Tuesday, 28 July 2015


Walking across both the reserve and the two RSPB fields alongside this morning, it was humid, very windy and sunny, before all the clouds eventually rolled in. Already, after just a day and a half of constant wind and sunshine, any beneficial effects from the weekend's rain have gone entirely and the ground is bone dry again. The only decent area of water left now is the Delph fleet (below) and a couple of ditches that run off of it, but even there the Delph is at least two foot shallower than it was in the winter.

So anyway, there I was, aimlessly wandering across the marsh and not seeing any particular numbers of anything, even the butterflies seem to have decreased dramatically, when Ellie the younger terrier, took off in hot pursuit of a hare. Well, I say hot pursuit but when you're legs are so short that you could be a dachshund, hot pursuit means that by the time she'd crossed the first field, the hare was probably in Leysdown having a cup of tea. So back she eventually comes, tongue hanging out and jumps in the nearest ditch to cool off - 'cept the ditch was an inch or two of water and several inches of black smelly mud - that was an impressive smell in the car going home! 

We carried on and as we went I mulled over various schools of thought, as you do when the walk is not too inspiring. I got to thinking about how few birdwatchers visit, or indeed have ever visited the reserve. OK, during the summer and autumn when it's dried out as it is now, it's pretty crap and fighting your way through thick vegetation on top of the sea wall to get to the hide would be a hard fought waste of time. But when the reserve is part-flooded in the winter and holding large numbers of wildfowl and waders, still people fail to visit. I've always thought that perhaps it was me and the fact that I'm out there at the crack of dawn in the winter means that I don't see people who perhaps come later. But the Richards Pipit episode last winter laid that thought to rest. As I wrote at the time, birdwatchers (twitchers when I'm in an unforgiving mood), would arrive in large numbers throughout the day, lay siege to the bird by encircling it and then in most cases bugger off again. Probably less than 20% of them could be arsed to walk the extra few hundred yards to look at The Flood which was teeming with birds.

In all honesty, between the 1st September and the 21st February, I definitely see, and have far more chats, with the local wildfowlers than I do many visiting birdwatchers. They're always an interesting bunch of guys to chat with and unlike many conservation types, they're far less judgemental and critical of other countryside users, or at least the guys I speak with are.

So I pondered all that as I wandered round this morning, just stopping every now to take in the call of a Bearded Tit or the odd high flying Whimbrel. And for me personally, the lack of visitors isn't a problem, at least I get the place to myself and I don't get the complaints of being another nuisance dog walker. 

Saturday, 25 July 2015

Famous Last Words

Well, well, "famous last words" as they say and mine were to title my last blog "The Drought Goes On". Yesterday and overnight, we have had many hours of heavy rain, near gale force N winds and a drop in temperatures. After spending most nights over the last couple of months sleeping with the bedroom window open, last night I lay there listening to the rain being lashed against the glass by the wind and it could so easily of been a winter's night.
Having completed harvesting the rape, baling it's waste straw and disc-ing the top couple of inches of soil ready for re-sowing with winter wheat, I imagine the farmers were looking to turn their attention to harvesting the corn and spring barley next. This last week both crops have looked as dry, ripe and golden as can be but unfortunately this morning, after the rain, they were quite sodden. With more heavy rain due tomorrow afternoon and an unsettled week ahead, the harvest could be delayed somewhat and possibly need drying when they do get it in, which is expensive. Mind you, at least a combine machine can do one field in a couple of hours while the weather's dry, imagine how stressful it must of been when they did it by hand over several days and had to try and beat the weather.

Venturing out onto the reserve this morning I was at least expecting puddles all round the track but there were none. The only real sign that it had rained hard was the fact that the surface soil of the marsh was moist but hopefully that will encourage a degree of grass growth, or even a nice mushroom or two. It has to be also hoped that the heavy rain, while not adding to the ditch levels, has at least re-oxygenated them.

During the night, as I lay in bed listening to the rain and wind on the window, I suddenly thought of the Kestrel chick that was out in the open by the nest box on the reserve. Oh no, surely that ball of mainly fluff is going to be sodden and cold but no, when I got there this morning thereit was atop the old railway sleeper, calling for food and dry as a bone. How could that be? - well just below it is a short length of old drainage pipe and looking inside I could see the evidence that the bird had spent the night sheltering in there, before hopping on top of the sleeper in order to call for it's breakfast

Wednesday, 22 July 2015

The Drought Goes on

Those of you who know the Harty Road will recognise the next photo, it's Capel Fleet at "Capel Corner". This normally wide and fairly deep body of water has been reduced to a very shallow and smelly stretch, choked with large areas of green blanket weed.

 So shallow in fact that this Heron is now able to wade well out into it in search of food.

Likewise, here is the reserve's Flood Field from the seawall with it's once flooded rills just visible as dry earth amid the blanket covering of club rush and docks. Hard to believe that as recent as the late Spring/early summer that this was still 70% wet or waterlogged and full of waders and wildfowl. At some stage in the next month or so it will get it's annual mow but is unlikely to wetten up much before the New Year.

