The War Begins in Earnest

Whilst we accept that a Heron needs to eat and we wouldn’t begrudge it a few frogs, this time last year we watched helplessly on as a Heron consumed hundreds of Frogs and Newts and more or less cleared the ponds of amphibians.

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It even hunted in the dark on moonlit nights. Our sense of justice and fair play was outraged.

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Recently, it started sporadically returning and so we strung some string in a network across the pond, hoping to limit the bird to just one sector.

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It seemed very put off by this and it wasn’t seen for a while. However, as we suspected, all we had done was to win an early battle in a long and bitter war. We are now approaching what must be a highlight in any Heron’s diary – Frog mating time, when large numbers of Frogs gather together in water to mate and spawn. The photo below is from 2018 before the Heron found the pond:

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I was working in the meadows one morning this week and I had to chase the Heron away four times. One of the times it left with a Frog dangling from its beak. I was most displeased.

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My next gambit now is to increase the density of the string network to further inhibit its movement through the water. However, I am not helped in this by the Foxes who have become unwitting allies of the Heron by chewing through the strings every night.

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The strings need retying pretty much on a daily basis.

The Heron is very sensitive to our appearance and will fly away as soon as it sees us, even if we are a really long way away. So, inspired by the wonderful adaptation of Worzel Gummidge over Christmas, we are wondering if another strategy might be to build a scarecrow – and what fun that would be. We could move it about a bit and change its clothes from time to time. We are taking this war to save our amphibians very seriously but there is nothing wrong with enjoying ourselves at the same time.

There seems to be a tradition of quiet rebellion here, with animals nesting where they choose rather than where we want them to. We have had Squirrel in the Little Owl box, House Sparrows in the House Martin box, Starlings nesting in the Woodpecker box. So why not Blue Tits in the Bat box?

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There were a pair of birds going in and out of the box on a sunny January morning this week. They won’t be nesting yet, just trying to get ahead of the game and get those towels down on the sun lounger.

At this time of the year, Foxes seen out and about during the day on the cameras are likely be non-resident dispersing Foxes. This one only had part of its tail:

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However, three of our resident Foxes have also picked up injuries. This one has got an injury on its cheek:

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This one has been hurt above its eye:

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And this one is carrying a hind leg:

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Its a tough life being a British Fox, on the whole. Although the only natural predators of the Fox are Golden Eagle and Badger, both of which would only take cubs, the life expectancy of a wild Fox is generally 1-3 years. In captivity they can live over 14 years, much like our domestic pet dogs.

I feel that now is a good time to include some more gratuitous pinnacle shots:

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I went to a talk in the week given by the Bumblebee Conservation Trust. They are now in the final year of their three-year ‘Making a Buzz for the Coast’ project in Kent. They are working in an area from Dartford to Deal with farmers and other landowners to create flower meadows out of otherwise unused, neglected land and joining them up by doing the same to roadside verges.

There are 270 species of Bee in Britain. Of these, one is the Honey Bee, 24 are Bumblebees and the rest are Solitary Bees. Of the 24 species of Bumblebee, 22 are to be found in warm and glorious Kent, although some of these are now very rare.

The blonde bombshell poster girl of the project is the Shrill Carder Bee (Bombus sylvarum). It has a noticeably higher pitched buzz than other Bumblebees, hence the ‘shrill’ bit to is name.

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Internet photo of the Shrill Carder bee

One of the UK’s most endangered Bumblebees, this is a late-flying Bee – the new queens aren’t hatched until September and so they need plenty of flowers still available then or the next-year’s queens won’t get produced. Also, they don’t fly very far and so a population can find itself cut off with insufficient food to sustain it.

As with many of the rarer Kent Bumblebees, it has a long tongue and so will be visiting flowers such as Red Clover, Bird’s-foot Trefoil, Comfrey and Knapweed – all of these plants grow here in the meadows.  I have made a sparkly new 2020 resolution to make it a year where I pay much more attention to Bumblebees and try to identify those that I see. The second meadow in particular is a large flower meadow all summer long and we could have populations of these rare Kent Bumblebees that the Bumblebee Conservation Trust are working so hard to conserve.

