Half a Decade Ago

In a couple of days, it will be five years since we bought the meadows. That’s half a decade under our management. Looking back at some of the early posts from when I started this blog, I am amazed and embarrassed at how little we knew back then – five years of obsessively studying two meadows has worked its magic.

Here are the meadows on the day we took them over at the end of November 2014:

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And here we are at the end of November 2019:

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The first impression may be that there is not very much difference, but the wild pond down by the gap in the hedge, the new linear wood down the right hand boundary, the insect hotels and the mosaic areas of longer grass hopefully tell the story of wildlife-sympathetic management over the last few years.

The linear wood in the meadows was planted in the winter of 2017/8 and since then there have been two hot drought summers and it has been a bit of a struggle at times. But on the whole, it is doing alright:

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A few of the trees have been lost but most remain.

An ecologist from the Kent Mammal Group has come to visit the proper wood to give us advice on how to find out if we have Dormice there and how to best manage the woods for them.

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At the end of her visit we knew a whole lot more about how Dormice live their lives. There are no records of Dormice in the immediate area. However, having seen the wood, she thought it was quite likely that we did have them – after all, they are nocturnal and live in the tree canopy when not actually hibernating and so they are easy to miss.

As a result of her advice, our plan now is to put out some Dormouse Footprint Tunnels in April in the Hazel-coppiced areas of the wood. Tape covered in an ink made out of a charcoal/oil mix is placed at either end of the tunnel.

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Internet photo of the equipment for setting up a footprint tunnel

Then we will have a bit of a learning curve to identify a Dormouse’s footprint but apparently they are very distinctive.

Honeysuckle is very important to Dormice, not least because they use the Honeysuckle bark to make their nests. Another job for next Spring is to plant more native wild Honeysuckle all around the woodland boundaries.

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An area of Honeysuckle in the wood

Establishing a rota of Hazel coppicing so that an area is cut every winter will mean that there is always Hazel of the right age producing heavy crops of nuts.

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It’s hard work

It is completely wonderful that busy people will give up their precious spare time to come and help us with the wood. It also turns out that she is really interested in Bats and will revisit the wood next May to teach us to use our Bat detector properly and help us survey the wood for Bats.

We have a few ongoing projects at the moment. The first one is to deter the Heron to protect our amphibians in the pond. We made a grid of string across the pond, hoping to restrict the Heron to just one area:

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However, the Foxes repeatedly gnawed through the string. We have now put logs down so that the string on the banks is down at grass level and this appears to have solved the Fox problem:

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When the Heron next arrived, it seemed very unsettled by the new set up and hasn’t now returned for several days:

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However, we have the feeling that we may have won this current battle but we haven’t yet won the war.

We are putting seed down on the strip throughout the year to support farmland birds. Our second ongoing project is to stop this seed being quickly hoovered up by the big bully boys meaning that there is never any left for the small farmland birds that we are trying to encourage.

This cage below protects some of the seed from the Crows, Magpies, Woodpigeon and Foxes. After putting down the seed, very quickly the only seed that remains is under the cage.

 

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Dunnocks were the first birds to learn to enter the cage, quickly followed by House Sparrows and Robin.

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There have also been Long Tailed Tit:

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Stock Dove are difficult because they are excluded from the cage but we want to encourage them so we always also put seed down outside the cage as well:

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Stock Dove and Wood Pigeon

The cage has successfully protected some of the seed, try as they might:

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Yesterday there was a Yellowhammer on the strip, although not in the cage:

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So, the cage looks like it is going to be successful and I have now ordered two more – another one with the smaller mesh that we already have, and one with larger mesh that should also let in Yellowhammer and Starling. They will arrive tomorrow.

