Tuesday, 30 August 2011

Another Autumn Day

Continuing my Autumnal theme of yesterday I photographed these geese on the reserve this morning, fattening for our Christmas dinners? no, they arrived several years ago from the farm nearby and now live and breed on the reserve, but you never know.

Sitting in the conservatory this afternoon after a hard spell of weeding in the garden, I put on a Barbra Streisand CD, poured a large glass of red wine and looked out at this last week of August scene. Back in the late Spring I found a few Nasturtium seeds in the garage and stuck a few in at the back of the pond with the result as below. They so remind me of childhood days, of sucking the spur behind the flower and enjoying its hot and peppery taste and Cabbage White butterfly caterpillars under every leaf.

The pond itself looks jaded now and thanks to this photograph, looks a third of its size, it really is much bigger than how it looks here.

Elsewhere in the garden the flowers are all continuing to do their bit and are sending out their messages of "come and get it", and yet the grey skies and chilly wind seem to deter even the hardiest of bees.

And that is the problem, here we are at the end of August and yet it is like mid-Autumn, it should still be so hot and sunny and Pittswood Man should still be complaining about the heat and the sun and the need for a shady tree, but no, its like mid-October.

In the chapter called "Wayfarers All" in the Wind of the Willows, Ratty, desperate at the way summer seemed to be slipping away so fast, had come across a group of Swallows who were discussing their soon to happen departure southwards. He asked why they couldn't stay on to enjoy the good times that he and his friends had during winter.
"I tried stopping on one year", said one Swallow. "I had grown so fond of the place that when the time came I hung back and let the others go on without me. For a few weeks it was all well enough, but afterwards, O the weary length of the nights! The shivering sunless days! The air so clammy and chill, and not an insect in an acre of it! No, it was no good; my courage broke down, and one cold, stormy night I took wing, flying well inland on account of the strong easterly gales. It was snowing hard as I beat through the passes of the great mountains, and I had a stiff fight to win through; but never shall I forget the blissful feeling of the hot sun again on my back as I sped down to the lakes that lay so blue and placid below me, and the taste of my first fat insect!"

Does not that say it all - it does for me!

Monday, 29 August 2011

Autumn Blues

My, its over a week since my last posting but to be honest there hasn't been that much occurring, despite going to the reserve every day, and as I said in my last post, we are pretty much marking time until something does.
The last two mornings I have arrived at the reserve at first light and been lucky to see the sun rise up over the horizon both times and the photo below doesn't really capture the stillness and beauty of it as it rose over Shellness.

My reason for being so early was to hopefully bump into a wildfowler who I have known for a few years now and who always visits the reserve a few days before the shooting season starts to get an idea of what's about wildfowl wise, which this year, is pretty much naff all. As I probably mentioned this time last year this guy has been involved with the countryside for most of his sixty odd years and we always spend a pleasant hour chatting about shooting and the countryside in general. This guy's knowledge comes from a lifetime's experience in the field, not from watching Springwatch or reading birds magazines and despite the solitary nature of his sport he still doesn't find it necessary to whinge on about other countyside users such as walkers and dog owners.
So we sat there for an enjoyable while, swapped experiences of all things countryside, and watched the sun rise up into the sky, I enjoyed it.

After leaving him I made my way along the seawall to the end of the Delph fleet, which as you can see, is also starting to recede from the drought, and began to walk back across the marsh. The passage waders are still around in small numbers, utilizing the mud in the ditches and I put up several Green Sandpipers, a Spotted Redshank and a Greenshank as I walked along. The reserve's first Whinchat of the autumn was also making its way along the Delph reed bed tops, which with the waders was another reminder that we are going into the autumn, not a pleasant thought.

For me the autumn is the forerunner of the winter, the one season that I absolutely hate. By October I find myself kind of holding my breath, and not letting it out until March, in one huge sigh of relief and I just get through the winter as best as I can. Seems stupid I know, especially to those people that like cold, rain, snow, mud, gales and above all horribly short daylight hours, but me, I don't.
I really hate those short days, those brief scurries between dawn and dusk, when there's no before breakfast and no after dinner, its all darkness. I love those long warm and sunny days when you can pack a whole raft of things in up till ten o'clock at night, how can anybody like darkness at 4.30 in the afternoon?

