Redstarts and Siskins

Redstarts are birds that breed in the wooded west and north of Britain. Over the years, however, we do occasionally see one here in the autumn as they migrate through on their way to Africa for the winter. This week, two Redstarts made the Bird Ringers’ day as they flew together into the ringing nets – both were females born this year. That red tail has a pair of distinctive non-red feathers in the middle:

I have included photos of both birds because it was so exciting, but they were pretty similar-looking and probably just one photo would really have been sufficient. It was the first time that a Redstart has been ringed here.

One of these birds was subsequently down having a drink at the baking tray pond, now with its new leg ring in place:

A Siskin is another bird mainly of the conifer woods found in the west and north of Britain, although there are a lot of Siskins around here at the moment. The UK has a population of resident Siskins but their numbers are augmented by birds coming across for the winter from colder parts of Europe.

There have been flocks of these birds flying over the meadows this last couple of weeks and we don’t know if they are British residents or early-arrived migrants. The Bird Ringers have been trying to catch these Siskins – generally unsuccessfully, although they did catch a second one this week, a young male:

There are a lot of Silver Birch trees in the wood and we saw a flock of Siskin there as well – these birds love to eat Birch seed.

They have small, delicate feet for hanging onto the thinnest twigs at the top of Birch and Alder trees to get at the seed. In contrast, Foxes by no means have feet adapted for tree climbing, but that doesn’t seem to be stopping them climbing up into the pear tree to get at the fruit. Here is a Fox in the tree:

The camera below is trained onto the upper left hand bough where there are a few remaining pears:

This is what we got:

The pears have more or less gone now and this entertainment is at an end. Before the camera was removed though, it did capture the fact that we have had a lovely amount of rain in the last couple of days, coming at the end of a very dry September:

Now that the meadows are cut, Kestrels are perched up in the hedgerows pretty much throughout the day. No doubt they can see their small mammal and reptile prey much more easily now that the vegetation is short.

One of the things I most dislike about winter is how early it gets dark. Although another thing is that it is a time of Fox dispersal and I have to steel myself to see Foxes in terrible states come past the cameras, never stopping long enough for me to try to help. One such poor, mangey animal was around one day this week, an early example of what is to come:

Absolutely heartbreaking. I can only hope that someone notices him and helps him when he arrives at his destination, wherever that may be.

Along one side of the allotment, there is a Passion fruit plant romping away untidily along the fence.

It shouldn’t be there, really, because it is not a British native plant. It is also not the variety that produces the delicious Passion fruits – that plant is tender and would need to be in a greenhouse. The flowers of this plant are exotic and beautiful and much visited by Bees but its orange fruits are cotton woolly and nothing seems to eat them.

Well, that is what I thought until I saw this in the allotment:

A small mammal has tunnelled under the raised bed and seems to be eating the Passion fruits. We put a camera on the hole and saw that there was a little Mouse that was making use of the otherwise unloved resource.

Other photos from the meadows this week:

We have been seeing a lot of this black cat in the meadows and unfortunately it seems to be a very successful hunter. I would much rather these small mammals went to Kestrels and Owls, animals that do not have a bowl of kitty food waiting for them in a bowl back home:

There is also a black and white cat that often appears on the cameras in the woods:

My daughters would be full of loud admiration at what a lovely Cat this is. Well, I’m afraid that I have to disagree with them on this:

A classic joke from my youth ran along the lines of ‘An Englishman, an Irishman and a Welshman go into a pub….’ These jokes are wholly unacceptable in today’s world, but this photo below reminded me of them:

I have been seeing this Fox on the cameras around the wood over the summer. He is quite sturdy and distinctive-looking and very different from the willowy Foxes seen in the meadows:

In fact, I am fairly sure that I recognise him as this cub from last year:

It is lovely to see him all grown up and looking so healthy.

I finish today with a Squirrel. There seem to be so many Grey Squirrels in the wood. We had trouble earlier in the year with them stripping bark off several beautiful Beech trees and damaging them such that they will now die. This country needs to plant more trees to help mitigate the climate change emergency that we face, but booming Grey Squirrel populations stripping the bark and killing Oak, Beech and other broad leaved trees are a big problem.

