming and maintaining their food supply.

The numbers of queens and drones that a colony can produce depends on the number of workers and the size of their territory but the most vigorous colonies frequently produce 400 queens and 1,000 drones, which as we have all seen, all leave the nest at the same time in August. Many new colonies start with more than one breeding queen and amazingly Yellow Meadow Ant queens have been kept alive in captivity for up to 22 years!

Its a fascinating subject but I'll leave it there.

Saturday, 26 February 2011

Bits and Bobs

Well, on Wednesday when I wrote up my last blog posting it was raining hard and as I write up this one its raining hard again. OK, we've had a couple of half decent days in between but in reality this February must go down as a pretty rubbish month.
Talking of the last posting, which took me some considerable time to write up, I received one comment on that, which if comments are the measure of how well received or interesting a blog is, must mean that I'm posting the wrong stuff.
Perhaps I should only be making sugary nature postings with pretty wildlife pictures that get people ooh-arring all the time, but I can't be that consistently false as some blogs are - guess if I'm to be true to myself I'll have to carry on as I am, even if I'm only writing to myself.

"I've heard you say many times
that you're better 'n no one
and no one is better 'n you
if you really believe that
you know you got
nothing to win and nothing to lose"...........To Ramona - Bob Dylan

Driving back along the Harty Road yesterday I came across a guy in a van from Kent Highways who was marking each pothole with a paint can, for future filling in by his team - he would need hundreds of spray cans to mark every pothole along there, the road is so bad. He also advised that as well as pothole repairing, long stretches of the road will be properly re-surfaced this summer. A much welcomed event but a total waste of time, as he agreed, given the size of the farm vehicles that use the road and affectively damage it so badly. It is after all, only a soft-based cart track totally unsuitable for the vehicles that now use it - perhaps if the farmers were made to help pay for the repairs we might get somewhere.

Whilst on the reserve yesterday I managed to have a chat with one of the guys who is leasing the new duck shooting ponds on the farm side of the reserve boundary. I have reported on these ponds in previous postings and was not at all happy at their being sited there last summer. We had a lengthy and amiable chat about all things shooting and I have to say that I was both impressed with his attitude and future intentions. Let's face it, the ponds are there now and will be shot, regardless what we on the reserve think, so much better that we stay friendly and obtain the best options for both sides. Apparently his syndicate will shoot the ponds in a limited and controlled manner with low bird bags per shoot and shooting will not take place in adverse weather. All in all, a far better outcome than causing aggravation that will see excess birds being shot out of revenge.

Also whilst out there yesterday I noticed that one of the neighbouring farms has commenced pest control measures, i.e. they were shooting Wood Pigeons and Carrion Crows. Both will be shot for the next month in order to reduce their numbers to a less damaging level, certainly a flock of 130+ crows wandering the reserve at the start of the breeding season is something that is not desirable.

I hear on the grape-line that Bob Gomes at Dungeness RSPB reserve is set to retire. I got to know Bob while he was managing Elmley RSPB and always found him to be an excellent and friendly person and if the rumours are true then I wish him a successful retirement.

Wednesday, 23 February 2011


Well here we are, another wet and cold day on sunless Sheppey and yet probably only a couple of months or so away from hearing the first person complain about it being too hot - hard to believe but it will happen!
So, another dose of Sheppey's history from my aviation files - I'm afraid the photos aren't too brilliant as they are scanned copies of copies.

In early 1911 Sheppey's aviation history had been in existence for less than two years, having begun in 1909 at Leysdown with the Aero Club's new grounds and a Shorts Bros. aeroplane factory, to a move by both in 1910 to a new site at Stonepitts Farm below Eastchurch. This site, which is now Eastchurch Prison, expanded quickly, as had the potential of the aircraft, from flying a few yards in 1909 to several miles in 1911. As a result it had been chosen in June 1911 as the site for that year's Gordon-Bennett Aviation Cup, a really huge jump in prestige for Sheppey as a whole.

