Tuesday, 26 December 2017

Boxing Day

Boxing Day, a traditional day for getting out and about in the countryside, working off some of those Christmas Day excesses. It is the one day of the year when most forms of the hunting fraternity are guaranteed to be out and about on the same day, whether it be the fox hunts, game shoots, ferreting, or wildfowling. This morning I arrived at the reserve just as a dark, starlit sky was beginning to brighten in the east with a promise of blue skies and a spectacular sunrise. Below is the view across the marsh to the sea wall in the east at 7.15.

Gradually the light increased to reveal clear blue skies and this one, anvil shaped cloud on the eastern horizon.

 Finally, at 8.15, the sun here was seconds away from rising above the horizon.
Alongside the reserve on Boxing Day morning it is only the wildfowlers that I usually see although even their numbers, like the wildfowl they pursue, have gradually dwindled. Ten or more years ago it wouldn't be unusual to see as many as twenty wildfowlers strung out along the saltings near the sea wall, shooting many dozens of geese and ducks. Nowadays their numbers have mirrored the wildfowl numbers and dropped to three and fours and sometimes even none.
And so it was this morning, in the increasingly cold wind and dawn light, I could see three wildfowlers hunkered down in the muddy gullies in front of me, two close together and a third several hundred yards further on. There were no shots fired while I was there but the lone guy packed up as I walked along the sea wall in his direction and he carried a dead Greylag Goose as he came alongside. We walked along the sea wall together, chatting about the shooting that morning before I'd arrived, or more to the point, the lack of it. It transpired that between the three of them out there in the dark just two shots had been fired and one of them by him had killed the goose that he was carrying. Presumably a nice organic meal, tasting far better than anything shop bought.
I left him to carry on home and re-traced by steps back along the sea wall to have a brief chat with the other two wildfowlers now coming towards me. It was their first visit to that particular site and as now becoming the norm, their first words to me were "where are all the birds", to which I replied "there's no bloody water to attract them". It was good to chat to them - about our dogs, shooting in general, doubtful wildfowl breeding prospects for another potential dry Spring coming up - and then I left them and headed off to wander through the middle of the reserve.
So, almost twelve months since last New Years Eve, I'm having the same conversations as then - where's the water, where's the birds, it's looking quite sad.

Saturday, 23 December 2017

Duck Numbers

Having been awake very early this morning, well 2 am. to be honest. I was wandering around the house from 5.30 waiting to go down to the reserve. But a combination of only being two days past the Shortest Day and weather stuck in a pattern of heavy grey skies, mist and day-time murkiness, saw it still pretty much dark at past 7.00 and so I went anyway.
By the time that I got to the reserve (The Swale NNR), and had begun to walk across the marsh with little Ellie close by me, the darkness was just beginning to turn into a slightly lighter dawn. A couple of gunshots had rung out and so I knew to expect some wildfowlers out on the salting once I got on top of the sea wall and so it proved. There were two fairly close together and one other several hundred yards away from them. The two together immediately had a few more shots at birds that I couldn't see in the gloom and that was it as far their shooting went. I walked along to the lone guy, who by then was packing up and had a brief chat with him, he'd not shot anything. Then a little later, walked back to chat to the other two. They had shot just the one duck and so three wildfowlers had probably spent at least three hours sitting in mud, cold and darkness for a pretty poor return, not the slaughter that people like to accuse them of. Between us we spent a little while discussing what is turning out to be one of the poorest wildfowl shooting winters for several years, which goes hand in glove with the fact that the reserve is recording record low numbers of wildfowl and waders as well.
The days when ducks such as Wigeon, Teal and Mallard would leave the reserve each morning in their several hundreds, thousands sometimes, now seem well behind us and just a distant memory. I can recall counting flocks of Wigeon floating down The Swale off of the reserve in several thousands and yet I've seen just one this winter so far. Numbers that high probably haven't occurred for about ten years but as recent as five years ago there were still some respectable numbers to compare this month with:
Dec 2012
Wigeon 760
Mallard 190
Teal 140
Lapwing 900

Dec 18th 2017
Wigeon 0
Mallard 373
Teal 10
Lapwing 30

Compare also the counts of the same birds species at the Elmley reserve, just a few miles away, on the same day this month:

