Friday, 9 March 2018

Inlets and Yantlets

An inlet. A word most know.

A yantlet. One that few outside of Kent, and then mainly only those with a nautical bent, might have ever heard of. Both mean the same thing.

Most Kent birders, on hearing the word, think of Grain and Allhallows,where the once navigable channel, now dammed, separates the Isle from the Hoo Peninsula. Yantlet Creek. Just north of there the main deep water channel of the Thames, from Mucking out to just west of Southend pier, is the Yantlet Channel. (An invisible line running north from the mouth of the Yantlet at Allhallows to Essex is the political end of the Thames Estuary.)

But here, nearby on the Medway, is a another Yantlet- South Yantlet Creek. A channel that divides Nor/Friars from Bishop, navigable only on a high tide. (on a low, water remains only as far as no. 3 buoy) petering out just before Yantlet Spit. These three bodies are now badly fragmented (Bishop so much so that, at the western end, Darnet Ness is now a separate island on all tides), but all, thankfully, still have high ground remaining for breeders and roosts.

Screengrab from the excellent

Running east-west, the South Yantlet has never been viewable from shore so, as the old saying goes, out of sight, out of mind. But it does as important a job for the estuary birds as do the more well-known eastern basin creeks.

The very best time to appreciate this importance from shore is on the ebb and to a lesser extent, the flow. Over high tide the waters are too deep for effective feeding for many species, and the 'SYC' is an obvious refuge.

From the east, birds drift in and out via Half Acre. 'Scope from Horrid or Bloors. From the west, travelling against the flow, most chose to flight, best viewed from the northern stretch of Sharps Green. Sad fact, the more interesting species for a birder are more often found around the distant eastern end.

Grebes: a fair number of Great Crested Grebes head into 'SYC', meaning counts from shore over the tide are often under-representative of actual numbers present. If Slavonian or Black-necked Grebes are about, they are often hidden in among their cousins here.

Diving duck: if a Pochard or Tufted Duck is loitering, they will also move to the SYC, swapping between there are mainly Nor. On the drop, they will flight to Ham Green/ Otterham. They are most noticeable early in the breeding season, often birds not doing well in the early morning pairing up displays- singles that steer well clear of the fleets being claimed by potential breeding pairs. Their scarcer cousin, Scaup, when present also use the creek, but stay closeby longer, preferring shallow water for feeding and happier to loaf on the flats from time to time. 'Nor' is one of the most recorded sites for Scaup in old records, but the SYC is why birds would often be hit-and-miss for birders.

Sawbills: Red-breasted Mergansers often ride the tide out in and around Friars. On low tide they will have drifted out to Half Acre. Usually at this time of year they group to display, but numbers have been extremely low in the western basin for several weeks now, the birds having taken a liking to Shepherds and Stangate creeks to the west, both having more protection from westerlies/easterlies..

Seaduck: If there are any small numbers of Eider and Common Scoter present, they will happily remain in Half Acre/Bartlett in most conditions except for strong northerlies, when they might shelter in the SYC over the tide. (With all these generalisations, there is a percentage game needing to be played; on some tides, perhaps due to wind, swell, disturbance, any of the estuary birds might switch to east-southeast of Nor in the sheltered bay formed by the arm of Friars, or hole up close-in north-east of Bishop; reading the conditions help increase your chances of catching up with them.)

Cormorant and the odd Shag often feed here, as easy to pick up on a falling as a rising tide as they follow the shoals in and out of this relatively narrow mid-estuary channel. It is one of the best spots to see Cormorants working together.

If there are any Spoonbills wintering on the north shore in their favoured Damhead creek area, then the SYC is often their first choice of refuge when disturbed.

The island complex defining the SYC is a vital roosting area for the eastern basin, and waders transit and roost in number, the main roosts being on the more 'natural' Bishop and Friars. Both are shot by wildfowlers (dabbling duck love the islands here), but usually not both are shot on the same day, so roosts chop and change.

Human disturbance is greater in the eastern basin, mainly because these creeks and islands are closer to the more populated areas of the estuary. Jet-skis, especially on weekends, use the SYC as their favoured route. Why weekend birders fare worse for any 'target species' here than the weekday visitors.

There are numerous unauthorised landings on the islands, sometimes culminating in overnight camping. Canoes venture to the forts. Once, even a shore fisherman over a spring tide on the Darnet saltings.

Most breeding numbers are on Bishop. Canoeists and small craft can disturb on the high tide. The increasingly popular recreational activity of 'mudlarking', searching flats for old 'treasures' lead the more adventurous out onto the creek from time to time.

Disturbed roosts may sometimes feel safe enough to just shift from one of the other surrounds of the SYC. Darnet is popular if the threat level is only slightly elevated, but a full scare will see birds off to Hoo, or the western basin, or even aerial roosting. And the chance to clamber over the old fort on Darnet is a magnet for the more adventurous river user.

A new initiative, BirdwiseNK (which will be getting a blogpost of its own shortly) has a code of conduct for those out on the water;

- At high tide, stay away from roosting birds.
- Avoid landing on the islands; they are used for breeding in the summer and roosting in the winter.
- View wildlife from at least 100m away and move away if they become agitated.

All aspirational of course; a lot of work to do but it will be interesting to monitor disturbance now Birdwise is 'live' and word spreads.

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