Tuesday 22 January 2019

Old Winter Haunts

North Kent: 21st January 2019

I have not been out birding at all since I got back from The Gambia. It’s not that British birding is suddenly boring or inherently dull; it is just that with the almost continuous lack of light and short gloomy days, everything just seems grey and lack lustre.

I have spent almost all of the ensuing days at work and am ashamed to say that I have not even done a circuit since then. I am simply struggling to find any enthusiasm to be outside in the monochromatic world that I can see just as well from the big window of the centre.
As such I was pleased to actually make it out yesterday for a north Kent jaunt with the troops for a back to basics sort of day along the coast, harking back to the first guided trips I led almost 15 years ago.

We met at the very respectable hour of 8.30 at the tiny Motney Hill car park overlooking the Medway. It was below freezing with a thick frost (which is also beneficial when turdwatching at this locale...) and the tide was inevitably a long way out but unusually I had actually checked things out and it was already on the way back in.

Over the next hour the originally distant waders came closer and closer and the group were treated to superbly educational views of the large flocks of Knot and Dunlin interspersed with big-eyed Grey Plovers, Ringed Plovers, Turnstones, Redshanks and Curlews and all in glorious light against blue skies. 

Wigeon, Teal, Grey Plover & Black-headed Gull

Knot & Dunlin

Knot & Dunlin

Knot & Dunlin

Dunlin - Steve Cullum

Lapwing - Steve Cullum

A lone Spotted Redshank was found and Avocets and Black-tailed Godwits fed further out and a flotilla of 12 ghostly Great Crested Grebes dozed and drifted with the incoming tide. 

Spotted Redshank & Lapwing

Pintail, Teal, Shoveler and Wigeon lifted up when the creeks flooded and the soft calls of these carried through the calm air and along with the waders, gave the group a good chance to learn the calls of these commoner species. A few Dark-bellied Brent Geese grumbled away and moved between Rainham Creek where we were watching and Otterham Creek on the other side of the peninsular.

Dark-bellied Brent Geese - Steve Cullum

Dark-bellied Brent Geese
Winter thrushes and a Blackcap were in the bushes and a couple of Rock Pipits were predictably on the foreshore as we headed back to the cars.

Frosty walk - Sam Shippey

A quick(ish) visit to the Bobbing Golden Arches and then onto Sheppey and Harty Marshes passing the requisite Corn Bunting flock on the usual brambles on the way. A game shoot was being prepared for but we still managed to squeeze our cars  amongst the 4x4s on the hardstanding by the farm at Harty Church and set off down towards the Swale.

Red-legged Partridges scurried and then flew out of our way and the stubble fields, edged in millet, held flocks of Meadow Pipits, Skylarks, Linnets, Chaffinches and Reed Buntings along with several nicely grey continental Song Thrushes. A Chiffchaff called in the sallows.

Poplar Avenue - Sam Shippey

Game strip looking towards Shellness - Sam Shippey
We stopped alongside the line of poplars and viewed out across the Swale NNR where the 300 or so strong flock of Russian White-fronted Geese could be seen grazing. They were a long way off but the light was superb and there was not a breath of wind and the scopes ate up the distance to beyond the old saltwork mounds that are now a huge rabbit warren.
Raptors were on view constantly with at least a dozen Marsh Harriers in all plumages, a couple of Buzzards and two ringtail Hen Harriers that came incredibly close as they hunted the field margins. I am pretty sure that both were females with one being and adult and one an immature.  

ringtail Hen Harrier - Steve Cullum
A chance scan with the scope resulted in a Bittern flopping up into view from the main channel. I tried to tell others where I had seen it only for it to perform another mini circuit for me alone!
The shoot beaters began their flush and so we started to head back with Partridges and Pheasants breaking for cover in all directions and the blasts of shotgun fire echoing all around although we never did see a single bird tumble from the sky.
The White-fronts and Greylags were not amused though and the whole mass erupted into the air on a lengthy energy wasting circuit of the reserve.

Lunch was taken back at the Capel Fleet Raptor Viewpoint like in the good old days.  We merrily munched away while watching more Marsh Harriers and Buzzards than I care to count and splendid views of two more ringtail Hen Harriers that both appeared slimmer and more lightly built that the Harty duo and could well have been young males. 

Marsh Harrier - Steve Cullum

A female Merlin perched up for us on a couple of occasions but was never seen in flight and the Corn Buntings were seen again on their favourite bushes. Kestrel, Sparrowhawk, Snipe, Golden Plover and huge Stock Dove flocks were also noted.

Now, normally I would have stayed here until dark in the hope of more raptor and some owl action but the lure of the roosting Rough-legged Buzzards at Funton Creek saw us heading back off the island.

Since my early trips out with Peter Gurr in his self-painted golden VW Beetle with seat modifications, I have always known this large bay as Funton Creek although it would appear that I should have been calling it Bedlams Bottom as the creek is just a tiny trickle in the middle at low tide.

We all pulled up in the spacious laybys amongst the detritus of modern life and a rather large selection of ancient white goods. The spot is no more salubrious than when I first visited over 30 years ago.