Dec 18th 2017
Wigeon 7017
Teal 1000
Mallard 1395

The biggest reason for so few birds at The Swale NNR in recent years, I guess has to be two very dry and mild winters, both wildfowl and waders need large areas of part flooded or waterlogged  habitat in which to bathe, feed and safely roost. There are none of those areas on the Swale NNR at the moment as I have repeatedly mentioned on my blogs, but then again, Elmley is almost just as dry. But the wildfowl had begun to favour Elmley before these recent dry winters, lured perhaps by the huge acreage of safe grazing meadows and wet areas and large tidal bays alongside that were safe from any shooting.
So, for the moment at least, the marshes at the eastern end of Sheppey remain pretty barren when it comes to wildfowl and waders and myself and my chums the wildfowlers will have to be content with what slim pickings that we get.

Thursday, 21 December 2017

The Shortest Day

Today is the Shortest Day and boy, is it doing it's darnest to prove it. Today is the second of two really damp, low cloud, misty and drizzly days when the best that could be said of the daylight is that we've had eight hours of twilight and the best description of it is Dank! Everywhere and everything is wet, the roads are wet and mucky and as a result my car looks like it has been used for rallying, it is so filthy, the garden is wet and muddy and even the walls inside my garage are wet. What a difference from the beautiful, dry, bright and frost day featured in my last posting. Gawd, this next couple of weeks can't rush by fast enough, goodbye Christmas, welcome New Year and the increasingly longer days.
And talking about Christmas, this year, possibly because I'm reading more blogs, although it's in the media as well, I've been driven nuts by people who seem unable to accept that some people actually dislike Christmas and even harder to understand, that people don't have some kind of medical or mental condition because they actually enjoy being on their own on Christmas Day. Long periods of my adult life have been spent on my own over Christmas, yes, I have gone out to Christmas dinner at people's houses  but it's such a joy to speed off home as soon as possible and simply shut the door and be on my own.
There is so much falseness about Christmas these days, so much expense, so much debt, so much one-up-man-ness, so much guff about the need to be together, so little religion and the simplicity that Christmas started as years ago. There are also the once a year Christians, who go to Christmas Eve Mass and tell all their friends about how they're doing all the right things  On a phone-in on the radio this morning there was a whole feature about the quest for, and finding, the latest must-have and expensive toys and some parents stressing out about not finding said toys for their spoilt little darlings. Is that Christmas, I'm so glad that I dislike it and shun it and so amused that people find me odd.

Tuesday, 19 December 2017

Such a Frost

The thick mist/fog forecast for overnight didn't appear but a severe frost did and everything was covered in white when I went out to the paper shop at 6.00am. Later, as the sun began to rise in the dawn sky, I arrived at a white reserve in a temperature of -3 degrees.

Everything was covered in a white frost and it looked pretty bleak and foreboding.

 The reserve's cattle just carried on carrying on though, despite the fact that the grass that they were eating was frozen.

At first it was like walking round inside a freezer unit but gradually, as the sun began to radiate a semblance of heat, the frost began to lift and things became more comfortable.

A couple of small parties of Greylag Geese flew into the reserve from their overnight roost on the neighbouring farmland.

 Ice on the surface of the sea wall fleet, the only decent amount of water on most of the reserve.
So anyway, that is how it looked at first light this morning, a reserve frozen in time, pretty much how my frame of mind is at this time of year. Just holding my breath and waiting for the Spring to spur things into new life, just going through the motions. Yesterday, over lunchtime, the regular three of us carried out the monthly Wetland Bird Survey at our designated sections. Mine, the main marsh part of the reserve, came up with a reasonable variety of wildfowl and waders but as usual, thanks to the lack of water, nothing substantial numbers wise. Totals yesterday, among others, of  80 Greylag Geese, 70 Mallard and 110 Shelduck, look pretty pathetic when as recently as 5-7 years ago, when the Flood field was indeed flooded, we were counting wildfowl in the thousands.
I returned later in the afternoon yesterday to then take part in the monthly Harrier Roost Count. It was an amazing sunset in the still, December afternoon but then turned pretty cold as I paced up and down the sea wall waiting for the dusk to increase and my target species the Hen Harrier to suddenly appear  and drop into roost. Eventually, if any did do that, I missed them in the gloom and registered a nought, although up to four have been seen coming out of the roost at dawn in recent days, so Hen Harrier numbers looking better. At the same time, elsewhere on Sheppey, the regular Marsh Harrier roosts were being counted and came up with the amazing total of 103 birds going in to roost, Sheppey really is a national Marsh Harrier stronghold these days. 

