Cooling Marshes, Kent, 7th December 2014

Sunday, 28 August 2011

Cliffe airport: this is not about NIMBYism, it's about putting Nature first

Cliffe Marshes 2020?
Some things you just can’t ignore.
I was pretty dismayed to read a recent Sunday Times article detailing the latest attempts by airline industry figures to turn a remote area of north Kent into an airport larger in size and scope than Heathrow. These plans seem to have been doing the rounds for years, but while I’m not particularly thrilled at the idea of any airport being built, this one is personal. If it goes ahead, the very spot I am writing this from will be changed forever – instead of a peaceful wilderness (or as much as one is possible in the South East) there will be Boeings passing overhead and the bleak but utterly beautiful marshes that I can see from my window will be smeared in tarmac, oil and dust. 
The brain behind this latest proposal is one John Olsen, a retired airline industry executive, who is using the Independent Aviation Advisory group (IAAG) to push through his plans. The article entitled ‘Airport plan that might just fly’ (7.8.11) details his desire to transform Cliffe and the ‘barren stretch of reeds and grass’ upon which it looks, into ‘London Gateway Airport’ – a 15billion, 24hr hub, handling 100million visitors a year. Damn my local Co-op is going to be busy.
The dire need for a new airport apparently stems from the size limitations imposed by Heathrow. There is no room to expand it and thus the UK is lagging behind other European hubs such as Paris and Frankfurt. Not only that, there is a paranoid fear that the UK may miss out on lucrative links with emerging markets in China, India and South America. Of course the Mayor of London, that flop-haired goon in City Hall, is involved too. While his famed plan for ‘Boris Island’ in the Thames might sink, you can bet he’s all over this.
Now on some practical level I can see that this project has evolved from a genuine need. I appreciate that ties to foreign economies need to be strong and sustainable in order to drive our own. The conservation sector is as much reliant on good market conditions as any other. If Heathrow is hindering this and cost/benefit analysis shows a new airport will provide long term relief then so be it. I can even see why the location at Cliffe has been selected; a basic but adaptable travel infrastructure is already in place, there is, technically, space and its ‘gateway’ image undoubtedly has appealing connotations to both business and tourism industries alike. But ultimately I could NEVER support or condone a project that would prove so devastating to a precious landscape.
Y’see, that ‘barren stretch of reeds and grass’ is anything but barren. It’s part of a landscape that has evolved over hundreds of years and its low-lying wetland nature represents a scarce and fragile habitat in the UK. Olsen’s chosen site lies adjacent to areas of significant environmental importance, notably the South Thames Estuary and marshes SSSI and the North Kent Marshes SPA (a designated RAMSAR site). These areas are protected for, among other reasons, their importance as a wintering ground for hundreds of thousands of birds. And then there are the areas beyond immediate sight – parts of Essex, Suffolk and East Kent that would surely experience some negative fall out too. The airport would not only wreak havoc from an ecological standpoint. In only a short time I have realised the Hoo Peninsular has a certain charm; one informed by its rural location and bestowed on the inhabitants whether they realise it or not. A way of life would be lost.
The environmental concerns mentioned above, which were heavily defended by the RSPB and other organisations, played a key part in the rejection of previous plans for the airport at Cliffe by the Department of Transport. But although Olsen is aware he may run into similar opposition once again, it’s totally cool; he’s got the answers! Apparently the airport will ‘attempt to compensate for disruption to natural habitats by including animal and wildflower conservancies, an aviary and extensive woodland’. Yep. I laughed my fucking arse off when I read that. I mean, an extensive woodland – why? How about an extensive grazing marsh? You know, the kind that has been there for centuries. But it’s not all bad news: 
This Olsen chap has more great ideas up his sleeve too: ‘There is also a proposal to replicate the Eden Project biodome attraction in Cornwall – it would be called ‘East of Eden’’. *Sigh* He suggests “clusters” of other attractions in the vicinity of the airport such as ‘an aquatics centre, science park and athletics stadium’. Because that over-priced heap of junk we just built in Stratford isn’t enough. The kids, they love their athletics! Shit, we need more stadiums to meet this insatiable demand!
Ok, I’m just fooling around but the point remains; regardless of the perceived benefit, we cannot afford to treat our environment this way. Building an airport requires a lot of land and in a heavily populated region is going to impact the environment in some way. This is not simply a case of NIMBYism on my part, I feel sorry for the people who live on Heathrow’s flight path, it must be hell... but I’m sure there are better options which must be considered.
The article concludes by quoting Olsen as he laments “why is it so hard to convince people to build a new airport?” It’s not the convincing that’s hard, it’s the location. In this case, Cliffe is not it. We stand to lose too much.