There have been two Rough-legged Buzzards using the area, one to the west out on Barksore and one to the east on Chetney.  The latter had been incredibly reliable at coming into roost at about 4.30pm and so we settled in for a scan round and wait.
It was still calm and quiet although the temperature was dropping fast. Fortunately, I picked up the Barksore bird on the top of a bush where it sat preening for a quite a while before dropping out of view.  Common Buzzards were dotted around and Marsh Harriers were always on view.

After a while it reappeared and headed east across to Chetney showing off the tail, extent of its black belly patch and contrasting head and breast.  As time went on Short-eared Owls started to appear out over Chetney and at least four were seen but at great range along with a ringtail Hen Harrier and an increasing number of Buzzards and Marsh Harriers. 

A large lump on the distant river wall was confusing me – my brain said Peahen but this appeared illogical until it turned around and went for a walk – yep – one plump mega-pheasant. The bay was teaming with a similar array of waders to Motney and as usual Pintail numbers were impressive.

With the light going we were concentrating on not missing the Rough-leg coming into roost in the paddock behind us and I picked up both birds together heading purposefully south away from our location but would they return?

Common Buzzards were now heading into the trees behind us and I wrongly called one as a Rough-leg while another had a juvenile female Peregrine on its tail and thus became the eighth raptor of the day.

Everyone had now left for home bar our car and Gary, one of the locals, and at just before five the sneaky Rough-leg glided in low from the Chetney direction to take up his roost spot in his favourite oak tree in a fitting end to a recuperative day out at some of my old winter birding haunts.

As my good friend has pointed out to me today...
"Doing something which you enjoy is much better than not doing anything..."

Think I better pull my finger out...

Tuesday 8 January 2019

The Gambia in glorious technicolour...

And so, the final instalment of my Gambian adventure. No birds in this one but a recollection of the impression the country made on me in my first trip south of the Sahara.

To a poorly travelled, habituated westerner like myself The Gambia was something of a culture shock and so I took the opportunity to snap what I saw on my phone, more often then not as we trundled by in the bus.

Beyond the tranquillity and perfection of the hotels and their grounds was a mad conglomeration of peoples concentrated around the main conurbation hubs or in the case of Kotu, the main road through the middle.

The traffic was chaotic with no apparent rules other than try not to hit a pedestrian, other vehicle, cow, donkey or importantly a traffic cop desperately waving their hands in all directions at once whilst standing on the white line in the middle and trying not to swallow their little referees whistle.

The roadsides were as congested as the two lane road itself with ranks of gleaming yellow and green Mercedes Taxis parked up amongst the skeletons of other vehicles that were not so lucky and had expired and were left to become street furniture for all and sundry.

Cool Runnings! Had to watch it when I got home...

Dotted amongst them were countless umbrellas that seem to have originated from the same mobile phone company that had obviously got a job lot on a trillion of the things and gave them away with every contract.

Underneath said umbrellas sat all of Gambian life selling almost anything you could possibly imagine. Water Melons and Peanuts were definitely in season but were being sold alongside miscellaneous unidentifiable fruits and vegetables, bundles of faggots, sacks of charcoal, phone cases, dried fish and suitcases.


The Tourists...

Donkey off to the bank to pay in a cheque...

The Chat Up...

Mobile hawkers touted their wares from barrows with phones, glasses, hats and cooking utensils and others set up stalls selling what I presume would become lunch.
Quite simply the coolest man in the Gambia...


It was amazing.  I have never really looked closely at the other non wildlife things around me on foreign trip especially the people but the sights, smells, sounds and above all colour took me unawares.

This was repeated at both sides of both ferry crossings over the river but was compressed into even tighter spots with corrugated iron shack seeming to hold each other up by will power alone.  Each commercial enterprise was bustling and a satellite dish wired to the roof was as much a prerequisite as the umbrellas out front.

Above all they were a happy people, for the most part immaculately dressed in vivid colours that contrasted strongly with the general orange dustiness of the rest of the world around them.

The happy singing joggers...

The Golf Course Running Club
The Ferries were an experience in themselves with utter chaos at the point of entry and exit with no one in particular calling the shots and just how pedestrians did not get squashed in the melee I do not know.


Looking down on the crowd from the top deck was a kaleidoscope of colour and diversity and when the gate open they flowed around the cars and vans and bikes off up the road into Barra carrying impossible loads on the heads and some with babies on their backs. The air smelt of dried fish, dust, sweat and two stroke fuel.

Private boat crossings required some improvisation

Once out on the road there was very little traffic with as many donkey and traps as cars and trucks but everyone smiled and waved as we went past.  Even when out on foot in the forest or scrub we would come upon some kids who would high-five us as they went through or people working their fields would stop and look up and wave a greeting. We even all got invited to share dinner with a family in one of the huts in the village up behind Tendaba.

All in all I can say that I have seldom felt more welcome in a new country than I did in my week in the Gambia. The people make a country what it is and the Gambians have got that bit of the deal sewn up tight.   

The wedding party on the beach - Feel the tension...oh dear, who bought the same fabric?

Meanwhile on the road past the hotel a mobile wedding celebration was also taking place...

I would like to think that I will get the opportunity to return to this wondeful country again in the future.