The final project is a silly one – to get a good photo of a Fox on the stone pinnacle that we recently constructed in the paddock. I have been putting a few peanuts on it at dusk:

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This morning I saw that they had left me a message, telling me what they thought of my stupid experiment:

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We have seen Blue Tits emerging from the Swift box which reminded us that the box is meant to be blocked off when the Swifts are out of the country. Before inserting some bungs, we put the digiscope camera in to ensure that the box was definitely empty:

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This photo is on its side. The shallow scrape has droppings – presumed Blue tit –  but no nest:

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The box is now blocked off and the polystyrene bungs will be taken out next May as Swifts start to return from Africa:

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I have some more photos from the meadows:

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Kestrel
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Hierarchical shenanigans
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A Fox wondering if it should exit now Scarface has turned up. 
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A Jay coming to see if any of those peanuts are left
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Crows

From the wood:

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I think this must be a female Pheasant seeing if it can use the new peanut feeder. It couldn’t.
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A Wren in the Mustelid box
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Two Jays having a bath. Hard to distinguish them from the autumn colours.
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A Goldcrest
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Two woodland Badgers

The last photos for today concern Calais. On a clear day, it is easy to see across to the white cliffs of France from the meadows using just your eyes. But, on a really clear day, it is possible to see Calais Town Hall clock using binoculars which is pretty amazing:

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Internet photo of Calais Town Hall and its clock
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A photo from the meadows. The Town Hall clock can be seen on the left of the photo.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Farmland Birds in Winter

Our son’s partner recently visited Hope Farm in Cambridgeshire as part of her environmental MSc. The RSPB are running the farm to show that it is possible to successfully produce food and make a profit whilst still being a valuable place for wildlife. Additionally, as they work out how best to do this, they are developing new farming practices to share with other farmers. Since they took over the farm in 2000, they have recorded a 226% increase in breeding birds and also have many times more wintering farmland birds.

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One of the things that they are doing is ensuring that there are seed-rich crop areas to support birds through the winter and their approach certainly seems to be working –  in January 2001, Hope Farm counted 534 birds of 30 species. In January 2016, they counted 2,933 birds of 48 species. That’s a really heartening improvement.

I have been reading up about Hope Farm to see if there are things that we could be doing here in the meadows to help our birds through the lean times of winter. We are not growing crops for them but are continuing to put a seed mix down on the strip throughout the whole year.  However,  I am not sure that we are reaching our target audience:

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Magpies, Woodpigeon and Pheasant
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Crows and Pheasant

Most of the food is being quickly hoovered up by Magpies, Crows, Woodpigeons and Stock Doves and, once it gets dark, the Foxes move in to finish off anything remaining. The smaller birds do not get much of a look in and the large flocks of Linnets that were here through the summer have now gone elsewhere to find food, as they have disappeared every previous winter as well.

The Farmland Bird Indicator monitors the populations of nineteen farmland bird species and, from 1970 to 2007, there was an overall 48% decline. This 48% can be broken down by species in this interesting list below:

Tree Sparrow -94%
Corn Bunting -90%
Turtle Dove -89%
Grey Partridge -87%
Yellow Wagtail -73%
Starling -68%
Linnet -58%
Lapwing -58%
Yellowhammer -54%
Skylark -51%
Kestrel -35%
Reed Bunting -27%
Whitethroat +5%
Greenfinch +23%
Rook +41%
Stock Dove +55%
Gold Finch +64%
Woodpigeon +125%
Jackdaw +136%

Although this list is now somewhat out-of-date, we want to be supporting birds towards the top of this list with the seed that we are putting down in the meadows.

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With this in mind, a few days ago, we put this cage on the strip to preserve some of the seed from being eaten by the more dominant larger birds and give smaller birds the chance to get at it.

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Looking promising – Crows peering in at the uneaten seed
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A Badger trundles up but cannot get at the seed
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The cage is supplied with short pegs to go into the ground. This Fox pushed the cage aside, pulling the pegs from the ground, and ate the seed.

Well, it is early days for this experiment. We have longer pegs or even screw-in pegs – I am sure that we will be able to stop the Foxes getting to the seed. However, of more concern is that we are yet to see a small bird go into the cage and I worry that they are finding the mesh size too small – there was an option to go for a larger mesh although I decided against it. But, should birds learn to go into the cage, my plan is to get a few of them and then be able to more effectively deliver seed to small farmland birds through the winter.

Another way to support birds over the winter is to provide bird boxes as sheltered places  in which to roost.

