29 January 2019:
Driving home down Viewpoint Road from my other part time job I was waved down by Will, a Bird Observatory member. He wanted to let me know that a Hoopoe was currently on the Reserve. To my mind rare avian visitors to these shores don't come any more exotic. When I caught up with it, it was in the conservation area at the Point and was on the far side from where I was standing. The bird then began climbing the bank and I thought if I wait until it gets to the top it should make a good picture with the sea as the backdrop. Another bird ticked off from my school boy wish list of birds to see. If I ever get to see a Golden Oriel and a Penduline Tit i'll be very happy. Although I have seen several rare bird visitors at Landguard that I had never heard of before!
The two long interconnected mounds on the north half of the Reserve are know as the Rifle Butts. The name stems from their previous usage as they were created by the military in the 1800's for a backdrop in target practice. The targets would have been against the mounds and the mounds could then soak up any stray projectiles, in the early days these would have been musket balls. These days they make up an important habitat on the Reserve. The landward facing slopes are particularly good for areas of dense scrub, this being perfect for shy skulking birds besides a host of other wildlife benefits. The scrub was good enough to hold a passing Great Reed Warbler happily for a few days the other year. The seaward facing slopes are especially good for a variety of grasses and wildflowers including Wild Clary and Rough Dog's-tail Grass. Being slopes they tend to benefit from little footfall and associated trampling and plants generally thrive, 'generally' being the operative word.
The mounds can be accessed by steps at each of their ends but many visitors climb up the slopes to access the path on top. The trouble with this is that the mounds are essentially made from aggregate (gravel) and are easily eroded by footfall. As the climbers access the path, the edge of the path becomes eroded and then has to reinforced to maintain a flat path. Plants are of course trampled as well and wildlife unnecessarily disturbed, all for the sake of walking a little further to access the steps. This year I will try by interpretation and other means to make visitors aware of this problem as I am sure most are not aware of the negative affect of their actions. The mounds carry with them considerable local cultural interest and would from this point of view be a shame to see them gradually degraded.
The mounds are within the Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and within the Scheduled Ancient Monument (SAM). These both carry obligations for the owner, the council in this case, in their management. Many visitors see this end of the Reserve as a bit of a 'free for all' believing that the southern end of the Reserve is the 'real' nature reserve. So there is work to be done to raise awareness of the significance of the northern half.
During the time when Sarah Wynne was Ranger at Landguard, she over saw the enlarging and fencing-off of the naturally wet area which is now a good seasonal pond. Over the years the chicken wire that prevents dogs from entering has been broken and pushed aside by entering dogs. I have recently attached some livestock netting that was left over from a conservation area project. This is much more robust and will last considerably longer. Last autumn I cut two areas of grassland one close to the pond and the other nearer the Manor Terrace car park. This hadn't been done since the management of the site by the Suffolk Wildlife Trust but is really essential in maintaining the floristic value. The area next to the pond still holds good quantities of the uncommon Divided Sedge. I decided to burn the cuttings on an area outside the Site of Special Scientific Interest. Unfortunately a concerned member of the public rang the Fire Service and they arrived with blue lights flashing. This has happened to me before with other countryside conservation fires that I have attended. In the past the fire has been deemed under control and we have been left to carry on. This time though the Fire Officer wanted to appease the concerns of the public and put the burning grass cuttings out.
I have made three cages which are designed to place over a Ringed Plover nest in order to prevent their eggs from being predated. Last year almost half of the Ringed Plover nests were predated. The cages have four entrances which allow the plovers in but are small enough to exclude Crows and Gulls. They can by all accounts work quite well and are worth trying. I am also in the process of making a Kestrel diversionary feeding-station, this is also a cage affair but placed on top of an outsized bird table. This will be placed close to the Kestrel nesting box which is located in the Port, not far from Viewpoint Road. Three dead day old chicks, gleaned from the chicken production industry are placed in the cage which the Kestrels can feed their chicks with. This limits the amount of hunting that they undertake and limits the amount of Ringed Plover chicks preyed upon.
During the Autumn a visitor alerted me to a Kestrel that he said was on the ground and couldn't fly. When I located the bird it didn't have the characteristic look of a drooping broken wing but still it didn't have the energy to prevent me from picking it up. Although it still had some reserves to sink it's vice like talons into my finger! Before putting it in a box where it could calm down, I let Matt the resident bird ringer at the observatory have a look at it. He could see by the ring on its leg that it was the male that had helped raise five chicks through the summer. It had damaged one eye and was now blind in that eye; for a Kestrel that is about as bad as it gets regarding its own survival. The tell tale breast bone could be felt protruding out showing that it had lost all condition. Although boxed with access to water and food it didn't last the night. I remembered marvelling at this bird during the summer as it plummeted into some rough grass near the Butts and half flew up with a good size rat before the weight dragged it down again where it successfully tackled the rat. It was just incredible, as the rat wasn't far from the size of the Kestrel. On the other hand I could only look on with horror as it accurately pinpointed Ringed Plover chicks on the beach.
