A last minute, weather related decision saw myself and Marianne, whose super Wild Side blog can be visited here, heading for the Isle of Sheppey.
Sheppey is a great birding area and there were several different locations on our agenda for the day. After some deliberation and at least one u turn involving both Sheppey bridges, we decided on a drive up and down the Elmley track, or a car safari as it's sometimes called. We hoped for Brown Hares, maybe a Merlin, or possibly even a Hen Harrier. None of these species were seen, but more on the Hen Harrier later!
The first bird we did see was this super Little Owl who watched us intently, with suspicion and a little curiosity, in true Little Owl fashion. He sat on the side of a farm building at the entrance to the reserve as if he owned the place, which of course he does, and soon after we had taken a quick snap he disappeared inside. We hoped we would see him again on the way back.
We did expect to see Lapwings and we certainly weren't disappointed on that score. The morning sun lit their plumage nicely and some males were practising their best courtship moves; heads down, tails in the air showing off their orange-brown rump, they know how to impress the ladies. There had been a hard frost the night before and some of the scrapes were covered in thin ice. Those that weren't were hosts to Coots, a few Ruff and a solitary Common Snipe.
There were a couple of pairs of Stonechats present along the track and this female obliged by perching fairly close by and on my side of the car. I assured Marianne that it would be there for her on the way back. Which of course it wasn't.
I've said it before and i'll say it again; there is no other song which reminds me more of summer than that of the Skylark. They sang all the way along the track and i've no doubt that with the windows shut, the sun shining and eyes closed you would have thought it was summer. I didn't shut my eyes and the windows were open and it was quite chilly. But you get my drift.
Several Marsh Harriers were criss crossing the marsh in search of prey and in the distance two Buzzards circled low, wings outstretched but appearing to struggle to find the lift to carry them higher.
As we approached the exit from the reserve we could see the Little Owl perched on the side of his barn. But as we approached he got shy and retreated inside and out of sight. We waited for a couple of minutes and curiosity got the better of him. A quick shot and then we left him in peace.
Our next destination was the Capel Fleet raptor viewpoint. But disappointingly the raptor's viewpoint was that they'd rather be elsewhere most of the time we were there. Fortunately the reedbed in front of the mound provided ample entertainment in the form of Bearded Tits who pinged temptingly from deep within and only allowed the briefest of views as they moved quickly from one stand of reeds to another identical stand of reeds, for whatever reasons that these nice little birds decide to do this. Cetti's Warblers, Reed Buntings and strangely, a Robin seemed to be the only other occupants. Apart, that is from a Water Rail which stepped out and began to preen in front of me. I was so surprised that instead of lifting my camera, I called to Marianne (too loudly) and it shot back in the reeds leaving her with a fleeting glimpse of its tail and me with no picture.
A little later, from the mound we did see a couple of Marsh Harriers and a couple of Buzzards. And then we both heard the unmistakeable call of Ravens and eventually spotted them on distant fence posts, too far away for even a record shot.
And so to Minster. Don't you just hate crowded beaches.
We were here to try and see the long staying Shore Lark, but the first things to look at were the waders, lots of them, including, Dunlins, Turnstones, Ringed Plovers and Sanderlings all pushed higher up the shingle by the rapidly rising tide.
Two other birders told us they had been watching the Shore Lark right where we were standing which was good as it is a fairly long stretch of shingle and it's just a small, well camouflaged bird. As we spoke it dropped in a few yards away but before we could say yippee, it was gone, seeming to fly away across the road. While we watched and waited for it to come back Marianne found several Med Gulls flying along the shore, frustratingly for her, each one was flying away from us offering rear view pics only, it's never easy is it.
Eventually the Shore Lark returned and we spent some minutes in its company as it fed non stop among the shingle. The two pics above show the bird standing still and alert after a passing wader sounded an alarm call. It was a false alarm.
Our final stop was Shellness car park where we hoped to see another long staying Sheppey bird, the Richards Pipit, which I believe is over wintering for the second year?
We made our way along the raised, grassy sea wall where said Pipit resides when all of a sudden I saw a bird, low over a field in front and to our right which turned out to be a male Hen Harrier. We were both amazed and delighted to see, for me anyway, one of our most exciting and most endangered Raptors. I only usually see these after a 600 mile trip to the Isle of Mull. So to see one here on the island in Kent was a real treat.
I'd like to say that we then found the Pipit, but we didn't, you can't have everything and there was still time to come back before it leaves these shores. And anyway, the White-fronted geese grazing on the marsh and a probable Peregrine, or maybe two perched on a post in the distance helped to ease the disappointment.
Time was getting on, but we still wanted to get to Shellness beach to see the waders there, so we made our way, with some difficulty along the flooded path (it was a very high tide) to the shore, watched over by this Kestrel, which if it had lips would have been smirking i'm sure. I did have a pair of wellingtons in the car and suggested that we wear one each and hop across, but this proved unnecessary in the end.
It was bitterly cold on the edge of the Swale and I didn't envy the small birds like this Turnstone who followed the now receding tide to find a last minute meal before the long winter night arrived.
But the stars for me were probably the Brent geese, I don't get to see them very often and they seem so much smaller and much more elegant, not to mention less raucous than the Greylags and Canada Geese that populate the inland freshwater lakes where I spend much of my time.
As the Brents flew over in never ending skeins, to wherever they choose to roost, and the light started to fade as the sun dipped below the horizon, we left for the car park. It had been a super day birding on Sheppey and I had added some excellent birds to my floundering Kent list. Even the crater ridden (pot hole just doesn't do it justice), Shellness track didn't seem so bad on the way back.