Tuesday 29 December 2015

Autumn Is Coming - and yes I know that technically it is now Winter and feels more like Spring

I have barely been out this month with work taking priority and with little time to wind down but last night in a bid to relax after a mad day on the reserve I fortuetously rediscovered a scrap of paper with a few lines of an invisiged poem called Autumn Is Coming that was born on the way to Cornwall in early October.

So I settled down and completed my journey. The response to the poetry section of my exhibition in the hide at RSPB Rainham Marshes has made me smile and I hope you will enjoy this one too....

Autumn Is Coming

Autumn leaves start to look their best
As you wend your way down to the west.
They twirl behind you in your wake
Like some mobile insubstantial snake.

Golden yellow Maples and lime green Ash
Form citrus colour banks that boldly clash
With the blood red Dogwoods and scarlet Guelder Rose
And the pink fruits of Spindle tucked down in the lows.

Mighty Oaks are still largely clad in their green
While the burnished Beeches are a sight to be seen
As they nestle amongst the dark needles of Pine
And the leaves of Gean coloured like Beaujolais wine.

Banks of fiery pink topped Willowherb
Form great swathes right down to the kerb
While sunshine hued Birches shake their leaves
At the slightest provocation from the breeze.

And yet we reach a certain spot
Where Summer cares not a jot
For the cooling fingers of Autumn’s embrace
And refuses so readily to join the race.

And as we enter the true South-west
Summer hangs on and does her best
To keep Autumn’s colours firmly at bay
And let her joyous greens enjoy their days.

But that leafy snake that followed us west
Will have its way and does not rest
And every green will turn and fall
And become a blanket throughout Winters thrall.

Wednesday 9 December 2015

Glad I got out today...

I had a plan – in fact for me it was quite a well thought out plan – well up until the bit where I left things at home (including my wallet and keys inside the house and the nice bit of board that I wanted to make my bird table top propped outside my front door - it was even still there when I got home this evening).

Improvisation was in order and I found a circular piece of old MDF that used to belong to the base of an ancient shop display and off I went towards the woodland feeders with tools, wood, wire and seed in hand.

It was a truly gorgeous morning with not a breath of wind and Redwings and Fieldfares were arguing over the hawthorns with a new arrival of Blackbirds and several Song Thrushes. Goldfinches were feeding on the Burdock on the Playground and a Kingfishers did what they do best and zipped though like a blue streak of nothing. Two Bullfinches ‘tooted’ in the Ivy by the Mardyke and a couple of male Cetti’s warblers were kicking off.

As my hands were full I headed straight to the Woodland feeders and snuck down through the closed middle path to see how the boardwalk team had been getting on. The bridge had already had a facelift and looked good and was definitely non slippy and the next section was being made ready. Another Bullfinch called and the first Goldcrest was up and about.

It only took me about an hour to mend the old trunk feeder and put up the new flat table on the live stump of the huge Willow that dad and I took down in the summer and I even added some tasteful licheny branches for more aesthetically pleasing photographs. A Chiffchaff came to visit and tail pumped vigorously.

I headed back to drop off my tools and collect my bins and cam straight back out as I did not want to miss the opportunity of a walk in the sunshine.

I encountered Pete, John and Sarah utilising the leaning posts and out on Purfleet Scrape there were a couple of Curlew and three Redshank amongst the dabbling duck and a cloud of over 200 Dunlin fishballed over the river wall and then back out again.   

I did actually have a job to do on my circuit – to audit the trail interpretation – and this meant camera and phone were to hand to snap merrily at ripening Ivy berries, fluffy Old Mans Beard and spiky Teasels. 
Old Man's Beard

Old Man's Beard


Hemlock Heads
There were now three Chiffchaffs and five Goldcrests in the scrub as well as some Bumbarrels.   
Goldcrest (Denis Tuck)

Chiffchaff (Trevor Oakley)

Steve and Angela were hard at work on that bit of boardwalk I looked at earlier and another ten feet or so had bitten the dust. While others have been busy cutting our now traditional reed paths for the winter to create more edges and wet areas for Water Rails, Moorhens, Bearded Tits, Cetti’s Warblers and hopefully Bitterns.

