Cooling Marshes, Kent, 7th December 2014

Tuesday, 28 February 2012

BlogJam: NIAs, pop philosophy...and a parrot.

No time for much of an intro I'm afraid, the weeks are racing by but what are ya gonna do. Time to blitz a few things I've not had time to put up recently. I'd get the tea on if I were you...

1. NIA blow for Estuary Airport?

Having spent much of yesterday in the unlikley company of Gok Wan and many others at Newbury Racecourse in Berkshire, I missed the news that the government had finally announced the12 'winners' of its Nature Improvement Areas (NIA) scheme. The advent of NIAs came about from John Lawton's 'Making Space for Nature' report in 2010, which highlighted the importance of 'joined-up' thinking when considering nature conservation in the UK. It advocated a more sustainable, landscape-scale approach; extending areas currently protected, establishing new ones nearby and linking them together. It's an exciting idea, evolving from the knowledge that wild flora/fauna populations need new areas to naturally migrate into. The government invited submissions and picked 12 from the 76 bids put in. With the environment seemingly being hammered by the coalition at any opportunity this last year, it feels like a pretty positive step.

Each of the 12 new areas has something special to offer, with a wide range of habitats covered and countless numbers of species living among them. However, I was particularly pleased with the 4th designated NIA. With the Thames Estuary Airport proposals dominating much of my mind/work/blogging space these last few months, seeing the Greater Thames Marshes given NIA status feels, at last, like some deservedly overdue recognition for this incredible area. Surely it makes what'll likely be an expensive aviation consultation in the South East relatively pointless now? At the least, it will make their job so much harder. It also suggest a divide on the issue in the government, bar the more obvious ones.

Anyway, it's good to see DEFRA flexing some muscle, but no breaking out the champagne yet right? While it is a positive step, the airport issue still remains. Nationally, it's not going to fix the problem of biodiversity loss or habitat degradation either. The £7.5million designated to help improve, create and maintain all these areas is not insubstantial (though it is when you consider other sums they chuck about) but when it's broken down to just over 600k for each area, it's going to have to be very carefully managed, with a long-term view in mind. Incidentally, I wonder what happens to those areas that weren't selected? I'm sure the bid packages aren't cheap, do they get reimbursed? Or is just calculated risk? Anyway, I look forward to seeing how it develops.

2. Northward Hill OwlFest

There have been some great birds around the reserve of late. I missed the pair of White Storks that reportedly flew over on Sunday - I was out celebrating the oh so sweet demolition of Spurs. To be fair I think I'd always choose the latter, but it would've been a great bird to see here. Plenty about otherwise though.

Last monday, Simon and I had an unexpected but memorable encounter with a pair of Long-eared Owls. After checking the heronry roost at dusk (20+ birds, increasingly weekly) we stopped to admire the large number of Rooks and Jackdaws swirling over the marsh (c2500 at the moment). It was at this point that a pair of owls ‘flushed’ from trees along the edge of the wood. In the fading light, the distinct ‘ear tufts’ were visible, thus avoiding confusion with other owl species. What was more remarkable was that the male bird gave distinct ‘wing claps’ before alighting on the ground 30m from us. Long-eared owls are occasionally recorded on the reserve (and in the vicinity) but rarely seen so well. It was actually first for me too. I was surprised by their overall size, especially the long, broad wings. Amazingly, whilst watching the pair, a Tawny owl began calling in the distance and a Little owl was active near the barns. With a Barn Owl hunting on the reserve daily and a Short-eared Owl reported sporadically at Cliffe Pools, all we need now is a Snowy.

A Treecreeper has been heard up in the wood regularly since the beginning of the month. This is a good record for the site and the area in general; there are very few sizeable patches of deciduous woodland on the peninsula (and there'll be less if Lodge Hill goes ahead). After struggling to turn up a Woodcock last year, I'm now literally tripping over them on a daily basis. Had 2 today in the orchard and 15 were recorded last Tuesday, leaving the wood at dusk to feed on the marsh. Elsewhere it's mostly the ususals; and I never thought I'd be able to say that my 'usuals' included Marsh Harriers, Buzzards and Peregrines.

3. Crikey

This bird has definitley not been seen on the reserve but what a corker! Thanks to Cathy for sending me this pic, taken in Canberra's Botanical Gardens, from her travels in Australia last year. I really like parrots.

4. Thoreau #2

"Every part of nature teaches that the passing away of one life is the making of room for another. The oak dies down to the ground, leaving within its rind a virgin mould, which will impart a vigourous life to an infant forest"

End Note> I really love my friends (you know who you are) My family too x

Friday, 17 February 2012

Birds on 45 (pt. 4)

It's been an age since I did one of these, I guess second hand record shops just aint up to scratch in these parts. Nevermind, this has been in reserve for a while - another birding cover star, another hit 7" single. 

