I've been away on leave for most of the past fortnight: a very late package deal to Goa to give me an "India fix" (I've not spent any time there for c.5 years), get involved in sunshine & great food, plus see some fantastic birds. Highlights were probably the 3 species of kingfisher (oriental dwarf, blue-eared and collared) that were either new birds for me, or a "sub-continent tick", but there was a stack of other goodies.
A bit of a shock leaving the 35C temperatures of sunny Goa to come back to a grey 5C Kent - still I've got my memories & here's a few to make you jealous. Enjoy!
Orange-headed ground thrush
The last little wader isn't particularly colourful, but it was another sub-continent tick and is also a rarity that is over-due another appearance at Elmley. Check those dunlin flocks during May!
There, that's made me feel better
Dare I say it was almost a bit "samey" on the reserve today?
Two little stint, a spotted redshank, a few black-tailed godwit and a green sandpiper on the Flood? Check.
Raptors- Peregrine, buzzard, merlin, marsh harrier? Check.
Nah! Let's face it - that's a pretty decent days birding, even if I did see them all yesterday! The Swale was worth a look too: the first 2 red-breasted mergansers of the winter, together with 100+ avocet, 1000 dunlin and a few bar-tailed godwits. There's a few sparrowhawks floating about at the moment, but hen harriers seem to have disappeared for the time being and short-eared owls are still in pretty short supply.
As for the deadly hunter - I was checking the orchard at Kingshill Farm this morning, as a goldcrest had arrived overnight & I wanted to see if anything else had - although, with the exception of a great spotted woodpecker, there wasn't a lot. Getting to the pool at the end, I noticed what looked like a piece of vegetation waving around in a slightly mad way. A quick check through binoculars revealed the tail of a stoat, with the stoat it was attached to intent on it's breakfast - a rabbit about twice it's size. It never ceases to amaze me how an animal the size & build of a stoat is able to hunt down & overpower prey several times larger & more powerful than itself. I watched it until it had finished feeding (it didn't eat all the rabbit) and sloped off to sleep off it's meal.
Any day with a stoat in it is a good day
WARNING: THIS BLOG CONTAINS IMAGES THAT SOME VIEWERS MAY FIND DISTRESSING
I made a comment on the forum about the diversity of some birds of prey diets. Not so the peregrine. It's almost exclusively feeds on other birds, usually caught on the wing. According to Birds of the Western Palearctic (BWP), in the UK 117 species have been recorded as peregrine prey, from goldcrests to grey herons. While I was out checking the livestock today, I was looking at the cattle in the fields down towards Spitend Point when I flushed a large immature female peregrine from the ground c.70m ahead of me. She headed off east, but swung back over the seawall and flew back past me, before powering off out over the Swale. As she went past, I could see by her bulging crop that she had just fed and, hoping that it wasn't one of our breeding lapwings, I investigated. The kill was obvious: a mass of white feathers spread over the ground suggested that she'd taken a black-headed gull. But when I looked closer, I was a little bit surprised to see that the unfortunate victim was actually a little egret! I'm not sure whether little egret figures in that list of 117, but they are clearly now on the menu.
Little egret kill - Gordon Allison
Incidentally, "ET" is the BTO code for little egret and has nothing to do with Steven Spielberg's cute alien.
The 2 spoonbills were again around the reserve all day today, though they only visited the Flood briefly in the evening, before returning to their new favourite hang-out further east. These pools can be viewed from Swale hide, although the birds are quite distant. Also on the Flood today, a drake garganey at Wellmarsh, 90 black-tailed & 3 bar-tailed godwits and 26 turnstone. Single ruff & whimbrel and 4 greenshank were scattered across the site and there was a return to form for Med gulls, with at least 65 birds, including one flock of 57. Apart from the peregrine, the female merlin was still present, as was a buzzard. At least 2 wheatear remained today and there were singing blackcap & whitethroat at Kingshill Farm. A pair of grey partridge were again at the start of the access track this afternoon.
Another 2 weeks has passed & still no joy in getting onto the RSPB website at Elmley - a real conundrum. I have been sent another possible fix that I will try when I return to Kingshill Farm, but I'm currently at Northward Hill, hence the chance for a further up-date about what's hip & happening on the reserve.