Hard at work...

The Barn Owl was loafing in the mouth of its box and both Woodpeckers were heard as I ambled towards the Ken Barrett Hide. No Dartford Warbler today but the Stonechats were right down the bottom and viewing was tricky.

Aveley Pool was quiet but the light was interesting and I played about with some shots through the shimmering phragmites heads looking back at the visitors centre. Always amazes me how different (and effective) the building looks from the north side of the reserve.

Out on Wennington two female Marsh Harriers played and disturbed the Lapwing flock and I reckoned on about 800 along with over 50 each of Golden Plover and Black-tailed Godwit. As ever the way winter light catches flying Lapwings is one of the most magical of marshland scenes.

From the Butts Hide a Little Egret fed almost under our noses and out on the Target Pools I found a few Dunlin down amongst the plovers once they had settled back down. Teal, Wigeon and Pintail shone in the sun and 13 Great Black-backed Gulls were having late morning ablutions. 
Wonderfully close Little Egret
A cloud of Linnets and Goldfinches were harvesting the fallen Dock seed along with at least 30 Skylarks but they too were put to flight by the male Peregrine, Kestrel and Sparrowhawk in quick succession. A Buzzard got pushed through by a couple of Carrion Crows and the Ravens were out on Wennington probably turning cowpats like I saw them doing the other day!
Peregrine (Trevor Oakley)

Marsh Harrier (Lee Spence)

There were no Bearded Tits calling on the Dragonfly Pool so I amused myself with taking pictures of the sculpture reflections instead and out on the Ouzel Fields the low light was showing the Yellow Meadow Ant Hills off to great effect. 

Ant Hill City

Lunch beckoned and I then managed to spend the rest of the afternoon sitting in one of the comfy chairs, chatting to visitors and right at the end the Short-eared Owl decided to once again pay us a visit and fly around just outside the window in the last glow of a glorious a pink sunset...

Short-eared Owl (Shaun Harvey)

Monday 16 November 2015

Damp & Dingy Ness

The Dungeness Peninsular in November can be a bitterly cold place to go birding but as we drove down in the driving drizzle this morning the temperature was reading 16c at 0900 and although the wind was howling from the south-west and waves of wet were pulsing through, it was anything but  wintery. 

As we arrived at the ARC it let up enough for our party to head for the Hanson Hide before it closed in for the next hour. ‘Dear BBC Weather....  your live radar weather feed clearly showed that we were under some cloud but out of the rain which was now in France. Unless we too were also now in France this was clearly not the case....’

This little Kestrel was sheltering in the car park

Anyway, it was an entertaining respite with a fine Great White Egret dropping in and a Bittern performed very nicely along the reed edge (actually our second bird as I saw one from the car just before we arrived) before performing a windblown circuit. Three female Goldeneye were with the dabblers that included three cracking male Pintail and silvery white Great Crested Grebes loafed about. Several Marsh Harriers made regular circuits and included an almost completely dark juvenile bird. 

Sleepy Grebe and Wigeon

Dark Marsh Harrier
Incoming Great White

Legs apart - bracing against the wind!
The willows just outside were in the lee of the wind and were full of active Chiffchaffs, Goldcrests and Blue Tits while Cetti’s Warblers chattered away.

With the curtain of rain seemingly past we headed for the beach only to meet the next wave which thankfully soon moved through. We diligently checked all the gulls resting on the shingle but there was not a trace of a single Caspian Gull although the Great Black-backs were truly imposing. With a bit of shelter from the wind we were able to hear finches and up above hundreds of birds were on the move. They mostly seemed to be Goldfinches and Linnets but there were definitely a fair few Siskin amongst them and I heard Chaffinches and Greenfinches and at least one Brambling. They seemed to be re-orientating over the point and circling round before heading south-west. I am not sure if they were attempting to move across the Channel or simply coasting.