Friday, 15 December 2017

A drop of water

Since my last post we have had a few more rainy spells and at long last a trickle of water is beginning to return to the reserve. Take the ditch below, photographed a month or so ago.....

....and how it looked this morning from a slightly different angle. It's only an inch or two of water and several other previously dry ditches are beginning to look the same - it may not be the feet of water needed but it's start.

While on the reserve this morning, under dark skies and a bitter and strengthening N. wind, I watched a Merlin hunting. Out over the saltings it flushed what looked like a Skylark and gave chase. The frantic Skylark rose up in to the air before plummeting downwards on several occasions, all the time being harassed by the Merlin making stoops at very fast speeds. If only the poor Lark would of landed in the vegetation it would of survived OK but it continued to keep flying up and eventually the Merlin snatched it and took it away to eat.
My rear garden, with it's canary aviary to one side, is not all that huge and this autumn I have spent a lot of time stripping out bushes in particular that had become very overgrown and were providing little for wildlife.  (Now that the large shrubs have gone the area at the top of the garden is bigger than it looks in the photo.) It looks a tad bare now but I have already begun planting plants that will cover the fences over the ensuing years, plants that will provide food and interest to insects of all kind. The same will apply to and bare areas in the borders, most things that I plant have to attract and feed bees and butterflies, etc., I'd rather plant wild flowers or some weeds, than pretty flowers that give back very little. Hopefully next summer I can post photos of it looking full and colourful.

Sunday, 10 December 2017

Days Past

During these short, dark, damp, cold days of winter I often find it easy to open a bottle of red wine from my collection and sink into melancholia. Days and delights, often well gone by - long, hot and delightful days with the sun on one's back, warmth in the bones, a treat round every corner on a dusty road. Does it matter which road that we take, let's see where we end up, will there be a nice pub at the end - sitting in their garden, a hot sun on one's back, a nice pint of ale in the hand. Those subtle delights carrying on into a warm and daylight evening, the last warm rays lingering until 10 pm or past.
At times such events seem to stretch back so far - was last winter really so long ago, did we really do so and so well back in March, the coming back after a hot day out, the warm and lingering evening, the BBQ, the wine, the mosquitoes and the bats as darkness gradually crept in. Playing silly CD's into the enveloping darkness, Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, Barry Manilow - another bottle - why not, and the eventually falling into bed, contended people.

Today started in the early hours with icy rain, which turned to snow at 7.00, giving us our first light covering since 2011 and then turned back to rain for the rest of the day. It's been cold, been wet and to be honest, bloody awful, and neither I or my dog have been out and the corkscrew is hovering. Will it of made much difference to the dryness on the reserve, without going there I know it won't of done as far as the ditches are concerned, but it will of made the surface of the ground muddier, especially where the cattle have walked. Rain is also forecast for tomorrow and so at last, are we finally coming to the end of our drought.
My rear garden at 8.00 - two hours later it had all gone.

Friday, 17 November 2017

Southern Water - or lack of it.

As you can see from the photo below, yet another ditch on the reserve has pretty much conceded defeat against the lack of rain that I've been bleating on about for the last year or so.

The roots that you can see in the top left of the photo are those of willow trees growing alongside, the roots should be in about three or four feet of water. The whole reserve, ditch and fleet-wise, is parched, with few wildfowl and waders but finally, the area's water authority, Southern Water, have gone public on the area's lack of water. On BBC TV local news last night they announced that we have a water shortage and that one of the largest reservoirs here in Kent, Bewl Water, is only a third full. They are now asking the public to cut down their water consumption by a quarter in order to avoid restrictions next Spring. And yet, and these two things must go hand in hand, new houses are being built in ever increasing numbers here in the South East and all those new households will expect to be plumbed into the ever decreasing supply, it's a nightmare that will continue to get worse.
To those in the north and west of the country it must seem unreal that we in the South East are in this situation mid-November but it's true and here on Sheppey seems the driest of all, it's as though we have some sort of anti-rain force field around this island. I've lost track of the number of times that rain, tracking from west to east across the southern counties has miraculously petered out just as it reaches us.
Never mind, at least this early morning was quite stunning as I walked round the reserve with little Ellie. Clear blue skies and the marsh white with frost as I arrived and gradually as the sun, still surprisingly warm, climbed up and slowly round the sky, it got warmer and the frost melted away. In the space of an hour I went from frozen to very warm and it was a joy to be there, if only for the scenery.

