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;
Duties as the family taxi driver meant an opportunity to get out to Stodmarsh National Nature Reserve on Thursday of this week, a bonus trek for me not to be missed. There is a hide there which has a couple of sticks planted in the shallows right in front of it. The sticks are there to serve as fishing posts for the local kingfishers and they use them regularly. Consequently they have become possibly the most photographed sticks in the whole of the western hemisphere, along with the kingfishers that use them. I planned to add my own photos to the many and to get my eye back in sketching one of my favourite birds.
When I woke the weather was less than promising. Heavy rain and strong winds had settled in over night leaving me thinking that the whole day could turn into nothing more than a damp squib. Not one to be put off however, I made the journey anyway, battling winds strong enough to take the car in unwanted directions and rain driven into the windscreen so hard that the wipers struggled to keep up. When I did get to the reserve the rain had begun to ease a little but the wind remained violent. I waited quietly in the car until I thought I wouldn't drown if I ventured out, and I packed my gear in plastic for the walk to the hide. The wind was bitter and biting, it whipped across the rain soaked fields turning the raindrops into a million little needles that buried themselves into my face, not pleasant, and why does wind always have to blow directly into my face I wondered.
The hide was like a little luxury, somewhere out of the stinging rain. I peeled off some of the dripping outer layers and settled to watch the activity on the pool in front. There was a large flock of teal out on the choppy water, bobbing about like a flotilla of small boats riding out a storm in an uncertain harbour, and once in a while a lone gull would wing past pulled at by the wind. Gradually the rain lessened and the birds began to relax a little. Three redshanks appeared and began feeding over the far side, constantly moving, their long beaks probing the mud and their sharp rear ends in the air. The teal flock moved on and a little egret flew in, amazingly dazzlingly white against the grey water. He settled into the lee of some reeds and began to preen, keeping his crisp, bright whites clean despite living a life closely tied to sticky marsh mud. Egrets are recent arrivals to the UK first being seen regularly in 1989 and breeding here first in 1996. They are now relatively common in Southern Engald and are extending their range steadily northwards. I must admit that because I see them so regularly I often take them for granted but I really shouldn't. They are graceful little birds all floaty plumes and soft white feathers. When they lift their feet from the water they seem to be wearing bright cadmium yellow slippers at the end of long black limbs.
The sun miraculously appered and drenched the reserve in clear, cold, liquid gold light and the bird I'd waited for appeared in a flash of blue and orange low over the water. He perched in the sun on one of the famous sticks and posed for me a while. It was good to get my kingfisher fix and I feel another painting coming on.
After a whole morning of watching from the hide I decided that I should walk the reserve for a while before it was time to pick up my son from uni. The ground was so sticky and slippery that it felt like skiing most of the time. Each time I planted my feet they would slip backwards or sideways and I must have looked comical trying to stay upright with my arms and tripod flapping about like rags in a tree. The reward though was worth the effort. A startled flock of lapwing alerted me to a bird of prey and, as I focussedthe binoculars I recognised the ring of white at the base of the tail that signals a hen harrier. A scarce bird here with less than 800 breeding pairs their numbers are boosted slghtly during the winter by birds coming over from the continent. I see marsh harriers regularly but the thrill of a bird seen maybe twice in a year is hard to beat and I left the reserve a happy man.
Grey. That just about sums up the last few days. Near constant rain, from drizzle to downpour the clouds have been abandoning their passengers over the South East corner of England. The damp seeps into your bones when weather like this settles in for an unwelcome stay. Sunday morning promised nothing more than more of the same, a continuing, moisture ridden theme. The dawn was grey, leaden skies heavy with the expectation of sudden downpours deadened the sunrise to a lighter patch of grey on the dark grey horizon. As the day lightened the consequences of three days continuous rain showed as pools of quicksilver against the dripping ground. The mournful cries of curlews haunted the marsh, here and there the harsh rasp of a hidden snipe and the hoarse quack of mallard, a slightly melancholy chorus with just the soft peep of meadow pipits to provide a counterpoint.
Perhaps because of the damp I felt colder this week than in last Sunday's icy snow and I couldn't seem to shake the chill from my body. That was quickly forgotten though when I heard a familiar cry above me; The kek-kek-kek of a peregrine, and there, grey on grey storm, the unmistakeable bow shaped sillhouette tore across the sky. He circled and was joined by a second bird, this time a larger female. Together they continued to play the wind with consumate ease until, at an unknown stimulus, they raced into the distance and the dance was over. That encounter made me feel considerably brighter, a peregrine is a magnificent bird always guaranteed to send a tingle down the spine and bring excitement to the dullest of days. Already bouyed by the sighting, my spirits were further boosted by a passing barn owl, returnuing to roost in the box behind the car park.
Once again the scrape was dominated by a large flock of teal with occasional wigeon scattered here and there, strangers in the midst of the flock. The wind was a northerly which blew in through the viewing slots of the hide and began to sap the warmth from me once more. The teal fed,stretched, preened and squabbled, turning thier backs to the hide to face directly into the oncoming wind. I made a couple of pages of gesture sketches just trying to capture something 'tealy' on the paper. Flights of wigeon rose and resettled in the distance disturbed by the quartering marsh harriers, or perhaps, an unseen peregrine. Two pied wagtails briefly visited the mud under the hide windows, more grey for a grey day, but by no means drab. I love their characteristic walk with tails constantly wagging and their 'chiswick' calls when in flight.
Time being short this week we made our way back to the car park and a view of the little owl sitting in his tree. The drive home was interupted by the sight of a mixed flock of fieldfare and redwing, there must have been hundreds of them, feeding on the hawthorn berries by the road. Fieldfares are big noisy birds with the look of the bully about them whereas the much smaller redwings seem delicate in a colour scheme of umber, cream and fiery siennas, but the two types of thrush seem always to be together.
I wanted to stay longer with the fieldfare and redwing but the christmas shopping is not yet done...