The Turning of the Year

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There was bird ringing in the meadows yesterday as 2018 was taking its last gasps. I am always surprised at what a marked eyestripe Wrens have.

This male Greenfinch was almost canary yellow:

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The wing feathers of a Greenfinch are edged with glorious, sunshine yellow as well.

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I have never noticed that male Chaffinches have olive-green rumps before. In fact the olive and chestnut colouring on their backs is really beautiful:

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Sparrowhawks seem to be turning up on the cameras daily at the moment. In particular we have seen a lot of this bird shown below and, in my previous blog post, I called her a female Sparrowhawk. Having spoken to the bird ringer, I now know that she’s a juvenile:

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Her back and head are brown but when she is fully adult they will be slate grey. Moreover, she has a columns of love hearts down her chest:

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An adult female will just have barring.

The camera trained on the perch caught the dramatic moment of a Sparrowhawk catching a Magpie:

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That’s one way of sorting the Magpie problem out.

There has been a lot of activity at the nest boxes as Blue Tits check them out. They try to bag them as their own, roost in them through the rest of the winter and then be in prime position at the start of the breeding season. Of course, it’s always our most disreputable nest box that is the most popular:

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I was amused to see a Blue Tit also investigating the bat box:

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Unfortunately we now seem to be down to only three Grey Partridge, having lost one of the males. Last winter we had a band of between nine to eleven birds so this is rather a sad reduction in numbers of a bird that is generally not doing very well at all:

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The Small Rodent project continues. We have got some slightly better photos, although there is still much room for improvement.  The Voles are so appealing:

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Here is a Pygmy Shrew with its amazing nose:

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The main thing that we have learnt from this project that we didn’t know before is that Wood Mice are exclusively nocturnal and have only appeared in the dark. The Voles and Shrews mostly visit during daylight although occasionally do appear at night. Therefore, we conclude that the Kestrels must be hunting Voles and the Owls are hunting mainly Mice. Shrews have foul tasting scent glands which is such a good tactic because no one wants to eat them.

Also very surprising are the size differences. Here are three photos that I haven’t cropped. A Wood Mouse:

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A Bank Vole:

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And a Pygmy Shrew:

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Having been watching the path along the cliff for a few years now, we know that winter is a time for fox dispersal and we see foxes passing through that we do not recognise. It is usually in daylight hours that we see them and often they are in a bad way, like this fox with mange this morning:

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The resident foxes here had mange three years ago and we treated and cured them by putting out jam sandwiches laced with medicine every day for six weeks. But there is nothing that we can do for these poor animals that are in transit, other than hope that they eventually settle somewhere where someone spots their plight and cares enough to help them.

Now, after that, we need a joyful way to finish and here are the young Badgers playing. This year’s and last year’s cub still love to romp together and it warms the cockles of your heart to watch them:

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Winter Solstice

I didn’t mention to the wildlife that I had signed off for Christmas and so things just kept happening. So, today, on the really rather special shortest day of the year, I find myself settling down to write another update.

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Female Sparrowhawk on the gate…
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…Male Sparrowhawk in the same spot. Great for comparing and brushing up on Sparrowhawk ID skills. Female – brown back and head. Male – steel grey back and head but with rufous cheeks and armpits.

Here they are both bathing in the same spot as well:

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Female Sparrowhawk
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Male Sparrowhawk.

The four Grey Partridge have been coming every day to the seed on the strip. It is possible to tell the males and females apart in these birds as well. There are three males at the front of the photo with rufous heads. The single female is at the back with the paler stripe above her eye:

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Female at the back with the stripe.

 

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One of the males in a flap.

Apparently there is often a shortage of females because they have to sit on nests in hedgerows incubating eggs and are much more vulnerable to predation by foxes.

Who, me? Yes, you:

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Also still coming to the strip are many House Sparrows and Chaffinches:

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All this rain has meant that the ground is so easy to metal detect in. We went out a few days ago and dug up the usual haul of assorted odd bits of metal. However, we also found a 1965 old Penny although the star find was a musket ball. This is the second one we have found in roughly the same area – both unfired we think.

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With a diameter of .69 inches, it would have been used in a Brown Bess flintlock musket which was in service in the British army from 1725 until 1838:

 

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A Brown Bess musket.

Wandering around the copse of trees, we noticed this interesting thing about 2.5m up a Holm Oak:

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On closer examination up a step ladder, a shiny black body could be seen within leading us to think that this was a spider nest:

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However, we now know that this is the nest of a moth, not a spider – the Vapourer moth – although it may be that a spider is also opportunistically sheltering in there. The Vapourer is fascinating because the females are flightless. Here is a photo I took in June 2016 on the very same Holm Oak – this is a Vapourer caterpillar, such a wacky thing.