Wednesday, 18 October 2017

Tomorrow is a Long Time

It's a rare damp and misty afternoon here on Sheppey in Kent, after an even rarer couple of hours of rain. Best described as damp, murky and warm, oh how I wish it would rain regularly for weeks on end!
After spending the first couple of hours of the morning wandering round the reserve with Ellie, I spent the rest of it near breaking my back digging bone hard and bone dry soil in the rear garden of my house. I've cleared a largish area of all of it's shrubs and things, cleared the weeds, etc., and begun digging the site in the vain hope that the once normal winter weather of rain and frost will break up the ground and make it able to be re-planted in the Spring.  Now, I'm sitting in the conservatory, sipping a glass of beer, listening to a James Taylor CD and feeling quite wistful - James Taylor has that effect.

Dylan Thomas once wrote:-
"It is a winter's tale
that the snow blind twilight ferries over the lakes
and floating fields from the farm in the cup of the vales,
gliding windless through the hand folded flakes"......

As I sit here now on this mild, damp afternoon with dusk creeping mistily nearer, I wonder if I will ever see such a snowy scene here again, experience that hushed silence that creeps across the countryside and that delicious feeling of being tucked inside the warm nest of a home while all the world freezes outside. Out in the garden a big, fat, Wood pigeon waddles it's way down the lawn towards the pond and takes a drink. It has spent the last hour or so scurrying around under the bird feeder tubes, filled with sunflower hearts and being gorged upon by thirty odd House Sparrows, scattering crumbs non-stop to the pigeon below. The mist is creeping in from the nearby seashore, evening is approaching and out further in the estuary the fog horns are beginning to sound their eerie wail, a sound that has been the backdrop to so many of my memories.

Time to stir, time to shower, time to cook my dinner - time to think about tomorrow - tomorrow is a long time.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              

Thursday, 5 October 2017

Hard Times

Silly as this might sound, over the last couple of weeks I've been trying to dig some flower borders prior to the winter, should it actually occur. Being at the wrong end of the very long dry period that I keep harping on about and having clay soil, it's bloody near impossible to get a spade in the soil it's so hard. This is the silly bit - consequently, to make it a tad easier I'm having to put the garden sprinkler on for a couple of days in order that the ground softens up a bit and even then the soil is turning over in large clods like house bricks - plenty of rain and some hard frosts are needed.

The situation on the reserve and it's grazing meadows remains the same, endless drying winds, sunshine and just the occasional heavy shower. It really is ridiculously dry and talking to one or two farmers, it seems another problem is now rearing it's head as a result. Ditches and fleets on grazing marshes are always called "wet fences", i.e. all the time that they have sufficient water in them livestock cannot cross and stray where they shouldn't. Unfortunately, as you can imagine, with many such "wet fences" now dry thanks to the drought, livestock is wandering about all over the place, even on to neighbouring farmland and it's a real headache.
Now here is the bizarre bit, if you were to visit and look at the arable farmland alongside our grazing deserts, you'd almost say that the above was a lie, the recently sown wheat and rape is growing away like magic! Shortly after the crops were sown we had several heavy and prolonged showers, just enough to soak the top inch or so of soil, germinate the seed and start it into early growth, those fields look quite green.
Of course, several heavy showers are a long way short of the heavy and prolonged rain that we need to wetten and re-fill ditches to the average depth of three feet and indeed soften up the whole marsh so that birds can probe for insects.