And yet as much as I hate it, I sometimes find myself perversely thinking of nice winter things, such as a cold afternoon's bird counting and getting home to be warmed up by that first sampling of this year's Sloe Gin. Foggy days, I quite like the fog, and I suppose best of all, The Shortest Day, that lovely day in December when you know that from now on, minute by extending minute, the days are getting longer - yes that day alone is worth having winter for!

Saturday, 20 August 2011

Marking Time

I arrived at the reserve at 07.00 this morning in cracking warm and sunny conditions, it was a great time of day to be out and about. The farmland alongside is now all either stubble or lightly tilled soil and into the wheat stubble the rape for next year has already been sown - the winter corn will go in fairly soon into what were this years's rape fields. Walking round was really pleasant but like the title suggests, walking round the reserve at the moment you form the impression that you are simply marking time until something changes. Because of the very dry conditions, you know that the opportunities to see any noteable bird numbers are almost not there and its simply a matter of just enjoying being out and about.

What is the next change, well, I suppose apart from several days of continous rain, which is very unlikely, it is September 1st and the start of this year's shooting season. Thats unlikely to make it rain hard but the intensity of shooting around Harty will probably see an increase of wildfowl on the reserve as the birds become disturbed and look for refuge.
The photo below shows the scene along the Harty road at the moment as up to 400 Greylag Geese frequent the wheat stubbles looking for spilt grain. Many of these semi-tame feral geese will no doubt be enjoying their last few days alive before they are slaughtered. From what I can gather, large chunks of Harty have beem leased to various different people this coming season and it has the potential to be shot very intensively. These geese for instance, over the first week or so and until they lose their tameness, will be shot in large numbers by leaseholders who have very little interest in conservation but simply getting large bags in the name of "getting their money's worth" and shooting 30,40,50 birds at a time is not unheard of.

Witnessing slaughters like that is when you come to realise that the wildfowlers that frequent the saltings in front of the reserve are a far less damaging and much hardier breed of wildfowl shooters.
I recall one afternoon last year, 22nd December to be exact, when heavy snow was just beginning to thaw across Harty but a bitter cold N wind had set in during the afternoon creating sub-zero temperatures until well into the night. I had been out on the reserve for the last two hours of daylight, taking part in the monthly Harrier Roost Count, and was walking back to my car as it got dark, absolutley froze to the marrow. I watched a wildfowler come up onto the seawall in the distance and begin to trudge back along the seawall himself.
Talking to him the next day it transpires that he had arrived on the saltings that previous day and shot the early morning with no success. He then moved out to the edge of the saltings, placed some decoys out on the mud and sat their for over eight hours in sub-zero temperatures while the tide came in and went out, just to get half a dozen ducks. I was numb after a couple of hours, gawd knows what he felt like after his spell and there is most certainly a huge difference between that kind of shooting and that of the morons on the farmland that practically have the birds put on the end of their gun barrels for them.

Having admired that guy for his determination, I still face the coming shooting season, as I do every year, with a large degree of sadness at the loss of solitude that I've enjoyed for the last six months and knowing that it means I will have to witness the regular shooting of wildfowl again. The best I can do is accept that one faction are far less harmful than the rest.
And having just said that, its also sad in these modern times, knowing that the improvements that we have made to the nature reserve this last couple of weeks, should not only increase the numbers of wildfowl attracted to the reserve this winter, but will also increase, through nothing that they have contributed too, the number of wildfowl presented for shooting by those wildfowlers just a hundred yards the other side of the seawall. It sometimes makes you wonder why you bother.

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Dry Days and Poetry

Only a shortish posting today as I return to my current theme of the drought on the reserve.
With most of the reserve's ditches now dry or nearly so, the ditch below, which is close to the reserve barn, came up with the reserve's first drought fatalities. This ditch ends alongside the barn gate that I featured in the last posting and is responsible for flooding accross the track there in the winter - now look at the sorry state its in and the three eels that lay dead there. However there was a ray of hope, alongside the dead eels there was a small puddle of wet mud and in it one, just surviving eel.