One suggestion on the table is that we humans start eating Grey Squirrels to help control them. Another interesting observation is that, in areas where Pine Martens have been reintroduced, they seem to be eating the Grey Squirrels (and not our native Reds) so that we don’t have to. UK Squirrel Accord is on year three of a five year £1.1 million project to investigate if contraceptives can be given to Grey Squirrels using a species-specific dispenser. I have been reading up on this project this week and getting quite excited about it – it seems the perfect solution if they can get it to work. However, it will be a few years before we can feed contraceptives to our Grey Squirrels and, since we are not prepared to kill them, we are just going to have to put up with them killing our trees for now.

A Penchant for Pears

There was a glorious spell of weather at the beginning of the week and we pushed on and have now triumphantly completed this year’s cutting of the meadows. It got to a point in autumn last year when it started raining and never seemed to stop again for long enough to finish the cutting that we had planned. So we wanted to take advantage of this sunshine now when the newly cut, dry grasses effortlessly fly back into the collecting hopper and don’t all clog and stick.

We have left selected areas uncut in the much larger second meadow to provide cover for the Grey Partridge and leave seed heads for Linnets and Goldfinch. I always find it difficult photographing the second meadow because its curves seem to foreshorten and distort. In the photo below it does look as if we have left most of it uncut but this is not the case.

Perhaps this next photo better shows how much cutting has been done in there:

The Grey Partridge are still visiting the strip after the meadow has been cut – pleased we haven’t scared them away. Back in June, Grey Partridge were declared extinct in Switzerland, where once they had been common. They have suffered a terrifying decline in the UK too and we need to try really hard to look after them.

A Kestrel in the hedgerows watching for rodents fleeing from the tractor:

We were sitting out in the meadows having a restorative cup of tea and were treated to a Spitfire display, barrel-rolling over our heads.

Planes were painted with these invasion stripes especially for D-Day so that they were recognisably Allied planes and didn’t get shot down by friendly fire. Spitfires were single-seater fighters but this particular plane that we often see above us is a training plane which also takes a passenger:

I have been greatly enjoying photographing the Foxes and their penchant for Pears.

Then, we saw this photo below. In the top left hand corner, you can see that the Fox has actually climbed up into the tree:

The next night we hauled a second camera into action in case the Fox did it again:

This second camera took a whole series of photos of Foxes clambering around in the tree:

I think that whenever I see a pear from now on I will think of our tree climbing Foxes.

It is not the one-eyed vixen climbing in the pear tree, but can I once again ask you to admire how good she is looking these days and how her tail is bushing out:

Here she was earlier in the summer before we treated her for mange:

As the autumn bird migration continues, the Bird Ringers have been setting their nets up and ringing in the meadows. They’ve seen small flocks of Siskins flying around and have made several attempts to catch them by quickly putting up nets where they thought they might have been landing and playing their calls to lure them in. But the Siskins have always managed to avoid going into the net. That is, until this week, when an adult male was caught.

What a beautiful and colourful bird. It is the first time that one has been ringed here.

We are very accustomed to Magpies around these parts – we have far too many of them in my view. Once again, we were having a cup of tea in the meadows and there was a cacophony of Magpie rattling nearby that we ignored because we are well used to it. However, eventually it drew our attention because it was so insistent and we saw that there was a lynching going on. I took a couple of photos before I realised that I was actually witnessing attempted murder and moved in to break it up. One Magpie was pinned to the ground and the other was stabbing it viciously with its beak:

The Magpie on the ground couldn’t fly away immediately due to injury or just shock, but eventually it did. Magpies murdering their own. The more I get to know about them, the less I find to like.

What about the eye on this little chap below? Most odd looking.

This is a Dunnock undergoing a really unfortunate head feather moult. I checked with the Bird Ringer who confirmed that this was nothing to worry about.

