October Storms

I have entitled this post ‘October Storms’ in a hope that the wild and dismal weather we have had this week will indeed be contained within October and we can have a fresh new start as November is ushered in next week.

Back in September 2019 a female Kestrel, born that spring, was ringed in the meadows, managing to take a chunk out of the Bird Ringer’s hand at the same time.

This autumn, we have been seeing a lot of a pair of adult Kestrels in the meadows and noticed that the female of the pair is ringed. This is almost certainly the same bird.

Survival of Kestrels is very dependant on the population cycles of their prey, particularly the Short-tailed Field Vole, and first year mortality of newly-fledged Kestrels can be as much as 70%.

I have tried to lighten these next photos as much as I can but they are still a bit dark – as I mentioned, the weather has been terrible. Here is the male eating a Vole:

We think that all the Kestrels we see here in the meadows have come from a nest in the nearby chalk cliffs. Four young fledged from this nest in 2019 and another four this year:

However, this year there was also a second Kestrel nest nearby, in the same section of cliff.

This is purely supposition, but what if the pair of Kestrels that we have been seeing in the meadows were the young parents of this second nest? The ringed female was born in spring 2019 and I read that female Kestrels can breed once they are a year old. It is surely a possibility and I would like to believe it.

I wonder if the Tawny Owl that is often visiting the meadows at the moment is also after rodents, or is it worming, like the Tawnies do in the woods? Here it is on the strip perch:

Last night, there was also an Owl on the ant paddock perch and I decided that it was a Short-eared Owl. It doesn’t seem to have the heart-shaped face and certainly looks to have short feather ears:

But we are fortunate indeed to have the Bird Ringer to check these things with because this is apparently also a Tawny Owl. But what a beautiful bird.

Sparrowhawks have been seen on the strip perch, but nearly always in low light:

The weather has been pretty uniformly awful this week but just occasionally the sun has broken through.

Tails of Magpies often appear surprisingly green when they catch the light in a particular way:

All this rain has meant the ponds are looking fantastic. Here is the wild pond being enjoyed by representatives of each of our three bully-boy bird species, Magpie, Crow and Sparrowhawk:

For a few days, an odd-looking ship, the Oceanic, was sheltering alongside the meadows, in the lee of the stormy weather.

It is described as a general cargo ship although we couldn’t help wondering why that bridge at the back was so high. It looked really peculiar. But then we saw photos of it on the internet with the type of load that it carries and it all suddenly made sense:

It seems that it is a specialist carrier of things that are very long and thin such as the blades of wind turbines.

We see a few Grey Wagtails on passage every autumn. This is not a very good photo, but I’m afraid that it is the best that I have:

And here is a winter visitor that we see most years – a Brambling. She’s been with us for several days now.

That Fox with the unusually black tail has made another appearance on the cameras. I would really like to see what that tail looks like in the daytime because it is so very much darker than the tails of our resident Foxes

This is a daylight shot of a different Fox that has a white tip to its tail. But perhaps this dark tail would also appear as deeply black under the infra red lights of the trail cameras:

The wood has been suffering in this awful weather as well. The really high winds of last weekend brought a tree down across the access track. Thank goodness for that battery powered chain saw.

The chain saw was also very useful in cutting up some of the wood that we have coppiced and it is now being brought back home to dry.

In order to entertain family and friends this winter, it seems that we are going to need to be outside, keeping warm with blankets, fire pits and wood-fired ovens. An ample supply of dried logs will therefore be extremely useful.

There is now a trail camera on the nest box in the wood that we found the Dormouse in and it is proving to be very interesting. The Dormouse is still in there and is yet to hibernate:

But. unexpectedly, the box has also had a lot of other visitors. So many Great Tits have been checking it out, or perhaps it is the same birds repeatedly:

Blue Tits have also been showing interest. Here is a Blue Tit queuing, waiting for the Great Tit to finish so that it too can have a look in:

Presumably the birds are prospecting potential sites for next year’s breeding season. However, I am not sure what the motives of this Squirrel are:

There is a lot of fungus in the wood at the moment. I struggle to identify it on the whole but I do know this oddly-contorted one – White Saddle fungus:

Back in the meadows, there is some of this Dog Sick Slime Mould (Mucilago crustacea):

Every autumn in the meadows there are vast numbers of this toadstool below, always seen in strong association with the pine trees.

I have unsuccessfully tried to identify it in the past, but this year I posted photos onto a nature identification group and have found out that it is the Bovine Bolete (Suillus bovinus).

There seem to be two different stories as to why it got its name. One is that it is the colour of a Jersey Cow. The other story tells of medieval knights who considered this toadstool growing in the pine forests to be of inferior quality to eat (preferring the Tricholoma species that are now considered poisonous) and so they left them for the cattle drovers.

One thing to look out for is that the Rosy Spike toadstool (Gomphidius roseus) is thought to be parasitic on the Bovine Bolete and can often be found growing alongside. I will be watching out for this now.

For a Border Collie, bred tough to be out in all weathers bringing sheep in from the hills, our dog is a bit of a princess about the rain. She much prefers to relax in the warm and dry:

Hopefully the weather will improve and we can all get out and about a bit more next week.