Despite getting smothered in foul smelling black mud, I managed to get the eel into a bucket and got immense satisfaction from releasing it into a nearby ditch that still clung onto a few inches of water and watching it swim away. Such small triumphs and pleasures!
The ditch that I released it in to had had so much water loss that normally under-water Water Voles holes had now become exposed, which at least confirmed their existence again. But look at how far above the hole the normal tide line is.

The original three Aberdeen Angus bulls on the reserve have now been reduced to two now that most of their "duties" have been carried out. I watched this morning as this one was pushed some distance away from the herd by the other more aggressive bull. He stood by some willows, looking a lot less the powerful specimen that he was earlier in the year, very much the dejected loser. He also carried a sparring wound on his forehead.

And lastly, I came across the following poem by the English poet Edward Thomas in a newspaper recently. It was an observation during a train journey that he took shortly before being killed in the First World War.

Yes, I remember Adlestrop -
The name, because one afternoon
Of heat the express train drew up
Unwontedly. It was late June.

The steam hissed, Someone cleared
his throat.
No one left and no one came
On the bare platform. What I saw
Was Adlestrop - only the name.

And willows, willow-herb, and grass,
And meadowsweet, and haycocks dry,
No white less still and lonely fair
Than the high cloudless sky.

And for that minute a blackbird sang,
Close by, and round him, mistier,
Farther and farther, all the birds
Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestshire.

Monday, 15 August 2011


Sitting here today on the patio(sounds grand but it isn't)on a very warm and sunny August morning, I feel contended that at last the rear garden has come up trumps. I have gardened all my life, even being briefly employed as one, but have never quite been able to find the knack of getting it right, this year I have. It doesn't look that much from the photo below but the top part, which is part hidden, is a riot of colour which is attracting all manner of bees, butterflies and other winged insects. Its all I've ever wanted, a garden full of such insects and I can't be alone, how many of you out there get simple satisfaction from seeing bees for instance, being helped by the flowers in your garden.

For me also, there is one flower that is the king amongst all others Verbena Bonariensis. This purple-flowered plant comes up every year and quickly thrusts itself to six feet in the air, shouting "come and get it" to all and sundry insects - its is magnificient and if you want Hummingbird Hawk Moths in your garden, plus all manner of butterflies, this is the one to grow.

Coming a close second is the lower growing Golden Marjoram. It has a more "while you're passing" approach but neverless, when its in flower it is a magnet for bees and butterflies, plus its good in ommlettes!

And lastly, although not about to set a twitcher's pulse rate racing, perhaps in a few years time though, House Sparrows. I always have a decent sized flock in the garden all year round on the bird tables in the drive but on Saturday they beat the record in count, there were 46. I love them and in reality so should everybody, especially as they are on the point of being classified as "endangered". The photo below shows part of the flock on one of the bird tables, there were also many on another and many in and out of the hedge alongside.

Off now to the reserve to take part in the monthly Wetland Bird Survey (WEBS), although given the desert like conditions on the main marsh I don't think I'll be adding many birds to the overall count.

Friday, 12 August 2011

Rills, Scrapes and Waders

Any visitors to The Swale NNR at the moment can't fail to notice that the largest part of it, the grazing marsh, not only looks very dry and yellow but also as a result, there are pitifully few birds about. Unfortunately with no means of storing water for such events the reserve depends almost 100% on rainwater, which for the second year running has been in very short supply on both the reserve and Sheppey in general. As I have mentioned in previous postings, its a bizarre nature of these marshes that for three months of the winter we have almost too much water and for six months in the summer, very little. What ditches that haven't dried up on the reserve at the moment, have at most an inch or two of muddy water left in them.
The two photos below show the variances in water levels at different times of the year. The first is a typical January scene and the second an August one. I should add that at the moment the ditch either side of that track is about two inches deep and so around three foot lower than the levels seen in winter - that's a lot of rain needed.

The second thing visitors will notice at the moment is that recent excavations have left the reserve looking somewhat unsightly but there is a good reason for this. Across the grazing marsh many new rills have been dug, as per this one.

And large scrapes that flood in winter to become shallow lakes have either been deepened, or in this case, newly dug. In these dry conditions both the scrapes and new rills look quite an eye-sore but imagine them this winter and next spring full of water and with their surroundings green and re-vegetated. Imagine how attractive and beneficial they are going to be for both waders and wildfowl. All of this work will improve the reserve by some degree and throughout a twelve month cycle each year and will at last restore it back to how it used to look in earlier times.

