22 October 2018

Birders visit Isle of Sheppy


Canada Goose
On a perfect autumn day, as we approached Elmley NNR on the Isle of Sheppey (from a variety of different directions - in joke!) our expectations were high - partly because this area of Kentish coastal marshes is featured in Dickens' "Great Expectations". However, the landscape in front of us belied his description of the bleakly dank wilderness that haunts the novel.

"The mist  was heavier on the marshes - gates and dykes and banks came bursting at me through the mist.  the cattle came upon me with like suddenness staring out of their eyes and steaming out of their nostrils - the marshes were positively  hellish, illuminated by a large red moon and the air heavy with a sluggish stifling smell". 

What confronted us could not be more different - the sky was the brightest blue, the larks soared high, the cattle were positively welcoming and the air was sweet and warm. There is a two mile drive from the road to the car park crossing  fields, passing peaty-brown pools fringed with reeds in silver flower, the only noise the lazy chomping of the beef herd. 

At Elmley you are not allowed to get out of the car on the drive up for fear of "disturbing the wildlife" so it was windows down and some frantic waving and pointing to the car behind as we frequently stopped our convoy to observe birds from the car windows, twisting ourselves around, down and then up to get the best view - just like the mad, foraging starlings. Our reward for these contortions - red legged partridge fussing about at the gate, majestic marsh harrier treating us to a flypast, picture book flocks of lapwing swooping then flashing black and white, solitary buzzards, harriers and kestrel motionless on fence posts close by and at a distance.

Marsh Harrier
Cars parked- and seen off by chirruping sparrows, we headed down from the farm which now runs this national nature reserve (used to be the RSPB) to the pools, and Swale Estuary. Half a dozen shepherd huts are set atop the hill with commanding views of the reserve from tiny patios - literally "way out" spartan accommodation for the most romantic and warm blooded.

We took the  lengthy walk to the first hide. Running along one side of the path is a grass covered sea wall protecting the feeding birds from the disturbing sight of us humans on the prowl with our bins and scopes. The site is extremely exposed;  few trees and bushes survive here and most days the slightest wind would be chilling, but now it was a joy to stroll along in the stillness and warm sunshine spotting meadow pipit, kestrel, linnet, skylark and numerous marsh harrier above and dabchick below en route to the hides. Dragonflies and damselflies whirred about in the rough and tumble of mid-air mating, the larger ones could almost be mistaken for small birds. 

Red Legged Partridge
Autumn is not the very best time to experience Elmley - winter and early spring are better as many waders, winter duck and geese flocks arrive in their thousands. But the beauty and remoteness of this special place in such clement weather more than compensated. There were few birds loitering about near the hides but we had excellent views here of a male marsh harrier, kestrel, heron and little egret. In all we saw 37 species - not bad for a "quiet" time of year. There were more that we couldn't identify as the light held them in silhouette and they were frustratingly distant, but no matter.  

We positively labelled: coot, cormorant, crow, dabchick, little egret, gadwall, goldfinch, Canada goose, greylag, greenshank, redshank, black headed gull, lesser black backed gull, marsh harrier, heron, jackdaw, kestrel, lapwing, skylark, linnet, magpie, mallard, moorhen, oystercatcher, red legged partridge, meadow pipit, rook, sparrow, starling, mute swan, teal, pochard, curlew, wood pigeon, wren, green woodpecker, buzzard. Oh yes, and we startled a hare on our way out. All in all a perfect Kentish marshland experience- Charles Dickens eat your heart out!!

Here are some more birdy dates for your diary:

Wednesday, 14th November - trip to Cliffe Pools on the Thames Estuary. Morning + lunch- BOOKING NOW
Thursday 13th December - morning only wander around Bough Beech
Friday 14th December - Third Age Birders - Christmas Lunch 12.30 The Old Eden BOOKING NOW