Cooling Marshes, Kent, 7th December 2014

Wednesday, 31 December 2014

A year on the patch

Rather than a typical 'end of year' type blog post, I thought I'd write about life on my patch this year - essentially an unremarkable scrap of land in North Kent, but one that has provided me with genuine moments of awe and discovery in 2014. There have been fragments of encounters that in any other situation or place might be taken for granted or overlooked altogether, but in these fields, close to home, mean a lot more.

I have regularly used the BTO's 'BirdTrack' for a few years now but this year I made an extra effort to record all my patch visits over the two kilometre squares it incorporates and I have enjoyed looking back at the statistics. Here's how Song Thrush records fared this year for instance, any idea when autumn migration kicked in?!

What I often refer to as my 'patch' in Longfield, most other locals probably refer to as 'the Gallops'. As a kid that's what my parents called it so we followed (slightly confused by the horse reference given that we never saw any horses up there), but it's a name that has always stuck. I now know the reason for it, some learning that has unfolded over time through snippets of conversation and a chance encounter.

Over the years I have come to love it, despite it appearing to possess little birdwatching or natural history potential; there is not a drop of water in sight and it is a good few miles from the coast, it has poor diversity of vegetation beyond a small copse, a few hedgerows and some grassy verges. And yet I still visit regularly. It is still farmland thankfully, largely resisting the dirty hands of developers in North Kent, lowland, arable with a fondness for spring onions and potatoes. But it has space on side, open fields and elevation, sitting as it does on a chalk ridge, like the North Downs a few miles to the south. Looking north I can see the River Thames marked only by the grey industry of Northfleet and Tilbury hunched and crowded on its shores: cranes, shapeless buildings and, in recent years, wind turbines on the horizon.

But now I realise that to call it unremarkable is wrong, because it's ultimately not what a local patch is about. It is as much about those small discoveries, those common birds, as it is anything else. Through the familiarity gained, what I've loved most is observing how wildlife uses the site, and more than anything, how it changes through the seasons, as sure as a calender turns a page. By those standards, this year was a great year on the patch.

Linnet, April
Common Buzzard, February
Stonechat, October

As usual there were few surprises through last winter with just a small wintering flock of meadow pipits and occasional glimpses of the corn bunting flock of any note. The year's sole treecreeper record came in February along the edge of Court Wood and the first buzzard appeared, it was a good year for sightings of these. Spring arrived on the 14th April in the ever-heartening form of male wheatear that flushed out from a field edge; the same day the first pair of swallows streamed overhead and a blackcap was singing in the copse. A few days later, on the nineteenth, whitethroats had returned and were spread widely throughout the hedges for a week or more until only those on territories remained. Two spring highlights followed soon after with my first patch Lesser Whitethroat singing in the top hedge on the the 26th. On the 2nd June, a late-evening walk bought the surreal yet triumphant sight of an adult Mediterranean Gull drifting low across the fields towards the village. I nearly dismissed it at first before I remembered that even Black-headed gulls are not overly common at that time of year and checked again.

June saw bright skies and buzzing migrants, including a Cuckoo calling in the first week during my second BBS survey of the season. Yellow wagtails slipped through before becoming more conspicuous from the first week of July, the first appearing on the same date that two swifts headed determinedly south. A juvenile in the vicinity was particularly interesting. House sparrows are absent on the site for much of the year but small flocks venture out in summer, foraging along the magic hedgerow and often in the crops - a flock of twenty was good to see. If I had a single highlight this year it probably came in late-July, into August, as the corn bunting flock swelled to over 70 birds. With such troubling declines elsewhere this was incredible to see and an immensely satisfying result for the simple wildlife-friendly measures employed by the farmer (whether he realises it or not!)

Such measures, including leaving long grassy margins along the tracks, also encouraged butterflies and the summer months saw plenty of activity with a dozen species recorded in good numbers. At the same time, the chalky soil yielded new surprises like yellow rattle, while sweet, pink sainfoin peeped from beneath the stubble.

It was the best year yet for passage wheatears and the first outgoing bird appeared on the 29th July, followed by small numbers (including a flock of 7) through August and the last on 15th October.

Corn buntings and house martins on a magic evening, August
A Painted Lady on thistles, June
Wheatears on their way, August
Looking east, July

The first signs of autumn were visible in August with a light passage of rooks to the west and the wheat harvest ongoing from late-July. There was time for a last hurrah with another patch first - a Hobby performing acrobatics over Court Wood on 3rd September. On the 9th, following widespread passage across the region, up to five whinchats stayed for a week, making use of some weedy setaside established in the last few years. It seemed like a good year for them. The same day saw the first meadow pipits of autumn, followed a day later by two chiffchaffs. On the 17th, a flock of 36 Jackdaw flew north and blackbirds had noticeably increased, but the undoubted highlight was a first Grey Wagtail in the dump briefly. Spring onion picking continued through September and the potato harvest started mid-month.