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We had a large number of boxes up around the meadows, some of which have been unused for several years. The lack of bird droppings in them suggests that, as well as not being used for nesting, they also are not being used as winter roosts.

Therefore, we have now transferred these boxes across to the wood to see how they get on there:

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We have also increased the variety of bird food that we are putting out in the wood:

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Niger Seed and two ‘Squirrel Buster’ feeders: sunflower heart and peanut. The weight of a Squirrel on the feeder brings an outer sheath down to close off the dispenser holes.
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Squirrel proof suet ball feeder

We have had fantastic news about the farm that surrounds the wood and that you can see in the background of the photo above. It has recently changed hands and the new owner is taking it out of agriculture and managing it for wildlife, planning to plant thousands of trees and creating a lot of new hedgerow. It is going to be so interesting to see how this project progresses over the next few years and how it impacts on the wood.

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The wood, looking so very lovely at this time of year

At any one time, we have a lot of trail cameras in operation, all of varying ages and states of repair. Sometimes it feels like we are running a trail camera hospital here dealing with many patients with various ailments that need nursing along. Recently we decided to consign several of the worst cases into final retirement and buy some more.

The new camera in the Beech Grove in the wood is a Victure and only cost about £30. Although it may be of some use to keep an eye on what is generally about, its daytime picture quality isn’t terribly good and we wouldn’t buy another of these:

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Fox hunting rodents – the night time quality is not bad

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Squirrel carrying a sweet chestnut kernel

Another of the new cameras is a Bushnell Core Cam with No Glow infra-red. This camera was expensive at about £200 and would be good to use for animals such as Deer that are sensitive to the low red glow that most of the cameras give out when taking an infra red picture in the dark. However, the downside is that the quality of the night time photo is not so good with a No Glow camera:

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Foxes taken with a Bushnell Core No Glow infra red camera
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As a comparison, Foxes taken with one of our normal Crenova cameras

Having now tried several other makes and types of camera, we have returned once again to the opinion that we are best off with the Crenova trail cameras that cost around £70.  These cameras are reasonably cheap, reasonably reliable, of reasonable quality and we are very familiar with them, having got through many of them over the years.

The female Pheasant is still in the meadows and becoming quite a familiar figure:

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She doesn’t have the worry of being shot here and she is too large to have to be concerned about Sparrowhawks, but she does need to be very careful of Foxes:

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It seems that she has had another lucky escape because she reappears half an hour later:

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The Heron continues to turn up here far too often for our liking:

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We have now strung a grid of string over the pond as a Heron deterrent to save our Frogs and Newts:

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The Heron will always land on the grass and walk into the pond. This string grid will not allow it to wade into the centre of the pond. We hope that it will be restricted to only one square of the grid and the amphibians in the other squares will be protected from it. At the same time, the Foxes and Badgers will still be able to use the pond for drinking.

Is this going to be good enough? We are not sure but we have put some cameras on it to see how the Heron copes with it the net time it visits.

This morning, however, we see that practically every string has been chewed and cut. The cameras didn’t catch anything red-handed but we have our suspicions:

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Obviously we are going to have to have a small rethink.

Here is a Fox going over the gate at one o’clock in the morning:

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and here is one eating some peanuts that I put on the new stone pile:

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Finally today, there is this large Gull. I am not an expert by any means on Gulls and got the bird book out to try to properly ID this bird:

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My conclusion is that this is surely a second winter juvenile Herring Gull. These large Gulls don’t reach maturity until their fourth year and their feathers pass through many stages on the way there and this can be used to age them. Actually all very interesting and I must make more of an effort to spot and learn the differences between them.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

East Kent Birds

We have just returned from a trip to Mid Wales, specifically to try to see Salmon leaping up waterfalls to reach their spawning grounds, which is an early November wildlife spectacle. Sadly, 2019 has been the worst year ever for Salmon in the local rivers and we were unlucky this time. Only 350 Salmon were caught in the region this summer (hopefully they were then put back in alive). In the Salmon heyday, 20,000 were being caught each year. Whilst we were there, we also visited Gigrin Farm Red Kite Feeding Centre.