Cliffe Marshes 2011
What do you think – does London need another airport? If so, where should it be? Can the impact of an airport, in terms of land use and emissions, ever be truly environmentally off-set?

Related articles/websites:
He’s at it again - apparently the bird populations on the peninsula’s west and north are “meagre" and it’s the "best piece of undeveloped land anywhere near any major city in Europe”
Visit RSPB Cliffe Pools and see this wonderful site yourself

Thursday, 25 August 2011

Summer Babe

Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui) Thames wall nr Egypt Bay, Hoo Pen., N Kent 21/8/11
I had a superb walk across the marshes at the weekend; warm, hazy weather, lovely company, a picnic largely consisting of crisps and pastries and not another soul for miles. There was a good opportunity for a bit of bird watching too; but with my eyes mostly on the lookout for migrating birds I nearly missed the small but equally impressive migrant at my feet.  It was one of my friends who spotted it basking among the weeds and debris lining the Thames wall – my first Painted Lady of the year.
It’s easy to forget that these attractive butterflies are remarkable migrants too. In fact, considering their size and apparently fragile nature, it’s astounding that they are capable of crossing mountains and oceans just like Wheatears and Whinchats and many more of our other feathered summer visitors.
Although classed as a native butterfly, Painted Ladies cannot survive our harsh, changeable winters and therefore the ones we are likely to encounter spend our winter months, in some form, in the warmer climates of southern Europe and North Africa. When summer temperatures soar in these regions and food plants die off they migrate in search of suitable conditions to feed and lay eggs. They are among the great migrants of the butterfly world and in 2009 were recorded reaching as far afield as Iceland - over 1000 miles from their natal colony. Although they regularly appear on our shores, that same year appears to have heralded one of the most incredible mass migrations in memory with the UK population being estimated at 20 MILLION Painted Ladies.
A look at the excellent Butterfly Conservation website suggests that 2011 will not be seeing any such irruption and instead they appear rather scarce. This record is one of only a handful in Kent this month.
Seen one? Add it to the list here. Next time I’m out birding, I’ll be sure to keep an eye out for these lovely ladies.

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Return ticket please

Migration update...
Well as quick as they arrived, they were gone. It seems like 5 minutes ago that I was doing the rounds on my old patch in SE London, anticipating those first spring and summer migrants. Now several months later many of those birds are returning south towards their wintering grounds again.
Waders have been coming and going for weeks at Cliffe Pools but otherwise the biggest clue yet came when I opened my bedroom window one morning last week. Overnight, several Willow Warblers, a Sedge Warbler and a Garden Warbler had appeared in the tangle of Elder and ivy just outside. While Sedge warblers have been locally abundant, I’ve seen very few records for the others making me think these were birds on passage, feeding and resting en route south.
A juvenile Cuckoo appeared briefly at Northward Hill last weekend but was not around for long. It was the same for a Sandwich Tern that was spotted amongst a group of Black-headed gulls on Flamingo Pool on a blustery day at Cliffe. I missed the movement of Black Terns that was reported around the Thames Estuary between the 5th-7th , however I did get a glimpse of a possible Arctic Skua heading east down the river on the 8th. I was wrestling the scope in high winds and lost the bird after several seconds, but it did appear distinctly un gull-like. In fact my first thought was “falcon sp”, based on what appeared to be quite ‘pointed’ wings. Interesting but frustrating to leave it unconfirmed. Two adult female Wheatears were close to Shorne Marshes fort on the 9th, it’s always nice to see them. I came accross little of note for the rest of the week.
This week has been all about Plovers so far. Radar pool at Cliffe had upwards of 20 Ringed Plover this afternoon while Flamingo held nearly twice as many Grey Plover. My pick of the lot though was several hundred Golden Plover that I came across during a trip to KWT’s Oare Marshes reserve yesterday. Their position on the main flood, close to the path, gave me my best views yet of this pretty bird. Oare was also memorable for the sheer number of Black-tailed Godwit numbers present. I would guess that close to a 1000 birds were spread across the site/shore. A superb spectacle and still lots more to come...
Wheatear (Oenanthe oenanth) Shorne Marshes, 9/8/11
Sandwich Tern (Sterna sandvicensis) Cliffe Pools, 8/8/11
Ruff (Philomachus pugnax) Oare Marshes, 15/8/11