Out to see there were a few Gannets and Kittiwakes heading west along with a couple of Guillemots and a Razorbill and one distant Fulmar. Great Crested Grebes and Cormorants were scattered across the vista and a fine pale phase adult Pomarine Skua powered its way past. Two small flocks of grunting Brent Geese did likewise.

Not sure is beach casting is a legal way of catching wildfowling?

With no new gulls and lunch beckoning we made our way back to the RSPB reserve passing a solitary Tree Sparrow on the feeders on the way in. Lunch outside on the benches was pleasant and positively balmy and set us up for our circuit of the trail.

Burrows Pit yielded two red-head Goosander but there was no sign of the two Smew and a flock of very smart male Pintail upended in the shallows. The trees were chock full of Cormorants in all plumage states. A much underrated bird.

Goldcrests called from the Sallows and a Raven found its way onto the list in the usual Denge Marsh area along with our second and third Great White Egrets and at least six different Marsh Harriers.  We were at the big bend before the Hookers Pit view point when I heard some Long-tailed Tits and a Firecrest call. I stopped the group and immediately heard a squelchy tecking from the brambles in front. My very first thought was Lesser Whitethroat but then up pops a calling Dusky Warbler right in my view. I called it immediately and it flew to the sallows behind. Over the next hour it called on an off and we had glimpses of it several times but needless to say it was staying low in the strong winds. 

As the light fell we decided to leave it be and continue on the trail feeling the warm glow of a very good self found bird.  There was nothing with the large Greylag flock from the viewpoint and a very impressive Leopard Slug was the highlight!

Leopard Slug - what a beast!

With a little light left we drove back to the ARC (passing another Great White on the way) and spent a wondrous last hour (till after the non-existent sundown) watching at least five Great White and eight Little Egrets fly into roost along with another Bittern flyby, weed-dancing Grebes, Kingfisher, Water Rail and an acrobatic female Merlin to round off an unexpectedly excellent day out.

Tuesday 3 November 2015

Year of the Owl...

Just a bit of murk this morning with no grotty claggy fog but thankfully also no wind either. I headed out shortly after we opened up and wended my way towards the woodland. Redwings and Song Thrushes were pinging out of the bushes and the playground held a nice mixed flock of Green, Gold and Chaffinches.  

I successfully pished out a Goldcrest and some Long-tailed Tits by the bridge and a Chiffchaff called a little further back but was drowned out by the Cetti’s Warblers which were giving it large.  A Great Spot Woodpecker dropped into the chestnuts and had a quick thump at a dead branch or two before bounding off.

Amazingly, just for once, I actually remembered to look for the Barn Owl and one of them was sitting almost right outside their box albeit still miles away. A Common Darter flicked by and Wasps were out on patrol and seemingly after sluggish flies. 

No one saw a Dartford Warbler yesterday so I was very pleased to pick up what seemed to be the darker male bird in the little elders with its Stonechat chaperones. He performed very well for a few minutes before going to ground again. This is definitely not the bird that we saw last week and fits in with the original report of a male bird and not a drab first-winter bird. Indeed later on both birds were seen in the same spot so keep your eyes peeled.

Dartford Warbler

Dartford Warbler and Stonchat - Trevor Oakley


There were plenty of Skylarks and finches bimbling around and they were to become a feature of the morning.  A little further on the last of Clive Watts’s summer charges was still in her dew soaked web although by midday she had apparently gone. As none of us have ever seen a wasp Spider past the last week in September this late run of specimens here has been remarkable.

Wasp Spider
The smell of the huge Polar just past Ken B is probably the most autumnal of any tree on site – rich and earthy with just a hint of decay and damp. I am never sure if I actually like the smell or not (a bit like Horse Chestnut flowers) but it is so much a sign of the turning of the seasons with green leaves turning golden yellow before the blackness of their species quickly overtakes them. 