A corner of the board walk which had previously been affected by the overtopping of a storm surge had become a trip hazard and had to be removed. The section of boardwalk parallel with the estuary is to make up part of the England Coast Path and Natural England will replace the storm damaged boardwalk with something more substantial, although this might not be for some time. Guy Pearce who I know from his volunteering with the Footprints group was keen to know if I intended to replace the missing corner in the interim. I had been thinking of it and thought at least to do something with before the busy summer days but as the offer of his very useful help along with another Footprint volunteer Mike Williams was there; I certainly wasn't going to look a gift horse in the mouth! Some of the parts that made up the corner had broken and all the spare parts had now been used. Buying new parts may have been an option but in the end opted to use some timber that remained from installing another boardwalk, so providing a more cost effective temporary repair. Thank you both very much, Guy and Mike.
The Winter Stalk Ball Tulostoma brumale fungus (pictured above) is a coastal species and plentiful most years on the Reserve, although due to its size it is easily overlooked.
This lovely Brambling was a sight for sore eyes early last Autumn.
Having had my sixth Christmas living in the Landguard Bungalow I feel in reflective mood after all what a truly odd place it is to live. The Bungalow, built in the 1870's is built on nothing more than shingle and sand. But what a great build it is, with cavity walls which were well ahead of their time, all in engineering brick. These are the same bricks used in railway bridges and are a far stronger brick than normally used for house builds. This isn't surprising as the Bungalow was built by Peter Schuyler Bruff, the first Harwich Harbour Authorities Civil Engineer. An important aspect of living in it is to be aware that there are no flood defences to prevent inundation from the sea. I would be interested in knowing how far up the walls the 1953 flood went as it surely did. In my first December living here I received a flood warning from the Environment Agency, this being a step up from a flood alert and indicates that flooding is very much expected. This often happens when a particularly high tide is coupled with a storm-surge. The sea did breach the shingle on the estuary side leaving a good ten inch tide line in the bottom garage in the early hours of that morning. By the time I travelled back from my own home the flood waters had retreated and thankfully were not high enough to affect the Bungalow.
Another picnic bench, surplus to requirement, has been donated by the Norse Countryside Team. Just the job, for weary legs and a summer time picnic.
My earliest Landguard reflection goes back to when I was asked as a Ranger working for the councils Countryside Team to check on Landguard and the Bungalow as at that time it was in between Ranger Posts. There had been a storm the previous night so I took the opportunity to have a look along the beach for interesting things that may have been washed-up. As I walked to the beach at the Point with my colleague I noticed an object on the sand. It wasn't sunken into the sand but seemed to just rest on it. When I picked it up the flattest surface looked as though many layers had been compressed together. The whole thing was about the size of a small melon. As I applied some pressure to one end it came away in my hand as one of the compressed layers gave way. Its material looked a little like asbestos and I all too quickly thought it was something man made and lobbed it back into the waves.
I have spent the last five years scouring the beach for a similar object as I now know that it was most likely a handsome specimen of a Woolly Mammoth tooth. The reason that it sat on the beach was because for its size it was much lighter than stone and easily came apart because it was in the process of fossilising and not yet a true fossil. It is not uncommon for parts of these teeth to wash up, although I have not come across a fragment. But the one that I held that morning was a large complete specimen. Doh! To make it worse while watching the Antiques Roadshow yesterday, one Wooly Mammoth tooth was presented and valued at two to three hundred pounds! Double doh!
Landguard reflections that are not so painful include the time I came across a beached Harbour Porpoise late one calm summer evening. I can distinctly remember the odd feeling of its skin when I held it in
order to position it to head out to sea and the snort of its blow-hole as it surfaced several times while heading back out to sea. Fancifully I took the Porpoise to be saying goodbye and thanks from one mammal to another. I had seen Little Terns diving for fish in the shallows earlier that day and wondered if the Porpoise had chased small fish in the shallows and accidently beached itself? Another treasured memory was gazing up from my computer screen to see a Hawfinch on the bird feeders. I did the classic double take, not quite taking in at first glance what I was seeing. This is a bird that I thought I would have to see in one of its strongholds such as the New Forest, if I was to ever see one. There surely can't be many that can claim to have seen a Hawfinch on their garden bird feeders.
I realise now that I have started something in writing about these wonderful memories that could go on and on but suffice to say that Landguard has provided a bounty of them. They also include working with some great people, both colleagues and volunteers on some really worthwhile projects that have improved the Reserve in many ways for both nature and visitors. So here is to looking forward and hope that 2019 brings some worthy reflections for us all.