We’re going on a reptile hunt.

Common Lizard, Hambrook Marshes copyright Tim Dawson

Common Lizard, Hambrook Marshes
copyright Tim Dawson

The sun made a rare appearance after, seemingly, weeks of rain on Wednesday and I was tentatively hopeful that our planned reptile hunt across Hambrook Marshes and Bus Company Island in Canterbury might prove successful.

Andrew Wilkinson from Kentish Stour Countryside Partnership explained the need to monitor reptiles at Hambrook to get an idea if their management of the site was successful.

Andrew reptile hunting

Andrew reptile hunting

The big reveal

The big reveal

To begin with, things did not look hopeful. We poked around under a variety of tins, roofing felts and tiles on the steep former railway embankment seeing little more than a slug and a fat spider but then Andrew gave a shout. Unfortunately, by the time the rest of us had scurried over the common lizard had scarpered.

However, down in the meadows we had better luck and a common lizard posed helpfully on a tree stump while it was ‘papped’ by the long lenses of fellow volunteers, Chris and Tim.

'papping' a lizard

‘papping’ a lizard

The sun was warming up as we travelled to Bus Company Island, a hidden reserve tucked away in the meeting between two branches of the River Stour. The site hadn’t been managed for some time and we ploughed through thickets of nettle and bramble working our way around the site. However we struck lucky. Tentatively pulling back the first mat, we saw a field vole run for cover and further along encountered a beautiful young slow worm.

Slow Worm, Bus Company Island  copyright Tim Dawson

Slow Worm, Bus Company Island
copyright Tim Dawson

Tim, who had spent a childhood hunting reptiles in the quarries near his home, was particularly delighted, as he hadn’t seen one in years. However, sometimes nature wants payment for its pleasures as Tim was to find out when we ventured onto the boardwalk above the pond.

As we peered over the edge of the dipping platform we heard a loud crack. Me, Chris and Tim were all thrown sideways as the platform gave way beneath us and Tim vanished feet first into the muddy pond. We all grabbed each other and Jenny, who had sensibly remained on the bank, and hauled ourselves out. Tim emerged, with a boot full of mud and squelched back to his car. Reptile hunts, like bear hunts are never easy.

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By Bombman356 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.

By Bombman356 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.

Oh the irony, on the very day I get my Buglife membership pack, intent on supporting a charity who are fighting to protect our most prescious ‘brownfield’ sites from development, I step on a wasp nest while doing a survey of a river channel.

I had probably been standing on the wasp nest for a good twenty minutes before I realised what I had done, intent as I was on trying to indentify an unusual dragonfly. The wasps clearly felt that they had been patient long enough and this huge dark shadow wasn’t about to move so they began to crawl up into my trouser legs. Even then I didn’t become aware of them until they began to also swarm around my head and sting.

I did what any self respecting person would do. I ran. flinging my trousers off with abandon, despite the busy road nearby. Several wasps flew away. I put my trousers back on, only to find more wasps still in there, wedged between the folds in the material. Off the trousers came again and this time I put them on inside out to be sure.

Decidedly shaken, I limped back across the field but thought better of trying to retrieve my bag and binoculars, which were now covered with a mass of angry bodies. I trudged back across to my car, the shock having subsided, my leg now felt as if it had been stabbed multiple times with a poison dart (which indeed it had) and shooting pains were skedaddling along its length. There was nothing to do but wait, suck up the pain and sit tight until the wasps calmed down and I could go back for my stuff.

I poured a hot drink from my thermos and opened my Buglife magazine, only to be faced with a picture of a wasp. “Aggressive and can sting multiple times,” I read. They weren’t kidding but actually I had got off pretty lightly, amazed, when I checked, to find only two stings, the jabs I had felt after that I could only imagine had been inflicted by the wasps jaws. As my leg reddened and the pain increased I had to give the wasps the respect they were due, for a small creature they can pack quite a punch. hornet-11514_1280

First day out in the world

baby with mouth openMy blue tit babies are out! They were in the box at 6.30am this morning but by the time I came out of the shower they were fluttering around my garden like bits of coloured cotton wool blown by the wind. I feel as nervous as a parent watching a child head off for their first day of school. I want to watch over them and chase away the neighbourhood cat who has taken an unhealthy interest in proceedings, waiting with endless patience until I spot him and go haring down the garden in my dressing gown.blue tit on box

The first few days out of the nest must be the most dangerous time and I curse that I have to go out today and can’t help out these parents who have worked so hard for success. Their industry has inspired me. Round the clock they have flashed in and out of the box like winged jewels drawn, drawn, drawn by the endless begging calls. Now life gets even harder for them. They dash around after the babies, who tumble between tree and box and window pane on wings which seem to short to support them.