Out on Aveley Pools there were 21 scattered Pintail in elegant upending pairs while Shoveler squibbled in groups and a Little Egret and several Grey Herons speared fish in the shallow water. There are only a smattering of diving duck so far as the water levels remain so low. Both the adult male and female Marsh Harriers quartered the marsh with the male looking particularly resplendent while in the corner of the Tringa Pool a smart Water Pipit alerted me to its presence with its less strident ‘phist’ call.


I was then delighted to discover that the annual reprofiling of the Butts Scrape had attracted at least five of these smart, pale, eyestriped pipits to scurry along the muddy margins with several Pied Wagtails, 20 Meadow Pipits and a big flock of Linnets. I am hopeful that this becomes a feature of the winter rather than us trying to find odd birds on the foreshore. It is not that they are difficult to identify, it is just that trying to find them lurking amongst the seaweed is! Other sites such as Staines Moor, Stodmarsh, Minsmere and the Yare Valley Marshes hold good wintering numbers in similar habitat so perhaps this is the time of change for our precious piece of marsh?

Water Pipit

Water Pipit

Snipe zig-zagged overhead and a Kingfisher almost flew into the hide as it zipped towards the MDZ. The male Marsh Harrier gave another fly by and my first Short-eared Owl of the day dropped back onto the foreshore in the distance after going for one of their early morning wanderings. Later on up to five would be seen incredibly well down at the west end of the river wall where they have a liking for the longs on the saltmarsh before heading up onto the capped landfill and into the Enclosed Bay to hunt. The quality of the images coming out of there has been superb.

male Marsh Harrier

Basil Thornton and his wife were watching the Bearded Tits at the Dragonfly Pool at incredibly close range but I could not focus on them quick enough and thankfully Basil let me use his wondrous shots.

Bearded Tit - Basil Thornton

Bearded Tit - Basil Thornton

Just a short way past this the energetic vols were busy with the lengthy task of fitting the new plastic planking onto the section of boardwalk that has had to be replaced. They are doing a great job – only about 3.5km to go...

Up on the river wall where the low tide revealed a great selection of waders across both sides of the Thames with 4 Knot, Bar-tailed Godwit, 18 Black-tailed Godwit, Greenshank, Spotted Redshank, 180 Dunlin, 97 Redshank, 391 Lapwing, 8 Golden Plover and 4 Curlew. Knot are especially scarce here and Fraser did well to find them first thing this morning. Teal and gulls lined the edges and I counted nine Yellow-legs amongst them. The first three Shelduck were also back on the mud after their summer sojourn to Germany but more of that later.  Two tame Kestrels allowed a close approach on my amble back along the Victorian seawall and six Rock Pipits and yet more Skylarks were seen but a sausage bap brunch beckoned and only some super spotty Starlings and Teasel munching Goldfinches distracted me for the last hundred yards.

The rest of the day was an inside affair but I cannot really complain with frequent views of various Marsh Harriers and the two monster Ravens once again upsetting the local corvids and causing me mid-meeting to exclaim ‘oh...look  a Raven – kronk kronk’. A Short-eared Owl even glided past the window and along the southern trail much to everyone’s delight while plump Greenfinches investigated the fat hips outside the window.

Shorties - Tom Bell

Shortie - Bill Crooks

Shortie - Russ Sherriff

The final noteworthy sight for the day was a skein of high flying small ‘geese’ that Andy Tweed somehow picked up. They were mere dots and it took some time to get them in the scope but they were not Pinkies as we first suspected but 23 migrating Shelduck dropping in from a grey sky freshly arrived after their long flight from the Waddenzee where the adults head en masse in the summer to moult on this huge shallow body of water with tidal flats and wetlands.  

So, although they ‘only’ turned out to be Shelduck and not some unusual incoming grey geese, their arrival is probably more significant for announcing the return of a species that is characteristic of our mighty southeast muddy estuaries and to show that you should always expect the unexpected but that it is not always something as out of the ordinary as you might as hoped!