Monday, 21 May 2018

Walking the Humber. Stage 14. Skeffling Clough to Kilnsea

I park at Sammy's point, south of Easington, and walk first east to Skeffling Clough to start the stage proper. It's a beautiful day, blue skies and a light cool breeze. The tide is high and in this area the saltmarsh is narrow, just a small beach at the base of the sea wall. The area forms an embayment and Spurn Head and its lighthouse is in the horizon.
 There is a constant singing of Skylarks, and the more intermittent song of Whitethroats, Sedge Warblers and Reed Warblers as I pass through territories. Reed Bunting and Linnet are also quite common.
Male Linnet in full breeding plumage atop Skeffling Pumping station.
Whitethroat singing.
Meadow Pipit.
Soak dyke north of Sammy's point with a pair of Mute Swans

A large mixed flock of Dunlin and Grey Plovers in full breeding plumage passes by and settles towards Welwick Saltmarsh. There are still some Brent Geese about, and up to four Whimbrel along the walk.
Dunlin and Grey Plover flock.
Brent Geese.
Grey Plover.
Grey Plover and Whimbrel.
Oystercatcher on the edge of the saltmarsh at high tide.

Spurn Bight
This wide embayment between Sunk Island and the Spurn peninsula is called the Humber Bight. It holds the most extensive mudflats in the Humber, about 3.5 km wide at low tide. If you have read previous posts you may not be surprised to know that proposals in 1860 were made to reclaim the Spurn Bight from Hawkins point to Spurn Head. These were never implemented due to prohibitive costs. However, more recent reclamation proposals were to use the bight to dump colliery waste to aid reclamation. These were eventually met with ecological considerations:
"The unique ecological character of Spurn Bight and the peninsula would be unlikely to survive total reclamation, although a partial scheme may preserve some important elements". 
Even as recently as 1979 the County Council couldn't 'be committed to the conservationist way'. Protection in the Humber estuary increased from a relatively small SSSI area around Spurn Head in the late 1960s to include most of the estuary coast by the late 1990s. When Natural England proposed in the late 1990s to designate 40,000 hectares of the Humber Estuary as a pSAC it wasn't a response to conservationists pressures but to criticism from the EU as the UK government had failed to implement SACs according to the Habitats Directive.

A disjointed landscape?
The Humber enjoys a high level or protection, but this ends a at the sea wall. Waders and other birds see no boundaries and many species regularly move between the estuary and the fields with the rhythms of the tide. Lapwing, Curlew, Golden Plover, Oystercatcher (above) and Shelduck (below) often feed or resting in the fields at high tide, so they are bound to be affected by the management regime.
Gulls and Crows do the same which explains the frequent crab remains on the sea wall.
The fields beyond the sea wall are farmed, often intensively. I watched a tractor spraying pesticide in one of the fields next to the seawall (below).
 A belt of more sensitively managed countryside around the Humber would be desirable, a some type of buffer zone. A small area though, Kilnsea Wetlands, has been created recently by the Yorkshire Wildlife trust and other partner organisations. It used to be 86 acres of intensively farmed land up to 2011. The reserve includes shallow scrapes and ponds and wet grassland and compensates for habitat loss due to rising sea levels and coastal erosion. Although I skirted the northern side of it today, I will visit it in my next stage.
Looking towards Kilnsea.
A ditch in between fields.
Two crows alert me to a raptor, a buzzard. It moves along and the crows leave it alone.
What's in the mud?
Mudflats attract many waders and other birds at low tide. At high tide the birds move to sheltered belts of saltmarsh. But what are they feeding on when in the mudflats? I collected a few empty shells and caparaces from a small area in the estuary beach at Kilnsea, where I stopped for lunch (above). They included Baltic tellins (Limecoma balthica), Peppery Furrow Shells (Scrobicularia plana), Cockles (Cerastoderma edule) and shore crabs (Carcinus maenas). Other very common organisms are ragworm (Nereis) and other worms, snails (Hydrobia ulvae and Retusa obtusa), mud shrimps (Corophium volutator) and many smaller ones like copepods and ostracods.
A horse by Sammy's point.
Sammy's point. 
I spot a Wall Butterfly on the sea wall, in an area with a beach and a little saltmarsh. I see another two later. 
Estuarine beach at Kilnsea. The sea wall at Chalky point has many saltmarsh plants growing on it (top shot).
I am very pleased to watch a pair of boxing hares, they chase all along a field on Kilnsea Wetlands and have a couple of skirmishes.
On the way back I have great views of four Whimbrels feeding on the exposed seaweed and muddy creeks near Sammy's point.
Muddy creeks near Sammy's point.
Today's walk, 9.7 km round trip.