Friday, 12 August 2011


Pics from my recent trip to Seaford to assist with the RSPB’s annual south coast Kittiwake spectacular:
What it's all about: a recently fledged juvenile Kittiwake in flight, Seaford, 25/7/11
Note black 'collar' and prominent zig-zag markings on wing compared to an adult...
Adult Kittiwake (Larus tridactyla) with nests in background. It takes several years for a bird to reach adult plumage
"Kee-ee-waah!"- the distinctive sound of a busy Kittiwake colony. Sure, I'm no wildlife photographer and this photo is blurry and skewed but I like the sense of activity that it portrays. I also like the way the light is catching their tail feathers, showing off their almost-translucent quality.
I have a real soft spot for these birds and it was great to see large numbers of this beautiful, enigmatic gull gathered on the sheer cliffs at Splash Point once again. Nest counts earlier in the season estimated that numbers this year were up to an impressive 1130 nesting pairs. In comparison, last year the figure was put somewhere between 750-800 nests. This is clearly fantastic news given the trials this ocean-bound gull must endure throughout the year.
Compared to other pelagic birds, the Kittiwake must appear as a bit of an anomaly. Appearance-wise it has little in common with muscley albatrosses and wiry, long-winged shearwaters, but beneath the strikingly pale, un-blemished plumage lays an extraordinarily resilient bird. It’s amazing to think that any day now the Seaford Kittiwakes , both adults and juveniles, will leave their ledges and head out into the channel, following it west before eventually dispersing into the vast expanse of the north Atlantic Ocean. Once there, they’ll spend the harsh winter months dodging choppy waves and sweeping storms before many begin making the return journey to Seaford next February.
But these difficult conditions are probably of least concern to Kittiwakes. Unfortunately, despite the Seaford colony showing good numbers, others around the UK (particularly in Scotland) are in significant decline. Last year it was reported that three out of four Kittiwake nests in the UK failed, a shocking figure and one put down to a severe shortage of small fish in breeding areas. It's important to remember that Kittiwakes are not scavengers like other gulls and rely soley on sand eel, herring and other small fish for survival. With many Kittiwake colonies long established, the problem clearly lies in our marine habitats. This, by extension, means problems for many other species too.
There is some good news though- a legal framework is in place to establish Marine Conservation Zones (MCZs) in the UK by 2012 but it's still a long way off. The challenge is staying focused and making it happen. This RSPB blog has lots of interesting information about MCZs and you can sign a campaign to help seabirds like Kittiwakes here. Consider it a gentle reminder to the government and those designating stakeholder groups that disaffected punk kids are not our only problem.
I hope there'll be scenes like this for years to come:

(if this footage doesn't work on your computer -apologies. You'll just have to visit Seaford yourself next year!)

Friday, 5 August 2011

The Big 'O'?

