Hoo’s Herons

This week we returned to the North Kent marshes, but this time to visit the RSPB Northward Hill reserve on the Hoo Peninsula.

The Hoo Peninsula is a spur of land sticking out into the Thames Estuary – in fact, the word ‘hoo’ is believed to be Saxon for spur of land. The Isle of Sheppey with the Elmley Marshes reserve that we stayed at earlier this year is half in the picture to the right. Image from Wikimedia Commons

We had never been to Northward Hill before but had heard that its woods contain the biggest heronry in the country with at least one hundred and fifty active nests and that it has been established there since 1947 or longer.

Map of the reserve

Unfortunately we arrived at the reserve to see a notice announcing that the heronry has moved deeper into the wooded wildlife sanctuary and is no longer visible from the now-closed heronry trail – this was disappointing.

But we found ourselves in a lovely, low-key reserve that we had entirely to ourselves. As well as the heronry and a large rookery in the woodland overlooking the marshes, the reserve has areas of dense scrubland where at least ten pairs of nightingales will nest later in the year.

The pink path on the map that goes up the hill and through the wood to High Halstow, took us along a stretch of the Saxon Shore Way, a 163 mile long-distance path starting in Gravesend, west of the Hoo Peninsula. It traces the coast of Kent as it was in Saxon times, eventually skirting below our meadows south of Deal, and finishing in Hastings just into East Sussex.

The oak wood on Northward Hill
Coming back off the hill and returning to the marsh with views over the Hoo Peninsula

Although the dog was allowed along the Saxon Shore Way, she was not permitted into other sections of the reserve. So we settled her down in the back of the car with a chew and went into the marshy area. There is a predator fence enclosing the central wetland, which includes a sizeable reed bed with resident marsh harriers.

The predator fence keeping foxes away from the islands and reed bed. Given that the largest heronry in the country is nearby, you would have thought that we would have seen a lot of heron, but this one that can just be seen fishing in front of the fence was the only one we saw that morning. A buzzard perches on the rear fence

It was an odd but strangely captivating view from the Ernie Helmsley viewpoint:

Sitting on a bench looking across the marsh to the River Thames and Essex beyond. This deepwater port, DP World London Gateway, is on the Essex side of the estuary and is Britains newest port, opening in 2013 and capable of handling the World’s largest container ships

Through our binoculars, we could see an abandoned First World War cordite factory further west on the peninsula:

Aerial photograph of the Curtis and Harveys cordite factory by John Fielding, shared under CCA 2.0 generic license

We want to return to Northward Hill reserve in April or May once the nightingales are there. The chance of hearing the song of a male nightingale calling down his female from the skies above has to be worth the trip.

Unfortunately we are not expecting any nightingales to be arriving in our wood this spring – we have never seen or heard one there. We do still have the winter- visiting woodcock though:

I like the way this one has fanned out those white-tipped tail feathers that they have:

These birds will be returning to their breeding grounds in Finland and Russia very soon now.

We have a small flock of redwing as well, although they too will soon be leaving for the Far North. I have counted up to nine redwing all trying to bathe here at the same time:

The pheasant are also turning their thoughts to breeding. Here is a male displaying to one of his harem, pulling his wing down and fanning his tail to make himself look larger and more impressive:

The new pond is establishing itself nicely. Our woodland neighbours have a pond which is now filled with frogspawn. Maybe we can hope for some spawn to be laid in this pond next spring.

There are now six small ponds spaced around the wood. Here is a sparrowhawk at one of the others:

And a buzzard at another:

A tawny has been perching up close to the owl box, but I am sad to say that there have been no recent photos of owls actually at the box. Since the typical timing for tawnies to lay their first egg is around the third week of March – which is next week – it does now look like it is not going to happen this year

Despite us clearing the box out last autumn and again in January, there is unfortunately still ongoing squirrel activity there:

With the dormice hibernating down at ground level for now, we went round the dormouse boxes this week, clearing them out with a paint scraper, checking them over and rewriting the numbers that had been washed off after a year out in the elements. Only two old dormouse nests were found in the thirty boxes in our wood although there were also two mouse nests:

A mouse nest in a dormouse box. No mice were at home and so I cleared it out

But earlier this winter we had found at least five dormouse nests in the heavy woodcrete bird boxes when we cleared these out:

A dormouse nest in a bird box with its distinctive core of tightly woven material

Dormice certainly seemed to have had a preference for the bird boxes last year which would probably have been cooler. It will be interesting to see if this happens again this year.

In the meadows, I can see ten yellowhammer in this photo:

There are a lot of woodpigeon here at the moment, eating the ivy berries in the hedgerows:

A lovely flock of house sparrow has been here all winter:

The One-eyed Vixen emerges from her den at dusk:

One morning I found this twenty-plume moth inside the house, drawn to the light of the alarm controller:

This common micromoth has rather wacky wings, each with six deeply divided plumes to the rear – this makes a total of twelve and I can’t find an explanation as to why this moth is called the twenty-plume moth. The plumes can be better seen if the photo is taken without the flash:

The caterpillars of the twenty-plume moth feed within the flowers of honeysuckle.

We have walked the dog in a couple of woods close to our wood this week. In Covert Wood, we saw this amazing ancient hazel coppice:

Some of the venerable silver birch on the edges of the wood had been affected by the witches broom gall.

Galls similar to this can be caused by many organisms but on silver birch they are very likely to be due to the fungus Taphrina betulina. The fungus causes the tree to produce a tumour with a dense cluster of twigs in which it then lives.

In Gorsley Wood, we were very surprised to see this old woodpecker hole so close to the ground and right next to the footpath:

There has been quite some weather this last week and 35mm of rain has fallen. There was no snow in the meadows although there was a bit in the wood.

My last photo for today is of Jupiter and its four Galilean moons, Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto. Galileo Galilei discovered these moons in March 1610, which proved the theory that everything in the universe did not revolve around the Earth.

There is nothing like a contemplation of the universe for widening one’s horizons and getting things in perspective. It will be the spring equinox before too long and I do hope that spring itself will be putting in an appearance shortly.

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