The Tawny is worming in the wood every night at the moment, sometimes making several visits a night. It is clearly a worm hotspot.

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A ghostly image of the Tawny in flight, legs dangling.

Also from the wood, a female Bullfinch visits the pond in the Beech grove:

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A heart-warming photo of the wood Badgers. Bit Besotted By Badgers – that needs to go on my gravestone when the time comes.

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And the magnificent Pheasant who seems to live under the feeders these days:

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As I have been mentioning in every single post recently, we are finding the coppicing of the wood really hard work. One of us has developed Tennis Elbow (now renamed Coppicer’s Elbow) and the other of us is complaining about a sore thumb.

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But this is something that we are planning on doing every winter – are our bodies going to be able to take it? We sought advice from our Pilates teacher who has suggested a new sawing technique using the power of more of our bodies than just our arms. We have also decided to invest in a bit more equipment:

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Silky pruning saws. His and Hers – one has a slightly longer blade than the other

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A battery operated chain saw. We are also going to buy protective trousers that have a lining of wool which would wrap around and disable the blades before they get to the leg. Chain saws scare me and this piece of equipment will be treated with the utmost respect.

There is another month of coppicing before nesting season starts and we will see how much more we can get done with this new equipment and sawing technique!

Back at the meadows, we didn’t know what best to do with the turfs that were cut when planting the hedge and so we have laid them along the line of the hedge making a small bank. Somehow this felt right:

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There has been another daytime appearances of a Badger:

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And I liked this photo of a Dunnock being king of his castle amongst a sea of Stock Dove.

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There continue to be a lot of Stock Doves here this winter. There are ten of them in this photo:

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This is the weekend of The Big Garden Bird Watch run by the RSPB when half a million people will spend an hour watching the birds and counting what they see. We set up the mobile hide near the feeders yesterday to give the birds time to get used to it and then spent an hour in there this morning:

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Our results this year are probably quite representative of what is going on, but weren’t terribly exciting: 7 Magpie, 3 Woodpigeon, 2 Stock Dove, 1 Blackbird, 4 Blue Tit, 22 House Sparrow, 4 Chaffinch, 2 Dunnock, 1 Robin, 5 Crow, 1 Greenfinch, 2 Great Tit, 1 Herring Gull, 1 Coal Tit and 2 Long Tailed Tit. Fifteen species though – we were quite pleased with that. These results have now been submitted and will form part of one of the world’s largest citizen science projects.

I wrap this post up today with a couple of photos taken from the meadows over the last few days:

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The sharp edge of a weather front moving over the meadows on Monday
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The view north from the highest point of the meadows. Deal Pier with the Isle of Thanet behind.

 

New Year, New Wood

On Friday we became the very happy owners of a second piece of woodland. This new wood is about 4.5 acres and adjoins our existing wood, making the whole area around 11 acres in size. This is also part of a wider woodland, a lot of which is also being managed for nature.

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Our new bench

This new wood is very different to our original woodland. Other than a few mature trees along the boundary with the farmland, the wood was clear felled 10 years ago, the area then being replanted with mixed native trees. These are now growing very strongly and densely so that it is not yet an easy wood to wander through and there is still much we haven’t explored.

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Dense tree growth
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Some mature trees down the boundary with the farmland

The new trees were planted with plastic protectors and a lot of these are now lying on the woodland floor. We need to pick up these up.

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There is also a large open area that is packed with beautiful wild marjoram in the summer:

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There is a lot of coppiced Hazel but we intend to leave the coppice in this wood for a few years. We already had probably more than we can cope with.

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Some of the trees have catkins, already opened out:

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And there is a Primrose in flower – a tantalising forerunner of what is to come:

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Our initial plan is to clear a few pathways so that we can properly familiarise ourselves with this new wood over the coming year. We will also put up some bird boxes in time for the spring nesting season and probably dig a small pond or two.

We have been away in Norfolk for a few days. While we were away, there was a lot of Fox activity like this on the cameras in the meadows:

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When I got round to looking at the videos, I realised that these skirmishes must be a prelude to mating. Later that same day, 17th January:

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Fox pregnancy lasts for 53 days and so this means that the cubs will be born on the leap year day, 29th February.

