Either that, or things are on the move early in this slightly odd year. Having confidently predicted the first returning autumn waders on the 9th or 10th of the month, it was almost inevitable I suppose, but I was still surprised to flush a green sandpiper yesterday. Green sands are scarce spring migrants at Elmley, with the last record a full month ago, so I'm fairly sure that this is a returning bird. They are much more common in late summer, with peak counts approaching 50 in August. Green sandpipers on passage prefer well vegetated, muddy margins and can often be flushed from ditch edges. In flight they look very black & white (although the upper-parts are dark olivey) with a white rump and a distinctive "Weet-weet-weet" flight call. It remains to be seen whether spotted redshanks will be on the move early as well. Watch this space..
The sub-adult spoonbill remained faithful to the dwindling pools at the eastern end of the reserve and, while checking the main ditch edge for a missing calf (which I had actually missed in the first group of cows & calfs that I'd checked) in the same area, I chanced upon the elusive Egyptian goose. One more for the Elmley list! It has a metal ring on it's right leg and it seems reluctant to fly (preferring to run away from the approaching truck!), which may indicate a captive origin as opposed to a "feral" bird. Not that it matters much, as any Gippo goose is generally regarded as "plastic" by most discerning birders. Sandwich terns are providing regular sightings - mainly out on the Swale at high tide, but 2 flew north across the reserve on Thursday. Amongst the "usual" marsh harriers & kestrels, buzzard is probably the commonest raptor, with hobby providing regular sightings. There are currently 3 pairs of barn owl around the reserve, so an evening visit in calm conditions ought to result in sightings of at least one of them. The strong breeze of the last couple of days has resulted in a steady northerly movement of swifts, with probably many hundreds of birds passing over the reserve daily. A wheatear was reported on Wednesday - possibly still a migrant moving through, although wheatear has bred at Elmley in the past, so one to keep an eye out for. Med gulls continue to be seen over the marshes on a daily basis: hardly surprising, with the Medway population now around the 350 pair mark!
Of interest, when I was driving back onto the reserve y/day evening, amongst the growing flocks of juvenile starlings around Straymarsh Farm, there was an albino bird. I can remember this being a regular occurrence when I was summer warden here in the late 90's, when you could see up to 4 (presumably from the same brood) on the marshes. But sightings have been far less frequent recently. Being a white bird in a crowd of darker ones, you'd think that these individuals would be an easy target for any marauding hobby or sparrowhawk, but clearly something is surviving to pass on these mutant genes
And thank Crunchie for that! They say that us Brits have a bit of a weather fixation, but as the Warden of a wetland nature reserve, the "fixation" is probably bordering on "obsession". I really was starting to get a bit concerned by the way that water was disappearing from the reserve. Not only did it put our surviving wader chicks at risk (as highlighted by a piece on the BBC South-easts news programme), but low ditch levels and poor water quality can also impact on livestock security & health, not to mention the fact that there has been very little grass growth so far this year. So to wake up in the small hours of Monday morning to hear the rain drumming on the window was a good sound. In fact, between late Sunday night and Monday lunch-time Elmley received 28.3mm of rain - more than March, April & May put together!
We're now fast approaching the summer "doldrums" for birding: most of the north-bound passage waders have gone and it'll be a few weeks yet before the early returning birds (ruff, LRP, spotted redshank, green sandpiper) are present in any sort of numbers. Likewise, songbirds will be concentrating more on raising families & moulting than on singing. Obviously there is still plenty of bird activity on the reserve, but it's this time of year when you can afford to spend a bit more time looking at some of the other wildlife that we've got. I saw the first black-tailed skimmer dragonfly basking on some muddy wheel ruts at the weekend and the first meadow brown butterfly y/day. And I must try and get the moth trap running a bit more regularly.
Bird highlights over the past few days have included the spoonbill present until Sunday at least, the first returning spotted redshank on 6/6 and an immature little gull on the flood on 7/6. There's still a few lingering waders on the Swale: peaks over the last few days have included 45 bar-tailed godwit, 37 grey plover, 12 turnstone & a few dunlin. The 52 curlew y/day are probably the first influx of returning birds - they build up to some impressive numbers during July & August. There are still up to 3 barn owls being seen regularly, but hobbys seem a bit scarce this year. And there's still time for a June "mega" - witness the white-throated robin currently in Hartlepool - something like a skulky squacco heron or a roller would be nice...
The showery weather continues, although I think I'll still have to put some more water onto the Flood. I went out this evening to check on one of the cows out there. It was OK, but some of the pools are looking low, despite the rain. But the shallow water is what the avocets love and i counted a minimum of 80 chicks on the pools running out from Southfleet hide. + a few at Wellmarsh & Counterwall & elsewhere on the reserve. So the avocet picture is looking pretty rosy. As is the redshank story - at one point on the flood, I suspect that a stoat was around, as there was a cloud of alarming redshank following something in the grass. I counted at least 30!
Passage waders today included a greenshank, 3 dunlin, 35 turnstone & 110 black-tailed godwit on the Flood + 30 or so grey plover out on the Swale. Raptors included buzzard & barn owl. Still a few Med gulls around and the swallows in the porch of the ladies loos have hatched a brood of chicks.
I'd been concerned for 3 months about the lack of rain, but of course I was forgetting that June is the month for Wimbledon & cricket test matches, so maybe shouldn't have been quite so worried. The last couple of days has seen another half an inch of rain drop on Elmley and todays strong breeze (is it usually this windy at this time of year?) pushed another batch of beefy showers across the reserve, helping to maintain the wet areas. At this rate, I'll be having to let water off the Flood to expose some mud for the autumn wader passage!
Our semi-resident flock of spoonbills increased further today, when another two birds arrived, bringing the total to four. All four were feeding on the Flood out from Southfleet hide this evening. Also present over high tide were 8 spotted redshank, 22 grey plover, 100+ black-tailed godwit & 5 turnstone. Three garganey were again on the pool at Sharfleet creek this evening: a relatively fresh male, a second male that is well into it's "eclipse" moult and a female. Raptors today again included hobby & buzzard
Another breezy, showery day, without anything too exciting happening around the reserve. Although a visitor reported seeing a stoat at Wellmarsh hide carrying either a young moorhen or coot. After Monday, our spoonbills appear to have gone AWOL again, I haven't seen the garganey again since Sunday and even the spotted redshanks have been a bit "hit & miss" - 5 dropped into the Flood yesterday evening, but they're the only ones that I've seen since Saturday. A greenshank has also been on the Flood & green sandpipers are now starting to turn up more regularly. I saw 7 today at various points around Sheppey (including 2 on the reserve). There are still lingering grey plovers out on the Swale. None of these birds are in summer plumage, so I'm assuming that they're last years youngsters that won't be making the long haul north this year.
Buzzard, hobby and barn owl are still being seen regularly and I had the first report for a while of the Kingshill Farm little owls. Also, it won't be long now before the first juvenile marsh harriers fledge. Look out for a really dark bird (from a distance, the could almost be mistaken for a crow), but with an obvious honey-coloured head & shoulder patch. The picture below shows a juvenile that we found in a ditch on the reserve a few years ago that unfortunately had to be taken into care, although it did recover sufficiently to be released at a later date. I remember Bob Gomes (the Warden at the time and who was holding the harrier) asking me if I could hurry up & take the picture, as the bird had managed to insert a number of claws into his hand! Funnily enough, the harrier seemed un-moved..
Juvenile marsh harrier - Gordon Allison