'Follow that Crow' by 1-99 Ghost, Anvil Records, Brighton, late-90s?
There are a lot of strange things about this record, not the least the fact that the cover isn't even the best thing about it (and it's pretty ace huh?) Suited, booted and wielding a missile, the unlikley avian star this time looks to be a Fulmar (Fulmarus glacialis) The dark, 'smudged' eye, hooked bill-tip and that apparent 'tube nose' mark are the tell-tale signs of this elegant and underrated seabird.

From the look of things it appears this Fulmar has got beef with some damn crow! Perhaps, given that Fulmars nest on exposed cliffs around the UK, this bird was the unfortunate victim of corvid egg-predation and hasn't taken it too well? I dunno, maybe I'm thinking about this too much. In reality, seabird colonies afford decent protection from predators. Cliffs are virtually impossible for any mammal to scale and avian threats are often greeted with determined mobbing. I remember watching a large number of nesting kittiwakes mob a passing Raven at Seaford last year - an impressive sight (and no missiles were used). Fulmars have an additional weapon in that they can spray a sticky oil, generated in their stomachs, at an attacker. But, as with many seabirds, the principal threat to Fulmars is likley to be nest failure arising from climatic changes and the availability of food. Although less specialist feeders than Kittiwakes, offal makes up a significant portion of the Fulmar diet. It remains to be seen how they will be affected by certain changes to the commerical fishing industry in the UK. I'm sure the mysterious 1-99 Ghost had all this in mind when putting the sleeve together.

In keeping with this sinister image of avian retribution are these three tracks that crawled out of Brighton some time in the late 90s perhaps. The a-side, 'Follow that Crow', is a tense, instrumental slab of misery funk...a banjo riff repeated over a drum loop, some indecipherable wails occasionally making it through the post-triphop haze. Flipping over we get a double dose of weirdness with 'Animal Fat' ("The woman are boss-eyed, goggle-eyed...the men are drinking an-i-mal fat") and 'Roses'. The latter is a 50 second sound collage of folky strumming accompanying an answerphone message left by a concerned builder who seems to have lost his ladder. Turn it up! Like The Fall at their best (or worst) I can't help but think this is a heroically stupid but strangely brilliant record. 

 Fulmar pair, Newhaven cliffs, 11/2/12
FULMAR FUN FACT: Although they look like 'regular' gulls, Fulmars actually belong to the same group as petrels and albatrosses. Their strange 'tube noses' or tubular nostrils help them regulate salt intake, a useful adaptation given they spend much of their lives at sea.

Please feel free to send me any of your Birds on 45 suggestions

This record is on long-term loan from the stereo sanctity collection (Cheers Ben)

Saturday, 11 February 2012

Red(wing) army

It's been an interesting week for birdlife. The freezing weather has seen an influx of some birds and others drop off the radar altogether. But of the birds that have increased, there's no doubting the leader of the pack round this way.

Redwing (Turdus iliacus) trapped during ringing session in North Kent, Nov 2011
Standing ankle deep in snow, on the viewpoint at Northward Hill on Sunday morning, the world was quiet save the for near-constant 'tseeep's emanating from the dense clouds overhead. Though unseen, it was clear that good numbers of Redwing were heading east. Redwings are just about everywhere at the moment it seems, with huge numbers recorded mid-week in London and the BTO recording rate showing a sharp rise:

Redwing Birdtrack reporting data. Blue line (this year's) shows a sudden, sharp rise. From
Redwings are the smallest UK thrush but probably the most distinctive. Their chocolatey brown plumage, pale supercilium and a flash of red beneath the wing means they can be easily recognised. What a gorgeous bird. This wave of redwings is linked to icy conditions in Scandinavia - the native range for all but a tiny proportion of these birds. Since the berry crop here has been well and truly plundered by the large numbers of wintering fieldfares and blackbirds on site, the majority at Northward Hill have just been passing through. I'd wager many of these birds will end up in urban and suburban gardens where a wide variety of fruiting trees and shrubs prosper and remain un-picked in relatively sheltered conditions.

It looks like there's another area of low pressure pushing a cold front down from northern Europe and Siberia this weekend (thanks BBC interactive weather maps), so who knows what else is on it's way. What price a sodding Waxwing eh?!