It’s easy to be sceptical, harder to believe. When a report came in yesterday that a female Golden Oriole had been seen just yards from the office the previous evening, there were more than a few raised eyebrows. By her own account, the sighting came from an inexperienced birdwatcher, who matched up what she saw with the picture in an ID book. Sounds fair. But when you can’t walk more than 10 paces here without disturbing a juvenile Green Woodpecker (the natural confusion species) do you take it seriously? From the looks of things, no one did, but nevertheless...what if? Post-breeding, many birds are starting to move again and it is feasible that a passage Golden O, an A-list summer migrant, was lingering near our feeders. The winds have been changeable this week, steady Northerlies followed by South-westerlies, which may have had an effect. I'm convinced there is habitat here for Orioles. Damn, that would be great. I certainly kept an eye out during the day, all the while trying to think of new jobs that would require me to stay in the area. I’m kidding, work first, birding second ;)
While the O would’ve been a lifer for me I’ve still managed to rack up 2 this week which isn’t bad. Unluckily for you (or luckily, depends on your point of view) I’m not supposed to talk about one. It’s ok; it’s not a mega or anything but it is category 1 and likely a scarce local breeder. Get over it! In less cryptic news, Cliffe Pools has been hauling in the passage migrants for the last 2 weeks now. Best of the lot was a solitary Curlew Sandpiper, bagged Wednesday afternoon on Flamingo pool. It was on a mud spit a long way off and had its bill tucked into its flank but its brick-red underside and general shape were enough to convince me. Close by, we also spotted a likely Wood Sandpiper amongst the straggly, bank side vegetation. Good views of this bird are proving tricky so far but they’re certainly around. It was also nice to see c40 Grey Plover in their striking summer plumage (think a smaller and slightly scruffier Golden Plover) I’ve only ever seen them in winter before.
Beautiful male Kestrel (Falco tinnunuculus) Cliffe Pools, 28/7/11
Wally, our resident Little Owl (Athene noctua) Northward Hill, 27/7/11
But, surprisingly, my main focus at Cliffe this week has been reptiles. Two ongoing surveys are attempting to establish the extent of reptile populations and in the case of one; the objective is to relocate any individuals found. But I think I need to perfect my pouncing technique because it’s not always easy. More than one Common Lizard has evaded my grasp and left me clutching grass, convinced I’ve got it. We’re yet to turn up either Grass Snake or Adder, although both are resident. These, particularly the latter, are handled differently.
Adult male Common Lizard (Lacerta vivipara) prior to translocation. Note partial shedding of skin on rear/tail
Otherwise it’s all been about preparing for the Wildlife and Countryside Fair this weekend. Are you coming? You really should. There’ll be wildlife, a sheep dog display, cupcakes and a man dressed up as Charles Dickens. What more could you POSSIBLY want?

Wednesday, 3 August 2011

Czech it out

"Dear EOU members,

On behalf of the Czech Society for Ornithology (CSO), I kindly ask your participation in a letter of support to save the Sumava national park.
The park comprises the most extensive forest ecosystem in central Europe, and the last remaining nesting place of the capercaillie in the Czech Republic . It is also home to three-toed woodpecker, pygmy owl, tengmalm's owl, as well as many other rare mountain species. Thanks to this uniqueness, the Sumava has been classified as a Special Protected Area within the Natura 2000 network. Unfortunately, current management of the national park acts against its conservation goals, and the situation deteriorates. CSO has been active as a provider of scientific knowledge for a sound the park management, but this information has been completely ignored. Thus, the CSO appeals to its members and supporters to send a letter to the Prime Minister and, because of the international importance of Sumava National part, also to the international community. The English version of the letter to the Prime Minister of the Czech Republic is available at this link: where you can find some more info.
CSO will appreciate any support in this case.

Petr Vorisek - coordinator of the Pan-European Common Bird Monitoring Scheme (PECBMS)"

Thanks to Dave for this. It sounds like a fantastic, hugely-important place albeit one beset with conflict and debate. Should 'we' intervene and start forest clearance (presumably giving the timber industry a nice little payday) or should we monitor the effects of bark beetle and be prepared to accept widespread, naturally-occuring changes. You decide. Then get on the blower to Mr Necas.