Some birds instantly catch the imagination so when I heard in the week that seven Cranes had been spotted on Sheppey, I longed for them to hang on for a few days. The encouraging news on Saturday was tempered by squalling conditions on Sunday morning as I picked up Martin and we thudded down the A2 in the rain. Pulling onto Harty Ferry Road with rain still lashing the car and bleak skies overhead, it felt like it was going to be a long day. It didn't stop us enjoying the sight of four Bewick's Swans in among a roadside flock of Mutes but it was ominous...
|Four Bewick's Swans (on the right) Harty, 27/1/13|
Fortunately though, as we arrived at the Capel Fleet Raptor Viewpoint, the clouds disappeared and opened up a warm blue sky from which the birds followed. As we stood in the car park, a tangle of boot laces and waterproofs, a Green Sandpiper shot overhead and quickly down into the ditch, looking every bit like the oversized House Martin it resembles. On the View Point we flushed a lone birder who was huddled out of the wind but it wasn't long before all eyes were scanning the surrounding fields. Happily, after only a moment, we were able to pick out the Cranes in a distant field to the west. Although a way off, all seven birds were out in the open showing well in the sunshine, making occasional short hops over the fence to the maize field behind. These flights showed their incredible wingspan from which their long legs dangled beneath. It was really great to watch. In fact, perhaps it completed a rarer picture as between us them, other birds flocked to a muddy arable field pooled with water. Lapwing, Starling, gulls in their hundreds and even Dunlin, all foraged and whistled, filling the sky around the cranes with flickering shapes. A Buzzard appeared, loafing along to settle on a fence post next to them while Marsh Harriers drifted by wherever you looked. The shallow, sweeping valley, pocked with maize and fallow fields, criss-crossed by ditches, created a window back to a time when cranes were not the rare or incredibly localised species they are now. However long they stay, it felt like a natural fit - something momentarily put right. As to where these came from, Norfolk seems most likely, perhaps they moved south along the coast to find better conditions away from the snow and ice - what do you think?
A short while later we carried on up the hill and joined the track down towards Muswell Manor. Glancing back at the fields from the ridge we were treated to the sight of all seven cranes in the air, circling high over the area for several minutes before settling again. A magnificent moment, photos don't do it justice:
|Common Cranes (Grus grus) (middle of photo) Isle of Sheppey, 27/1/13 (digiscoped)|
|Seven cranes in flight (blurry specs in middle of frame) from Harty hill, 27/1/13|
Bar an ill-advised detour across a waterlogged field, it was a nice walk down to the Manor in bright and breezy conditions. Dunlin skimmed the fields, skylarks chirruped above and a Peregrine cruised by in pursuit of something. A couple of Brown hares spooked at our presence and splashed off across the fields. The sea off Leysdown was quiet but the high tide pushed a stream of Sanderling along the coast towards Shellness and further out a small flock of Wigeon passed by. Heading back along the track, a flock of Golden Plover arced overhead as dozens of curlews probed the sodden fields around us.
Once back at the car we took a slow drive back down the road, passing the now-busy viewpoint. Several Corn Bunting chattered from a patch of brambles and weary partridges scooted among the tussocks. A flock of thirty or so Lesser Redpoll gathered in a tree near the main road was a nice spot and we watched as several flew down to drink from roadside puddles.
|Gorgeous colours: willow growth in hedgerow, Harty|
We headed back via Elmley Marshes on the off chance of spotting a Short-eared Owl. No score on that front, the species has been much harder to pin down in North Kent this winter, but a short way along the entrance track we did come across two Ruff showing superbly at close quarters on the marsh. In their tortoiseshell finery, the birds dazzled in the soft dusky light. It's been a while since I had views this good and again I noted their odd proportions, the distinctly colourful legs, 'long' body and small head. Lovely stuff, a Ruff.
Carrying on down the track we passed a row of cars piled up by the side and another flock of Ruff turning heads. In amongst these eighteen or so birds were two colour ringed individuals. Down at the farm we stopped for a look off, as everyone does, behind the toilet block. A quick scan found a Peregrine sitting out in the middle of the marsh and some very distant grey geese. A single male Pintail snoozed on the pools with Teal and others for company and a Water Rail dashing for shelter amidst the reeds on the near shore was a great spot by Martin. A moment later it emerged, giving excellent views in the open as it busied itself in the leaf litter. Finally, a single Goldcrest moused its way through the brambles behind the block - not the bird most likely to be found in the middle of a marsh. And that was that, a memorable day on Sheppey capped a fantastic weekend, made all the sweeter by hearing the football scores on the way home.
|Lapwing (Vanellus vanellus)|
|Insert your own pun here_: Ruff (Philomachus pugnax), Elmley Marshes, 27/1/13|
|Sheppey bridge: Possibly my favourite bridge in southern England|
|A winter sunset looking west from Elmley|