Not anything to do with birds in this instance. I'm referring to the fact that the hazel catkins are out around Kingshill Farm and the first great crested newts are starting to emerge from hibernation. The catkins are obvious enough, but the newts are generally far more secretive. The reason that I know that they're becoming active again (presumably due to the continuing mild weather) was because one of the teenage girls who were visiting Elmley today to do some work experience with Sheppey Youth Action announced that she had "Euuurggh! Found a squashed lizard!" On closer inspection, the unfortunate herptile was in fact a newt and it had been squished in the carpark. A bit harsh really, surviving the coldest winter for decades & then getting flattened en route to the nearest pond. What were the chances? On a more serious note, great crested newts are afforded the highest protection under European law, and while there's nothing that can be done about unfortunate accidents like this, I would urge visitors to Elmley to exercise a bit of caution at the moment. The newts are largely nocturnal in their movements, so it's only really peple who are staying late to look for owls etc that might encounter one, but it always pays to take care. The photo below is of a female that turned up in the house last autumn - you can just about make out the vivid orange underside that separates this species from the other native newts
And the newts weren't the only BAP (Bio-diversity Action Plan) species having a bad day today. While out moving the sheep, something scuttled off under a gate that I was just about to open - a stoat. And it was carrying something. Through binoculars, the unfortunate victim looked suspiciously like an immature water vole.. Ho hum. I suppose it's some indication that both species are doing well on the reserve, but I'd rather this was confirmed in other ways. At least all the brown hares that I saw today were healthy.
Nothing very spring-like about the bird highlights today. 10 Bewick's swans were on the Flood this morning, but had moved off by early pm, with possibly 8 of them relocating further west. The mixed goose flock at Wellmarsh today included 43 white-fronts, + the same 5 pink-feet & single barnacle & brent. Raptors included a male & female peregrine & a merlin.
It's not every day that I add a new species to my Elmley list (I think you'd have to go back to the May 25th "double-whammy" of black-winged pratincole and hoopoe in 2009. Now that was a day...!); and even less often that I get to use the ever-so-slightly disparaging term for a red-head in the subject line. I can sense the head scratching and "where on earth is he going with this?" thoughts from here. Bear with me..
Once again, the windy conditions pushed an impressive wader roost onto the Flood at Wellmarsh today. I looked in at the hide just before the top of the tide and was quite surprised to see only two other people there. Particularly as it was "standing room only" at Southfleet. And standing room only out on the islands too, as thousands of waders jostled for position in the strong wind. The gentleman of the couple asked me about the barnacle geese and "blue-phase" snow geese that he had seen on the way down to the hides. I had to tell him that the snow geese were in fact emperor geese and that the whole flock was feral. We then lapsed into silence as I started to count the waders. About three quarters of the way through the grey plover count, he murmered almost to himself "Mmm. What's that? It looks like a female smew" Pause. "Yes. It is". WHAAT!! I couldn't think when the last smew at Elmley had been, but knew I'd never seen one here before. I asked him where it was, but as he was looking through his telescope, he wasn't sure which bit of water it was on. By this time, his partner had put her eye to the telescope and said "There it is again. On the water by the blue pipe. Oh, it's dived" AAARGH! The minutes dragged by and there was still no sign of the elusive smew. The couple left and a group from Gravesend Local Group arrived. I told them about the smew, but it still refused to re-appear. I was just starting to think un-kind thoughts about the record, when there it was, bobbing about amongst a line of wigeon. Excellent! And everyone else in the hide got to see it as well. Smew is the dinkiest of the three UK ducks that are classed as "saw-bills" (goosander & red-breasted merganser being the other two), due to their serrated bills being adapted for grasping slippery fish. The females & immature males are often referred to as "red-heads" (we got there in the end!) due to the chestnut colouring of the head. Although the smew is slightly different, as it has white cheeks and throat, so only the cap & nape is really "red". Checking the reserve log, I discovered that smew used to be reasonably regular at Elmley, but in recent years, it has become much scarcer. This is the first record since 2002 and the last one previous to that was in 1997! As the winds are showing no sign of abating, hopefully it'll at least see out the weekend on the Flood.
