A bright start to a winters day at Elmley on Saturday, where 18 members of the group met up. Enjoying the drive along the entrance track had already given us excellent sightings of marsh harrier, buzzard, several hundred lapwing, ruff (including one which seemed to already be gaining its white breeding plumage), black-tailed godwit and hunting kestrel.
From the car park, before everyone had arrived, a barn owl was seen by some. It looked quite dark on the back as it perched on a fence post, I was later told that there were two individual birds in the area, one a darker individual. Sadly the bird was flushed by someone walking along a nearby track before the rest of the group had arrived.
Once everyone had arrived we started off towards the viewing screen at the seawall. On the way we were entertained by a stoat which was running around, crossing the track ahead and then disappearing into the long grass, reappearing and jumping before crossing the track again. Malcom told us that he had heard that they used this energetic “dance” to tease potential prey into watching them, then whilst mesmerized, the stoat will pounce when least expected. Given that we found it highly entertaining, we could well believe this to be the case. Follow the link for a video showing just this behaviour. Stoat dancing
We had arrived at the screen on a receding tide, and were hoping to see birds feeding along the edge of the Swale. However, within minutes we were distracted by a short-eared owl which landed on the seawall nearby. It sat in long grass for several minutes then dipped out of sight as a marsh harrier flew over. Short-eared owl are resident in parts of the UK, and there are estimated to be a breeding population of between 850-1700 pairs*. The population is increased in winter by migrant birds arriving from Scandinavia, Russia and Iceland. The lower Thames estuary, North Kent and the Isle of Sheppey are excellent areas to look for them as they hunt for small mammals in the marshes and grass along the coast.
Back to the Swale, where waders were indeed feeding along the edge of the water including redshank, grey plover, dunlin, redshank, turnstone, ringed plover and a couple of knot. When marsh harrier and kestrel flew over, the waders were flushed only to return to feeding on the freshly revealed mud as soon as the hunter had passed. The Swale also had many shelduck with more widgeon, teal and mallard. A great-crested grebe was also seen later in our walk.
On the pastures around the pools and ditches on the reserve we could see many lapwing – a recent survey count for this species was 2662 for Elmley and Spitend, and we certainly saw a very high number. The species is an indicator of the success of the work being done on the reserve with 336 pairs of lapwing managing to fledge over 429 chicks between April and July, a productivity of 1.2 chicks fledged per brood. Not only is habitat management key to their breeding success, ensuring that predators are kept away from the nests is also vital. For more information on the Elmley lapwing surveys and other breeding species in 2019 see the link here: Elmley breeding birds
We continued along the track towards the hides watching as several kestrel hovered, looking for prey, we were lucky enough to find two individuals actually feeding. One was at a safe distance on a gate post, but the second was hunkered down on the edge of the track in front of us. Although both were aware of our presence, they did not waver from their task and we stood back whilst they continued to feed. We were delighted to be able to watch them acting completely at ease.
At least three pairs of stonechat were seen, they like to perch on seedheads and tall plants, suddenly dropping to the ground to feed before perching again, always on watch for any potential predators.
We had lunch in the Well Marsh hide which gave us time to watch grey heron, curlew, greylag, canada and brent geese as they were grazing on the fields. There were also three marsh harriers (two female/juveniles and a male) hunting along the ditches in the fields in this area. We had similar views from the South Fleet hide.
As we started our return journey, we had more views of hunting and perched kestrel – probably the best sightings of the day for many of us at this stage of the day.
Steve had started the return journey ahead of the rest of us and caused much excitement with a text to Hazel that he had seen a long-eared owl. This was quickly followed by a back-of-the-camera shot, just to make sure we got the message! Word got round quickly, and we moved with more purpose in search of Steve . . . . the good news was that we all saw the bird, some took photos, and we left it sitting quietly where we found it, always a good result!
Finally back at the car park, at least four short-eared owls were seen over nearby fields, and the second barn owl of the day flew past the old Elmley School building. A peregrine falcon was seen by a lucky few, adding to our raptor day!
As the sun started to set over the marshes, we left the reserve, taking our time to see buzzard and more marsh harrier as they flew towards their night roosts. Rabbit and several brown hare were chasing around and the lapwing and other waders were settling down for the night.
Thank you to all who came along and made it such an enjoyable day, and to Steve and Sally for their lovely photographs.
If you want to join us on our next Elmley trip, come along on 25th January 2020, full details are in our programme and will be posted on our website nearer the time.
If you are thinking of visiting Elmley, please check the website for up to date details of opening times which change during the year. Current information can be accessed here: Elmley Leaflet 2019
*Ref: Birdlife International