More information
Gibbs, D., While, A. and Jonas, A. E. G. Governing Nature Conservation: The European Union Habitats Directive and Conflict around Estuary ManagementEnviron. Plan. A 39, 339–358 (2007).

Key, R. 1983. Ecology of the infauna of Spurn Bight mudflats: an area proposed for reclamation. University of Hull PhD thesis.

Sunday, 20 May 2018

May at Alkborough Flats

An early morning trip to Alkborough flats. It was cool and very still with a light mist as I arrived. A Cetti's warbler singing greeted my at the car park. In the approach to Prospect hide several bearded tits were very showy. Reed Warblers and Reed Bunting sung too, but the former stayed well hidden in the reeds.
Male Reed Bunting.
Reed Warbler.
Male Bearded Tit.
I stayed in the hide for about an hour. Not long in and I heard a single 'boom', a bittern? A little later it repeated, two calls this time. It called occasionally but the noise was a bit distant and hard to place from inside the hide. Other than this there was a large flock of Black-tailed godwits, some avocets and many Shelducks in the lagoon. A few Black-headed gulls were about but it was very quiet. Two swifts flew over. Funny to watch a black-headed gull trying to chase one.
Black-tailed godwits.
Greylag family crossing the lagoon.
Shelduck and Avocets.
Grey Heron.
Grey Heron.
I moved on with the hope of seeing the bittern. A birdwatcher had just seen in flying into the reeds. I waited for a while but no luck. A male Marsh Harrier flew over with prey in his talons.
Male Marsh Harrier with prey, looks like a young coot or moorhen.
 I carried on with my walk to Trent hide. A number of damselflies near the hide, and also a nnursery web spider, Pisaura mirabilis, my first this year. The nice surprise was on the way back, when a Whimbrel flew in and fed on the wet grassland.
Singing Reed Bunting.
Greylag geese with a white one.
Azure damselfly.
Blue-tailed Damselfly.
Wet grassland.
Pisaura mirabilis.
Roe deer.

Monday, 14 May 2018

Walking the Humber. Stage 13. Welwick saltmarsh

A sunny day with a light northerly wind. I only put a jacket in the car as an afterthought, but I end up wearing it all the time as the breeze is cool. Welwick saltmarsh is a YWT nature reserve, a wide expanse of saltmarsh and mudflats. I drive from Welwick village and park on the side at Sheep Trod Lane, a farm road a short distance away. I walk to Winestead Outstrays pumping station to start the stage (there is no access across Winestead drain by the station) and then retrace my steps on the sea wall until the next pumping station, Skeffling.
 There are expansive views across the saltmarsh, with the pumping station in the distance. Today the sheep keep me company, most of them with two or three lambs grazing on the sea wall or the marsh, or dozing under the hawthorn hedges, cautiously getting out of the way as I walk. But you may wonder what are sheep doing in a nature reserve...
Conservation Grazing
Before farming and domestic animals were introduced in the UK, saltmarsh grazing depended on now extinct large native herbivores such as European Bison, Aurochs, wild horses and Elk. Animal grazing contributed to maintain plant biodiversity. When cattle, sheep and horses were introduced in the UK they replaced the native megafauna as grazers in saltmarshes. Indeed, saltmarshes subject to spring tides provided excellent grazing grounds. However, grazing in marshes has been reduced considerably since medieval times due to land reclamation and the construction of floodbanks, as the land is of very good quality for crops. In the absence of grazing, rank coarse grasses and uniform stands of reeds tend to develop, reducing plant biodiversity.
 In order to manage saltmarsh, grassland or heathland biodiversity, conservation organisations use domestic animals - often hardy breeds - to graze nature reserves. The Yorkshire Wildlife Trust has introduced sheep and cattle grazing in several of its reserves, such as North Cave wetlands, Spurn and Welwick. The RSPB uses Konik ponies at Blacktoft Sands. Conservation grazing in other reserves often uses YWT own stock of hardy breeds such as Hebridean sheep or Highland or Longhorn cattle. In contrast, at Welwick grazing is carried out also part of a program of development of links with local farmers. A small flock of mule sheep were introduced in the reserve in summer 2012 with a view to develop a commercially viable sheep flock in collaboration with a local farmer.

