Swale NNR and Capel Fleet were the venue for my regular wander this week with the usual band of hopefuls.
We took the journey down the Harty Road slowly, watching the fields as we cruised past. A flock of Fieldfare were feeding amongst a cabbage crop. They were hard to see at first, but as we watched more came into view, 25 were counted, but there would have been more out of view. We stopped at Capel Fleet Viewpoint, and the first bird we saw was a ring-tail Hen Harrier – Wow what a start! There were two female Marsh Harriers hunting over the nearby fields as well. At times the two species came together, with the Marsh Harriers taking the higher sky and the Hen Harrier remaining low over the fields and hedges. Eventually the Hen Harrier moved off towards the Swale and Shellness.
Next up were a couple of Common Buzzard circling up in the thermals and gaining height rapidly. Their presence was realised when a huge flock of Mallard flew up in the distance. Nearer to the viewpoint there were groups of Starling – both adult and some remaining in partial juvenile plumage. They were flying from the spoil heap in front of the Viewpoint onto the fields and then to the telegraph wires. Gradually more and more were seen, there were hundreds, if not thousands, of them.
Magpie, Pied Wagtail, and Linnet were also seen. In a bush near to the Viewpoint a couple of female Reed Bunting were perched, watchful with the raptors about. Two Bearded Tits flew into the reeds “pinging” as they arrived. Red-legged Partridge were identified by Malcolm by their call, but remained unseen. Over 40 Corn Bunting gathered on the wires, vying with the Starling for position.
Our birds of prey count was completed by Kestrel, Sparrowhawk and Merlin, the latter momentarily perched on the top of the spoil heap. The final additions to this part of our day were Stonechat – spotted by Irene – Curlew (seen in the distance with the ‘scope), Grey Heron, Carrion Crow, Great Black-backed and Black-headed Gull.
Parking up in the new area assigned by the Barn, we wandered down to Harty Church for Elevenses. Hard work this birding lark! In the churchyard there were many Wood Pigeons enjoying the sunshine, along with Robin, Greenfinch, Great Tit, Blue Tit, Goldfinch, Wren and Blackbird. We could hear Brent Geese on the Swale, and at one stage a large group flew in. As the tide was out at this time, we hoped to get better views later as birds were pushed up with the tide.
As we entered Swale NNR Little Egret flew overhead with Grey Heron following, both were coming up from the river as the tide started to turn. Wigeon, Curlew, Lapwing, Dunlin, Grey Plover, Brent Geese, Cormorant and Black-tailed Godwit were along the edge of the river. Seals were hauled up on the sandbank in the river.
More Bearded Tits were dipping along the top of the reeds, and another Kestrel hovered over the nearby fields. Meadow Pipit flew up from the fields as we continued along the path. On one of the nearby pools were a small flock of Mallard. Further away Shoveler and Teal fed. In the distant fields were Swans, all Mute as far as we could see, and others flew in as we watched. Greylag Geese were seen in the distance with the use of the telescope, and a group of pure white farm geese were feeding with some Brent Geese. We had lunch on the edge of the path, (as the hide has been closed off for safety reasons) hoping that the warmth from the sun would negate the cool breeze – it almost worked – hopefully the hide will be replaced in the near future.
When we returned to the car we noticed that Harty Church was open, so whilst Sally, Irene and I took the opportunity to go into the Church, Malcolm went off to investigate the Turkey Oaks lining the drive. What for?? ?Galls of course. On his way there he did find four Red-legged Partridge in a barn, but they had gone by the time we got there.
The Church was delightful, with a peace and calm probably due to the age of the building which had been dated back at least 920 years. Old timbers are said to be older, and probably part of a lookout structure from when all shipping entered the Thames from the south of Sheppey and the Swale. We resisted the temptation of the lovely Jams and Chutneys for sale and went off to see if we could find some owls.
On the way back to Capel Fleet Viewpoint we found first one and then a group of about a dozen Red-legged Partridge which brought the girls up to date with Malcolm’s previous sighting. On the Viewpoint it was cold and as the sun began to set behind the new seats our resolve was tested. (Thanks to Sally for the artistic shot below) With the prospect of a potential owl, we stuck it out for almost an hour, but on this occasion it was not to be.
However, the highlight of the day awaited us as Marsh Harriers started to fly in. First one or two flew over the reed beds and then dropped in to roost for the night. Several more came in, at one stage we had five birds flying around. Most were heading for an area to the left of the Viewpoint, but there were others heading for an area of reed-bed to the right as well. We tried to keep a count, but as one bird eventually dropped, another arose from the reed-bed again. They were hesitant and seemed to take forever to finally drop into the roost site, but gradually around 20 birds must have come in. We had to leave before it was finally dark, but this really had been the spectacle of the day. A brilliant event to witness; these enigmatic birds gathering for the night made us feel extremely privileged.
Just to ensure that we maintained our excitement a Merlin shot by, and then along the road a Stonechat perched right opposite the car on a fence post giving Sally the opportunity to capture this great shot.