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500 wild Red Kites fly in at 2pm each day

In the winter, around 500 wild Red Kites descend on this farm at 2pm because food is put out at that time every day (3pm in the summer – Kites don’t understand British Summer Time).

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Red Kite
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A leucistic white Red Kite
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A Red Kite that has lost its tail feathers but seemed to be doing alright
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Some Buzzards also come in  – they are easier to photograph because they land and stay still.
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Two Buzzards

It was lovely to see these birds because here, on the East Kent coast, we have only very, very occasionally seen Red Kites and Buzzards. Red Kites have just not made it to East Kent yet. Buzzards have, however, and you can see them if you go a mere half mile inland. Perhaps they don’t come out to the coast because we don’t have the trees they need.

The Nuthatch is another bird that we don’t get in coastal East Kent and, again, this is probably because of the lack of trees.

The wood is nine miles inland as the Crow flies and, for the first time for a while, we put a camera on the feeder in the wood and were delighted to discover Nuthatches:

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Nuthatch on the feeder in the wood

This is a new species for the wood and is a bird that wasn’t coming to the feeder when we last had a camera on it back in the spring.

Unfortunately the feeder is too close to the camera to be in focus, but here are some of the other visitors:

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Marsh Tit on the right
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Male Great Spotted Woodpecker
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Female Great Spotted Woodpecker
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Always amazed to see the olive green colour on the back of a Chaffinch

 

We have had some wet and wild weather here recently. Here is the banana boat moored very close inshore to wait out the storm before attempting to get into Dover harbour. Dover is an important port for bananas:

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But in a window of calm, this beautiful female Bullfinch was ringed in the meadows last week:

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We were sitting out having a cup of tea in our coats and gloves and we saw a Kestrel being mobbed by a Crow:

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Kestrel on the left, Crow on the right

But then we realised that there were two Kestrels:

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Two Kestrels above the meadows

They then appeared to pass something between them:

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We don’t know what was going on but it was an exciting cup of tea.

We once again have a Heron problem:

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It has been coming here a lot. Moreover, it is a full moon at the moment and it takes advantage of that to also fish through the night. Here is is at 1am this morning:

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And Frogs are being caught:

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It is such a relentless and successful hunter that we are going to have to implement our plans to deter the Heron and save some of our amphibians. Actually, the plans are currently a bit vague but are going to involve making a grid over the pond with string, making it difficult for the Heron to wade around from one area of the pond to another. We will get going with that over the next few days.

There is another large bird that has made the meadows her home for now:

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She has turned up on practically every camera around the meadows. The dog spotted her this morning and ran at her, trapping her in a corner. Thankfully the dog is only interested in chasing things, not killing things, so all ended well and the bird was unharmed. However, Foxes cannot afford to be so forgiving and there are a lot of them around here and so I hope she takes care.

Here are a few other lovely East Kent birds:

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Robin
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Mistle Thrush
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Ringed Blackbird
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Beautiful little Wren

And I finish today with some East Kent Badgers and Foxes:

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Out With The Old

The cutting of the meadows is thankfully nearly complete and we have moved on to the next autumnal job – the grand annual clearing out of the nest boxes.

Actually, a lot of the boxes were found to be empty this year but there were some Great Tit and Blue Tit nests:

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And also some rodent nests , stuffed with leaves as well as moss:

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As usual, fluff from the dog’s fluorescent giant tennis balls was liberally incorporated into many of the nests:

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One dead Blue tit, many chewed nuts from rodent usage and a lot of dog ball fluff
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Another dead Blue Tit and some more ball fluff

One of the boxes was empty except for this recently-dead Great Tit:

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Although it is sad to find these dead birds, these nests will have successfully launched a large number of fledglings this year. It’s just the few that didn’t make it that are left for us to see.

We have removed some of the boxes that have stood empty for a couple of years and will now have a rethink about where they should go – some of them may well be transferred across to the wood where all six of the small bird boxes we put up were used this year.