The Cup had been awarded by James Gordon-Bennett, the American editor of the "Paris Herald", for the fastest time over a pre-set distance by an aircraft. In 1909 an American had won the first race in France and then in 1910 the Englishman, Claude Graham White, had done likewise in New York. Thus in 1911, with England as the holders, it was held at the Royal Aero Club's flying grounds at Eastchurch, Sheppey.

For a week before the event, preparations were being made, with contestants putting their machines through various trials. The course itself had been made triangular, with red-topped pylons marking the three turning points. One length ran east to west past the Stands at one and a half miles long, another to a point between Great and Little Bells farms being one and three quarter miles long, and the stretch between the two making up almost half a mile. All in all the aircraft would have to cover 25 laps of this course to make a total of 93.477 miles flown. On the day the race was scheduled to begin at just before noon.

Race day began dull and threatening with a gusty wind but it didn't prevent the competitors from getting up early and carrying out time-trials and trying to out-psyche each other. In the end, the result of these early morning trials saw C. Weymann awarded the fastest time. This American competitor, born in Haiti, was just five seconds faster than Gustav Hamel's Bleriot, prompting Bleriot himself to make adjustments to Hamel's aircraft. He clipped the end of each wing square, bringing the full span to within 17 feet and though this had the effect of increasing the speed it also meant that cornering at the pylons would have to be carried out wider.

Surprisingly, despite being the current holder of the Cup, Graham White had been unable to secure a suitable aircraft and so the final line-up of competitors was as follows, including their engine size:-

Mr. A. Ogilvie - Baby Wright 50hp Gnome
Mr. G. Hamel - Bleriot Monoplane 100hp Gnome
Mr. G. Gilmour - Bristol Monoplane (never started)

M.A LeBlanc - Bleriot Monoplane 100hp Gnome
M.Chevalier - Nieuport Monoplane N/A Nieuport - Nieuport Monoplane 70hp Gnome

Mr.C.T. Weymann - Nieuport Monoplane 100hp Gnome

A small point of interest, which describes the times, occurred at 8.00 that morning with the arrival at the grounds of a Mr. Gordon England in a Bristol biplane. Flying over Sheppey he had got lost and so had to eventually swoop down over the Halfway Houses village in the centre of the Island and read the directions for Eastchurch on a road sign. (Not something you can do in a Harrier jump-jet these days)

The police force of the day was a hundred men of the Kent Constabulary and they guarded the approaches to the airfield and were to keep the crowds in order. A line of Royal Engineers from Chatham were stationed at intervals in a line along the front of The Members Enclosure, and at the same time, all along the road from London, the Dunlop Tyre Company indicated the route to Eastchurch by stationing men with "signposts" surmounted with miniature flying machines. There were also men from the Queenborough and District Ambulance Corps in the Public Enclosure and Boy Scouts were used around the course for signalling duties.
This left only the Press to accommodate and they were given the special privilege of using the hangar of the late Cecil Grace, who had been killed just six months previously, and whose hangar still contained his flying machines.

All was set then for an expected huge crowd to pay their money at the gates and enjoy a fine piece of aviation history. Here though, things went quite badly wrong because most of the estimated 10,000 crowd that day were to come by train and Sheppey's little Light Railway couldn't cope. This train line with its small engine and carriages had only been in existence ten years and ran from the main line at Queenborough, across the Island to Leysdown, with stops at a few tiny stations on the way to pick up small numbers of villagers and farm workers. Despite running fifteen "specials" from Queenborough to Easstchurch that day it just couldn't cope with people thousands of people pouring off the main line trains at Queenborough and expecting to then be transported to Eastchurch. This problem was magnified at the next stop along the line from Queenborough, Sheerness East, a short distance outside the town of Sheerness, where people arrived in their hundreds to find the train already packed to overflowing once it left Queenborough. The wait at Sheerness East was two hours and one gets the picture of the little train chugging towards them across the marshes with people hanging out from everywhere like one of those trains in India.
Many people at Queenborough, having bought a ticket but unable to get on a train, decided to walk along the lines all the way to Eastchurch. This prompted the Traffic Superintendant to order the gateman at Sheerness East to take the names and addresses of the people as they arrived, for trespassing - not easily done with a few hundred angry people striding towards you!
After lunch the situation worsened, with up to a thousand people waiting at Sheerness East and the railway authorities became very nervous of what might happen to both the train and its driver. It didn't help when tickets also ran out and although some people drifted back home, many others walked along the lines or jumped onto and overloaded the trains without paying - forget the Indian railways, more like Keystone Cops now!