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Once the caterpillar phase is over, it spins a cocoon and pupates. The males hatch into a flying moth:

Vapourer Moth (Orgyia antiqua) jitty near Bath House SP 4901 9363 (taken 8.9.2009)
Male Vapourer Moth (internet photo)

The females, however, hatch into a flightless moth and stay on the cocoon, attracting the males to her with pheromones:

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Wingless female Vapourer Moth (internet photo)

Because flight isn’t an issue for her, she can be heavy with lots of eggs. Once mated, she lays her eggs on the outside of the same cocoon that she pupated in.

This must mean that Vapourer populations become very localised since the female can only move as a caterpillar and presumably that is not very far.

The eggs in this nest are overwintering like this and will start hatching out into caterpillars next May. Obviously we will be watching!

The Mustelid box has been getting more visitors recently – but not by Mustelids. The small mammals here occupy an important position in the food chain although their populations are strongly cyclical and increase tenfold between the high and low points. They are directly preyed upon by Owls, Kestrels, Foxes, Weasels to name a few and so their relative abundance has a big effect on how well many other species will be doing.

Given all this, it is long overdue that we attempt to get to grips with the rodents that live  here.

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Wood Mouse (visits exclusively at night)

For several weeks we had just been getting Wood Mice visiting the box. Now, however, other species have begun visiting:

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Field Vole or Bank Vole? Voles visit mostly during the day.

I have been trying to work out if this is a Field Vole (Microtus agrestis) or a Bank Vole (Myodes glareolus). A Field Vole has a shorter tail (30% of total body length), a grey-brown coloured coat and less prominent ears. A Bank vole has a longer tail (50% of total body length), a red-brown coat and more noticeable ears.

Both Voles happily live alongside each other and I finally decided that both types of Voles have been visiting, although I am slightly wobbly about that decision.

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I thought this was a Bank Vole – longer tail
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And that this was a Field Vole with a much shorter tail.

We bought a much more expensive trail camera with a short focus lens specifically to go into this box – I’m not sure that I’m that impressed with the results. Identification would surely be easier if the photos were a bit clearer.

Here is another photo of a Vole for scale:

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But now for something much smaller – a Pygmy Shrew

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Unlike the mice and the voles, the Shrew is insectivorous and so won’t have been interested in the nuts and dried fruit that I put in the box and no doubt was just having a bit of an explore.

I feel that there is much more work to be done on properly getting familiar with the rodents that call these meadows their home. Another project on the list for 2019.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Review of the Year 2018

It has been a year of triumphs and dramas here in the meadows but they are all part of the road we are travelling to understand what’s going on and how best to manage the land for the benefit of Nature . Here is my summary of 2018:

1. Turtle Dove Strip

This was the major project of the year – a bare earth strip was dug to simulate a weedy agricultural field edge and supplementary feed supplied by the RSPB was put down for eight weeks in May and June in an attempt to get Turtle Doves to nest here. Sadly, this was unsuccessful and we didn’t see a Turtle Dove. However, it then developed into a project to support other struggling farmland birds such as Grey Partridge, Linnets and Stock Dove and this is still ongoing:

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The strip is dug. February 2018.
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Linnets.

 

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Grey Partridge.
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Grey Partridge.
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Stock Dove.

We have decided to give the whole experiment another go next year with the hope of this time getting Turtle Dove and also Yellowhammer, which is another farmland bird that we really should have seen along the strip but didn’t.

2. Summer Drought

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There was no rain here whatsoever for many weeks over the spring and summer. The water levels in the ponds dropped to critically low levels.
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We worried for the trees that have been planted in the last couple of years. These Treegators were used to drip water onto the roots of the newly-planted Oaks and hopefully all six of them survived the drought.
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At last it rained at the end of July. A new project for this winter has been to install many more water butts to catch as much of these summer rains as we can.

3. Mammals

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Twin baby badgers came above ground in April.
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For a while we had five badgers. However, not long after this photo, one of the baby badgers disappeared – I understand that mortality rates are very high in young badgers for all sorts of reasons. But, as the year draws to a close, we do still have four badgers.
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There were at least two vixen with young.
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Fox cub suckling.
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Beautiful.
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Foxes forming an orderly queue behind the badger at the peanuts.
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Weasel carrying a young rat.
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One of the dog Foxes has a taste for fish. Whiting here.
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And Dogfish here.

