Compared to some of the glorious winter weather we've experienced recently, today wasn't too inspirational, but the team took the opportunity to get out "in the field" anyway. A quick check first of the Elmley livestock: all the cattle have now gone until the spring, with only the sheep remaining. We had to pause briefly to right a "rolled" animal - at this time of year, with a heavy fleece, sheep that get stuck on their backs can't get up on their feet themselves. One of the reasons we carry out daily checks. Moving through the reserve, we paused briefly at Great Bells Farm to the north, where a female merlin was lurking with intent on a section of ditch spoil, before heading east to Capel Fleet & Harty. We had a good close look at the new RSPB fields at Harty to discuss the best way to manage them in the short term. There are still a lot of skylarks feeding in the fields, but we only saw one Lapland bunting (although I was told later that there are still 30+ around). A couple of bearded tits called from Capel Fleet & there was a small flock of linnets bouncing around. No birds of prey seen, although the weather wasn't great for them. However, we did find what was left of a short-eared owl along one of the ditches. Putting on our CSI badges, we noted a couple of owl pellets, so assumed that the owl was roosting there. The feathers scattered around had been bitten through - a sure sign of a fox. Had the owl been surprised by a fox at roost? But the droppings amongst the feathers didn't look like fox - maybe more mustelid. Could a stoat or mink have done for the owl initially and a fox had scavenged what was left? I guess we'll never know for sure.
After lunch, we carried out the Elmley reserve WeBS count. The Wetland Bird Survey is a national monthly high tide count co-ordinated by the British Trust for Ornithology. Ideally, all the counts are carried out on one designated day. But this month in Kent, the actual date of the count saw high tide at 4am or 4.40pm. Not ideal. So we did it today. As usual, the most numerous species were lapwing & wigeon: 3500 of the former & 2800 of the latter. Other peaks included 2500 dunlin, 1000 teal & 550 shelduck. Reasonable counts, but well down on "normal" winter totals. Additionally, the rough-legged buzzard was reported again from Spitend hide, along with a great white egret; and there were peregrine, merlin & buzzard around the reserve. A spotted redshank was seen again and a water rail scurrying across the track was an unexpected surprise.
The weather over the past few days has, by & large, been fantastic! Gloriously sunny days, light (or even no) winds, crisp & clear. On Saturday afternoon, the visibility was so good that, looking through my 'scope from Kingshill Farm, I could pretty much count how many people (12 - 15 I thought) were up on the Capel Fleet raptor view point more than 8km to the east! And picking out a couple of red-breasted merganser and a single female goldeneye amongst the hundreds of wigeon, teal, shelduck and pintail on the Swale at Sharfleet was a doddle! Not a ripple on the water. Still, I've said it before and will doubtless say it again over the next few weeks (unless things change drastically) - I wish it would rain. A LOT!! It may still be the middle of January, but in a few short weeks, the lapwing will be starting to wind up for the breeding season and unless the marsh is a whole lot wetter, it could have dire implications for chick survival this year. Obviously, it's good if the adults have handy local feeding areas, but it's absolutely crucial for the chicks when they hatch. They can't fly off out onto the estuary to feed if the marsh dries out.
Our (semi-) resident rough-legged buzzard has been venturing further east of late. It was seen from our furthest hide on Saturday, but I couldn't find it today. But the other regular raptors: peregrine, merlin, buzzard & short-eared owl are still putting on a good show. Having spent Tuesday & most of Wednesday cooped up indoors on a 1st Aid refresher course, on my return to the reserve mid-pm, the fabulous sunny weather was just too nice to even think about plugging in to a computer! So I took a walk down to the reserve instead. The rough-leg was sitting on the seawall out towards Elmley Hill, but had a very bright sun above it. A common buzzard or two were on the marsh north of the track. By the bench halfway to the hides, a Cetti's warbler called - a flat "plitt" sort of sound, which they sometimes extend into a more wren-like trill. It didn't show of course. Sitting on the benches at Wellmarsh, I could see a merlin & a peregrine sitting out enjoying the late afternoon sunshine; and off to the north, a small group of 6 adult Bewick's swans and a flock of 32 white-fronts. I've not seen the swans since then, but the geese are still around in varying numbers, usually with greylags. On Sunday, there were at least 2 ruff, feeding alongside the access track with a flock of lapwings & starlings. There's still a pair of stonechats on the reserve and this afternoon there was a spotted redshank calling somewhere out on the Swale. Nothing much on the Flood today - it has of course now got water on all the pools, but that was frozen.