This, however, is not good news. This Chaffinch has bumble foot:

The Butterfly season is nearing its close, but I was pleased to see these mating Common Blues this week:

The distinctive shape of a Comma Butterfly and the white mark from whence it got its name:

The UK has only 59 species of resident and regular migrant Butterflies. Italy, with the highest number of Butterfly species in Europe, has 252. But excitement is building amongst British Butterfly enthusiasts for the expected imminent arrival of our 60th species, the Southern Small White. Until recently, this Butterfly was only found in south-eastern Europe but it has been spreading towards the UK at 100km a year and was recorded in Calais in 2019. That is just across the Channel, only a few kilometres from here, and so could it already be with us by now? It has not yet been seen but then it is difficult to distinguish from the other British white Butterflies as this Butterfly Conservation photo shows:

I don’t usually pay much attention to white Butterflies but I am going to start doing so now. The larval food plant is wild Candytuft or related garden flowers.

Moving to the wood, I was delighted to see a juvenile Bullfinch:

Sparrowhawks and Buzzards continue to frequently visit the ponds in the wood. There is quite a size disparity between these two birds of prey. The following two photos are cropped exactly the same amount:

One of our sons and his girlfriend visited this weekend and wanted to make cider. The Foxes might have a Penchant for Pears but they appear to have no Appetite for Apples which are lying on the ground uneaten. Therefore, it was with a completely clear conscience that we picked what was left of the eaters on the trees and started the process of fermenting it into an alcoholic beverage:

While we were at it, we also picked Sloes from the Blackthorn in the hedgerows. Whilst Hawthorn berries are quickly eaten from the trees by the birds, the very bitter Sloes are often left to wither untouched. Therefore, we did not feel guilty about harvesting a few of these as well.

The birds might find these Sloes bitter, but they certainly add a most delicious flavour when added, along with some sugar, to gin and left to infuse for several months. We will look forward to tasting that next year.

Season of Mists and Mellow Fruitfulness

It looks like it is going to be a good year for sloes. I’m afraid that we have developed a bit of a taste for sloe gin since we have been here – very sweet but oh so very delicious – and we are certainly going to be making some again this autumn.

Back in the spring, there were several days of icily freezing north-easterly winds which hit our hedgerows hard just as the Hawthorn was coming into leaf. Along the entire 300m run of hedgerow along the western boundary, the leaves shrivelled and browned. As a result, the Hawthorn had no blossom and consequently now has no berries. Birds love Hawthorn berries but sadly our crop of them is seriously depleted this year. There are, however, still a few Hawthorns along the cliff that were more sheltered from those terrible winds and do now have some berries that we can offer them:

‘Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness’. What a wonderfully evocative line from John Keat’s poem ‘To Autumn’. We don’t see many mists here with our winds but on a glorious autumnal day this week we visited Brogdale, home of the National Fruit Collection, which is on the outskirts of Faversham, just the other side of Canterbury. We had been meaning to go for ages:

In their 150 acres of orchard, they grow 2,300 different varieties of apple, 550 of pear, 350 of plum and 320 of cherry.

September is a great month to go when the fruit is heavy on the trees but, of course, it wasn’t the best year to visit – they are not running their guided tours for Covid-19 reasons and so we walked a self-guided route round the orchards and admired all the wonderful fruit. But it would have been nice to learn a bit more about all the different varieties and get to taste them too and so we will try again next year.

I really liked the look of the variety called ‘Josephine’ shown below. The lacework pattern of russeting is so beautiful and they look very tempting:

Brogdale has a weather station – below is the Stevenson screen which is a shelter for wet and dry bulb thermometers to measure air temperature and humidity. It is famous in meteorological circles because it measured the hottest temperature ever recorded in the UK – 38.5 degrees on 10th August 2003.

Back in the meadows, the weather has been calm for a while and no further pears have fallen from the trees. That hasn’t stopped the Foxes staring longingly upwards hoping for one to drop:

We have been starting about our autumn jobs. The first meadow is now almost cut. As usual, we are leaving several artistic areas uncut on a rotational basis so that we don’t wipe out insect populations such as Large Skipper Butterflies whose caterpillars will be living within the grass blades, only venturing out to feed.