Thursday, 21 September 2017

There was a Time

Back in the days when we still had four seasons each year, seasons that came with annual regularity and obvious signs, we knew what to expect. We never had rose beds still in flower at Christmas, lawns that still needed mowing in Jan and Feb and summer visitor birds such as Blackcap and Chiffchaff over-wintering in ever increasing numbers. Nowadays it's not unusual to find woods of trees still in leaf at the turn of the year. There was a time when fruit and veg. also came with and denoted a particular season and we eagerly looked forward to a season coming round. Parsnips and sprouts in mid to late winter, after a frost had been on them, strawberries in early summer, mushrooms gathered from the fields in early autumn. All that has gone now, everything is available all the year round and it ain't quite the same
Take snow, the photos below were taken round my house in Jan 1987 - 30 years ago. You can just make out my car on the drive. That snowfall was so severe that it pretty much paralysed the Isle of Sheppey here for a week and cut us off from the mainland.

 Note the icicles hanging from the guttering around my bungalow.

That was thirty years ago and I really can't see it happening again to that degree. Since then, as "winters" have become milder and dryer, snowfall has been at a premium, the last time we had snow was four years ago and that only lasted a couple of days.
Which brings us round once again to the dryness of winters now. The first two photos below show the result of a normal wet winter on the reserve. The last time that occurred was about five years ago, since then the winters have become progressively dryer. When the reserve was that wet birds such as Lapwings and Golden plovers could be counted in the several thousands, wildfowl likewise. Regular bird counts were hard work because there were simply so many birds to count over a large area.

Today, the scene above looks like this below, dry and waterless as far as the eye can see and it makes for a pretty boring walk round each day because there are so few birds to see. There was a time when we knew what season we were in but that's no where near as clear cut any more.

Thursday, 7 September 2017

Some things just ain't changing

It's really quiet on the reserve at the moment, small parties of Swallows still go through at speed, heading south and occasionally a Chiff Chaff works it's way through the willows looking for insects. Stopping to pass the time of day with the odd wildfowlers as they come back along the sea wall inevitably turns to the same old subject - isn't it bloody dry out here!
Take this through pipe which allows the ditches either side of the crossing to be at the same level, the water level should be at or above the pipe but it's no where to be seen.

In 31 years of being involved with the reserve I've never seen this ditch dry out but it's looking likely that I will this year.

I've featured this fleet before, it snakes it's way for several hundred yards through the middle of the reserve and is normally where most of the wildfowl and waders can be found, it's currently bone dry and hard.

 And the shallow lake in the Flood Field remains steadfastly bone dry as well, as is the whole field.

 Alongside the Flood Field is the pump house that can be used to pump water from the ditch into the field but you will notice that the end of the pump hose is sitting above the couple of inches left in the ditch.

So, after around eighteen months of this dry weather, we can only hope for a wet winter, it will happen, it's just when?
In the meantime, look at this distant shot of two rabbits alongside their burrows, a normal brown one and a jet black one. Around 15/20 years ago the black ones were a fairly common sight on the reserve, breeding naturally in that colour but they have become much rarer nowadays. Breeding in that colour has some fancy scientific explanation but I can't recall what it is.

Friday, 1 September 2017

A New Season

It's the first of September today and therefore the first day of a new wildfowling season. Pre-dawn this morning wildfowlers will have been turning up across marshes and estuaries in an attempt to shoot their first duck or goose of this new six month season.
As I have done for the last thirty years, I made my usual dawn visit to the reserve sea wall to see how many wildfowlers had turned up and to chat with them as they returned homeward along the sea wall. As you can see below it was a spectacular dawn sky as I made my way across the reserve, through the cattle and a light mist that was rising and there was a surprising nip in the air as well, just 8 degrees at first.

On reaching the sea wall and glancing along the saltings I was able to make out just six wildfowlers spread out at regular distances and below you can see one of them, optimistically waiting for a goose or duck to fly past.
Now did they actually shoot anything, well no. With the tide in front of the saltings being low, there were around eighty Greylag Geese on the exposed mudflats and all becoming more and more vocal as they got close to flighting inland. Eventually, as the sun rose above the eastern horizon, there came a great clamouring of geese calls and rather than cross the saltings where the wildfowlers were waiting, they flew along the mudflats for several hundred yards and then turned inland where there were no wildfowlers. Now geese are incredibly intelligent and wary birds but I really feel that today they were simply just lucky. One thing's for sure, there were some incredibly frustrated wildfowlers who came back along the sea wall afterwards. 

