The frost promised for last week finally put in an appearance this weekend. The skies were clear overnight with stars sprinkled like glitter over velvet. The ground and grass were crusted with white that sparkled in the moonlight and the roads were icy and uncertain. I wrapped up with two hats, cleared the windscreen and set off slowly and carefully.
As I got closer to the Isle of Sheppey the mist gathered in the valleys and hollows, separating the land into layers and flattening features to create a cardboard cutout landscape. A little owl replaced the barn owl, taking his spot on the fenceposts by the road. When I slowed down to take a look the car slipped slightly on the ice and I was reminded to take care. Little owls are lovely birds but if I'd pranged the car just for a view of one I don't think my dear wife would have appreciated the excuse, 'An owl made me do it'!
Mists covered the marsh but I could see the sky overhead and I knew that it wouldn't be too long before the blanket of white lifted and cleared. As the sun rose it worked its magic and transformed the marsh from grey to blue then to purple before burning it yellow, orange and peach for a short while. Whilst this went on the wigeon whistled, the plovers peewitted and the curlews cried. A reed bunting bustled through the reeds close to the car and meadow pipits leapfrogged down the track. Despite the cold, the low sun coloured the birds and reeds with a warm, buttery glow.
The barns around the car park were dripping with starlings, all chattering and chittering. It's a sound that always typifies winter to me. The path to the hide was littered with iced over puddles like pools of moonstone. The ice glittered, swirled and swooped in abstract patterns, portals to a world of beauty in a simple puddle. I recorded some with the camera and left them as I found them but I confess that I couldn't resist stepping on one or two just to enjoy that feeling of boyish joy that came when the ice squeaked and creaked, cracked and finally shattered beneath my destructive boot.
Short eared owls are often seen on Elmley in the winter and most of my encounters with them have been on days like Sunday, cold, clear and icy so I scanned the marsh for them, taking in the pastel landscape. The grass was peppermint green and the sky spearmint blue. Separating the two was a horizon of smoked lilac, all the deliciously sweet colours of sugared almonds. There were pheasants scattered here and there, highlights of burnished copper picked out by the sun.
A slow approach to the hide had revealed a large flock of lapwings resting on the islands in the scrape. I entered the hide as quietly as I could, knowing that one sound or movement too loud or sudden could send the whole flock into the air in a panic of black and white wings. Luckily the windows of the hide were crusted with ice and they disguised my entry as effectively as any bathroom window. I lifted a flap cautiously but, even so, some of the three hundred or so birds lifted to circle before settling themselves down among their fellows. There were no teal on the water at all in total contrast to last week. Indeed, the only other birds sharing the scrape were a small group of skylarks and an oystercatcher that was clearly unfamiliar with the saying, 'birds of a feather stick together. I enjoyed the company of the lapwings for a while, and sketched one or two before the time inevitably came for me to pack up and make my way home and I had to reluctantly make a start.
As part of the defences against the Swale, should she ever turn nasty and try to flood Elmley, an embankment runs around the outside edge of the path that circles the reserve. In one or two spots on the track it is possible to take a sneaky look at the mudflats without disturbing the birds that rest, roost and feed there. In one of those spots a wonderful sight awaited me; A short eared owl sat in the rough grass just on the Swale side of the embankment. All thought of Christmas shopping left me then as I set up my scope and began sketching. The opportunity to sketch an SEO on the ground was too good to miss. I love their catlike features and those eyes! Often as I watched she turned those eyes on me and stared a direct and piercing glare straight down the barrel of the scope as if to say; 'How dare you look upon my person Sir!' Although she kept a wary eye on me she seemed to be remarkably relaxed and she even closed her eyes and dozed intermittently. After a while I simply had to leave her to enjoy her nap in the sun. I was running a little late even before the owl but she had just delayed me to a dangerous degree. Nobody should mess with the schedule of a woman with Christmas shopping on her 'to do' list. When I got home with my tail between my legs I told her;
'An owl made me do it!'
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