I started to pull reeds out of the pond but could only do the ones that were standing in the small amount of water that there is in there currently. Otherwise they just snapped off rather than coming out with their roots. I will revisit this job once we have had some more rain.

I made a pile of the pulled reeds close to the Badger sett in case they wanted to take them as bedding.

Of course they did. Here is the male, Scarface, taking some reeds off to his bed:

We also scythed some long grasses and helpfully put them by a Badger hole. The next morning the pile had gone:

It is now a few weeks since I have seen all seven Badgers together, although there are often six. It is quite difficult to tell, but I don’t think that one of these Badgers below is Scarface, in which case I am happy that we haven’t lost one because he is often to be seen on his own elsewhere:

I took the photo below of the Wasp Spider on Tuesday, 9th September and, ever since we discovered her on 4th August, she has been sitting here on her web. For most of August she was kept very busy catching, wrapping and eating prey, but then the flowers around the web went to seed and were no longer visited by insects. Since then things have been much quieter for her.

The day after I took the photo, she was gone. I read that Wasp Spiders mate in July and spend August feeding up as eggs are produced within her. Then, a month after mating, she leaves the web and makes a cocoon containing her eggs which hangs on nearby foliage. It did not say, but I presume that she stays by the cocoon, protecting it, because she has not returned to the web and she will then die over the winter. Although we searched in the vicinity of the web, we couldn’t find her but the grass is not going to be cut in that area so her cocoon will be safe even if we don’t know exactly where it is.

Now that autumn is here, the Ivy is just starting to come into flower in the hedgerows of the meadows. This is something that you can actually hear more than you can see – the buzzing coming from these hedgerows in the sunshine is amazing:

Autumn is also the time when we see Migrant Hawker Dragonflies in the meadows. This is a common Dragonfly in wetter areas of southern Britain but its numbers are boosted by migrants coming in from continental Europe in the autumn and it is these migrants that we see here.

Recently we have been watching a pair of Stock Doves successfully raise a single young bird in a Kestrel box. After it fledged, they immediately laid two more eggs, but they now seem to have had a rethink about having another brood this year and have abandoned the eggs:

We are no longer holding out any hope at all that Kestrels will ever use this box and we would be delighted to welcome the Doves back again next year should they wish to return and raise another family. Meanwhile, we might as well keep the camera in position in the box to see if anything else interesting happens over the winter.

The autumn bird migration is in full swing here. Chiffchaffs in particular are moving through right now and the Bird Ringers were working in the meadows three mornings this week, catching and ringing well over a hundred birds on their way to Africa.

Here is a Chiffchaff, soon to set off on its long and perilous journey to another continent and now wearing a shiny anklet which can be used to find out where and when it was ringed should it be caught again as it goes on its way.

Some other photos from the meadows this week:

The headlines from the wood this week is that we saw a Hare in the field that borders the wood. I don’t have a photograph to support this sighting but there was no doubting what it was. This was very exciting because we hadn’t seen a Hare there before, although our woodland neighbours have.

Other goings-on in the wood:

Finally, back to the meadows, where the barge arrived back from Falmouth this week, carrying another load of granite to build the new groynes on the beach. The barge itself has no motor and has been towed to Cornwall and back:

After the barge had discharged this second load of granite, I went down to see how the beach is getting on. The answer is that it is currently all a bit of a mess – the groyne in the foreground below is perhaps now completed but the other two are still just piles and look like they might yet need more stone.

We will await another delivery of Cornish stone next week.

Today we are flying the Welsh Dragon in memory of my much-loved and much-missed mother whose birthday would have been tomorrow. Although she moved to England when she married, most of her heart remained in Wales.

Bank Holiday Entertainment

Dover Council laid on some August Bank Holiday entertainment for us this week with the arrival of a work barge, loaded with granite. We saw it when it was still offshore and wondered what it was:

It was a time of full moon and the barge was pushed to the shore on the high spring tide in the late morning and started unloading its boulders onto the beach.

