Sunday morning at Elmley National Nature Reserve, on the Isle of Sheppey, dawned sunny but very windy and, as we expected the weather to turn showery, 13 members of the group prepared with rain-gear accordingly. The track into the reserve had given us close-ups of lapwings and redshank and a hare, huddled some distance away, still and low with its elongated facial features, spied us. Its long, trade mark ears were flattened along its back. It must be March!
We took a battering from the gusts as we walked to the first hide and it was noticeable as we dropped below the sea-wall, how everything calmed. From the track we had seen thousands of wigeon, occasionally being spooked by an unseen predator which sent them up into the sky in a maelstrom of swirling wings, helping them to avoid becoming a raptor meal. Golden plovers sat in one huge group and behind them a line of shelduck sheltered.
It was along the track that we caught sight of several large hares, doing what hares do this time of year, dashing around and then suddenly disappearing out of view, their light brown pelage blending perfectly with the reeds nearby. A perfect hiding place! It is likely that the hares were males chasing females, and although we didn’t witness any ‘boxing’ action, the female will fend off the male by using this boxing technique, testing him for strength and persistence before mating occurs. We did find some fur on the ground that had probably been tugged out during one of these battles. It is interesting to note that the young of a hare, or ‘leveret’ are ‘precocial’, in other words, they are relatively mature, furred and mobile after birth. Nature has equipped them with these advantages as they are born above the ground in a ‘form’. They are therefore exposed to predation straight away and need to be able to survive the elements, run fast and where possible stay motionless for hours to avoid detection. The mother will visit to feed the young, when it is safe to do so. Apparently, with luck, a hare may live for 12 years!
At the edge of the pathway in a reed-bed, a male bearded tit was spotted, sheltering low down, giving the group a good view for a minute or two. Skylarks, meadow pipits and reed buntings were observed, whilst in the distance, marsh harriers and buzzards patrolled the reserve for a meal. At the hide, directly in front of us, the group quickly picked up on two ringed plovers, huddled together, trying to escape the prevailing wind. Here we saw many hundreds of wigeon, shoveler, and a scattering of geese. Whilst in the hide, the group were very fortunate to see a merlin, hunkered down on a bank. It was great to see this little raptor.
Lunch was consumed at the second hide, where once again the ducks of the day were wigeons. The muddy path back tested us for sure-footedness and the strong wind certainly gave us a ‘work-out’ physically! Back on the main pathway, oystercatchers, redshank, curlew and other birds flew across to the muddy shore, piping and calling.
The reserve looked particularly beautiful in the afternoon sun, the ditches reflecting the luscious blue sky and the rugged grass and reeds acted as fortification against the wind for the birds. Elmley NNR is a truly stunning area for wildlife! We all had a great day (and it didn’t rain after all) and I think the total species spotted for the day came to 56.
Quiz – 1/ How many species of bird are shown in the flock photograph? 2/ Name the species
Thanks to Chris and Terry for the photographs