Following reports of migrant thrushes arriving in number on the east coast with favourable winds on the 15th October, a late-night patch visit resulted in numerous redwings and a few blackbirds being heard flying overhead in the dark! The passage continued into the next morning where several small flocks of redwing could be seen flying over. The most remarkable tally however was for song thrushes (see above) with nearly 50 migrant birds recorded across the site in 2 days. The 15th October also saw perhaps the biggest patch score of the year. A local birdwatcher had reported seeing flocks of Brent Geese flying up the Thames at Gravesend before diverting inland on a south westerly trajectory. Drawing a mental map it seemed that would take them pretty close to Longfield and lo, a flock of ten passed along the ridge that same morning! That was a dizzy morning, I nearly missed my train to work!

Since then, bar another thrush movement in early December which included a scarce Mistle Thrush and Fieldfare, recent weeks have seen the inevitable winter lull set in. But I guess a lull is never a lull for long, it soon becomes a beginning once again.

In total I recorded 68 bird species on the patch this year - not bad for a few fields...

Happy New Year all - thanks for reading.

Little Owl at dusk

Monday, 29 December 2014

Standard Fare

Walking down a quiet lane yesterday I spotted a row of limp, straggly fruit trees on the verge, all bare save one. It's branches were heavy with baubles of spongy, pale crab apples. I instinctively reached for my binoculars. At this time of year our landscapes can feel devoid of colour or life, but find the food and chances are you'll find the birds. 

And there it was, a lone Fieldfare perched among its jewels, one eye on me and one on its precious hoard.

Thursday, 11 December 2014

On the margins of Land and Sea

It was a wonderful weekend just gone, one spent on sparse, sloshing fields stripped of seed, flower or scent, but still full of promise as the seasons reach their ebb.

On Saturday, with a bright winter sky rising, I set off early for East Sheppey, one of my favourite destinations at this time of year. I pondered my plan for the day en route before settling on the usual walk. I crawled along the Harty Ferry Road where the fields were subdued under a heavy frost and little stirred besides a breakfasting kestrel. Past Capel Fleet, house sparrows picked at gutter grit and disappeared into the hedgerows as I passed. Abandoning machine for mind, I soon set out down the track towards Sayes Court looking forward to the day ahead. The copses and hedgerows sparked into life with winter thrushes, woodpecker and finch. Down towards the marsh a hundred and more linnet clung to weedy stems of maize while the first of a dozen stonechats performed nimble aerial feats in a survey of their surroundings.

On the old, grassy seawall I stood somewhere on the margin of land and sea, but safely separated from the realm of water on either side. Small flocks of brent geese flew in off the Swale to join an impressive thousand-strong flock snaking across a distant field like an exposed coal seam. In the small hide I was joined by another birder and between us we traded a Hooded Crow on the marsh for a ring-tail Hen Harrier patrolling a strip of setaside. I quietly admired the handful of White-fronted geese, their tiger-striped flanks, which kept company with the greylags.

Swale NNR, Sheppey; looking west to Shellness
Hooded Crow (Corvus cornix)
Redshank (Tringa totanus), Shellness point

The tide was up at Shellness point where a large mixed flock of waders were packed into the roost, all legs and huddled grey bodies.

At Muswell Manor I walked the track back to Harty as shadows grew ever longer; although not much past lunchtime, the sun's plight was already perceptible. On a fence post a Peregrine flexed its wing before taking off on a lazy swoop at some woodpigeons. Watching its flight I caught sight of another and between the two of them a perfect chaos ensured in the blue skies. Back at the top, sparrows still squabbled in the dirt as I made my way to Capel Fleet. In keeping with the day, the mound was almost deserted. A ringtail Hen Harrier soon appeared quartering a ditch at some distance, before a male ghosted across its path. Ghosted is the word. For in the impeccable winter's light softly falling behind me, teasing each detail, he glowed - all save those inky black wingtips.

Dusk bought the cold back and fingerless glove regret but it was tempered by a fiery evening sky. A woodcock fluttered over and starlings whistled restlessly in the reeds before, in the dim light, two short-eared owls could be seen making silent swoops over the grassland. I squinted after them until even that became too much, the fields merging into one against a blazing sunset.

Hen Harrier by ATM, Shellness
Sunset over Capel Fleet

(Title by JS - thanks, I always liked it)

Thursday, 4 December 2014

Notes from London's 'duck scene'

Apologies for the shameless plug but I thought I'd post a short article I wrote recently for London Wildlife Trust's members magazine 'WildLondon'. The theme of this issue is wetlands and in particular, those sites within an urban setting.

It's no surprise to my mind that I often associate 'urban wetlands', those ponds, park lakes and reservoirs among many others, with people. It seems that these spaces draw people in like few other habitats; they are often natural focal points within these landscapes, admired as much for their openess and ebb as they are feared for their mysterious, cool depths. Our urban wetlands also support a wealth of species and central to their appeal is the more immediate sense of contact with wildlife that they offer, unobstructed and at close quarters. 

Visit any urban wetland and chances are the first thing you'll see are ducks - diving, dabbling or displaying - and that's the subject I was given for this article. I love ducks, who doesn't? As such, a 500-word limit was hard. When I re-read my original draft, I'd spent nearly 100 words describing the pleasingly subtle colours and habits of wigeon. Thanks to the editor then for squeezing the bulk of it in. Thanks also for the amazing sub-title. I bet you didn't know London had a 'duck scene'?!