With no sign of "our" rough-legged buzzard since the Bank Holiday Monday and with the gale force winds of the ensuing few days, the news of a bird on Saturday at Northward Hill reserve made me think that it was likely to be the Elmley bird relocating a bit further west. Venturing over there on Sunday, I was met with the news that there had in fact been two rough-legs seen that morning. One (a juvenile) had headed off in an easterly direction and, after a bit of a wait, the 2nd bird popped up on a fence post out from the Marshland Viewpoint. Scrutiny revealed that this was also a "text book" juvenile, with a pale head, single diffuse bar on the tail tip, lots of pale feather tips on the scapulars and an obvious pale panel on the upperwing at the base of the primaries. So not the Elmley bird after all. Other raptors seen from the viewpoint included another 3 common buzzards, 2 marsh harriers, a couple of sparrowhawks & a female merlin. Having gone that far west, before I returned to Elmley, I detoured to our reserve at Shorne Marshes, near Gravesend. Shorne Marshes is the western-most block of significant grazing marsh habitat in the North Kent Marshes and was "my" reserve before I moved over to Elmley. So I like to pop in from time to time to see what's happening. Most of the reserve is covered by the template of the Metropolitan Polices live firing range, so public access is restricted to the public rights of way that go either side of (& at one point cross) the reserve. In common with Elmley, the reserve was quite dry, but some of the marshy areas close to the shooting range produced a few snipe, as well as a couple of jack snipe. The latter are regular autumn arrivals in North Kent (although fiendishly difficult to see), but have usually moved on by this time of year when their chosen areas of marsh get ice-bound. Not this year though. Additionally, there were a couple of bearded tits in the small reedbed area and at dusk, a small flock of corn buntings flew over, on their way to roost.
Returning to Elmley, I discovered that "our" rough-legged buzzard had re-appeared (apparently, it had wandered off to Capel Fleet for at least Saturday) and other sightings included merlin and a little stint, again roosting on the Flood.
Well, here we are in 2012 and returning to Elmley after my Christmas break, I very much had a sense of deja vu, although on this occasion it wasn't just the RSPB website that I couldn't access - I couldn't connect to the internet at all! We traced the glitch to a faulty dongle and having replaced it, it's all systems go again. "Ding, dongle, merrily on high..."
The first few days of January has seen rain on every day - very welcome as, despite the reserve starting to look a bit more like a marsh, we're still a good 12" short of our abstraction point, when I can turn on the pump and really start to flood the place up. But every little helps, as they say, although I reckon we're going to need at least another 4"-5" of rainfall to get Windmill Creek up to that level. The creek has got quite a large catchment area, so it won't take 12" to get to our required level. Which is just as well, as the rainfall stats show that that's about half our annual rainfall. The stats also show that 4" is usually what we get in January & February combined, so March could be busy... Highlight of the festive period was the discovery of a rough-legged buzzard around the reserve on Christmas Eve. This is definitely a different bird to the one that spent a few weeks around Harty Marshes in November, and from the pictures that I've seen, appears quite dark and if seen perched at a distance might be tricky to seperate from a common buzzard. I've added a picture sent to me by Rocking Robin (Thanks John - that's a better view than I've had so far!), which shows the bird in flight. Note the solidly dark belly, the pale head, obviously white base to the tail and the pale bases to the primaries on the upper wing. When perched, it shows some fairly obvious buff spotting across the back. It was still around on Bank Holiday Monday, but hasn't been reported since, although conditions have hardly been ideal for raptor spotting since then.
In addition, there's been the usual buzzards, marsh harriers, peregrines, merlins, sparrowhawks & kestrels. There's been sightings of both male and ring-tail hen harrier (although they remain irregular) and there are still probably at least 5 short-eared owls around the reserve. We're also seeing from time to time a Harris hawk. This New World species is a popular falconers bird and the adults are easily identifiable, with their chocolate brown plumage, rufous shoulders & "trousers" and black & white tail, with a gleaming white rump. But this bird is an immature, is quite buzzard like and, with a white rump, could be mistaken for the rough-legged buzzard. I've added a couple of pictures from Mike Hook of the bird. Note the hefty bill, the longer tail & the beginnings of it's red "trousers". Unusually for an escaped falconers bird, there's no sign of any rings or jesses, which has led to speculation that this may be a "wild" buzzard x Harris hawk cross.
The white-front flock of 65 birds were still present over the festive period, but haven't been seen this year. Nor were there any reports from just before Christmas of the tundra bean goose that had been accompanying them. A herd of 11 Bewick's swans were seen on the 22nd and the recent stormy conditions have improved the spectacle on the Flood, with hundreds of wigeon, teal, mallard & pintail abandoning the choppy waters of the Swale for the relatively calm conditions on the reserve. Lapwing numbers are still encouragingly high, with several thousand present on any given day, with smaller numbers of golden plover. I don't often mention small birds in these round-ups, but the addition of a couple of strips of cover crops on the approach to the carpark has resulted in an impressive flock of linnet, numbering up to 200, with smaller numbers of other common finches, reed buntings & fieldfares. They ought to be a magnet for the reserves merlins & sparrowhawks! A couple of stonechats have been resident around the Flood.