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A lot of Blackbirds have arrived into the country recently. This male is very probably a continental bird – our resident male Blackbirds will have started to get yellow beaks and eye rings by now and their feathers would be more shiny:

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The brown primary feathers on the leading edge of the wings indicate that this is a young bird, born this year.

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Below is one of our resident males with the yellow beak:

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I can’t tell you much about this next Blackbird, other than it is enjoying itself:

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Some other photos from a ringing session this week:

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Firecrest
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Blue Tit. Looks like she has her ballgown on.
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Chiffchaff

Below is an Ichneumid Wasp, Ophion obscuratus, which still flies throughout winter. There are several similar species but I think that the pale stripes on the thorax are diagnostic.

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Ophion obscuratus

These wasps lay their eggs into caterpillars and the developing larvae live off the caterpillar, only killing it right at the end to ensure the food remains fresh. Charles Darwin saw the lifecycle of these parasitic wasps as being incompatible with a benign creator. He wrote: ‘I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of Caterpillars’.  Back in the 19th Century, they didn’t have climate change and many of the other problems that we are grappling with today, but there were certainly some other fundamental issues for them to be wrestling with.

This parasitic Wasp is a large thing – four centimetres from the antennae to the end of the abdomen. Here it is in side view:

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Why on earth has it got such a precariously slender waist?

Here is another large insect that is still around at this time of the year:

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This is the Western Conifer Seed Bug (Leptoglossus occidentalis). This bug is a native of the USA but arrived in Britain in 2007 and is now spreading rapidly. It feeds on the sap of developing pine cones, causing the seeds within the cones to become malformed.  I cannot find reports of it becoming a pest in the UK, although it has become one in conifer plantations of its native Western USA.

Stock Doves are so often overlooked but see how absolutely beautiful they are: soft grey with blush-pink overtones, the friendly black eye and the surprising iridescence on their neck.

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Those black eyes of the Stock Dove are really lovely – compare it to the eye of a Wood Pigeon:

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Bathing in the same tray the other day is this young female Kestrel:

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She looks like a Nightjar in this photo

 

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She does show us her right leg this time and we can see that she is indeed the bird that managed to take a chunk out of the bird ringer’s hand whilst he was ringing her here a few weeks ago.

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Here is another bird displaying a ring:

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I sent this photo to the bird ringer because I was not aware of him ever having ringed a Jay in the meadows. It turns out that he hasn’t – although he ringed an adult female in his garden nearby in April 2018 and so maybe this is she.

This photo below was a bit of a surprise:

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We haven’t seen a Pheasant in the meadows for ages – certainly none this year. I have never noticed the white patch below their eye before. She is still here, actually. She was feeding on the strip at 7am this morning:

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The appearance of a Heron, however,  is not a surprise these days:

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The cameras on the meadow ponds have captured some other interesting sights:

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An unusual view of a Woodpigeon
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Starling
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A Green Woodpecker hunting for Ants
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Close up of a Crow
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Song Thrush

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Here are two Badgers scent marking by anal rubbing – Badgers do this a lot:

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A fine looking Fox:

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I always love photos showing interactions between Foxes and Badgers:

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I am going to finish today with Woodcock. Yesterday, while walking round the meadows, we put up three separate Woodcock that were resting up in the hedgerows. They migrate at night and the meadows will be the first land they come to after a long flight over water. They stop, probably exhausted, and spend the day quietly in the hedges while they recover, moving further inland once it gets dark again. However, they will need to feed up first before they go. We have two Bushnell trail cameras that we use in the meadows. These have a ‘Field Scan’ setting where they will take a photo at a fixed interval regardless of whether anything has triggered it. They can cover a much greater distance doing this because the trigger distance is quite limited.

We have never used the cameras on this setting before but we decided to give it a go to see if we could catch them feeding on the strip where there are many bare soil areas that they could easily probe for insects with their long beaks. It was getting dark by the time we got the cameras into position:

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It was a wet and wild night:

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I have gone through the results this morning and, sadly, no Woodcock to be seen. Along with Foxes and Badgers there was this but my best guess is that it is a Bat:

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However we will be still running this experiment over the next few nights as the Woodcock continue to arrive into the country, so you never know.