Short-eared owls and waders: adventures on the Isle of Sheppey

I’m hoping to write a proper post over the next day or so giving a round-up of the wildlife I’ve seen and the wildlife adventures I’ve had over the past year. However, I couldn’t resist a final short post on my latest wildlife trip – a raptor and wader spectacular on the Isle of Sheppey in Kent!

View over salt marsh habitat, Isle of Sheppey
View over salt marsh habitat, Isle of Sheppey

Raptor fest

Despite living most of my life in Kent, I’ve never been to the Isle of Sheppey before, and to be honest I didn’t think there was all that much there. It turns out I was very wrong – the island is actually home to a surprising amount of wildlife. Before we had even arrived at our destination we had already spotted a peregrine flying over, and as we got out of the car at Shellness I got my first ever view of a short-eared owl flying low over the salt marsh.

This first sighting was soon followed by a second owl flying right past us (including a magical moment when it turned its head to look straight at us), and a visit to Harty Ferry later in the afternoon gave not one but three more owls, all flying around the car in broad daylight as they hunted for voles around the fields. I felt lucky just to see a single owl so five short-eared owls in the same day – especially three all together at one point, and giving us excellent, close views – was very special. We even got to see two of the owls having a tussle, as well as one owl being chased through the air by a pheasant – not something you see every day!

Short-eared owl (Asio flammeus), Harty Ferry Road, Isle of Sheppey
Short-eared owl in flight, Harty Ferry Road, Isle of Sheppey
Short-eared owl (Asio flammeus) in flight, Isle of Sheppey
Short-eared owl in flight, Isle of Sheppey

It wasn’t only short-eared owls that were out and about hunting for voles and other small animals – in addition to the peregrine we had spotted earlier, we were also treated to great views of several male and female marsh harriers, plus a female hen harrier and a couple of kestrels. I don’t think I’ve ever seen quite so many raptors all in the same place in the space of just a few hours!

Wonderful waders and farmland birds

Sheppey is not just a great place for raptors. The fields around Harty Ferry were also full of what for me were quite unexpected farmland birds such as red-legged partridges and corn buntings, and we also spotted pheasants, reed buntings, meadow pipits, lapwings and water birds such as moorhens, grey herons, mute swans and a little egret. There were also plenty of rabbits and voles (we spotted one running across a path in front of us), and signs of hares and hedgehogs, although the ones we saw had sadly been hit by cars.

Despite being a grey day it was unusually mild and still, so the sea around Sheerness was exceptionally calm, making it easy to spot lots of ducks, cormorants, gulls and other birds around the shore – including my first common scoters out at sea. There were also large numbers of brent geese in nearby fields, and small flocks of turnstones quietly feeding along the shore just metres away from us. I also got my first proper close-up views of sanderlings.

Turnstone (Arenaria interpres), Isle of Sheppey
Turnstone on the shore, Isle of Sheppey
Turnstones (Arenaria interpres), Isle of Sheppey
Turnstones, Isle of Sheppey

High tide

The tide was in, and this had pushed a lot of waders high up onto the beach – further along at Shellness we came across huge numbers of oystercatchers and other waders packed together on the shore. Interestingly, the different species were sticking together in their own groups, turning half of the beach black with oystercatchers while the other half was grey with a mixture of dunlin and knot, interspersed with slightly larger grey plovers, and with a line of bar-tailed godwits along the edge:

Waders on the beach, Shellness, Isle of Sheppey
Waders on the beach, Isle of Sheppey - the black mass at the back is oystercatchers; the grey mass towards the front is a mixture of knot, dunlin and other waders

The incoming tide occasionally sent a wave of dunlin, knot and plovers into the air as they were forced further up the beach, but otherwise the flocks were quite calm and not too bothered by a few distant marsh harriers. The waders were obviously on the menu for some of the local raptors though, as we came across at least two carcasses nearby.

Waders in flight, Isle of Sheppey
Waders in flight, Isle of Sheppey. The grey plovers can be distinguished by their slightly larger size and dark 'armpits'.
Wader flock in flight, Isle of Sheppey
Wader flock in flight, Isle of Sheppey

All in all I couldn’t have asked for a better end to the birding year – at least three new species to add to my bird list and some of the best views of owls I’ve ever had. Now that I know how much there is to see on Sheppey I’m sure I’ll be back!

3 thoughts on “Short-eared owls and waders: adventures on the Isle of Sheppey

  1. Liz,, I live on Sheppey . Barn owls are abundant on the island, tawneys have nested at the back of my garden, occasionally I see a little owl. Marsh harriers are a common sight. Lots of avocets on Elmley. Once I saw a glossy ibis on Harty marshes. There is a small seal colony, just off N.Sheppey, near the forts. Green ( appear black) & white pheasants are regularly seen. Liz, you must visit the R.S.P.B. reserve at Elmley, it’s a beautiful location, great hides & a wonderful array of waders and I wager you’ll see a marsh frog, or maybe a snow bunting. Good luck with your wildlife adventures, Liz.

    1. Thank you Ian! I must go back there – I’ve only been the once so far and saw a huge amount! I’ll also have to make a visit in summer and see what’s about. 🙂

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