Friday, 18 August 2017

Better Times

Since my last rant about the inclement weather, it has improved somewhat. We've had regular heavy showers and a couple of lengthy rainy periods and always followed by very warm sunny days. The rain hasn't added a single centimetre to the ditch levels, which are now at ridiculously low levels, but it has definitely greened up the grass on the grazing meadows. Harvesting operations on the surrounding farmland have almost all finished now and all the straw bales such as you see below have been carted away. Those wheat stubble fields will remain like that now and have already been re-sown with rape which is beginning to show as lines of green seedlings. All that's left to do now is to re-sow this year's rape fields with wheat for next year's crop and so the annual rotation goes on.

Back on the reserve, the bulls that have been servicing the cows through the summer months are due to be taken away to their winter pastures this week. One of them is shown below and I really was that close, they are a very docile and trustworthy breed thankfully.

Below is one of the other bulls with one of his harem. I was amused to be told the other day about one of several bulls on a nearby reserve. It has had to be withdrawn from "active service" for this year because the regular rearing up of such a huge frame onto a cow's back, put so much weight on it's back ankles that they became strained and swollen. Not all fun in the stud world it seems!

The pair of Mute Swans hatched seven cygnets this year on the reserve but only these four have survived, they are doing well though.
In the early mornings lately, when the grass is wet from rain or heavy dew, I been coming across numerous small frogs making their way through the grass away from the ditches. It happens most autumns and I guess they move into dense vegetation ready for winter hibernation. The photo makes it look a lot bigger than it was, it was only about an inch and a half long, probably one of last year's froglets.

Thursday, 10 August 2017

Weather Dominates

After heavy-ish rain all afternoon and evening yesterday, the walk across the reserve this morning was wet, muddy and dominated by wind. Now yesterday's rain I was grateful for, we've long needed it, although one of the local farmers who still has to get his well ripe corn harvested, wouldn't agree. But being out this morning in wet conditions that were exacerbated by grey skies, spits of rain and a strong and cold NE wind was depressing to say the least. I needed to wear clothing very similar to what I would wear in the winter and had to continually tell myself that yes, really, this is the height of summer, if only by the date.
Last night I sat indoors watching the World Athletics Championships in London and to avoid putting the central heating on in mid-August, had to get up and put on a thick sweater. And the athletics, well they were taking place in non-stop rain and chilly winds, which affected the performances of many of them to some degree.
So this morning, as I wandered round hunched up in my winter coat, I also found myself reflecting on the fact that so far this year, our summer has consisted of two hot and sunny weeks seemingly many moons ago. Two rare weeks during which some people found it necessary to complain about how hot it was, well I hope that they are happy about these current awful weather conditions, because I bloody well ain't and I doubt many of the competitors at the athletics were either.

Friday, 4 August 2017

What a Pratt

We are still losing the battle against the endless dry weather that we've had all year. Every time that we've been lucky enough to get a few hours of rain or the occasional storm, it is immediately followed by drying weather. On Wednesday afternoon/evening we had a few hours of much needed rain but yesterday the whole day saw gale force, blustery winds and spells of warm sunshine and today is very similar. Within hours all semblance of dampness in the ground had disappeared and this has been the case after every wet spell this year, so the drought goes on. Mind you, with a few dry and sunny days now ahead, the local arable farmers will be pleased, they are well behind with harvesting the wheat and barley. They have been plagued by regular showers, which although not prolonged, have the effect of making the corn to damp to harvest for a day or so and so things have been very stop-start and frustrating.
The picture below appeared on the front page of our local paper this week. In one of the roads in our village, a road with houses both sides of the road, this dead fox appeared, hanging from the gates of a house, alongside the pavement, with a snare around it's neck. It has been suggested that the owner of the house snared the fox in his back garden but instead of quietly disposing of it, it was deliberately hung on the gate as some kind of trophy. As you can imagine, neighbours were appalled and called in RSPCA representatives who are also in the picture. Unfortunately there was little they or the police could do because the snaring of foxes is a legal pursuit in this country but what a pratt the owner must be to draw such attention to himself. Apparently he has had to take a stay away from the house now to escape local abuse .
Now I'm no Anti, I don't have a problem with foxes, or other pest species being culled, but not by the snaring method which involves the animal putting it's head through a wire noose which if it isn't set properly, slowly chokes the animal as it struggles to get free.  