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Thoreau #1

Thoreau on Man & Nature,
Peter Pauper Press, Mount Vernon - New York, 1960

"Every leaf and twig was this morning covered with a sparkling ice armor; even the grasses in exposed fields were hung with innumerable diamond pendants, which jingled merrily when brushed by the foot of the traveller. It was literally the wreck of jewels and the crash of gems...Such is beauty ever-neither here nor there, now nor then - neither in Rome nor in Athens, but wherever there is a soul to admire. If I seek her elsewhere because I do not find her at home, my seach will prove a fruitless one"

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Sad news

I was shocked and gutted to hear yesterday that Gordon Allison (aka 'Gordon the Warden'), Warden of RSPB Elmley Marshes and former Warden of Northward Hill, passed away at the weekend.

I hadn't known Gordon long, but the occasions I worked with him over the last 7 months were a pleasure. The first thing that came across to me is what a friendly, approachable guy he was. Even though I was one of the newest members of the team he always had time for a quick chat. Whether about birds, dragonflies or the whereabouts of local punk legend, Billy Childish, he had an interesting story or some tips to pass on (which he happily did) Of course I soon realised he was a phenomenal naturalist and birder. His passion for birds was always evident; never more so than at the Kent Ornithological Society's winter quiz a few weeks ago. There, he was cursing his decision to not bring binoculars so he could see the screen better for those all important ID pointers! It didn't matter, his team still won easily. On top of that, his reluctance to ever turn up on time for one of our monthly team meetings was admirable.

He was only 50. It's such a shame but I guess at the moment it doesn't really feel like he's gone. More like he's just out twitching a rarity somewhere. His last blog post on the Elmley webpage is quite special. Tragic as it is, it sounds like he enjoyed his last day. He will really be missed round here.

Thursday, 2 February 2012

Wet Wet Wet

Sunset at RSPB Cliffe Pools
A blog for World Wetland's Day
So today is all about celebrating our wetlands (our rivers, estuaries, lakes, marshes and more) first marked by the signing of the Ramsar Convention on February 2nd 1971. The treaty was set up to promote the conservation of wetlands and, through their economic importance, sustainable management. Interestingly, it’s the only treaty that focuses on a particular ecosystem. As a result it has become an increasingly important environmental designation.
Last year I discovered the amazing Tavira Saltflats in Southern Portugal. I stumbled onto them half by mistake really, wandering around the small town; I was soon surrounded by Avocets, Kentish Plovers, Wood Sandpipers and more. Crouched in a ditch at a good distance, I watched a pair of nesting Black-winged Stilts for an hour or more. I was really taken by the place and the glorious wildlife on offer. The habitat and conditions were very different from where I find myself today but there’s not a day that passes when I’m not reminded how special our wetlands are.
The north Kent marshes are a vast, open place; fields as far as the eye can see, an endless sky. Man has lent a helping hand but there is no doubting their wildness. There is little respite from the elements. Yesterday was hard going at times; icy winds sailed through my layers as a few of us fixed a pump and some lay-flats so that we could flood some rills and, in time, create good conditions for wintering wildfowl. But I only had to glance up occasionally to forget that I couldn't feel my hands and appreciate what this land offers. That vastness is continuous habitat; our stomping boots disturbing a secretive Jack Snipe into flight, a Merlin effortlessly dashing by. That vastness is a sense of perspective in an otherwise hectic world; silent but for the wind, a sun sinking into rushing reeds.
A slight concern is that at the moment these wetlands could be wetter. The rain just isn’t coming, any here is a cause for celebration! It’s not just here either; a changing climate is one of the many global threats to these sensitive habitats. Apparently 50% of the world’s wetlands have been lost or degraded in the last century. If accurate, that’s a frightening statistic and shows why the Ramsar Convention is so important. Drainage and conversion for farmland and development has had a huge impact, as has pollution and contamination resulting from rising sea levels.
We stand to lose so much and not just the stuff that we can see: numerous species of birds, mammals, fish etc that depend on them (not to mention the livelihoods of many people) The term ‘environmental services’ is thrown around a lot. This refers to all the essential functions the land, including wetlands, provide. This means nutrient cycling, pollination, carbon storage and of course, oxygen production. And what about flood protection? Estuaries, salt marshes, floodplains...these are a natural 'sponge' - the most effective way of reducing the flood risk. Are you reading this Boris?! Coming back to Norman Foster’s plan for the north Kent marshes I heard a reference to a new flood defence system “more advanced than the Thames Barrier”. Well, yeah, it’s the one you want to build on. If this area (and others like it) is to stay like this, the financial argument will inevitably carry significant weight. I’d love to know how all these services could be valued and how much they are worth. Priceless surely?