One of the major beneficaries of this work will be both Lapwings and Redshanks. It has become clear over the last couple of years that while really good numbers of Lapwings have bred and hatched chicks, that actual chick fledging numbers have been low, this year for instance just 11 chicks fledged from 62 breeding pairs. Now I'm no expert on these things but even to me it is quite clear that to breed successfully, both Redshanks and Lapwings need two main things, protection from predation, and habitat that provides areas of shallow water with muddy fringes covered in the insect life that they feed on.
To their credit, the management at The Swale NNR have recognised that this year and so as well as intensifying our pest control programme this Spring, the works described above have now taken place and next year we look forward to a successful breeding season on vastly improved habitat.

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

Another Side Of Elmley


With The Swale NNR attracting few birds these days due to the bone-dry conditions and with on-going improvement work being carried out by a bulldozer, I took myself off to the wide patures of Elmley NNR this morning.
Parking my car up at the farm I began by walking down the track past the old Elmley schoolhouse, which is struggling to stay upright these days, its so dilapidated.

Even when intact it still didn't look that friendly, as this old photo shows, when the church alongside was still standing. The church was knocked down in 1951 and only a few foundations show where it was now.

I then carried on down to the area, known these days as "The Brickfields", probably due to the remains of old buildings that lay around down there. In the late 1800's it used to be a mini village surrounding a Portland Cement factory known as the Turkey Cement Works. There was even a pub called "The Globe" there plus as you see below, a small dock for the loading/unloading of sailing barges. At low tide you will see that there is still the remains of a barge lying in the dock. The Works closed in 1900 and the villagers moved away to the mainland soon after.

In the area around the dock there are stll foundations left from the old buildings and various heaps of stone and brick.

I then made my east along the seawall to arrive at what is known as Elmley Ferry. At low tide there is a short gravel causeway here that only runs as far as the deep water channel of The Swale. It was never much more than a small rowing boat and ferryman stationed on the mainland side of The Swale at Murston, who rowed across when requested. It is also the place that gas supplies to Sheppey cross under the water and the marker posts indicate that fact to larger vessels that sometimes come down the river. If you enlarge this photo you will see to the left of the mainland side, the skeleton of an old sailing barge in the water. It was common practise when these barges had had their day, to sail them to a quiet stretch of water and beach them on the mudflats and leave them. There are several along The Swale like this.

In its final years its main users were the Gransden family who lived in Kingshill farm and farmed the Elmley marshes. Some of the children went to school at Murston and were sometimes sent over there for shopping. This old photo shows one of the Gransden children at the ferry.

A view down The Swale from the ferry with Harty Hill in the distance. In the winter, this stretch of sea alongside the Elmley RSPB reserve will be covered in several thousand various ducks at high tide and is worth seeing.

A mixed clump of Sea Lavender and Golden Samphire on the seaward side of the seawall.

Close by the Sea Aster was also out in flower.

I completed my walk by walking back up the track to Kingshill Farmhouse, home to the RSPB warden. In 1688, King James was attempting to flee England to France and was arrested at Elmley Ferry by fishermen and apparently held at Kingshill Farm overnight before being returned to London.

Friday, 5 August 2011


Waking up at 04.00 this morning and looking out of the window to see it still dark was a bit of a jolt in the arm. Just six weeks ago I could do the same at 03.00 and see the first glimmers of light to the east, summer is slipping away and autumn is nearly apon us!
In my world there is nothing comparable with the height of an English summer and going to bed at gone 10.00 at night with it still part light and five hours later its getting light again. Oh joy, if only we could live forever the daylight hours of May, June and July, who needs the darkness of winter that last fourteen hours from 4.30 in the afternoon!

Eventually, after getting up to a chilly but clear 05.30 in the morning and fetching the paper from the papershop and reading it with breakfast, I was on the reserve by 07.30. There, the rain of yesterday was invisible and the day was quickly turning sunny and very warm and humid and not really as forecast thankfully. Midge and I walked from one end of the flat marsh to the other and surveyed new rills, re-dug scrapes and a freshly-flattened unnecesary bund in front of the Seawall Hide and it all looked great, at last its becoming a nature reserve again, and not only that, the work is on-going!