As many as a thousand people also arrived at the airfield in two hundred odd cars that they parked to the rear of the Members Enclosure and these also became an attraction themselves. Aero Club members were admitted free to their special enclosure on production of their membership cards but their guests were expected to pay an admission fee of five shillings and the charge for cars, plus driver, was ten shillings - quite a sum in those days.

The public didn't have such special enclosures but in some ways probably had better all round views, they were shown to the slopes of Stanford Hill, lent to the Club for the day by its owner, Lt.Col. Sir George Holford. From there they had a view of both the whole course and The River Swale and the mainland behind. Admission to these slopes was just a shilling and refreshments were provided by the Army and Navy Stores. Quite idyllic until just before lunch, with the race soon to begin, the wind increased and a sudden rain storm dropped across everybody. However, soon after, the wind dropped and there was unbroken sunshine for the rest of the day.

Below, you can see two of the magnificent machines that took place in the race. The first is the Baby Wright with its little 50hp engine, but it wasn't necessarily all about speed, it was also about actually finishing with a speed!
The second is one of the Nieuports, with men acting as its anchors.

And the race itself, well Mr. Hamel was first off and with roars of applause, left the ground at 2.45, followed at fifteen minute intervals by the other competitors. Unfortunately his newly clipped wings were to be his undoing and at just the first pylon, the tight turn caught him out and a wing touched the ground. The aircraft, with its engine still revving, bounced for twenty yards and broke up as it went. Hamel was luckily thrown clear and eventually stood up with just slight concussion and bruises.
Second up was Chevalier but on his 12th lap he too had problems when his Nieuport's engine failed but he crash-landed unhurt. He later made a second attempt in a reserve machine but suffered the same fate on only his first lap. All the other contestants successfully completed the course, although Mr. Ogilvie in the Baby Wright did have one small hiccup. The little biplane, attracting much sympathy from the crowd as it plodded round the course with its little 50hp engine and being lapped at regular intervals by the others, ran out of petrol after 20 laps. But it landed, re-fuled and was able to finish the race.

Once all the aircraft had completed their 25 laps and their times had been worked out the results were as follows:-

1st C.T. Weymann USA 25 laps in 71 mins (ave speed 78.75 mph)
2nd LeBlanc France 25 laps in 73 mins (ave speed 75.83 mph)
3rd Nieuport France 25 laps in 74 mins (ave speed 75.07 mph)
4th A. Ogilvie G.B. 25 laps in 109 mins (ave speed 51.31 mph)

With the race over an informal dinner took place in a marquee on the grounds and the Cup and £1,000 were awarded to Mr. Weymann, with a second prize of £1,000 going to LeBlanc. Later, those members returning home by train had the luxury of a special train laid on to leave Eastchurch after the dinner.
Outside, Mr. Gilmour entertained the dispersing crowds with an excellent display of flying in the very same Bristol aircraft that had failed to start at the beginning of the race.

And that, as they say was that and doubtful wether Sheppey has ever held something of such magnitude ever since.

Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Brighter Grey Days


Surprisingly during the couple of hours that I spent on the reserve this morning, the sky brightened quite a bit in patches and the sun almost broke through. The cloud was also thin enough to be able to feel the warmth of the sun beaming down. The photo below shows such a bright patch, almost a cause of celebration at the moment in these SAD days.

The tide in The Swale was at one of its very low points, exposing areas of mud that are not normally exposed. Although you can't see or hear them, the mudflats were covered in around 140 Carrion and 1 Hooded Crow as they noisly walked to and fro, presumably feeding on shellfish or other marine creatures.
The dark hulk to the left is all that remains of the old sailing barge "Lizard", built in 1891 to carry cement and last used by the Government in WW2.

