Steve took Kevin and myself for a Gentleman’s Day Trip. We went to the Isle of Sheppey. Never an attractive place, in these conditions it resembles a slice of Soviet-era Siberia transplanted to Kent, complete with run-down holiday camps and its own prison.
We tumbled out of the car at Leysdown and straight into Arctic conditions. There were hundreds of Oystercatchers lining the distant sea-shore, and as we worked our way down to Shell Ness added Barwit, Dunlin, Knot, Curlew, Grey Plover, Turnstone, Sanderling, Redshank, Brent Goose and 5 species of Gull. As I gently nudged the scope round with the frozen stumps that used to be my hands we found a huge flock of Lapwing and Golden Plover, some Meadow Pipits and Stonechat, with a backdrop of Marsh Harriers and Common Buzzards patrolling the area.
The corner bushes held Reed Bunting, House Sparrow and Chaffinch. A local told us there were a couple of Twite on the marsh, a Hooded Crow by the reserve, and not much else. As we trudged down the Sea Wall to the Swale NNR I saw in the distance a Crow with grey on the wings and body but this would be clearly easier to pick up later. We got to the first hide and ticked off Grey Heron, Little Grebe, Mute Swan, Wigeon, Shoveler, Teal, and Shelduck, a couple of hundred or so Greylag Geese, and eventually Steve located a few tens of White-Fronted Geese amongst them, a Little Egret flew past, but no sign of the Hooded Crow.
Next stop was the Capel Fleet raptor watch point. This is an excellent addition to the area from the last time I was here roughly 10 years ago, the main benefit being a couple of regulars who skilfully and patiently pointed out the various raptors across this vast panorama. Firstly there was a Rough-Legged Buzzard tangling with a Common Buzzard. New for all of us, the white upper tail and longer wings of the Rough-Leg were evident. It conveniently hovered, then sat in a bush where its pale head and white upper tail were clear. Otherwise there were two ringtail Hen Harriers, a Merlin shot across, and a Peregrine circled high above the hill on the south. All the while Marsh Harriers cruised the area agains the backdrop of the prison wall.
Then Harty Ferry Inn for an unexpectedly excellent lunch. The sun was coming out now, the island was warming up, and I could feel my fingers again. Great-Spotted Woodpecker was a surprise in the pub grounds, then another Ringtail Hen Harrier on the foreshore. We walked from Harty Church down to the Swale NNR again to have a last go at the Hooded Crow. A ringtail Hen Harrier sat in a tree - first time I've seen that - and another one giving excellent close views. Red-Legged and Grey Partridges were everywhere and Pheasants too – and so were shooters, distant figures with flags, dogs and guns being a consistent feature of the day. A distant passerine flock on the edge of a field contained Chaffinches, Greenfinches, Reed Buntings, a Blue Tit and a couple of Bramblings which were my first for a while. On the reserve were 50+ Stock Doves – by far the most numerous dove we saw on the island - 100+ of Rooks, Jackdaws and Crows but still no Hooded. 13 Avocet flew up the Swale and a Seal briefly breached the surface.
We just had time to return to the raptor view point as the light faded. 6 Marsh Harriers sat in a field. At least 4 more were flying around. A Merlin then shot past and sat on a post giving smashing views. A Barn Owl quartered a neighbouring field, and almost unnoticed a Cetti’s Warbler sang from the reedbed and a pair of Gadwall paddled out of the reeds.
Eight species of raptor! And Marsh Harriers in flocks! What a fantastic place. We totalled around 65 species. It will be much less than another 10 years until I’m back, and next time I’ll bring some gloves.
Photos courtesy of Kevin, the two birds being taken through his scope.