Wondrous Worms

Christmas has come and gone and things here are quiet. The photo below from a trip into nearby Deal captures one of the dull, grey, leaden days that we seem to have been having so many of recently.

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It is asking too much of my camera equipment to take decent photos out to sea but hopefully it is possible to make out the line of Cormorants flying in formation just above the water. We have watched from the meadows and seen thousands of these birds go by like this over the last couple of weeks. But Cormorants often hunt together in large groups, diving down and chasing the fish underwater and so perhaps they are the same birds we are seeing time and time again.

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Earlier in the month we found a large gathering of earth-coloured larvae under a reptile sampling square. We didn’t know what they were, but early December seemed a very odd time for them to be around:

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We have now learnt that these are Leatherjackets – the larval stage of the Crane Fly, of which I see there are 327 species in the UK. It is difficult to find information about Leatherjackets that doesn’t approach the subject from a pest control angle since they can be a nuisance for pristine lawns – but there are certainly none of those here and we welcome Leatherjackets with open arms since they are food for many birds, especially Starlings.

They were back under the same square this morning, squirming around:

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There has been a large amount of rain falling from the sky in recent months and the ponds are looking admirably full of water.

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The ground is so wet and soft that the worms have been making complete merry:

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Millions of worm casts cover the meadows and a lot of them have holes at the top. Does this mean that the worm extends itself out at night?

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We went out with torches last night but couldn’t see any. Perhaps it needs to be raining, or maybe they are extremely sensitive to ground vibrations and knew that we are coming long before we got there. I realise that I don’t know very much about Earthworms and the way they live their lives and will try to find out more.

When out with torches on our failed worm-watching excursion, we had a look in the hide pond, which seems devoid of life during the day at this time of the year. But in the safety of the darkness, there were lots of Water Boatmen swimming about and we counted seven Smooth Newts. How lovely.

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A Smooth Newt swimming in the pond at night

In a few days time, 85m of mixed native hedgerow is going to be planted in the second meadow. The route that it is going to take has been decided upon and the grass has been cut along this line:

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It isn’t just worms that love the soft ground – it’s great for metal detectorists too. It seemed a good idea to run the detector along the track of the new hedge before work commenced:

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A couple of metal buttons and the usual assortment of rusted iron and bits off tractors were dug up, but this was the first time this winter that we have been out detecting and it is really rather enjoyable.

Another result of all the rain is an amazing display of the weird, contorted White Saddle fungus this year, with hundreds of fruiting bodies coming up in both tree copses in the meadows:

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White Saddle fungus, Helvella crispa

I got two natural history text books for Christmas. This first one is going to be very useful:

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Over 25 million moth records from Butterfly Conservation’s National Moth Recording Scheme have been used to produce this book which has distribution maps for nearly 900 moth species. I am hoping that I am going to spend more time and effort on moths in 2020 and this book is certainly going to help.

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The second book I am a bit scared of. There are around 2,500 species of Ichneumonids in Britain – almost 10% of the British insect species, which is pretty astounding. These parasitic wasps are fascinating but it is difficult to identify them properly because there is such a shortage of information that is accessible to a non-specialist.

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I asked for this expensive book for Christmas because I would love to know more about the life cycles of these animals. However, rather than having lots of photos of the different parasitic wasps so that I could flick through to identify any wasp that I had found, it seems that it is not as simple as that. The book is, in fact, a biological key and will require a lot of work on my part to start using it.

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It is really quite daunting with lots of technical words but it is surely not entirely beyond me – I just need to put the time in to get to grips with it.

Today we went to the wood to do some more coppicing. At the moment there are reliably Buzzards to be seen in one of the fields attached to the larger wooded area. In fact, today there were four of them there:

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It is fantastic that the area is rich enough to support four of these magnificent animals. I suspect we are back to worms again and this is what they are doing spending so much time standing around in a wet field – worm hunting.

Worms are definitely what this Tawny is looking for on the woodland floor:

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We saw the Owl doing this a lot last winter but this is the first time for a while. I am so pleased that it is back again this winter – I had been watching out with eager anticipation on the cameras.

As I walked around the wood collecting in the trail cameras, I put up a Woodcock – another bird that relies on Earthworms.

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A Woodcock in the wood back in February

Of course Earthworms are also extremely important to Badgers, making up 80% of their diet.

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A Badger snuffling for worms in the wood

It is only now, in preparing this post, that the importance of the humble Earthworm in sustaining all these different types of animals through the bleak midwinter days has hit me for the first time.

We are progressing slowly with the coppicing in the wood:

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Today we were battling with a few stools, the canopies of which had been knitted together with Old Man’s Beard, making it all so very much more difficult:

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Luckily we had a Kelly Kettle with us to make a hot cup of tea and have sit down with some Christmas cake:

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As we sat, we were watching the very popular feeders with lots and lots of birds coming in – no wonder the seed disappears so quickly.

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A male Pheasant was poking around underneath:

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Then a male Sparrowhawk came in and took one of the birds under our very noses, causing alarm calling all around. That was a shock.

There was also a Kestrel flying above the regeneration area of the wood.

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This is a new species for the wood bird list and is especially exciting to see since we already have a Kestrel nest box up and a second one waiting to go up. So, really great to actually confirm that Kestrels are in the area.

The last wood photo for today is this one of the Jelly Ear fungus on Elder. There is a lot of this fungus around this year as well:

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Moving back now to the meadows. We have three cameras monitoring the goings-ons up on the strip.

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We have been putting food down on the strip and have placed cages so that all the seed is not quickly hoovered up, leaving none for the farmland birds we are wanting to support:

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Two different cameras caught this squabble between Crows. Here is the first:

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And here is the second:

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The female Pheasant has been very amusing:

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She has squeezed herself so many times between the cages:

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And she has a very long neck:

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It is now over a week since the winter solstice and we have definitely noticed the days getting longer. Two more short days of 2019 and then we are starting a fresh new wildlife year and watching out for the first signs of spring.

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