4. Bees

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We were sent 25 Red Mason Bee cocoons in March as part of the Red Mason Bee Guardian Scheme. Here is one that has just hatched.
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A Red Mason Bee with a tummy loaded with pollen, building its nest in the cardboard tubes we put out for them.
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At the end of the summer we sent back 45 completed tubes containing a total of 342 cocoons, although several of these were underweight due to fruit fly attack.
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We also have two Mason Bee observation boxes. By the end of the summer, we took these boxes apart, cleaned up the cocoons and they are now in our fridge awaiting the arrival of spring.
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In November we bought this non-interventionist Honey Bee nesting box that hopes to mimic how Honey Bees nest in the wild. We hope that it will be colonised next spring.

5. Butterflies

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We saw 22 species of butterfly here, all of the same species as last year. However, this is one of the few sightings of a Small Blue that we had, although apparently these rare and tiny butterflies did quite well nationally. We think that our low number was because of a shortage of the larval food plant, Kidney Vetch, the year before. I am now going to to collect Kidney Vetch seed every year and grow some plants myself so that there is always a good supply.
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Mating Marbled Whites.
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We had a good year for the threatened Wall butterfly. We always see one or two but this year we saw around twenty.

 

6. Dragonflies.

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We managed to photograph the entire sequence of emergence of Emperor dragonflies – this starts just before dusk and goes on into the night.

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An estimated 150 Emperor dragonflies emerged from both ponds in May. We didn’t catch the emergence of any other species of dragonfly although we have seen five species egg laying. This is something to look forward to next year.
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A magnificent beast – male Broad Bodied Chaser.

7. Dramas.

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We have seen several Woodcock here this year. However, unfortunately this one fatally flew into glass in November.
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The crisis in Nestbox 13. Both parents of a brood of very vocal baby Great Tits disappeared. These babies were nearly ready to fledge and called loudly all day. They eventually exited the nest in desperation but I am sure it did not end well.
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A badger dug out a wasp nest that was built into a pile of hay and ate all the wasp larvae. However, the broken-open nest gave us a chance to see its inner workings. Here is a hoverfly, Volucella zonaria, a parasite of wasps’ nests, awaiting her chance to enter and lay her eggs within.
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We also watched the larvae of the Great Pied Hoverfly, Volucella pellucens, attacking the adult wasps.

8. Ringing.

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A lot of birds were ringed, measured and released here during the year, especially over the spring and autumn migrations. This bird was a bit of a highlight – a Pied Flycatcher – ringed in September.
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Many House Martins were also ringed – especially interesting because little is still known where these birds go to for the winter. They have feathered legs to keep them warm when flying high over mountain ranges.
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Well over 100 Linnets were caught and ringed. This is another bird that more is needed to be known about their movements.
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A fair few Firecrests were also ringed. There was also news of a Chiffchaff that was caught here on 5th October. It had previously been ringed on 25th September, ten days earlier, on the Lizard in Cornwall which is 484kms away. This is evidence of how birds gather here on the Kent coast from all over the country in order to cross the Channel at the narrowest point.

9. New Bird Species for the List.

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Thirteen new bird species were seen in or from the meadows over the year. This Brambling was here in the awful weather in March.
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Buzzard was another new species, seen regularly in October and November, frequently being mobbed by corvids. Here, though, it is being attacked by a Kestrel. The other new species were Meadow Pipit, Woodcock, Moorhen, Coal tit, Black Headed Gull, Redwing, Jackdaw, Mistle Thrush, Grey Wagtail, Pied Flycatcher and Fieldfare, bringing the total of the list to 70.

10. Photos I haven’t managed to fit in anywhere else!

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In May, a pair of Mallards came to bathe every morning in the pond whilst their eggs were being laid. Over this time, the female is weakened and needs the protection of the male. Once the last egg is out, the male leaves the female to incubate the eggs on her own. What lovely red legs he has, I had never noticed that before in a male Mallard.
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A Tawny at the pond. Catching frogs or just drinking?
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I’m slightly obsessed with Owls. Tawny again.
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Male Pheasant in a wonderful pose.
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Frog madness in March.

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This is actually quite a wildlife spectacle.
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It seems to have been a really good year for Slow Worms here. Early May.
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An awkward moment when the male badger trundles upon a Fox cub and waits for it to realise that it needs to get out of his way.
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The meadows covered in Buttercups in May. A glorious month.
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Privet Hawkmoth.
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Up and over the gate.
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I decided that this looked like a couple of elderly magistrates with a ne’er-do-well in the dock and now I can’t get this scenario out of my head.
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Wash and brush up before bed.