The vixen is the Fox that I have been keeping an eye on because her tail looks a bit ropey and hairless and I am worried that she has mange. If there are signs that this is getting worse, I will need to break out the medicine-laced jam sandwiches once again.

The new hedgerow is completed for now, although we have decided to add some larger, root-balled Oaks at intervals along the stretch of the hedge because this is the traditional English way. The landscape gardener who did the work is coming back in a month to do this.

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He has advised us to water-in these new bare-rooted trees because, surprisingly, the soil was quite dry at the depth that he was planting them. How can that be – we have had so much rain? Any water just drains away so rapidly through the chalk.

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Watering the new hedgerow – it took ages because there are 600 new plants.

The soil might be dry a few inches down, but it is certainly rather wet and muddy at the surface as this Badger is demonstrating for us:

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The soil was not at all dry in Norfolk – the underlying rock there is also chalk but there is much more of a skim of glacial deposits on top of the chalk which retain the water. Three of the reserves we visited were partially or completely closed due to flooding. The farmland hide at Pensthorpe looked out over a field that they had planted up with a mixed crop specifically to feed farmland birds through the winter. There was a large flock of Linnets feeding there:

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It was lovely to see. In the summer, we have a lot of Linnets here in the meadows but they always disappear for the winter and I wasn’t sure where they went. Probably it is to places like this where they can still find food.

Pensthorpe is also carrying out conservation breeding programmes for several species – one of which is the Turtle Dove.

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This bird is from their captive breeding programme but I long to be able to include a photo in this blog of a wild Turtle Dove taken in the meadows  – maybe 2020 is the year. This reminds me of another job – we need to get the strip rotavated before the winter is out.

Badger cubs will be born within the next couple of weeks and there are signs that this event is not too far away. Badger mating often occurs immediately after the birth of the cubs and the nightly videos show the male Badger, Scarface, doing a bit of macho posturing and making the wickering noise that he does at such times. Moreover, there was this most unusual daytime Badger appearance:

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To me, this is all heavily suggestive that the birth of the cubs is imminent, although we will have to be patient because we will not see them until April.

Here is a lovely female Green Woodpecker about to take a bath in the meadows:

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And here is a female Sparrowhawk about to have a bath in the wood:

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We stay in the wood for the final photo for today. I moved the Tawny-Cam trail camera a bit closer to where the Owl has been seen a few times hunting for worms. It seems that it does favour this one particular place because it was back again in the same spot last night.

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I wonder what proportion of its diet is worms during the winter?

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hedging Our Bets

Hedgerows are enormously helpful to wildlife. They provide food and shelter, both from predators and the weather, for many species and lots of these species will be using the hedgerow as their home as well. Hedges also form protected wildlife highways, connecting populations that might otherwise become isolated. Bats use them as flight paths to commute along between their roosts and feeding areas. Biodiversity Action Plan (BAP) species are those that have been identified as requiring conservation action because they have declined rapidly in recent years and there are 130 of them that are known to be significantly associated with hedgerows.

The meadows here are surrounded by hedgerow – we have 630 metres of it.  However, some of it is badly overgrown:

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The run of hedgerow along the cliff has been neglected for many years and is now heavily swamped by Ivy. Although Ivy berries, produced on mature Ivy like this, are a valuable food source in late winter when everything else has gone, this is not a healthy state for the hedgerow to be in. The evergreen Ivy provides resistance to the wind and some of this section of the hedgerow gets blown down every winter.

Other parts of the hedgerow are more healthy. Before we started managing the land, the upper stretch was routinely heavily cut back every year. We have been growing it higher and deeper so that it provides much more food and shelter.

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The upper hedgerow with the very wide base that it has these days.

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We have decided to plant a new 85 metre hedge this winter – a mixture of native hedging: Hawthorn, Dog Rose, Field Maple, Hornbeam, Beech, Dogwood, Hazel, Spindle and Crabapple. Blackthorn is not being included because there is a lot of that in the rest of the hedgerow and we are fed up with its suckering.