From a management perspective, we've already completed the years "topping" in the fields. This involves cutting the dead seed heads & thistles from the grassland & improves the sward for the grazing animals. The dry conditions have meant that there's been relatively little grass growth this year, so we've been able to knock it off in double-quick time. We have left a small area in front of Cod's House, as bits of the reserve have been selected to feature in a new film adaptation of Great Expectations! Filming is expected to go ahead in November, so the reserve will probably look a little different when the crew come back... The drying out of Wellmarsh pool is progressing well (as has been noted on the Forum) and we will soon be able to get on to manage the vegetation & sediment without getting stuck. The pump & pipes have been used to keep the other pools wet, but there's been relatively few waders using the Flood, mainly as the recent high tides haven't been sufficiently high to push them off the Swale & onto the reserve. I had to assist with a bit of cow midwifery last week: both my assistants were on a First Aid course, so I was doing the livestock check. One of the Sussex cows was lying at the back of the field and at first I feared the worst. However, when i went to check on her, she got up & wandered off. I thought that maybe she'd just been having a kip, as she looked in good shape, but then I noticed something protruding from her back end - the start of a calf! A quick call to the grazier & they arrived within the hour with a trailer & the calf was delivered safely. We had to transfer it to the back of the graziers truck for the journey back to the farm, as there was the danger that the mother might inadvertantly stand on the calf during the journey. You have no idea how slimey a newly born calf is!
The purple heron remained to last Thursday at least, as it's not been reported since to the best of my knowledge. I saw it well on a few occasions, but on none of them did I have a camera with me. Fortunately some friends of mine who were visiting did manage to get a decent image, so if they send me a copy, I will post it. The spoonbills are still being seen regularly, with up to seven present, including a colour-ringed (& flagged) Dutch bird. Best waders of the recent week or so include a couple of little stints that have come up on the high tide, usually with a mixed flock of ringed plover & dunlin. There are still reasonable numbers of green sandpipers moving through, but common sandpipers are down to a handful. Ruff have peaked at 13, with up to 9 greenshank & still the odd spotted redshank or two. Golden plover have increased to 35, but avocets are fast disappearing from the Flood, with only a few not-quite fledged youngsters & their parents remaining. The waders outside the seawall have included grey plover & curlew, with a few whimbrel, bar-tailed godwit & knot. A female eider has been seen in Wellmarsh Creek at high tide on a few occasions. LOTS of young yellow wagtails about, a few wheatears & whinchats; and the orchard at Kingshill Farm has had willow warbler & chiffchaff, whitethroat, blackcap & reed warbler. The long-eared owl re-appeared for one day last week on it's willow tree perch, but hasn't been seen again since, although I'm sure that it's still in there. And there's still barn owl activity in the nest box, although the juveniles have all fledged successfully. Other birds of prey around at the moment include hobby, peregrine & buzzard and I've seen the first of this years crop of wing-tagged marsh harriers - a bird with yellow & white tags.
Compared to the last couple of week’s cold weather, this week has been glorious. We have had a good number of visitors out enjoying the sights and sounds of early spring. The most notable and watchable signs being the lapwing displaying with the males starting to hold their territory. These acrobatic birds can keep anyone captivated for hours with their rolling and tumbling display flight, and their distinctive calls.
Although we haven’t got the high numbers of past years, waders and wildfowl have started to increase, especially noticeable on the flood in front of the hides. As... I’m sure by now.... most people have heard; it has been a very dry season. We have not had the levels of water that allow us to pump and flood the reserve to create the shallow pools and rills most favoured by breeding waders. However, the small amount of water we have got stored in our reservoir we are using wisely.
Our course of action this year is to concentrate on two main areas. These being the main scrape in front of the hides and the second scrape towards Spitend to the East of the reserve. These have proven to be the most popular and successful areas on the reserve for the breeding waders and wildfowl in the past and so we are going to do our best to maintain these areas, particularly over the spring.
Notable highlights of the week for staff and visitors have been 2 rough legged buzzards over Kingshill farm and also watching a large group of roosting Knots being troubled by a Peregrine one evening on Wellmarsh pool.
The North Kent marshes team wants to thank everyone for their very kind wishes and words for Gordon, he is going to be greatly missed. All donations received will go towards a memorial at Northward Hill, a place Gordon worked prior to his arrival at Elmley and was very fond off.