This year with challenging summer temperatures and minimal precipitation, followed by seemingly months of wind and rain, has brought with it a wonderful mix of natural history delights and dramas in the meadows.
It is always difficult to condense a whole year of events into just one post but here is my best attempt to do that.
Can I really be starting with predatory Flies? We only really became aware them for the first time this year and I am now rather obsessed.
In early May, the hedgerows are always alive with St Mark’s Flies, distinctively flying with their legs dangling.
Taking advantage of this bonanza, this year we noticed male Dance Flies, Empis tessellata, who caught them and held the cadavers across their bodies to await a female:
When a female arrived, they offered the dead fly to her as a gift and mated with her as she ate it. Amazing stuff:
We also saw Kite-Tailed Robberflies carrying Hoverfly prey:
But the grand finale of our predatory-Fly year was a brief sighting of this Hornet Robberfly (Asilus crabroniformis) in August – enormous at nearly 3cm long and with a loud, low buzz. It was a horribly magnificent thing.
We added four more bird species to the Meadows List this year, bringing it up to 75.
In March, an Alexandrine Parakeet was around for a couple of weeks. There are four different species of feral Parrot populations in the UK – Ring-necked Parakeet I had heard of, but there are also Alexandrine and Monk Parakeets, and Blue-Crowned Conures.
In October, a Ring Ouzel was here for two days on migration. It was a juvenile and so its white bib was not pronounced, but the white edging of its feathers distinguishes it from a Blackbird.
The other two new species were a Goshawk, flying over, and Siskin although I don’t have photographic evidence for these two new entrants onto the list.
In April, the RSPB delivered three large sacks of Turtle Dove supplementary food:
and a strip of the second meadow was rotavated to be like an agricultural field edge:
We started a second year of putting seed down to encourage Turtle Doves to come to feed and breed. In the event we again didn’t see a Turtle Dove, but this year we did see Yellowhammer.
In fact, one was caught and ringed:
Then, thrillingly, in August two juvenile Yellowhammer appeared at the strip:
Other declining farmland birds were also welcomed as regular visitors:
Swifts are another species in trouble. We made a Swift box and one of our sons rigged up some electronics so that we could play loud Swift calls from the box through the summer to alert the birds to this potential new residence.
Although we didn’t have any Swifts nesting this year, we did manage to attract many groups of them to come up to have a look at the box. We hope that some of the juveniles, needing their own new nest site, will remember this box when they return to the UK next year.
Annoyingly, though, the only time we saw a Swift actually stop and have a proper investigation, it was looking into the nearby House Martin box rather than the box we had lovingly made specifically for it.
A pair of House Sparrows nested in this House Martin box throughout the summer and successfully raised several broods:
Needless to say, we didn’t see an actual House Martin anywhere near the box.
But House Martins were not completely absent from the year’s events. In October, 37 House Martins were caught, ringed and safely released to continue their migration. It is especially exciting to ring House Martins since little is yet known of their migration routes.
I was surprised to see the size of their Flat Flies – parasitic hitchhikers that these birds carry all the way to Africa and back. They are normally tucked down amongst the feathers but they have emerged because the bird has stopped moving whilst in the net.
The bathing technique of Green Woodpeckers provided much entertainment during the year, the bird often looking a more like a shipwrecked mariner staggering out from the ocean.
In July, speckled juvenile Green Woodpeckers started to be seen:
These juvenile Woodpeckers looked set to follow in their parents’ footsteps with regard to bathing technique:
It was a bit of a shock to find the remains of a Kestrel, presumably having fallen victim to a Sparrowhawk. I was so surprised to learn that they take Kestrels:
But in happier Kestrel news, one was ringed in the meadows this year:
This young female has continued to visit the new shallow tray-ponds, three of which we added to the meadows this year and which have proved hugely popular. They did need topping up practically every day over the summer though.
Magpies seem to be flourishing in the meadows:
but to my mind they have a questionable lifestyle:
But it is good to see that even Magpies sometimes meet their match:
May is a wondrous month and it is a time for a lot of nesting activity.