I decided to make my back to the car via some of the adjacent farmland and the photo below shows the track that runs down to the reserve seawall from Harty Church. You can see The Swale in the background. We know it as "the gravel road" because of its gravely soil structure.

Getting to the top of the above "gravel road" you find yourself on another public footpath. See the top of the "gravel road" to the left of the next photo. You can either turn left to Harty Church, in the background,

or turn right and head towards Elliots Farm, going past Forge Cottage on the way. Ken Lodge will know this route and recognise the spinney at the end of the track.

This one was taken outside Forge Cottage, looking back towards the spinney.

Two photos that show that Spring is gradually happening. One of two Gorse bushes on the reserve boundary and some Goat Willow catkins.

And finally, two views inside The Tower Hide that show the recent handiwork of the Green Woodpecker.

Sunday, 20 February 2011

An Even Greyer Day

Bette Midler used to sing a song called "Spring Will Be a Little Late This Year", it would be an appropriate song to play today. Despite a Wheatear and a Swallow being seen in Cornwall this week it was quite dire earlier on today, in fact the perfect word to describe the conditions on the reserve at dawn today is - Dank.

I arrived at the barn just as it was getting light to be met with misty conditions that reduced visibility down to several hundred yards, moderate drizzle and a cold NE wind. Twelve hours of rain yesterday had also considerably increased the wet areas and mud on the grazing marsh and as I made my way across to the seawall I slipped and sloshed and sloshed and slipped through the murk and mire.

If I hadn't sat indoors all day yesterday bored rigid looking at just House Sparrows and the odd Blue Tit on the bird table, I probably would of stayed home this morning. However, today was the last day of the duck shooting season and I always like to be there and silently in my mind kiss the shooters good bye. On top of the seawall and struggling to identify anything through the drizzle and mist with my binoculars, one thing did become clear, the wildfowlers had already kissed me goodbye and had the sense to stay in bed - there was no one there. Who's the pratt now I thought to myself.

However, appearing through the mist further along the seawall there was a solitary figure, who to my surprise, turned out to be a birdwatcher. I say surprise because as he agreed as we chatted, it was definitely not a good morning for bird watching, or indeed seeing the owls that he had hoped to find. I gave him a few suggestions of routes round the reserve and wandered off with just the ever present Midge as company. The cold wind increased and for a while the mist and the drizzle moved back and the hope of seeing what I could hear increased but it didn't last long and it gradually closed back in again.

What did I see, well there certainly weren't any Skylarks singing today but appropriately for the conditions there were quite a few ducks about. In the Flood I could hear the whistles of Wigeon and Teal and the purring quacks of Gadwall. Nearly a hundred Mallard and a pair of Tufted Duck rose up from the "S" Bend Ditch and I could also hear a male Reed Bunting singing along there somewhere. Also, half a mile or so away through the mist on the farmland I could hear the calls of Greylag and White-fronted Geese, so the White-fronts, that totalled 300+ on Wednesday were still there.

I made my way up into the Tower Hide and had a look into The Flood and there were indeed Wigeon, Teal and Gadwall in there, plus a pair of Pintail and some Shovelers. Despite yesterday's rain I think I'll pump some more water across there this week while the ditches are still full enough to supply the water. The Tower Hide will be renamed the Perforated Hide soon if a Green Woodpecker has its way. It has already hammered two large holes through one side and a viewing flap and is now working on a third. You can't deny it its sense of vision, that's a very large nest box.

I guess that I had only been out there an hour and a half but the cold, the damp and the mud were enough for me and I decided to call it a day and headed back to the car, putting a nice ring-tail Hen Harrier up from a ditch as I went.

