The second day of the decade dawned dull and dismal, as Calum and I headed towards the Isle of Sheppey. After a decent circuit of Oare Marshes with species such as Rock Pipits, Bearded Tits, four fly-over Barnacle Geese, and a multitude of Cetti’s Warblers, Brents and waders, the time had come for us to cross the tidal channel of the Swale to try to find our first particularly special bird of the day. Fortunately for us, the weather did not reflect the quality of the birding!
Driving the entrance track of Elmley NNR felt a bit like a game drive in the heart of Africa, except with stubborn cattle replacing the bush’s big five. Across the flat expanse of wet marshland, hundreds of lapwings abounded and the distant cackle of wildfowl foreshadowed things to come. Eventually, once the unphased and unimpressed cows had moved off the road, we came to the car park of the nature reserve. And this car park was how all car parks should be: we barely had to walk twenty metres from the car before we locked eyes with an enchanting Long-eared Owl.
This was the first time I’d been able to photograph this elusive owl. Long-eared Owls are very patchy and localised in their distribution, although the breeding population is boosted by non-breeders in the winter months. However, it is possible that these owls are becoming less frequent as winter visitors on account of climate change: the increasing mildness of the continent means that they are less willing to cross the North Sea in search of warmer climes. The warming climate of northern Europe is reducing the need to spend the winter in the UK. However, ringing recoveries still show that movements from as far as Russia are still frequent.
Reluctantly, we left the Long-eared Owl to roost in peace without any prying eyes and headed down the track onto the wetlands between the owl’s scrub and the estuary. This led us towards a surprise flock of White-fronted Geese, one of the special geese which winter this far south in the UK. There are two races of the White-fronted Goose, with both wintering in the UK. The Greenland White-fronted Goose (flavirostris) has a long, orange bill and is typically less widely observed than the race we came across at Elmley, the Eurasian (or Russian) White-fronted Goose (albifrons), which has a shorter, pinkish bill. The adults of both races can be recognised by the black barring on the breast and the nominal white foreheads. However, juveniles can resemble the much more common Greylag Goose, as we found out when we laid eyes on a lone young White-front the next day at Rainham Marshes – a rarity for the reserve.
I would be pleased if I came across the White-fronted Goose more than once over the course of a year. However, Rainham Marshes turned out to be our third site for this species, as our next stop after Elmley was the wildfowl-rich Swale NNR. The quality of the site, or perhaps less positively the lack of good habitat elsewhere, was reflected by the numbers of geese on the reserve despite the constant sound of gunshots reverberating from the surrounding fields. The realisation that there were two hunters with accompanying golden retrievers concealed in the saltmarsh behind us was somewhat disconcerting. Despite the obvious disturbance that the hunting causes to the whole wildfowl population of the reserve – the Brent Geese were constantly alert and would fly at almost every gunshot – the shooting of geese and waders is allowed to continue regularly.
As well as the Brents, Greylags and Canada Geese which are present on the reserve, the Swale NNR also supports a good-sized flock of White-fronts, with a few Tundra Bean Geese also visiting every winter. The risk of one of these rarer geese being taken out by a rifle is ever-present. Fortunately, on this occasion this year’s wintering Tundra Bean Goose was still feeding with a flock of White-fronts when we arrived as the sun was beginning to set. Hunters threatening the survival of rare geese on a more than weekly basis even at one of the remotest sites in the south-east is just one example of the perpetual human-induced risk experienced by the world’s declining biodiversity.