There are a few more photos that I wanted to include before I finish the bird section:
Twin baby Badgers were born in February. Very often Badger mating happens immediately after young are born and this photo below was taken on 4th February. One of the younger female Badgers wanted to be involved as well:
We knew that it was twins that had been born because we saw two babies being moved on three separate occasions over the following weeks, getting larger each time:
Then, on 16th April, they appeared above ground properly for the first time
These delightful young animals spent the summer playing rough and tumble with each other and tormenting their mother, all the while being taught how to be Badgers.
Unfortunately in September one of the twins got killed on the road below the meadows. This was one of this year’s low points.
Winter is a time of dispersal for Foxes and, upsettingly, every year our trail cameras photograph Foxes with mange passing through. However, this poor animal stayed for a while:
I pulled out all the stops to try to help it. There is a medicine, Arsen Sulphur, that can be sprinkled onto honey sandwiches and will cure mange over time but my problem was trying to get the sandwiches into this particular Fox. Ultimately I was unsuccessful, although I expended a lot of time and emotional energy worrying about it and seeking advice from wildlife organisations. Our resident Foxes ate all the sandwiches, the hierarchical nature of their society not letting this outsider to get a look in. However, this will have protected our home Foxes from catching mange themselves which is one positive thing that I take comfort from.
Here are some lovely Fox photos from around the meadow this year:
Reptiles and Amphibians
We agreed to provide a new home for Slow Worms that Dover County Council required to be safely relocated from land that was being developed nearby. Log refuges were dug into the second meadow and the newly arrived Slow Worms were released into these.
The relocation process went slowly on over the whole summer and, in the end, the project was signed off with a total of 104 Slow Worms having arrived. Their progress here will now be monitored for three years by a Reptile ecologist to ensure that they are thriving.
This is a most unusual sight for the meadows – a Toad:
That is only the second Toad that we have ever seen here although there is a healthy population nearby in Walmer Castle grounds and so, with time, we could have them breeding in our ponds. We do have a lot of Frogs, though. Or rather we did have a lot of Frogs, before a Heron arrived in February and ate literally hundreds of them and also newts as well:
Late February and early March is when Frogs gather together to mate and lay their spawn and so they were easy pickings for the Heron who is a very patient and adept hunter. After a while, there was not a single remaining Frog to be seen. A year earlier, in February 2018, we had been amazed by the large concentration of Frogs that there was in the pond:
Some Frog spawn did get laid though and so hopefully the Frog population can regenerate fairly quickly again, if we can resolve the Heron issue.
Towards the end of the year, the bird started returning regularly to the pond again but this time we were prepared with a plan to properly deter it:
We have formed a grid of string across the pond which we hope will restrict the Heron to hunting in only one sector. So far this seems to be completely successful and has actually stopped it from visiting entirely at the moment. We suspect that we will need to increase the number of strings in the grid during the temptation of Frog Spawning time, but for now we are tentatively calling this a victory.
As well as all our regular species, we saw two new species of Dragonflies here this year. Neither are rare but it is always exciting when new species arrive:
The Red Veined Darter below is a rare species for Britain and may well have come across from the continent. The blue lower eye is something to look out for to recognise these Darters:
I got a new lens for my camera in July and that really helped my Dragonfly photography which was, quite frankly, previously pretty bad.
Butterflies and Moths
2019 was a Painted Lady year and we certainly saw a lot of them here:
They also laid eggs on our Thistles that grew into caterpillars
These caterpillars turned into Butterflies that will now have migrated south because no stage of the Painted Lady lifecycle can survive a British winter.
We also had a good year for our Small Blue colony:
I spotted several Small Blue caterpillars in Kidney Vetch flowers in July. In October, I planted out many more Kidney Vetch plants that I had grown on from gathered seed to ensure that we will have sufficient plants next year to support the colony.
Some other lovely photos of Butterflies and Moths from this year:
2019 has been another really good year of discovery for us as we continue to learn about all aspects of the wildlife of the meadows. There are several projects lined up already for 2020, one of which is to plant 85m of new hedgerow in January and we are really looking forward to what the New Year brings.
Happy Christmas and a fantastic New Year to all.