Perhaps we should re-word the song to - "Spring Will Be a Little Dank This Year"

Saturday, 19 February 2011


By early 1915 depite the First World War being in full swing and Eastchurch airfield's close proximity to the Channel, the airfield was still having a job being accepted as being of serious use to the war effort. However, as German Zeppelin raids began to increase down the East Coast a trickle of what was to eventually become twenty four Bristol Scout aircraft began to arrive at Eastchurch in March 1915
Below you can see how the airfield looked from the air during late 1915 with the hangars to the left and accomodation huts in the middle.

Bristol ScoutC number 1246 - one of the twenty four delivered to Eastchurch in 1915.

The Zeppelin raids had begun to increase in intensity since the beginning of 1915, with the airships drifting across the North Sea, mainly at night, and hapazardly dropping their bombs on towns and countryside down the East Coast. Surprisingly, some of the bombs carried weighed up to 600lbs.
During this period Eastchurch based aircraft were involved in at least three enemy raids. The first, on the 16th April, saw a German Taube monoplane cross the coast of Kent at Kingsdown, causing the scrambling of aircraft from Eastchurch, Manston and Dover, all with no result.
On May 26th, five Naval aircraft from Eastchurch and Grain went up to engage the enemy airship LZ38. It was a fine, misty day and LZ38 had drifted in over the Essex coast, presumably to bomb London. However, for whatever reason it ended up dropping it's bombs, seventy in all, in the Southend area. Unfortunately the defending aircraft failed to even sight the airship and the only damage incurred was to two of them as they re-landed.
The third raid occurred on the 9th August 1915 when the airship L10 came in over East Anglia and headed south towards London. Fortunately it got a bit lost in the dark and eventually dropped most of its bombs over the Thames Estuary, before heading on over Sheppey. Here it dropped a total of twelve bombs in a line, about six hundred yards from the hangars, breaking just a few windows. Two Eastchurch aircreaft that had gone up prior to the raid failed to find the airship in the dark and the mist and so it escaped. A lucky find by the airship or a planned raid, it is not known, but it was the last real raid on the airfield until 1940.

By 1917 the Germans had re-thought their strategy and had begun re-equipping with the larger Gotha and Giant bomber aircraft. The Gothas had a crew of three and with two Mercedes engines capable of doing 87mph at 12,000ft. The bomb load varied with a range of between 600lbs and 1,100lbs of bombs, although over England the load was normally 6 x 110lb bombs.
A Gotha bomber is illustrated below as the crew prepare for take off from their airfield in Belgium. A tad draughty on a cold crossing of the North Sea or the Channel.

These aircraft were a significant improvement on anything that both sides had and they immediately began numerous raids across the Channel to England. The best that the British could do was to replace some of their out-dated fighter aircraft with what eventually became a famous WW1 aircraft, the Sopwith Camel, and as a result some were sent to Eastchurch. See one of the Eastchurch aircraft below.

Prior to that, on the 5th June, at about 18.00hrs, 22 Gothas flew into the Thames Estuary and began bombing both Sheerness and Shoeburyness. The raid only lasted around five minutes but caused eleven deaths and thirty-four injuries and although the eight anti-aircraft guns at both places fired five hundred and four rounds, only one Gotha was destroyed and sixty-five various aircraft sent up to intercept the Gothas never got anywhere near to them. The one hit Gotha meanwhile had come down into the sea off of Bartons Point, Sheppey and was eventually recovered along with its crew.
At Eastchurch, Charlie Ward was in the eighth round of a ten round boxing match in the airfield's Parade Square when the Sheerness raid began. Silly as it sounds, the audience of servicemen were ordered to remove their conspicous white cap covers before the remaining two rounds were completed!
These bombing raids carried on throughout 1917 and saw much action by the Eastchurch based Camels and other aircraft until eventually the night of the 19th/20th May 1918 saw the last German air raid over England until WW2.
That evening ten Gothas and three Giant bombers spent two hours wandering in over Kent and Essex to be met by an incredible number of anti-aircraft shells and patrolling fighter aircraft.Six German aircraft were shot down and Gotha GV979's demise was best documented.
Attracted by a concentration of searchlight beams east of Faversham, Capt. Brand arrived in the area in his Sopwith Camel of 112 Sqd from Throwley. As he patrolled at 7,000ft waiting for a target, an enemy Gotha passed to the left of him at about 500ft and Brand immediately set about approaching the Gotha from the rear. Both Brand and the Gotha's rear gunner began firing at each other at the same time and the Gotha's starboard engine was put out of order. As the Gotha began to dive away Brand closed to within twenty-five yards and fired off another three bursts of twenty-five rounds each. As a result the Gotha burst into flames, scorching Brand's exposed face and fell to the ground over the south-east side of Sheppey.
A search the following day found the remains of the aircraft and the bodies of the three crew, who were later buried in Leysdown cemetry, where they were eventually exhumed and re-buried at the Cannock Chase War Graves site.

