Sheppy at first glance appears to be quite a desolate landscape, but this marshy terrain has become known as one of the best Raptor sites in the UK. I was lucky enough to have a red-letter day there, in March of 2004. The plan was to spend a leisurely day driving around Harty Marshes and Elmely RSPB in search of Harriers and Owls; my companion for the day was my lifelong birding cohort Bo Beolens also known to me as Dad (Chairman of the Disabled Birders Association/FatBirder).
Arriving mid morning, the mist was slowly beginning to lift off the marshes, the sun was making half-hearted attempts at breaking through the clouds, and our first Marsh harrier of the day was hunting silently over one of the many ditches. Stopping beside the flooded area of Capel Fleet on the road to Harty Ferry, we were greeted by a hive of activity in the form of numerous Teal and Mallard, several Shelduck and the usual small flock of gulls loafing around the silvery water. To our left a small flock of Mute swans fed lazily in the fields [no amount of scanning could produce any winter visitors amongst them], and you could sense the day was just starting to come to life. Scanning the horizon revealed several more large raptors just too far off to identify but time was on our side and we wandered on. Pausing at most of the lay-bys along the road, we were witness to several special moments. The first occurred whilst watching the large flock of mixed plovers, Lapwing and Golden Plover, suddenly the birds were spooked into life, taking flight in their attempts to evade a predator. Quick glances skyward revealed only Marsh harriers, a raptor these birds seem impervious to. Then out of the blue a dark streak shot across the field weaving between the massed waders, flying low and fast in his attempts to land his prey, a slate grey male Peregrine Falcon was in pursuit of breakfast. Fortunately for the plovers he missed his target, and alighted on a distant fence post, to allow the flock to settle itself once more before another attack.
In the distance there appeared the distinct shape of a common buzzard, slowly circling higher and higher into the clouds before drifting off south. A soft keying above woke us from the trance of the buzzards' hypnotic ascent and we were spectator to a fine male Marsh harrier calling to his mate, before dropping effortlessly into the scrub. The call of this enigmatic harrier is far more subtle than would be expected of so large a bird. Stopping briefly at another prominent watchpoint, we realised that we were surrounded by predatory birds, mainly Marsh harriers, but at least one powerful ring-tailed Hen Harrier, was skirting the fields. With several Kestrels fluently suspended over banks and ditches we were truly in a raptor haven and, for us, a very special day.
A brief sojourn away from the open grass and marshes and we were soon amongst the farm hedges abundant with thrushes, then on to a quiet farm track, beside some cereal fields. Fields which were alive with corvids and an unlikely flock of feral guinefowl! We also noticed in amongst the winter barley there were feeding flocks of passerines, mainly House Sparrows but mixed in with several Reed Buntings, numerous Chaffinches were two stunning Brambling one a duller female and one a sublime orange and black male. Both of which occasionally alighted on to the hawthorn hedgerow.
As we had been joined by several other birding parties we decided to move back to the open country and away from the masses, where once again we were treated to fantastic views of Marsh and Hen harriers, more Kestrels and the male Peregrine still perched where we had left him. With the daylight hours passing quickly now we decided to switch locations to the other side of the marshes and moved on to Elmely RSPB reserve. This proved to be the right decision, as barely a third of the way along the entrance track we encountered an exquisite male Merlin perched in all his regal posture on one of the few remaining gate posts, before swiftly taking flight and vanishing; hugging the ground and over the horizon. Further along the track, the flooded meadows were alive with Wigeon, their haunting whistles filling the air, while yet more plovers fed by the waters edge. A large flock of one hundred plus Ringed-plover massed over one corner of the flood with hundreds of golden plover and many Curlews keeping them company.
With the improved disabled access to the reserve now in operation, we were able to drive with care along the once daunting reserve trail. Halting periodically allowed us to view the estuary in all its glory, and provided us with some tantalising views of Pintail and Grebes, and some close views of Redshank, Grey plover and Black-tailed godwit. As well as some distant Avocet sweeping the mud in search of food.
Realising it was nearing time for the raptor roost we headed back across the isle to Harty marshes, and settled in for a long wait. Luckily we did not have to wait too long as in the distance we could see a large raptor drifting across the fields, with the unmistakable tail pattern of our seventh raptor species of the day, Rough-legged Buzzard. The bird was being heavily mobbed first by a crow and then a female Marsh harrier, and was only allowed to settle for short periods of time. These rare occasions when it perched in a distant bush, let us make note the half moon markings on its underside and its overall size when compared to the harriers.
Continual scanning of the distant perches revealed a further 2 Buzzards, 3 Peregrines all at rest, many more Marsh harriers both male and female, at least one ring-tailed Hen harrier, and finally a pair of Kestrel canoodling together on a high platform. We left the Island to her raptor inhabitants and set off for home knowing that we had been part of a special day's birding, and dreaming of more days to come.