A Close Encounter

This is how I normally see barn owls. photo - Ralph Connolly

This is how I normally see barn owls.
photo – Ralph Connolly

Tonight I walked across the RSPB Northward Hill Reserve, where I lived for several years. Enjoying the somehow illicit pleasure of a night time visit. I had come to see the crow roost, to experience the thrill of 4000 birds spiralling over head, but the secret ways I had once known to the roost had long since become a tangle of bramble.

Still the main reserve was open. I walked across the secretive, after dark world, spotting a silhouette of a roosting pheasant, a bulky, long-tailed blob doing a poor job of hiding in a tree. The marshes opened out below me, a watery fenland of flooded fields.

The hide was pitch black but I found the bench and the window catch and poured a hot drink from my flask. Widgeon piped, the full moon stippled the water, shining it’s torch beam onto the wrinkled skin of the surface. I took a sip of hot chocolate, the darkness edged in across the marshes.

A barn owl appeared. For a moment in hovered in front of the hide window, maybe mistaking it for a barn or a box where it could spend the night. Angel winged, black eyed, it seemed suspended in the air only a foot from my face.

A chill of fear ran through me, that moment in the dark when you are brought back to the primeval root of things and realise that you are too close to a fellow predator.

I knew barn owls. I spent the summer plucking them from boxes so they could be ringed. I knew the strength of those clawed feet, the damage they could inflict. For a moment I thought it would land, on the ledge, inches from my face. For a moment it thought the same. It was a second of indecision as it tried to make out what creature those two eyes, sandwiched between hat and scarf, gazing out of the dark box, belonged to.

It realised it’s mistake in time and wheeled away to land on a fence post. We both paused to recover from our shock and then it was gone, across the flood, searching for voles to get it through the cold night ahead.

Floating an idea

rescued from Sheppey - this time not by the lifeboat!

Rescued from Sheppey – this time not by the lifeboat!

Cycled to Lower Halstow on a beautiful winter’s afternoon to admire the boats and dream once again about buying one.

I have toyed with the idea of buying a boat ever since moving to Medway. Something to escape down river in on a summer’s evening to enjoy the peace and commune with the seals or, rather more intrepidly, chug across the Thames to Essex to visit the folks. But I currently have zero boating knowledge and no spare cash. Strangely neither of these small issues is likely to deter me.

This year, having spent so much time walking along the river and meeting people living in many weird and wonderful ways along its banks, the idea has really taken hold, but just what boat should I be dreaming of? a motor boat? a sail boat? a canoe? I have no idea what a cash strapped, total novice should buy and have a healthy respect of the dangers of the estuary after being rescued by a lifeboat from an ill-fated canoeing tour. Consequently I don’t know if this is one of my many crazy desires that I should squash or one of those rare moments of inspired clarity that I should run towards. Today, with the river spread out before me and all those islands and inlets to explore, every boat looked tempting.

A few weeks ago I had spent a merry half hour perusing the ‘for sale’ board at Iron Wharf boatyard in Faversham and saw an advert for a sailing boat called Katie;

‘Sloop rigged, motor sailer, twin bilge keels, roller reefed, mailsail and furling jib, £3250.’

I have no idea what it all means but it sounds beautiful.

I am tempted, too tempted but rather fear I could become like one of the inhabitants of Iron Wharf who, having spent their life savings on the boat,  realise that they don’t have the skills to keep it afloat and instead end up living in a rented railway carriage at the dock. At notice next to the boat informed me that I could rent my very own railway carriage for £10 a month. At this price life on the dockside was quite tempting too.

Railway carriage home - Iron Wharf

Railway carriage home – Iron Wharf

Take the country back

me on bridgeYesterday I felt as if the countryside had been taken from me.

Since going freelance a month ago I have been using the time I would have previously spent driving along a motorway to my, now ex, office to jog down to the estuary, sit and enjoy the morning light and the calls of the birds feeding on the mudflats before jogging back through a nature reserve. I’m not saying I have stuck to this routine every morning or that my jogging amounted to much but the thought of the beauty awaiting for me down at the river got me out of bed most days.