Just a few minutes after starting my walk I watch a male Marsh Harrier quartering the marsh. It flies just in front of the pumping station.
 A view across the marsh. A patch of old reed and freshly growing grasses.

Little egret.
Little egret feeding on the marsh.
The sea wall by a drain.
A patch of relic dune showing a small bank with plenty of bee holes. No bees today though.
The sheep have no trouble grazing even in the water.
Many shelduck rest or feed on fields. This one sat in the middle of a bare patch on a rapeseed field.
Goldfinch feeding on dandelion seeds on the side of the path.
A new scrape teeming with birds: Lapwing, Avocet, Oystercatcher, Shelduck and Redshank.
One of eight Avocets. At least two seem to be sitting on eggs.
There was a large flock of vagrant Carrion Crows. One of the crows found something on the mudflats, probably a crab, and the rest chased him. 
Shelduck flying over the fields.
About 50 Dark-bellied Brent Geese were resting or feeding by the tide line.
Brent Geese.
The breach on Spurn Head in the distance.
Grey Heron.
The end of the stage is Skeffling pumping station. I have lunch on the fence stile, watching the comings and goings of Linnets and Meadow Pipits.
Meadow Pipit.
I was thinking that I hadn't seen any Roe Deer when I see a pair crossing the mudflats in the distance. 
 They trot across the mud and reach the saltmarsh at Welwick.
 They cross the saltmarsh, walk over the sea wall, jumping at least two electric fences and stopping briefly at the scrape to feed...
The avocets start mobbing them as soon as they get near their nests, harrying them along to the fields.
 Shortly afterwards, a pair of young Lesser Black-backed gulls arrives to the marsh. Avocets and Lapwings mob them.
 The sheep grazing the marsh.
 Many butterflies on the wing today. This Red Admiral the most obliging. Also seen at least two Orange tip and a Green-veined white.

Raptor Roost
Welwick Saltmarsh is known in birdwatching circles for their raptor roost. In an evening visit in winter up to nine species are possible: Marsh Harrier, Hen Harrier, SEO, Barn Owl, Merlin, Peregrine and Kestrel. Today I saw two Kestrels and the Marsh Harrier. The roost is really a winter feature and I wasn't expecting much more!

Featured bird: Reed Bunting
Many male Reed Buntings were singing from the marsh, and the side of ditches by the sea wall. Their song is not very melodic, just three or four earnest notes repeated at regular intervals (I use the mnemonic 'cheese--on--toast' to contracst with its relative the Yellowhammer, which has a more pleasant, longer sentence). The male in the photo above sung in between gusts of wind, when it could keep his balance on the grass. As other buntings they sing with their head kept high and the bill wide open. Reed Bunting are a success story. They were red listed in the 70s but are now listed amber after a striking recovery, which means they could soon be out of the list altogether. Their recovery has been quite astounding in Yorkshire, with 82% increases in breeding pairs since 1995 (BBS 2017 report). Although they are tied to wetlands in the breeding season, they are more widely distributed in the winter where they feed on seeds.
Today's walk, about 9 km round trip.

More information
Chatters, C. 2017. Saltmarsh. Bloomsbury.

Conservation Grazing at Welwick Saltmarsh. See this and this.

YWT homepage for Welwick Saltmarsh NR.