So, no list of birds seen, or butterflies fluttering, or paths re-walked for the umpteenth time - just a gentle appreciation of a reserve being re-awakened and I'll leave you with the distant sight of two Sailing Barges making their way down The Swale - happy days and a photo that could be a hundred years old.

Thursday, 4 August 2011

A Day Off

At 06.00 this morning the last remnants of a very warm, sticky and clear night were just being replaced by a cloudy morning with a few spits and spots of rain. The forecast was for a wet day and so I decided to forgo my normal first hour reading the paper with a cup of tea and go straight to the reserve.
Even as I walked round the reserve at 06.30 it was obvious that grey skies, an increasing SW wind and spits of rain meant that the day was going to be different to those recently, I wasn't wrong.
I mainly went to the reserve to see how well the bulldozer had done throughout yesterday and the results were really good. Rills have appeared throughout the flat marsh and some low-lying areas have been re-scraped to improve their winter flooding abilities. When we eventually get back to mid-winter water-logged conditions all these areas will re-fill and hold water well into the Spring, to the benefit of plover and wader chicks.

I only managed an hour out there this morning before the rain set in properly but did come across a lovely looking moth on the seawall. It was difficult to get a decent photo of it because heavyish rain was falling and I didn't want to expose it to the rain too much. But I E-Mailed the rubbish photo below to Tony Morris and he identified it as a common and ordinary Drinker moth, the moth and I thought it was quite special!

Yesterday afternoon, as I had done all week, I took my daily, good-weather cycle ride around Minster and I sat on Minster Leas looking down on Minster beach packed with families sunbathing and swimming in temperatures of 30 degrees. This afternoon in temperatures a whole 10 degrees lower, I sat in my conservatory under grey skies and with rain lashing against the windows. I drank a glass or two of red wine, read a book about Ian Botham and reflected on those saddo's that complained about recent hot weather, because it was hot and nasty and didn't produce lots of good birds. Is that all their lives turn on, how many birds are seen.
"Life" and "get" came to mind because I know for a fact that they will also complain about the wet weather as well!

Wednesday, 3 August 2011

Fabulous and Hot

Wow, here in Kent at the moment the weather is hot and sticky and quite fabulous, unless of course you're one of these people who thinks that great is staring out of a window at cold and wet weather.
Anyway, leaving those people to their dreams of damp and winter and miry ways, the reserve is at the height of summerness at the moment. Evident in the ditches, that have very little water in them, an inch of water and two foot of black mud. Every time that Midge goes in to cool off she comes out as two-tone black and white.
The grazing marsh is just as dry, and walking across it you are struck by how dry and yellow it is, even the green bits have no moisture in them and you wonder what the hell sustinence the cattle get from it at the moment.
Its not some drastic scene, its how the traditional North Kent marshes are without artificial means, waterlogged in winter and bone dry in summer and wildlife knows how to cope with it.
Have a look at the "S Bend Ditch " today, it's finally given up the ghost and dried out, just as it did last year, and yet for a few months in the winter it will be impassable and full of wildfowl.

The bulldozer has been busy over the last few days improving or creating shallow rills across the grazing marsh. They will look a bit ugly for a few months until weather conditions alter them, but this time next year they should have already increased various wader production during the breeding season by providing shallow and muddy, insect filled areas for the chicks.

On the neighbouring farmland there was that traditional scene of fresh cut corn fields and straw bales, what a great sight, and all day long trailers and lorries were collecting the bales and taking them away ahead of tomorrow's forecast heavy rain.

The big plus with this hot weather has been the number of butterflies that have been on the wing. This Common Blue was one of many hundreds out and about across the grazing marsh this morning.

And lastly, just after getting home from the reserve this morning, Rod Smith, a fellow Volunteer, rang to say that he had just seen a Maid of Kent beetle in a fresh cow pat - their favourite habitat. This beetle was classed as extinct in the country until one was re-discovered at Elmley RSPB in 1997 and even now they remain rarely seen. This particular one was a first for the reserve and happy evidence that they are spreading on Sheppey. Shame I missed it but, rain permitting tommorow, I shall be about early on the reserve trying to find another.