Yesterday, however, on my way there I was stopped by a women. “Was I going to the river?” she asked.

“Yes.”

“Did I know that several women had been attacked there in the last few weeks?”

“No, I bloody well didn’t.”

This had been the background fear since I had started. I am someone who spends days on end walking in isolated parts of the countryside for my job but I knew that this was different. This was a routine, that someone could watch and wait for. This was not the back of beyond but enclosed patches of woodland at an early hour when few people were around. I refuse to be driven away from the countryside by the mere thought that something might happen but every morning I had turned off the road into the reserve with images of women who had followed similar routines and been found murdered.

I headed down to the river anyway, jogged through the woodland, sat in my familiar spot but I couldn’t enjoy it. I was jumpy. I was planning what I would do if someone leapt on me. Part of me, the slightly insane part of me, thought. ‘come and try it if you think you’re hard enough,’ and pictured scenarios where I bludgeoned my assailant into submission with my water bottle or poked him in the eye with my door key but I knew that to continue with this routine was reckless. This man had attacked women in exactly the same place and at the same time as I had been, how I had not seen him was a small miracle. I walked home, down the road, feeling like the morning sun and the birds had been stolen from me by this power crazed psycho.

But today, I thought, NO. I will not be scared away from the morning, or the country or the river by one person. I dug out my map and my bike and planned a new route, finding a beautiful cycle ride through quiet lanes down to an equally beautiful point on the river. After all, if I am to be honest, jogging was never me and I have always been more of a cyclist. I returned with rosy cheeks, at peace with the world and feeling jubilant that I had found a way to take the countryside back and not, through fear, become another victim of this man.

 

Feel the fear and do it anyway.

Reaching Spitend Hide; triumphant celebrations at facing my fear

Reaching Spitend Hide; triumphant celebrations at facing my fear

Just returned from the next leg of my trip across the Estuary. Have just spent three days walking the marshes of Sheppey, not an easy task for a girl with a phobia of Daddy long legs:

Elmley Marshes 5th October 2014 

It is a golden and glorious autumn morning  but my heart is full of fear at the miles of horror that lay ahead. It is a sunny day after rain, the absolute worse conditions for me to set out in. I have no idea how I am going to make it across the marshes. Already I can see them, ranks of them, lined up on the pot plants outside the door of Steve, the estate manager house, spindly legs and click clacky wings. It is the height of daddy season, there are at least ten on this very plant, how many more are out there?

 

Daddy-long-leg,  Jackaranga

Daddy-long-leg, Jackaranga

As I climb Elmley Hill , the grass shivers with them, the day is warming up, they are feeling perky. One belly flops across the sky in front of me, arms and legs splayed backwards, ‘wheeee,’ it’s whole body seems to say, ‘here I come, for your face.’ I feel the fear rising, the adrenalin levels shooting up, all common sense leaving me as the phobia takes hold. I make myself walk on. I know the view is spectacular from the top of the hill. I must make it, I must go on, because what is the alternative? Run back to the car park and call a cab to take me home?

view from Elmley Hill

view from Elmley Hill

At the top of the hill daddies leap up around my legs, a leg touches my hand, I squeal and shake it off. I hear rustling in my hair and fling off my hat and sunglasses, jumping around on top of the hill like I have been stung by hot coals, shaking my hair out frantically. ‘I can’t do it, I can’t do it.’ I tell myself. I am on top of the hill with millions and millions of bodies writhing around me and I can’t enjoy the view of the sweep of the Swale around the island and the glass smooth water of Sharfleet Creek, but now I am here I can not just teleport myself elsewhere, I have to get off, I have to walk through them.

‘Look up,’ I tell myself, ‘Look up and enjoy the view, enjoy it Carol, DO NOT LOOK DOWN. You are going to have to do this today. This is likely to be the worst test you are will ever face but you are going to have to face it’

I prepared myself as best I could, tying back my hair, arming myself with my map case and mini tripod and then I walked, because I had to, through clouds and clouds of these creatures, they touched my hands, hit my face, clattered in my hair and I just kept walking I have no idea how.

In the last few weeks people had said I was brave for all sorts of reasons. Brave for leaving my job and going freelance, brave for walking in the countryside on my own, brave for staying at the homes of people I had never met. I knew different, you cannot be brave about things you don’t really fear. I knew out of all the acts of bravery I had supposedly performed, that this, this walking through long grass on an autumns day, facing a creature which had previously sent me into meltdown. This was the only thing that was really brave.