 At one gateway as I wandered round, the reserve's herd of cattle and their calves stood defiant on the track as if challenging the dogs and I to try and pass through the gate. We did of course, they simply moved aside as we walked through them, a couple of belches and the odd stream of liquid poo being their bored retorts.

 Over the next few weeks we will probably enter one of the less savoury annual events on the reserve, the rabbit Myxomatosis season. Normally during every July and August this painful disease will strike the rabbits and decimate the small colonies that we have left of them on the reserve. I haven't seen any sign of it so far but it's pretty much guaranteed to happen and then, as well as looking awful with swollen eyes and rear ends, the poor blinded creatures become prey to everything that passes. This not only means that we struggle to retain any rabbits on the reserve until the survivors replace their numbers but it becomes a problem with my terriers. I have to try and keep the dogs away from the warrens because instead of the usual high speed chases that amount to few kills, the dogs can simply walk up to the rabbits, pick them up and kill them. It puts the rabbits out of their misery but given that they are normally heaving with fleas which transfer to the dogs, it means that I then have to de-flea the dogs by picking them off, before taking the dogs home. One of the less savoury joys of having working dogs!
Finally, getting back to the Kestrel's nest site on the reserve, I could hear the noisy screeches of a chick calling for food, one of them had left the nest box and was sitting on an some railway sleepers nearby. Why it had chosen to leave the comfort of the box while still barely feathered I don't know, but it seemed strong and healthy and so I decided to leave it where it was rather than try and put it back and risk disturbing the other two chicks who were watching what was going on.

Sunday, 19 July 2015

Rumbles in the Countryside

Driving through the farmland spinney/copse whatever, that gives us access onto the reserve yesterday I was struck by how much it has all filled in and become pretty much perfect for wildlife. It doesn't cover a huge area but twenty years ago it was little more than an area of grass backing onto a shallow pond surrounded by old willow trees. Horses and the odd goat, would sometimes graze it hence the reason we still know it as the "horse field", but then the farmer, in order to enhance the shooting interests on his farmland, began a massive bush and tree planting operation that has resulted in many areas such as the "horse field".

Nowadays it is home to an impressive list of breeding birds, aided by several nest boxes put up by myself. Breeding birds such as Whitethroats, Blue, Great and Long-tailed Tits, Robins, Wrens, Blackbird, Jackdaws and possibly Little Owl, have all done very well in recent years.
The only downside is the fact that the privately owned farmhouse alongside is the home of that notorious scourge of the countryside, four free-roaming cats. Unfortunately these cats spend much of their time in and around the spinney and at least one or two broods of newly hatched pheasant chicks have disappeared as a result.
Whilst it's not all good, shooting can result in positive and well managed habitat for wildlife and the view below, across part of Harty, shows some of the hedging, trees and scrub introduced and flourishing under the management of the two farmers there.

My own addition has been the regular addition over the years of many willow whips around the barn area that are now mature, part masking the barn and providing an attraction to passing migrants.

 I've brought the subject up again after spending time in recent months trying to rationalise the deeply entrenched and extreme views of a couple of those "guardians" of the countryside, the antis, bunny-huggers, call them what you like, who refuse to accept that there is such a thing as a good farmer or shooter, despite evidence to the contrary, and that nothing, down to the tiniest insect should ever be killed. Not satisfied with aiming their extremist views at the more obvious targets in the countryside (nice pun), a couple of bloggers in particular, are now extending their vitriol to other innocent countryside users, with dog walkers being the current favourite. It clearly comes across in their blogs that they find it hard to accept that anyone not carrying a camera or pair of binoculars should be allowed in the countryside and in the case of one over the years this has included rants, sometimes quite nasty, about horse riders, walkers, fishermen, gardeners, horticultural students, children and of course dog walkers. None of these as far as I could see, were doing anything deliberately damaging or provocative, they were simply and innocently enjoying the countryside, as is their bloody right!
In a recent blog one of the guys was suggesting that something should be done about dog walkers who walk their dogs and potentially, (without intention I imagine) scare some birds along a shoreline. I wonder how many times he has done the same but by carrying binoculars doesn't see it as the same. Anyway, a comment to the post by his chum said "bring on dog flu"- nice!
The thing, among others, that amuses me about many of these "perfect" naturalists is their blinkered view of their own actions while out and about. They attract all manner of ego-boosting comments on their blogs by posting superb photographs of, for instance, the latest craze - dragonflies and butterflies, but at what cost to their habitat. Sometimes several photographers might walk up and down a meadow looking for and trying to photograph a particular butterfly but what about the things that are not obvious, the eggs and larva of that butterfly hidden in the vegetation that they are trampling. Now if that was a dog walker walking through that very same meadow, oh dear, imagine the vitriol that would be aimed at him or her.
Recently, one very popular and brilliant odunata photographer did have the honesty to admit to me that while wading through some shallow water and reed bed looking for emerging odonata larva, he was probably trampling on some that were still under the water and yet to emerge.
So before some of these people dive into their next diatribe about what a pain other countryside users are, they ought to think about glasshouses and stones and if you're curious as to who this grumpy old git is, well there I am below, at Reculver a couple of weeks ago on my 68th birthday.