Red-head smew (Graham Eaton/RSPB Images)
Wader numbers totalled 2500 dunlin, 1200 knot and 260 grey plover. With a few turnstone and a single avocet. Considering how many birds that there were, the fact that a colour-ringed knot appeared at the front of one of the islands was nothing short of amazing. This appears to be from a Dutch scheme that has ringed over 6000 birds, including 1500 in Mauritania. Still piles of curlew, golden plover & lapwing around the reserve, a few small groups of black-tailed godwit and at least 11 ruff amongst starlings and lapwing beside the access track. A good day for raptors too, with at least three merlin, two each of peregrine & buzzard, a ring-tail hen harrier and a barn owl. Four white-fronts were seen from the track to the hides and the brent flock wandered about today, but still included the four pale-bellied birds. The stock dove flock at Kingshill Farm continues to increase, with at least 180 feeding in the fields today; and there was also a fieldfare & a couple of goldcrests around too
A breezy old day on the reserve today, with winds gusting to F6 at the very least. Still, plenty about to keep the few visitors who braved the conditions happy. On the way down to the hide, a group of brent geese had all 4 of the pale-bellied birds, as well as 7 white-fronts - the first I've seen around the reserve since last weekend. There was also a further 200 or so brents down in their favoured area behind Swale hide. The high tide wader roost was just starting to gather as I was heading back for lunch and there were already at least a thousand dunlin on the islands at Wellmarsh hide. The tide tomorrow will be at about 2pm and if the weather forecast is accurate, the wind ought to push a decent number of waders onto the Flood again. Another good day for raptors too, with at least 2 merlin hunting around the Flood + a peregrine and a ring-tail hen harrier all spooking the large flocks of wigeon and lapwing that are still found across the reserve.
After yesterdays beautiful, almost spring-like day, with wall-to-wall sunshine, singing skylarks & the first tentative signs of lapwing display, things were sadly back to normal today. Dull, dull, dull. Still the gloom was brightened briefly at lunchtime when i nipped down to check pumps/sheep etc and a quick scan across the Flood from the top of the counterwall revealed the unmistakeable shape of a spoonbill sat out on one of the further islands. Unfortunately, it didn't stick around long and by the time I'd got round to the far side of the Flood it had decided to move off back to the Swale. I think this bird has been wintering on the Swale (it was seen over the reserve opposite Murston last month). But where exactly it's spending all it's time, I'm not sure, as it doesn't seem to be getting seen that often. Still nice to have this brief visit & I'm sure that there will be more as spring progresses.
Otherwise, still 3 buzzards hanging around the counterwall to the north of the reserve, 2 merlins (including one watched taking a bath - not something that you see every day) and a barn owl. Late news for yesterday concerns both male and female hen harriers being seen. I could only see 8 white-fronts today & no sign of any of the other wild geese seen y/day; although the brent flock was still present, but had moved further down towards Spitend Point. High tide again produced the grey carpet of waders at Wellmarsh hide - mainly dunlin, knot & grey plover as usual, but I could also see a solitary bar-tailed godwit and a couple of dozen turnstone
We had to comb our hair and run a hoover over the office today, as we welcomed a couple of VIP's to the reserve. Chris Corrigan, the SouthEast Regional Director and Mike Henderson, a Lib Dem councillor on Swale Borough Council visited and were gven the grand tour. The weather could have been better, but at least the birds didn't let us down! Highlight was a toss-up between a ring-tail hen harrier, or the wader roost on the Flood at Wellmarsh. By my reckoning, there were at least 2500 dunlin, 1300 knot and 250 grey plover up on the high tide early this afternoon. There was also a single pale-bellied brent goose with the brent flock of 240. Unfortunately, they had to leave before the female merlin and a barn owl put in an appearance, and they also missed 9 ruff beside the access track. You can't have everything, I suppose!