Archive for August, 2021

On Sunday Sue and I travelled down to Kent to meet our friends Keith and Elaine as we were all going on a boat trip around the Isle of Sheppey, which lies of the north coast of Kent.

The Island is separated from the mainland by a stretch of water known as The Swale. It is not a river since it has no source and no estuary, joining the River Thames near Whitstable and the River Medway near Queenborough. And it was at Queenborough that our journey commenced as we joined the Jacob Marley for our trip.

We set off down the Swale. Originally the island was only reached via ferries but when the railway arrived, a bridge was built to carry traffic and the trains across the Swale onto the island. The current bridge dates from 1960. The problem was that this had to be raised and lowered to let some boats into the Swale, particularly at high tide so in 2006 a high level road bridge was built next to the railway-road bridge so traffic could flow to and from the island to the mainland without any hinderance from ships on the Swale.

After passing under the bridge we proceeded past Ridham dock, the last working dock on the Swale.

Although there is still plenty of evidence of past commercial activities

Once past Ridham, there is open country on both sides of the Swale. On Sheppey, we pass the famous Elmley Nature Reserve, once managed by the RSPB, but now an independent company. A Hobby flies over the boat on its migration south and there are lots of wading birds returning from their Breeding grounds feeding or roosting on the mudflats. Some maybe going further south and some may remain here for the winter. Large numbers of Little Egrets, once a rare bird in the UK, are seen feeding along the mudbanks.

The previous day had seen the Medway barge race and so we encountered a number of different sailing barges making their way back to their moorings.

At the eastern end of the island we come to Horse Sands where there is a small seal colony with both Common and Grey seals present.

Reaching the eastern end of the Island we turn west along the north coast. Soon we see 2 Artic Skuas chasing gulls. These birds are like large gulls and they chase smaller seabirds hoping to make them drop the food they have caught rather than catch their own. A little way further we see another Skua closing on the boat from behind. It looks different as it flies low to the water, but it overtakes the boat and is lost from sight by us before we can confirm its identity. Our conclusion was that it was probably a juvenile Long-tailed Skua, which is quite rare for the Thames, but we couldn’t be absolutely sure. Unlike the adults, the juveniles do not have the Long tail streamers which give it it’s name. The following day up to 20 were seen in the Swale so it is likely that our unconfirmed identification was correct.

Out in the estuary we can see the old wartime defense forts and the more modern Thames wind-farm.

Looking to land we can see where the island is eroding.

We pass the wreck of the Richard Montgomery, a wartime munitions carrier, that ran aground and broke up off Sheerness. Much of its cargo is still aboard and it is estimated if it ever blew up then houses would be affected by the shockwave in Sheerness and in Southend on the opposite side of the Thames and a wave up to 5m high would hit both coasts. Soon there will be nothing to see as there are plans to remove the masts to relieve the weight on the superstructure which is breaking up.

Soon we are back at the western end of the Island passing the docks at Sheerness

And then onto Queenborough where we disembark. A great trip full of interest and some excellent birdwatching as well.

Greenwich Reach

Posted: August 24, 2021 in Birds, Landscape, London, Natural History, UK
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Out for my monthly survey walk along the River Thames at Greenwich counting the waterbirds using the river. Even in the summer months when it is very quiet there is always plenty of activity on the river to see.

In addition my walk is opposite the historic town of Greenwich.

At the west end of the walk there are views up river towards central London

At the eastern end is the Millenium Dome, now known as the O2, a concert and exhibition venue.

But what about the bird survey. There are the first signs of birds returning from their breeding grounds – Black-headed Gulls which have been almost absent since April were back with about 150 seen on the walk. Other Gull numbers were up slightly and I would expect this increase to continue over the next couple of months. A Group of 16 Canada geese was more then I had seen previously here so it will be interesting to see if they stay on the river or are just moving through.

Other things of note were a Eurasian Sparrowhawk seen flying high over one of the riverside housing developments and a Great Cormorant perched on jetty – unfortunately he refused to turn round and so i only got a back view.