Thursday, 16 July 2015

Harvest Time

Dragging myself away from the Test Match for a while, time for another blog.
All across Harty the fields are golden with ripe rape, corn and in a few places, spring barley - it's harvest time!
Unfortunately this photo was spoiled a bit by the early morning overcast sky but you can see how close the crops are to being cut.

Here though the rape cut has begun and the field will be left looking quite featureless and very dry and I'll be very surprised if that dryness doesn't see poor yields this year.

On the reserve two Kestrel chicks are growing well and were having a look at the outside world that they will soon be inhabiting. They were both ringed recently so that we and the BTO can keep tabs on them.

A couple of Barn Owl chicks, also ringed, will also soon be leaving the nest and although many broods are late this year, Sheppey has several successful nests, although according to the BTO, nationwide this year Barn Owls have not had a very good breeding season.
Going back to the dry conditions, the photo below shows one of our access tracks on the reserve. Between New Year and May it was impossible to get along this track due to the width and depth of the water, with the water at one stage up to the base of the short earth face of the slope and so around two foot deep - now look at it.

To the left of the above photo is a largish area of water and soft mud where the "S Bend Ditch" is drying out, both here this morning and at the Flood Field puddle, there was not a single bird to be seen. It's all a pretty boring trudge round, with everything looking very dry and tired and only the reed beds have any real sign of bird life as the Reed Warblers continue to sing and no doubt breed. Summer is slipping away and it's a bit of a shock to realise that we're only six weeks away from the start of the shooting season although apart from the geese there will be very few ducks to shoot at, I only saw two this morning!
With flowering plants now at a premium across the marsh these clumps of Ragwort in flower become very important for the bees, butterflies and moths.

None more so than the Cinnabar Moth caterpillars, who feed on the leaves of the plant.

Wednesday, 8 July 2015

A Change in the Weather

After several days of hot, or very hot and sunny weather, it was quite a shock to get up early this morning to heavy grey skies, a chilly NW wind and later, heavy showers. Walking across the reserve not long after, there was an almost autumnal feel to things, although there is the promise of more prolonged and hot and sunny weather later this month.
What the hot and dry weather has done is to intensify the drought that is beginning take hold on the reserve, there is very little fresh, green plant growth appearing now and the grass has a dry and brittle look about it. The ground is dust dry and cracked and the ditches smell of rotting eggs as their water levels continue to drop and becomes more and more devoid of oxygen. The Greylag Geese and their juveniles are now gathered in small flocks along the edges of the Delph fleet for safety as they hard into their moults now - it's been a good year for both Greylag and Canada Geese goslings this year. A lot of the Lapwings have moved away now as the ground hardens up but a few small post-breeding flocks remain and for them it has been just an average breeding season at best. To add to the autumnal feel, the passage waders have begun to appear around the muddier areas, mostly Green Sandpipers but we did have a Spotted Redshank yesterday, an uncommon bird on the reserve these days.
So to summarise, it's bone dry, with yellowing grazing areas, fast disappearing water levels and few birds, quite boring to be honest.

However, during this last week my girlfriend wanted to go to Reculver Towers to re-create an old family photograph taken there in 1953. Now the Towers have been a feature across the sea on the mainland horizon all my life and yet remarkably I've never visited there, despite the area being well known for it's regular rare birds and only being a fairly short car ride away. Directly below the Towers, (the remains of an old church), is the sea and the coastline stretches east and west in both directions.

After the first visit, we had enjoyed it so much that we went back a second time, mainly so that I could wallow in the sight of a large number of birds, not the rare ones mind you, but Sand Martins. They have two colonies in the sandy cliffs not far to the west from the public car park and for me were as exciting as any rare bird.

For whatever reason, there were two distinct colonies along the cliff face, about 80 yards apart and according to Chris Hindle on his excellent Reculver blog  http://reculverbirding.blogspot.co.uk/ the nest holes total 203 holes. I sat watching the birds swarming around and in and out of the nest holes for some time, quite enthralled. My pleasure stemmed from pure nostalgia I think. During the 1950's/early 1960's we had a similar colony at Minster cliffs here on Sheppey and as a youngster I spent several summers watching for the birds to return from their winter quarters in Africa and begin nesting again. Unfortunately cliff falls began to alter the lay-out of the cliff face and the eventual tall growth of silver birch and willow trees further down the cliff pretty much obscured the nest site and we haven't seen them the birds there for the last fifty-odd years. It therefore brought back lots of childhood memories to see the birds in that way again and for me, far better than seeing the Icterine Warbler that was close by recently.