Anticipation is mounting for the impending arrival of a benevolent elf from Lapland. But as far as I'm concerned, he's been beaten to the UK by a number of his fellow compatriots! RSPB are now managing a number of fields on the Harty Marshes at the east end of the Isle of Sheppey. We have acquired these fields through SEEDA (South East England Development Agency) and they have been purchased as compensatory habitat for areas lost to development elsewhere in North Kent. As these fields are adjacent to The Swale NNR & Capel Fleet, wet grassland and reedbed is how we will be managing them. All the fields were arable, but the two that back onto the NNR have had wet features excavated and have been re-seeded as grassland. But it takes a while for a proper wet grassland sward to develop from arable land, and these fields are no exception. The grass grew well, but there was also an awful lot of rank weeds. The whole lot was mown in the late summer to control weed growth, but this also had the effect of shedding a lot of seed and where there is a lot of seed, then it stands to reason that you will get good numbers of seed eating birds. This was the reason that I visited the site on Sunday afternoon. On first sight, there didn't seem to be much around, but the arrival of a hunting short-eared owl changed that! Suddenly the air was full of small birds - the majority were skylarks. There were easily 150 & probably as many as 200 in just 2 fields. There were also a few linnets & reed buntings. But I also heard the sound that I was particularly listening out for - the distinctive "ticky-tic teeew" (as it's often described in old field guides, although in reality it's more a dry trilled "t'rrrrrt") of several Lapland buntings. Last year at Elmley, there were a couple of records of fly-over birds (which I missed), so it was really nice to catch up with these birds. Lapland buntings arrive to winter in the UK in varying numbers, mostly confined to the east coast & the northern isles and they frequent coastal grazing marsh & saltings, where they creep about in an unobtrusive manner feeding on seeds. Most of the time they are difficult to see, but when the flock of seed-eaters was flushed by a passing short-eared owl (of which there were two about), merlin, marsh or hen harrier, then one or two would often drop back in to perch on a thistle or dock stem, before disappearing back into the grass. I reckon that there were easily 10 birds present: flocks of 20-30 were not uncommon on the North Kent Marshes as recently as the 1990's, but this sort of number seem to be a thing of the past these days. The two fields can be viewed by walking along a footpath from Muswell Manor (near Leysdown) & checking either side of the Old Counter Wall.
On the way back to Elmley, I stopped off at the RSPB's Raptor Viewpoint at Capel Fleet for an hour or so before dusk. There were quite a few people there, including a mini-bus full from Essex. Despite the relatively mild conditions recently, a strengthening wind brought temperatures down significantly, but any thoughts of discomfort were forgotten as we were treated to 3 short-eared owls hunting the area immediately adjacent to the mound over the course of about 45 minutes - the birds often coming to within 50m of the observers! Additionally, there was a nice ring-tail hen harrier, a distant barn owl, merlin, the usual cart-load of marsh harriers, a couple of green sandpipers, pushing 1000 golden plover in nearby fields, one grey wagtail, a flock of 50 fieldfares along the hedgerow at Elliott's Farm and the resident flock of corn buntings. But no sign of any of the 4 great white egret's that are currently frequenting the eastern end of Sheppey. But you can't have everything...
Well, here we are again. After a lot of investigation & loads of techy stuff waaay over my head, the bottom line is that I am now able to get onto the RSPB website from Elmley. So hopefully, normal service has been resumed.
It's been about a month since my last update and in terms of water levels, little has changed. We had another dollop of rain early in the month, but unless we get about another inch before the end of December, 2011 will be the driest year ever in the reserve's history. I've managed to spread the water on the Flood around a bit, so the pool at Wellmarsh has water on it again and when I had a look today at high tide I was pleased to see a little stint pottering around with a few dunlin, ringed & grey plover and a solitary turnstone. I thought that there might have been a few more birds around, as it was a higher than expected tide, but the waders had clearly gone elsewhere. Our most recent WeBS count produced totals including 800 dunlin, 150 bar-tailed godwit, 230 knot & 250 grey plover, but they pretty much all stayed firmly the other side of the seawall. Other notable waders over the period have been a couple of spotted redshanks, a single ruff a couple of days ago and a woodcock that surprised a couple of visitors along the seawall at the end of November. There's obviously been an arrival of lapwing & golden plover onto the reserve in the last day or two, with c.2000 & 400 respectively on the reserve today.
The mild conditions continue to keep wildfowl numbers lower than usual, although we're up to 2700 wigeon & 2200 teal. Highlight has been the arrival of an increasing flock of white-fronted geese. For those of you interested in a challenge, there has also been a tundra bean goose keeping them company. This sub-species is of a more north & easterly distribution than the taiga bean geese that also winter in the UK. Separating bean goose from white-front is usually pretty straightforward, but these birds have tended to remain quite a long way out across the marsh, making picking out the bean a bit more tricky. A goldeneye on the Swale was also quite unusual these days, although they used to be an annual winter visitor. There were also 5 Bewick's swans for a brief spell in November, but they seem to have moved on. Birds of prey continue to make their presence felt: 2 peregrines were panicking all the lapwing, golden plover & duck around the reserve today; and there was also a couple of buzzards sitting around, minding their own business. Hen harrier seems to be very scarce again, although there was a report of male a week or two back. Short-eared & barn owls are much more regular though, with Kingshill Farm & the access track currently the most reliable areas to look for these birds. Late afternoon & evening seems to be the most productive time.
After rather taking over the carpark for a couple of weeks, the Great Expectations circus left town at the back end of November. And apart from an area of slightly yellow grass near the Windmill Creek dam where the tech pad was sited, you wouldn't know they'd been here. The crew were more than happy for us to loiter around the set (when work allowed of course!), so we were able to do a bit of star spotting. Lyndsey & I saw David Walliams in a frock coat & syrup coming off set down on the dam, but were trumped by Nick who allegedly had Ralph Fiennes help him move some cows that were blocking the track! Mr Fiennes main scene was part of the night shooting sessions they did and involved him (he plays Magwitch) fighting in the mud of Windmill Creek. Rather him than me, though doubtless he was suitably recompensed for the discomfort. The film should be showing at your local mulitplex next year. They were perhaps understandably coy about any photographs of the sets/action, but I managed to get a few pictures of the whole business. I know Lyndsey managed to get a few as well, so she'll hopefully post hers here too.
Night shoot in Windmill Creek (Ralph Fiennes just out of shot..)
Windmill Creek tech pad
The November great grey shrike - just about identifiable!