As the tide retreated in the mid afternoon, so did the barge and it moored up just offshore. Then, at the next high tide shortly before midnight, it was back at the beach unloading the rest of the stone and keeping the inhabitants of this part of Walmer awake late into the night with its clanking and crashing.

The next morning, the barge had gone but there were two piles of stone on the shore:

This granite has come from Cornwall – probably Carnsew Quarry near Falmouth – and we presume the barge is now being towed back there to pick up some more. We have a small sliver of the rock that had sheared off as the stones crashed together:

Dover Council are paying £831k to construct three rock groynes here at Walmer and one a bit further north at Sandown Castle to stop the beach being eroded and carried north at the rate that it has been in recent years.

We are now expecting the return of the barge with another load of Cornish granite before too long to finish what it has started. In the meantime, heavy machinery is still at work on the beach, repositioning the boulders and filling the gaps with smaller rocks. Once the groynes are finished, they might provide habitat for Rock Pipits, Purple Sandpipers and other exciting birds as well as helping with the beach erosion.

The recent storms caused fruit to fall from the fruit trees in the orchard. One week on and we noticed that the apples were still lying, gently rotting, on the ground:

However, all the fallen pears had disappeared. We pulled a few more pears from the tree down onto the ground below and put a camera on them to see who is so partial to our pears whilst ignoring the apples:

The camera also caught them eating pears off the tree:

I don’t blame them – they are ever so nice.

In the wood, the recent rains provided a little taster of a winter phenomenon there that I eagerly await – the Tawny Owls nightly worming. The Owl’s posture is very distinctive, staring intently down at the ground just in front of its feet.

Hopefully I will get better photos for you when the ground softens more as autumn gets properly into its stride.

Before we bought the wood, there was a big shoot there in the winters and we have quite a few Pheasants around still which, I think, are a legacy from that time. Astoundingly, 43 million Pheasants are released into the British countryside by the shooting industry every year. But, although we have seen courtship behaviour amongst the adult birds, we hadn’t ever seen any juveniles as evidence that they were successfully breeding in the wild. However, I think now we have because this bird below must be a young bird, with its short tail feathers:

In the meadows, this Fox is being very brave:

It is an exciting time of year for the Bird Ringers with a lot of Birds on the move and they have been ringing in the meadows a couple of times this week. On Friday they caught a Spotted Flycatcher:

This Bird was born this year and is now migrating to south of the Sahara. It has a very distinctive beak shape with coarse whiskers on either side:

Also, the very tip of the top beak turns down:

This species has suffered a devastating 89% population decline in the UK between 1967 and 2010 and I had actually never seen one before. Spotted Flycatcher has now entered the meadows bird list at number 80. But Friday was a great day and there was more to come. As the Bird Ringers were sitting in the meadows, they heard and saw two Crossbills fly overhead (Species 81) and then a Hobby (Species 82).

Earlier in the week they had caught a second Sedge Warbler and look what a beauty it is:

Also a lovely variety of other Warblers:

Some other photos from around the meadows this week:

I sent my Moth records up to the end of August in to the County Moth Recorder. There were a very large number of records and he queried nine of them that stood out to him as odd or unusual. I was quite pleased with that but he told me not to be disheartened which seems to imply that he thought I might be. Of the nine queries, I didn’t have photos to support two of the records so they are ignored. I sent him photos for his remaining seven queries and five of these were found to be misidentified by me. However, I did get two correct!

My mothing enthusiasm continues undaunted by all of this – I have learnt so much this summer. This is a beautiful Moth, Campion, that I caught in the week, with its purple undertones. I hadn’t seen one of these before.

I finish today with a Spitfire. In normal summers these aeroplanes are a very familiar sight over the meadows. They do acrobatics over our heads several times a day at weekends as they fly along the white cliffs, carrying fare-paying passengers in a two-seater training version of the plane. This summer, unusual in every possible way, we have scarcely seen them. However, one flew over this week and it was so lovely to see it and hear that distinctive 1940s engine again.