And that is the final photo in my summary of 2018. It’s been quite a year and thank you for joining us on the journey by reading this blog. A Happy Christmas to you and let us see what other delights 2019 brings.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Last of the Year?

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There has been a vicious, bitter easterly wind blowing for a couple of days that has meant double coats, hats and gloves for those of us without fur or feather. Now, as I write, conditions have deteriorated further into a howling storm with lashing rain. A good time to settle down and report on wildlife highlights over the past week.

Badgers are the bosses and the Foxes certainly know that and always make way for them – we were therefore so surprised by the following sequence:

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The fox jumped away just as the badger was about to back into him – it clearly had never seen bedding gathering before and seemed curious.

The Mustelid box has been entertaining us recently:

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No Mustelids yet, but interesting all the same.

Here is the female Sparrowhawk having a bath:

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And a Blackbird eating a Sloe:

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We are putting seed down along the weedy strip this winter to help farmland birds:

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Chaffinches

This is proving very popular and we have a flock of Chaffinches and also a flock of Sparrows who are using it a lot, along with some Linnets and Dunnock.  There are also these lovely Grey Partridge:

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It’s nearly the end of the year! With the winter solstice next week, the days are at their shortest and this photo of a wonderful sunset, with which I am finishing my blogging year, was all happening not long after lunch it seemed. Roll on the spring!

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December Rains

Over the last couple of weeks things have been quite quiet here, other than the weather that has frequently been a raging beast. But all this recent rain, together with the removal of lots of reed, has certainly had a wonderful impact on the wild pond.

Here it is on 1st September:

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And today from the same angle:

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Another view of it on 1st September:

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And today:

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Just over the fence from this wild pond, the same Fox has turned up with another fish – his third in recent weeks.

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But this fish still has fishing tackle hanging from its mouth which gives a bit of an insight into what might be going on down there on the beach. In fact, I’ve found a Dungeness fishing website that had several references to opportunistic foxes. Here is an extract from one of the entries:

The Fox was an absolute menace last night and took a whiting as I reeled in, it ran off down the beach with my fish, rig and leader line while another one was sneaking around my shelter looking for bait.

I’m sure that this is the sort of thing that is going on here as well.

There is such an atmosphere of wild animal about the Fox going over the gate in this photo:

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This is the gate that is also a frequent perch for the female Sparrowhawk. Here she is:

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And here she is again three hours later going back the other way:

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Mice also use the top of the gate as a bridge during the night:

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And by day a whole variety of different bird species perch on it. There are lots of Blackbirds around at the moment and here is one with a Hawthorn berry:

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There are always lots of Magpies around – in fact here are ten of them on the strip:

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As our years here have gone on, we have grown to like Magpies less and less as we have observed their bullying behaviour. Magpie numbers have increased greatly in the UK over the last 30 years and there is a legitimate argument to cull them to protect songbirds, many of whom are struggling. I understand that this is legal so long as it is humane and in fact there is an estate near here where numbers of magpies and other corvids are controlled and that has had a really positive impact on the breeding success of smaller birds – including Spotted Flycatchers.

But, alluring though the thought of breeding Spotted Flycatchers is, the killing of Magpies is not something that we have the stomach for. We will continue to try to deter them wherever we can in more gentle ways such as expanding our growth of dense prickly bush to protect songbird nests, using anti-corvid feeders and so on.

As well as a whole load of Magpies on the strip, we also have a flock of Chaffinch:

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This is the first time that we have a winter flock of Chaffinches here like this – they are feeding on the red millet and oil seed rape that we are putting down once a week to support farmland birds.

I mentioned the Blackbirds that are here at the moment. This one at the hide pond seems to have recently survived a close call. Here he is from the back:

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And here he is from the side:

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It’s amazing how much of them is actually just feather rather than body.

All this recent rain has meant that metal detecting is so much easier in the soft ground. Today we dug up this coin:

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It’s ever so corroded but, if we make the assumption that it is a British coin, then its diameter tells us that it is a farthing dating back to some time between 1821 and 1860.

I finish today with a fungus. We put this slice of Oak beside the hide pond a couple of years ago – it came from a massive Oak in Berkshire that had blown over in a winter gale and we retrieved this bit from the tree surgeons who had cleared the road. It has become covered by Turkeytail (Trametes versicolor), a common fungus that mostly grows on Oak or Beech.

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It is a very beautiful fungus.