Little else happened at Eastchurch for what was left of the war, except that in the April of the year the Gunnery School there was split up and a section known as the Aerial Fighting and Gunnery School was formed at the Leysdown airfield. This airfield, originally the site in 1909 of the Aero Club and Shorts Bros. aircraft factory had been retained and expanded and at the end of the war was visited by officers of the American Expeditionary Force for extensive flying instruction there.
It is pictured below during WW1, with the seawall in the background and Muswell Manor just out of picture to the right. Some stables are on part of the site now.

Friday, 18 February 2011

Grey Days


This morning was a second one where the weather was misty, grey, gloomy and cold in a S.E. wind. This awful winter seems to be never ending and its been four months now walking round in heavy winter clothes, we must be owed a hot and sunny summer this year, despite the fact that that will no doubt upset some people just as much.
The first day of sunbathing in the garden this Spring is going to be celebrated with a bottle of champers I think - can't wait.

There were a couple of promising signs as I walked round though, a few Skylarks lifted up into the gloom and serenaded me and just as last Saturday, Reed Bunting cocks were singing from various territories, I counted eight this morning. There are also other signs that things are changing, the grass along the seawall has grown several inches in places and catkins are coming out on the Goat Willows in the approach thicket to the reserve. So, things are primed to explode forth into Spring, we just need more than the odd sunny day to convince wildlife that its all go.

You will see below that the "S" Bend Ditch is now as full as it should be as it snakes away into the distance. Just before I took the photo the ditch had been full with around 400 mixed Wigeon, Teal and Shoveler ducks. (I took this from the top of one of the old salt workings mounds and Midge decided to pop up in front)

Below is our pump house, with The Flood in the background. In there we have a large diesel pump that allows us to pump the ditch water in three different directions in order to keep wet areas, wet.

Behind me as I took the above photo, a Mute Swan went gliding by with The Tower Hide in the background.

This photo was taken Wednesday, early evening, as I was standing at the Seawall Hide taking part in the monthly Harrier Roost Count. It captures dusk settling in as a full moon begins to come to life in the sky above. For my particular part of the Count it was very quiet with just the one male Hen Harrier seen going in to roost, although I did have the company for a while of two S.E.Owls.

The six month shooting season finally comes to an end on Sunday night and despite my increasing tolerance and understanding at why they do what they do, it will be nice not having to share the solitude of the early mornings for a few months. There was a good example of the increasing co-operation between myself and them last Sunday when one of the local wildfowlers came round my house. He had shot a Greylag Goose a few days before at Shellness and found that it had a numbered black neck collar on it, plus a numbered leg ring from Spain and gave me the details. On Monday I went on the Internet and via a European ringing website supplied the details given and within two hours received full details back.
Apparently the goose had been caught, rung and released whilst already three years old, in the Reserva Biologica de Donana at Huelva, Spain, in January 1999. This meant that the goose was 14 years old when shot, a good age.
Now I know many of you will immediately cry shame and how disgusting that it should be shot after all that time but let's look at the positives - it had enjoyed a good lifetime, by being shot and recovered it meant that valuable information wasn't lost in some unknown place, and I'm assured that it provided a good meal.

Personally, I think that was a pretty good outcome and I hope that during the summer months that the postive understanding and shared knowledge that is developing between myself and the true wildfowlers continues to broaden in the way that it is. More trust and less suspicion has to be a good thing between us.