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Preparing the ground for the new stretch of hedgerow in the second meadow. It is near the Slow Worm refuges – Slow Worms also really like hedgerows.
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Getting the mulch to the site at the crack of dawn this morning. Depressingly, it was raining but it cheered up later.
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600 bare-rooted hedging whips. 600! 
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Sorting the trees so that there is the right mixture in each bag and then one bag will be planted per 10 metres of hedge. Don’t worry – we will reuse all of those plastic bags.
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The landscape gardener who is doing the hard work recommends using this mulch, peat free and made from grass and bark.
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Getting the mulch bags in position
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Starting to dig.
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Progress being made

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In the event, the light was gone from the day before the job was completed. The trees that are not yet planted were heeled in and work will recommence next weekend. We have decided to invest in a trickle watering system that will run along the length of the hedge over this coming summer to give these 600 new plants the best possible chance of survival while they establish their root systems.

The buzzards are still sitting in the agricultural field on the approach to the wood.

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They have also been appearing on the cameras in the wood as well:

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There has been this male Sparrowhawk, no doubt drawn to the area by the birds coming to the feeders just above this camera

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And the Tawny is hunting for worms at night, although I wish it would come a bit closer to the camera:

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And there is this beauty as well. I love her paw, very characteristically held out flat in front of her, Badger-style. She looks so myopic:

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At home we have had work done on the Aga because one of the cylinders needed to be replaced. The old one then sat outside the back door for ages waiting to be taken down to the recycling centre.

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But it was fortunate that we had delayed because we eventually thought outside the box and realised that it would be fantastic in the wood.

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Coppicing work is continuing – at quite a slow rate but the whole feel of this part of the wood is now much lighter and more airy

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Still much more to be done but never have my arms and shoulders had so much exercise.

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A different part of the wood, away from the Hazel coppice.

As a member of the Red Mason Bee Guardian Scheme, I was sent 50 Bee cocoons in March to hatch out into Bees and let them fly in the meadows gathering pollen.

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By the end of spring, the Bees reach the end of their lives but only after first nesting in the cardboard tubes that I am also sent.

In September, I returned 53 completed nest tubes to the Guardian Scheme:

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They have now advised me of what they found when they processed these 53 tubes: 184 Red Mason Bees cocoons and 24 Blue Mason Bee cocoons. That is 4 healthy cocoons per tube. Blue Mason Bees block the tunnel entrance off with leaves rather than the mud of Red Mason Bees – I had thought that these were Leafcutter Bee tunnels, so that was a surprise.

In 2018 I only sent them 45 completed tubes but they contained 342 healthy Red Mason Bee cocoons –  this is 7.6 cocoons per tube. So the 2019 results of 4 cocoons per tube represents quite a deterioration in productivity.  Perhaps the weather conditions were less favourable or perhaps predators have caught on to the fact that there are so many Mason Bees around and are accumulating in the area. We will have to see what 2020 brings.

We have a birding scope which has a more powerful lens than my biggest camera lens and we have finally got round to purchasing an adapter so that photos can be taken through the scope using a phone – Digiscoping.

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Taking a photo of a Border Force vessel out at sea.

Here are the resulting photos:

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This is at high tide. Note the waves breaking over the Goodwin Sands behind the ship.

We are really pleased with these results and so stand by your beds for many more photos taken out to sea that will now be included on this blog!

Meanwhile, the photographic experiment of the stone pinnacle continues…

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The Stone Pinnacle

It’s true that it does look much improved with a Fox topknot:

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But it looks even better when they visit at first light and we get to see them in colour:

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Thanet Wind Farm

The sun coming up over the meadows on 1st January 2020, heralding the start of a brand new decade:

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On a clear day, you can stand in the meadows, look to the right, and see the white cliffs of France. Look to the left and you can see Deal pier, the white cliffs at Ramsgate and the Thanet wind farm out to sea.