Saturday, 29 July 2017

Surely not Autumn

There's a real feel of autumn out and about at the moment, something that others have commented on as well, so it's not just me. To all intent and purpose it's only the end of July and still mid-summer but so many signs are making it feel like autumn is making in-roads. A lot of heavy, grey skies, chilly winds and showers recently have aided that autumnal feel, as has the early disappearance of many birds. Early this morning large numbers of Swifts were passing through the reserve heading south, which is about right for the time of year but they were joined by many juvenile Swallows, leaving us already. The reed beds along the sea wall continue to quieten down, with only the odd call from a Reed or Sedge Warbler and today, seeing a family party of Yellow Wagtails, I was reminded that I haven't seen them for a while. There is a real deserted feel about the place. In just four weeks time the wildfowlers will be back to commence their six months of autumn/winter wildfowl shooting and I'm left wondering if those people who didn't like our mini heatwave, what seems like ages ago, might just be wishing for something similar again for a while.
To give even more credence to the autumnal feel I found these fresh horse mushrooms in the grazing meadow, defying the bone dry ground and springing up a month or two early.

Golden Samphire along the edge of the saltings

Sea Lavender on the saltings

Saturday, 22 July 2017

The Doldrums

Reading the latest RSPB magazine today I was intrigued by some comments in the latest Simon Barnes column in there. He was writing about how mid-summer to a lot of birdwatchers in particular, is known as "the doldrums", that period in the year when bird activity is at it's lowest and least noticeable. It's surprising how many birdwatchers just settle for that and don't allow their interests to widen out because in fact, there is actually a lot still going on in the countryside at this time of years. Butterflies are having a prolific time this summer and to spend time wandering fields and hedgerows identifying them can be very therapeutic, and why not learn the names of the many wild flowers they pass without even noticing them.
The two below I found on the reserve this morning. Common Toadflax first, looking similar to our garden antirrhinums.......

......and then Perennial Sweet Pea

It was also sad to read in the same RSPB magazine, that last autumn on a British military base in Cyprus, that a record level of more than 800,000 songbirds, including robins and blackcaps, were illegally killed according to research by the RSPB and Birdlife Cyprus. The birds are caught using nets or branches coated with adhesive and sold via the black market to restaurants that serve them up as a local dish, a dish that has been banned since 1974. Many of these songbirds are on a southerly migration having bred in the British Isles and it's appalling that despite the best efforts of the British Sovereign Police there, that so many songbirds are still being killed, so many that won't return here each year.

On the reserve, the rabbit population is starting to show signs of the annual myxomatosis returning as it does each summer. Ellie caught this one this morning showing early signs of it. Some rabbits do actually catch it and survive it but most don't and it soon decimates the population there.

And after a hot session chasing rabbits there's nothing like a nice cooling session in a ditch, a shame the water doesn't smell better!

Thursday, 20 July 2017

Changeable times

Well the best way to describe the weather here on Sheppey at the moment, is changeable and sometimes by the hour! The week started hot, sunny and humid and then broke down overnight Tues/Weds into massive storms and torrential rain that caused a lot of damage in some places. Getting up yesterday morning the garden at last, looked pleasantly wet, but scraping the surface of the soil back do you know, it was only wet to an inch deep, so dry has it been. That rain yesterday was followed all day by a strong and warm wind and so it wasn't long before it started to look dry again. Today has seen heavy grey clouds and a couple of heavy showers which have dampened things down again but it's still windy so we're not getting anywhere wet-wise.
The other point of interest for me as I crossed the marsh yesterday morning was what effect the torrential rain and gusty winds from the overnight storm would of had on the ripe wheat fields. In past years the result would of been flattened and sodden crops and heavy losses for the farmer but as far as I could see the fields were undamaged. I imagine that this is in part due to new wheat varieties that have shorter stems. Wheat straw has little commercial value, unlike barley straw that has, and so it makes sense to grow shorter stemmed crops that are less prone to collapsing under the attack by rain and wind. The farmer that I spoke to yesterday, when I mentioned the storm, was happy to shrug and say "that's farming" but his lot has certainly been made easier by the newer varieties of crop.

