I was on my way towards Elmley RSPB reserve before first light on Sunday, it's not difficult in the winter because it's not light until seven or so. As I drive I'm always on the lookout for early birds, owls in particular. I was pleased to see a barn owl perched at the side of the road in almost the exact spot where I had placed one for my painting 'A moment of magic'. I had imagined him there and here it was, playing out for real, what a great start to the morning. The owl stayed put as I passed by in the car but he slipped silently away when I stopped a few yards down the road, no chance to photograph or draw him, but that didn't really matter to me.
I parked up within sight of the Sheppey bridge and waited for the light. As the sun struggled to make itself known through the cloud strewn sky a flock of greylag geese rose from the fields where they had been feeding, a honking chaos, the whole mass of them passed over the car and I heard the air rushing through their wings as they headed towards the Swale.
The second owl of the day was a winter speciality of Elmley, a distant short eared, hunting low over rough grass its wings longer than the barn owl and flight slightly 'harder'. I watched through the scope as it quartered, after a spectacular turn it plunged down into the grass and the death of a small mammal.
Raggedy groups of lapwings moved around, their flickering flight constantly moving from black to white on background of the wind tattered grey sky. Noisy starling gangs leapfrogged from place to place and everywhere there was the menacing presence of rooks and crows like scraps of bin bag blown by the wind.
A bend in the access road that I call 'merlin corner' because it seems to attract these dashing little falcons, provided another moment of magic as a superb Jack merlin shot through in low level flight typical of his species to strike terror into the hearts of the starling flocks. Again it was a very brief sighting with no time to react either with camera or sketchbook but sometimes it's as much about those things I don't draw as it is about those I do.
On the walk out to the hide a female stonechat popped up onto the skeleton of a large umbellifer, they love to sit on such vantage points and use them as platforms to hunt from. Stonechats are such characterful birds that I couldn't resist sketching her as she dashed from the perch and back again over and over. I spent some time in the hide watching and sketching distant teal as they fed, rested and preened on the far side of the scrape. The tide was out and most of the birds were out with it, feeding out on the mud while they had the chance before the returning tide covered everything once again.
The stonechat, or perhaps another, was perched on one of the gateposts on the walk back, so more sketches were called for. I arrived back at the car park just as a coach pulled in and disgorged it's anorak clad, thermos flask bearing occupants; Definitely time to leave the reserve and head home.
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