Monday, 14 February 2011

Harty pictures

With the sun coming out this morning I thought I'd take a few photos of the area round the reserve. Double click on each one to better view the scene.

This first one is of The Ferry House Inn, as it looks down onto The Swale waterway to the left.

Taken more or less from the same spot as the above one but looking left across The Swale to Harty Ferry on the mainland side. Harty Ferry was once a small, probably rowing boat, that plied between the Inn and the mainland. On the mainland, either side of the small fishing boat, is Oare Nature reserve.

Mocketts Farm house, with the Harty Road, little more than a lane there, to the left of it

Both this one and the one above were taken from the same spot, at Telegraph corner on the Harty Road. This one looks east towards Leysdown and shows the yellow and reeded sweep of Capel Fleet in the centre as it winds it's way round to eventually end up at The Swale NNR.

A view of Harty Church and Sayers Court farm buildings in the distance, taken from the reserve sea wall.

This building was originally the Old Forge and blacksmith's cottage but has been renovated and enlarged now for the landlord of the Ferry House Inn.

Brewers farmhouse alongside the staff entrance to the reserve. This is privately owned and has nothing to do with the farmland around it.

Saturday, 12 February 2011

Singing in the Rain

Another blog without photos I'm afraid, just never bright enough to take them.

I got up this morning at 5.45 to the depressing and now familiar sound of rain on the conservatory roof, this winter really is starting to grind. I suppose with it starting much earlier this time, in November in fact, we've had four continuous bad months instead of the recent style of just two after Christmas. Whatever, I guess that most of us "outsider" types must be suffering from some degree of SAD Syndrome by now.
By 6.45 the rain appeared to have stopped and so I said, sod it, and left for the reserve, mud or no mud and I think it was a good decision. As I rounded Capel Corner on the Harty Road in the half-light of dawn, a Barn Owl drifted across the road in front of the car, further along at Elliots Farm, another did the same and as I travelled down the track to the reserve barn, another watched me from a post top literally just five feet away!

Ten minutes later I was on top of the seawall and several things were immediately obvious.
Firstly, despite the fact that they still have seven shooting days left, there were no wildfowlers out this morning. Now, despite the fact that I have become increasingly sympathetic to some of their views this winter, I have to say that to see wildfowl flying around freely in the sky this morning, without the instant barrage of steel shot echoing around, was really enjoyable, its been a long six months.
Secondly, it had started to rain steadily again and so I was in for a soaking, which most definitely I got - that doesn't help the old arthritis a bit but never mind, couldn't be arsed with that today.
Thirdly, despite the gloom and the rain it was very mild and was probably one reason for the fourth observation - the marsh was full of the sound of bird calls.

Greylag Geese were very vocal as they continued to pair up and squabble amongst each other. Mallard and Teal drakes were carrying out various courtship displays and their whistles and quacking could be heard from all quarters, as could Redshanks. Redshanks are not seen that much on the marsh in the winter, they prefer the shoreline and mudflats, but now they were back and their piping calls echoed all round the marsh. It really was so uplifting to hear so much going on and even a couple of pairs of Lapwings got into the act, wheeling and diving and "peewitting" as they went.
Lastly, along the tops of the reeds in the Delph Fleet, several male Reed Buntings were spread out at regular intervals, announcing their territory with the repetitive call notes that they use in the breeding season.

Yep, despite the rain down my neck and the mud underfoot, the marsh was buzzing this morning and there was something in the air. What was it Bob Dylan said - "there's a stillness in the wind before the hurricane begins" - well there's no hurricane beginning but there was a stillness in the wind this morning and it whispered, Spring is almost here.

But till then - well tomorrow late afternoon, we have our monthly Harrier Roost Count to carry out and the weather is forecast to be, steady rain with a freshening wind, so another soaking looks on the cards.