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Thanet wind farm from the meadows through the big lens

There are four wind farms in the mouth of the Thames:

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The rapid expansion of wind farms in the decade that has just ended has attracted much controversy. Research into the effect on wildlife is being done but it does seem as though it is playing catch up and I read of accusations of data being manipulated by those who stand to gain. All very depressing. I spent some time researching the subject on the internet but found it difficult to get to grips with. Birds striking the turbine blades is a big concern and, since the carcasses are then washed away by the sea, this is also difficult to quantify. However, there is now some evidence that birds do generally manage to fly around the farm rather than through it. Also, the prohibition of fishing in the area and the bases of the windmills forming reef-type habitats seems to be creating a rich marine environment within the wind farm.

It seems clear that the way forward for our planet is not to burn carbon to meet our energy needs and to stop doing this as soon as possible.  But the alternatives, such as harnessing the power of the wind, sun and tide, all come with their own set of problems and wildlife concerns and it is so important ensure that, in our rush to get these other technologies up and working,  we don’t overlook the welfare of species other than our own.

Boat trips to the wind farm leave from Ramsgate during the summer and we plan to go on one of these to get a closer look and maybe get some of our questions answered.

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Blackcaps used to be just a summer visitor to the UK, migrating back to southern Europe or northern Africa in the winter.  But in recent years it has been increasingly normal to find them here in the winter as well. Ringing re-catches seem to suggest that the Blackcaps that are here over the winter have come across from Germany and are managing to survive the UK winter with the support of our garden bird tables.

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Female Blackcap and her rings

The bird ringer is participating in a British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) Blackcap colour ringing survey this winter to see if more can be discovered about how and why Blackcaps are changing their migratory behaviours. The Blackcaps that he catches will  have extensive biometrics taken and colour rings put on. The idea of the colour rings is that the bird doesn’t need to be recaught in order to identify the bird – the colour rings can be seen from afar and a report of the bird’s whereabouts fed back to the BTO.

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A different combination of rings on a Male Blackcap

These two birds above were caught and ringed in his nearby garden. Yesterday he came to the meadows and played their call to try to catch some more here in the meadows but had no luck. This project will be ongoing throughout the winter.

Another ongoing ringing project here is to catch and ring birds using a lobster- pot type cage rather than a net. Here it is upside down on the strip:

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It is there to get the birds accustomed to it, whilst ensuring that no bird can accidentally become trapped in it when we aren’t watching. We are putting seed down close by every day so that they get used to looking for food there.

We have other cages on the strip that are protecting some of the seed from being quickly wolfed down by the larger birds so that it remains available for smaller birds. These small birds have well and truly overcome their initial hesitation to go in:

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House Sparrows eating seed in the cages

We know that four Kestrels successfully fledged from a nest in the nearby white cliffs last year and we have certainly been seeing a lot of Kestrel activity in the meadows ever since. But mortality is high in young Kestrels – only 20% will survive two years until breeding age and starvation is the biggest cause of death. Their survival is closely linked to the Vole population.

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Kestrel with prey by its nest site on the nearby white cliffs in July last year

Kestrel hunting over the meadows a couple of days ago:

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We had a Kestrel fall victim to a Sparrowhawk last year:

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We were away from the meadows for a while over New Year and we saw this adult female Sparrowhawk eating a Feral Pigeon on a shed roof in a Berkshire garden:

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I read that two thirds of Sparrowhawks also starve to death in their first year which I find very surprising since there always seem to be so many waddling Woodpigeons around that surely must be easy for a Sparrowhawk to catch.

Here is one taking a very long and leisurely bath this morning:

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There are plenty of Stock Doves around as well at the moment:

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The Badgers have gone into their normal winter torpor – they do appear on the cameras every night but they are not out and about for long.

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Scarface at the peanuts in the early hours of this morning

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Winter is a time of Fox dispersal and often these visitors seem to have mange. It is upsetting to see but they will have already moved on through before we even collect the camera in:

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Our resident Foxes all look healthy at the moment and are posing nicely on the rock pinnacle at night:

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and are still being caught chewing through the rope that we have strung across the pond to deter the Heron:

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The rope has been chewed and repaired so many times..

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but is still doing its job very well – very few visits from the Heron recently.

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Today’s last photo is of this very smart-looking Green Woodpecker. You can tell that he is a male because of the red in the moustachial stripe – this would be all black in a female. I love their blue eyes.

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