My first trip into Central London for nearly 18 months was to visit the British Museum to see a couple of exhibitions which were due to close in the next few weeks.

The first exhibition was about the Roman Emperor Nero. The traditionally held view is that he was a mad, cruel man who did anything to hang onto power, but this is largely taken from writings after his death. Contemporary evidence suggests that for much of his reign he was extremely popular with the people of Rome, if not it’s elite and nobility, from whom most history writers were drawn. One myth is that he ‘fiddled while Rome burnt’ or even that his excesses in burning Christians led to the fire. Evidence shows that Nero was not in Rome when the fire started, but on hearing of it rushed back to the city and organised the fighting of the fire and the relief effort. It is true however, that in order to deflect any blame from the Imperial authority, he did blame the Christians and instigate a harsh persecution as a punishment. In fact, in many ways, he was the Roman equivalent of some Populist leaders we have encountered in modern day history.

Eventually he lost the support of the people and the senate took this opportunity to move against him. Seeing the signs, Nero committed suicide rather than be taken by the authorities. This was the end of the Julio-Claudian dynasty and after a year during which 4 Emperors reigned, some for only a matter of days, Vespasian emerged as the strongest candidate and assumed the purple. Roman society tried to eliminate any reference to Nero, statues were destroyed or taken down and some, such as the one below, were re-carved into likenesses of the new Emperor.

Thomas a Becket was the clerk to the Archbishop of Canterbury during the reign of Henry II and eventually became Chancellor of the Kingdom. He and King Henry were good friends and worked well together. Henry had an ongoing argument with the church authorities about whether members of the church should be tried in secular or church courts and in attempting to win this he arranged for Thomas to be appointed Archbishop of Canterbury, thinking that his friend in this post would strengthen his position. He intended that Thomas should combine that role with continuing as chancellor, but to Henry’s surprise Thomas resigned his court post and argued firmly for the independence of the church courts. This led to a rapid worsening in relations between the two. On one occasion, when in France, Henry heard that Thomas had once again defied him and a small band of knights set out immediately for Canterbury. Did Henry send them or know where they had gone? Did they mean to kill the archbishop or merely to arrest him? These are questions to which the answers will probably never be known. What is known is that on the night of 29 December 1170 they arrived at Canterbury and insisted that Thomas accompany them to Winchester to answer for his actions. Thomas refused and the knights killed him in the cathedral.

Thomas was canonised by the Pope a mere two years after his death. King Henry did public penance at Thomas’ tomb but took no action against the Knights although the Pope excommunicated them. They later travelled to Rome in penance and were sent by the Pope to serve as Knights in the Holy land for a period of 14 years as their penance for the killing.

The weather forecast wasn’t promising but Keith and I decided to further explore the marsh at Tilbury Fort in Essex. We spent the morning in Gravesend and walked the usual route along the river and although the river was quite except for gulls, the gorge in the park produced 2 Garden Warblers, a Reed Warbler and a Grey Wagtail.

Making our way back along the promenade we caught the ferry over to Tilbury. On landing our attention was immediately drawn to a falcon chasing a group of Starlings. At first I thought it was a peregrine, but quickly realised it was too small and was actually a Hobby. I think a Starling would be too big for a hobby to catch (usual food is things like Dragonflies) so I can only think it was either practicing its flying or simply having some fun. It moved off quickly west following the river. On our last visit we followed the river walk but today we turned inland along the western edge of the marshes that surround the fort. Oystercatcher and Shelduck were on the river shore.

Little Egret, Kestrel, Lapwing, Grey Heron and a large number of gulls were on the marsh but sadly no other wading birds. A group of Common Swift passed over heading south. It was as we reached the far end of the path that the weather finally broke and we were forced to seek shelter from heavy rain. Once this had passed we made our way back to The World’s End, a pub on the river for some welcome refreshment.

Little Egret (Photo by Keith)

Returning to the ferry, Keith spotted a small brown butterfly in the vegetation, a Brown Argus, which is a species that I rarely see and so it was great to have a long look and to see all the identifying features. It was a good way to end the day.

Brown Argus (Photo by Keith)