Tuesday, 8 February 2011

A Palaver of Birds and Wind

Yesterday afternoon the regular three of us carried out the monthly WEBS count, or at least, did our best to. There was a roaring, gusty wind blowing the whole time that we were there - in our faces or up our butts, depending on which way we were facing. Once again it was a reminder of how exposed the marshes are when the elements are bad, there are few hiding places or sheltered woods and hedgerows out there.

The Swale, which seperates Sheppey from the mainland is normally a fairly placid and narrow stretch of tidal water but yesterday it took on the appearance of something that you could attempt white-water rafting on. The gale force wind blew straight down its length from west to east and seemed to be trying its hardest to prevent the tide from coming in. And along a half-mile stretch several thousand gulls in a frenzied feeding pack, dipped into the white-capped waves as they flew into the wind until, reaching a certain point, up they went like wind-tossed foam, back to the end of the flock and began the process all over again.

I tried watching all this from the seawall but my telescope was vibrating in the wind too much and I gave up and moved on, stumbling forward too fast as the wind pushed me on, until eventually I turned to walk the circuit back into it. That began a whole new side to the afternoon, walking head first into the strength of the wind was so strenuous and tiring that you just had to admire the ease with which the gulls achieved it. And the WEBS count itself? well it was one of the poorest that we've counted, the birds were very few and far between and obviously hiding up somewhere out of the wind. The "S" Bend Ditch, normally quite full of wildfowl in recent weeks, appeared deserted until you looked closely at the reeds along the side best sheltered from the wind and there a few hundred duck could be seen occasionally moving in and out like cuckoos from a clock. Lapwings that were on the marsh in +thousand numbers a few days ago were down too a couple of hundred, all bunkered down and facing into the wind. The best count of the day was 300 White-fronted Geese, on a sloping field of winter corn in the distance, just below a Leysdown holiday camp.

Yesterday's WEBS was an experience that will be remembered well into the summer for both its roaring wind, the exhausted feeling after that you'd walked twice the distance that you actually had and the fact that within half an hour of being home the wind dropped away to nothing.

Sunday, 6 February 2011

Windy February dawns


It has been a quiet week in my little life and after a hint of Spring on a sunny Thursday, a relapse back into winter with constant strong winds and heavy cloud over the last three days. Walking round the reserve in those winds has been extremely tiring but I suppose good for maintaining a degree of fitness. They have also had a rapid drying effect on the surface of the fields, which we wouldn't want to see maintained for too long but for the moment, has made walking round far more comfortable and easier.

Bird-wise the grazing marsh, main part of the reserve, has been fairly quiet with a resident flock of White-fronted Geese being the main attraction to both birdwatchers and wildfowlers. Their numbers seem to hover around the 200 mark but a count on Thursday did come up with 420, possibly some birds dropped in temporary en-route northwards. They certainly make a spectacular sight and sound and become surprisingly tame at times. They tend to arrive on the reserve from elsewhere each morning immediately the night sky begins to lighten and so to avoid scaring them up and over any wildfowlers I have been cutting across to the seawall in the dark, before they arrive.
The two photos below show the sky from the seawall hide as the dawn starts to break in the eastern sky.

Walking back along the seawall yesterday morning I came across a wildfowler that I hadn't seen out there before and stopped for a brief chat, and I'm glad that I did. As well as being a fan of my blog, which was guaranteed to see me like him, he turned out to be a wildfowler of the old school with many, many years of experience on the North Kent marshes behind him. It also turned out that he was active on the Elmley marshes back in the 1960's at the same time that I was and although we hd never met then, we shared similar memories of how good it used to be.
I know that I have waged a campaign against the prescence of these guys in front of the reserve for many years but putting those prejudices aside, when you get talking to these, real wildfowlers of 30-40 years standing you realise that they can match or even surpass, many ordinary birdwatchers with their all round knowledge of both the local countryside's history and its wildlife. I wished the chat could of been longer.

A view down the seawall Delph fleet, with Shellness Hamlet in the distant background. (I don't know what the white effect on the wall was but it hadn't snowed this morning)

Another view across the reserve in the early morning with a large flock of White-fronted Geese in the distance just about to land in The Flood.