Warm Harty and Shellness

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British Wildlife

Capel Fleet is sunny, warm and windless; today there are only timid sheep in the field and the brown bulls are gone. The Fleet is stacked with waterbirds and the large maize field full of geese, lapwings and the rest. Suddenly, the entire sky is on the move, sound fills the air and for a brief moment there is too much to take in; something like the rush of a fast train through a railway station. Then the flocks settle once more and quiet quickly wins the peace.

Capel Fleet in morning sunshine.

There is one flock of geese that sound different from the rasping, feral greylags, these are the wintering and wild white-fronted geese with an almost delicate, higher-pitched call but they are too distant and no different from the rest; which is which and where they land remain a mystery. Skylarks rise from the field in bouncing flocks. Lapwings come over in streams often with starlings and together they keep an even pace, which is odd given their entirely different shapes.

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A starling flock constantly on the move.

A large flock of starlings work the grasslands by the fleet, noisy, busy and as quick to settle as to fly; these feed on the tipulid larvae or leatherjackets that fill the rich turf and the flock leaves their mark where they rag the grass. There should be a merlin hunting this flock somewhere. One cold winter in mid-Wales, on the mountain road between Rhayader and Cymystwyth, a female merlin dogged a similar flock and would often be perched just over the hill on the sheepwalk waiting her moment.

Coot trailing the front-runner in the 100m dash.

On the fleet, teal flip and fly away with brilliant aerodynamics; shelducks, shovelers and lapwings move off to the fields in more orderly formations but the hordes of coot stay put having nowhere else to go. Small flocks dash for the far end of the fleet as if running a race for out of condition parents at a school sports day; leaning forward and running the water before flying just above it on short, whirring wings. I walk on towards them and so the ensemble dashes back again; it is comical and difficult to resist the temptation to spook them into another run.

On down to Harty and the Swale is sun-filled and the walk to Shellness a breeze; but no Brent geese in the field. Then loud flocks run in from the west and sail over the marshes to land in another winter wheat field.

Views of Swale NNR and Brent geese landing into the wind with rooks and a trio of shelducks in the foreground.

A single European white-fronted goose grazes next a dyke; it is injured and flightless, perhaps shot by a local wildfowler. Even though declining in numbers, the English population remains on the quarry list.

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A white-fronted goose with badly damaged wing feeds close to the dyke where it can retreat to each night.

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Female reed bunting in an isolated hawthorn.

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Distant avocet flock at high tide on the edge of the saltmarsh.

The sun starts to disappear behind a bank of low cloud that rolls up the Swale Estuary and murk descends on Sheerness. On the low cockle spit, a flock of oystercatcher sits out the midday high tide with a small assortment of other waders. Then a huge flock of bar-tailed godwits descends in a spectacular and steady stream to fill all the vacant spaces.

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Shellness in fading sunlight.

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Oystercatchers on the high tide roost.
Joined by a huge flock of bar-tailed godwits and grey plover.

On the cockle beach, sanderlings and turnstones prod the sandy spots oblivious to their observer a few yards away. The sanderlings are fluffed up, hungry and work the ground with real urgency. All the small waders have to feed all the time and no matter what the state of the tide. A single linnet fails to transform itself into a much rarer twite and there is no sign of a wintering snow bunting or shore lark. The Brent geese trail over the flat, featureless saltmarsh in countless small flocks to find another winter wheat field up towards Leysdown. The sun is finally drowned and the light descends to a gloomy grey.

Sanderlings, turnstone and linnet on the foreshore.

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Grey plover sleeping out the high tide.

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The fading afternoon light at Shellness with distant Brent geese flocks over the huge expanse of saltmarsh.

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