A couple of weeks ago I mentioned one of our local Speedwatch sessions whereby our team of four make hourly visits to roads in the parish area that are known for speeding vehicles. early this morning we had a one hour session recording speeding motorists on the same road as a fortnight ago, when 54 were recorded in one hour, almost one a minute! The road in question has a 30mph speed limit and we only record the details of those who are doing 35mph and over, today we recorded another 45 motorists exceeding the limit by that amount. The sessions are not always harmonious, this morning two separate motorists slowed down enough to call us f...ing c...'s and to clear off and get a life. Clearly many see us as just a bunch of bored pensioners with little else to do but annoy people who are speeding in built up areas but it is a role that the local police and parish council have asked us to undertake. The stretch of road we were on today goes past a primary school entrance halfway along it and therefore to expect to speed past it unchallenged does seem a tad stupid and thoughtless.

More autumn wading birds were recorded passing through the reserve this morning and many other reserves are experiencing the same, it really does seem as if autumn is coming early this year.

Saturday, 15 July 2017

Seasonal Confusion

When I arrived at the reserve early this morning it was under an overcast sky but it was very humid and there was a total stillness in the air. Small parties of Sand Martins passed across the grazing meadows heading south and ultimately Africa, just stopping briefly to circle round the cattle and feed on their attendant flies. On the power wires above the entrance to the reserve, large groups of young swallows were perched, twittering happily among themselves as they do and no doubt thinking about joining the Sand Martins. On the fluffy seed heads of thistles small family groups of Goldfinches were plucking out fresh seeds to eat and, strange as it may seem, this whole scene gave me an over-whelming feeling of autumn being just around the corner. As I wandered around the reserve that mood stayed with me, crazy you might say, you're getting ahead of yourself, it's only the second week of July, but what is normal about our seasons these days, are the birds sensing something that we haven't quite grasped yet.
Unfortunately the weather remained pretty grey all day and with a fresh and chilly breeze and a few spits and spots of rain occurring it seemed even more autumnal, I know some people don't like hot sunny days in summer but it would be nice to have such a traditional summer last a bit longer than it currently is.
Oh, and if Wilma reads this - it'd be nice to see a new blog from you and an up-date on your life in paradise.

Thursday, 13 July 2017

Death is not the end

Well for once, the rain that was hinted at in my last blog, actually arrived. Overnight Tuesday into Wednesday we had almost 14 hours of rain, although not always heavy. It was quite a shock to the system, after endless days of hot and sunny weather, to get up early yesterday morning to poor light, heavy rain, a cold N. wind and water pouring down the road in torrents. It was like we'd jumped into winter overnight, but all was not lost, by the afternoon we were back into very warm and sunny conditions and today is the same - the benefits of the rain will soon be gone again.
On Tuesday, I did something I rarely do and attended a funeral, that of my older cousin. He and his family live locally and I worked with him in the docks for many years and so I went and represented my side of the family. And for once it wasn't the usual format. Although it was held in the crematorium chapel there was no real religious nonsense, no vicar and no singing of hymns, etc. Just an independent guy who stood up and read out the family's prepared summary of my cousin's life and their own individual thoughts about him, played a couple of his favourite songs and that was it, simples, I take my hat off to the family. While sitting there listening to the various platitudes I found myself day-dreaming about what people would say about my life, would anybody be there to say anything! what songs would I want played, perhaps one such as Bob Dylan's below.

"when the storm clouds gather 'round you
and heavy rains descend
just remember that death is not the end
and all your dreams have vanished
and you don't know what's up the bend
just remember that death is not the end"

This morning as I wandered round the reserve enjoying the warmth and sun of a summer's day, I took some photos so that you see some of what I saw. The sea wall was heaving with butterflies, some are here.


 Small Tortoiseshell

This Heron was keeping guard on the other side of the fleet

Meadow Bindweed, seemed to be a favourite of several butterflies

Prickly Lettuce, much taller than me

Common Fleabane

A bit of green and smelly water left in a ditch by the barn

The neighbouring farmer might not be happy to see seed heads of these thistles blowing towards his fields soon but in the mean time the humming of hundreds of bees feeding on the flowers was really intense.

Lastly, the wheat fields across the Harty marshes are now looking really golden as they await the harvesters.