However, just as I was about to publish this post, a second national lockdown has been announced. Once again we are going to be keeping our heads down and trying to keep our spirits up. Although I am still trying to come to terms with this news, the absolute best coping mechanism that I know of to get through this terrible time is to immerse myself in the wonders of the natural world around me. For the next month and beyond, this is what I shall be doing.

A Most Welcome Guest

A few weeks ago, we put a baking tray bath and camera in an area of short cut grass. This was a half-joking and definitely optimistic attempt to photograph Ring Ouzel and Wheatear on migration this autumn – both are birds that favour close cropped grass. After a few days of seeing nothing particularly interesting, the camera got redeployed onto urgent duties elsewhere and our attentions were distracted away from the bath.

This week, though, we remembered it and put the camera back. That was fortuitous because otherwise we would have missed one of our wildlife highlights of the year: the most welcome visit of a young male Ring Ouzel. It was with us for four days this week, coming to the bath several times a day.

This bird will have been born this summer in the British uplands and stopped with us here on the coast en route to his wintering grounds in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco and Tunisia in North West Africa. For the few days he was here, he was probably feeding up on hedgerow berries to build fat reserves for his long journey. Hawthorn Berries are particularly popular with birds, as these Blackbirds are demonstrating:

The Ouzel has been interacting with the Blackbirds. Initially the Blackbird tells him off…

but then seems to really regret this once he sees the Ouzel’s reaction:

The same camera, forever now to be known as Ouzel cam, captured some other good stuff:

The Bird Ringer has never ringed a Jay in the meadows. However, he did ring one in his nearby garden in April 2018 and this is presumably that bird – Jays don’t travel far.

We cleared the old nests out of the bird boxes in the meadows:

Back in the spring, when the Blue Tits had started nesting, there were a few days of absolutely desperate weather here and our hedgerows, with their fresh, tender leaves just newly unfurled, were terribly affected:

This must have had an enormous impact on those nesting Blue Tits, both in surviving the weather itself and on the subsequent availability of insects to feed any young. Many Blue Tit nests failed and unfortunately they only have one brood a year. The Bird Ringer reported significantly less young Blue Tits around here this year but Great Tits, starting to nest later, fared much better.

Given all this, we had braced ourselves to find nests with dead baby birds within and we did have this one nest with two dead young but this number is actually not unusual.

In the end we got seven bird nests although we have probably double that number of boxes up.

Another impact of those terrible spring winds is that we do not now have berries along that entire length of hedgerow this autumn to act as a feeding station pit-stop for migrating birds.

When we see a pile of feathers like this, we presume that the Sparrowhawks have been at work:

However, in this case, the feathers had clearly been bitten off and have blunt ends rather than plucked out which points the finger at a Fox:

Here is a Magpie, also eating birds, it seems:

Storm Barbara hit the coast here on Wednesday, bringing with her 25mm of rain:

The cameras up on the strip once again got drenched and then had condensation on their lenses. One of them still managed to capture a bit of a confrontation between a Kestrel and a Magpie. First there were a few foggy photos of the Kestrel bathing and then along came the Magpie:

The Kestrel gives way to the Magpie, but look at her eye – she is not pleased.

The Magpie takes a drink and then flies off – you can just see the tip of its wing:

And the Kestrel can continue her bath.

Interesting to see that even some Birds of Prey come below Magpies in the pecking order.

Some other photos from up on the strip:

Every day we put the cages on the strip in a nice neat line as above. Inevitably, by the morning they are higgledy-piggledy.

We joke that the bulldozers have been out overnight. And here are our bulldozers:

The most number of Badgers together that I have seen in recent times is five:

Over the summer we had seven Badgers and so we might be two down. I will start paying more attention to see if I can work out what is going on.

It has been too wet and windy for bird ringing but they did visit once this week and caught this lovely Song Thrush:

We don’t have much Sweet Chestnut in our wood, but those trees that we do have seem to have produced a lot of chestnuts this year:

The regeneration area has many moss-covered tree stumps dating back to when the previous tree crop was harvested. Many of these stumps are a long way away from a Sweet Chestnut tree but still have chestnut casings on them, where Squirrels have sat to eat the nuts. This happened last year as well and, back then, I thought it very sweet. But I am less keen on Grey Squirrels these days after seeing the damage they did to some of our beautiful Beeches and now I find this distinctly less endearing.

But very exciting to see that Woodcock have arrived back in the wood for the winter. Here is one, probing the soft soil for invertebrates in the middle of the night. Always a surprise to see a nocturnal bird on the cameras.

Redwing are another winter visitor to the wood and there was one of these on the cameras this week as well:

Another visitor to the meadows this week was this astonishingly loud and very low and close Apache helicopter.

Two people on board:

This helicopter was designed to hunt and destroy tanks and it carries a mix of weapons including rockets, missiles and a 30mm chain gun. Scarily, it let down one of these weapons just as it was more or less over the meadows:

Not sure what they were doing, but hopefully just practising. But ending today on a calmer note…We have got round to making some sloe gin for ourselves and have kept the bottle out to remind us to shake it every so often when we notice it. Well, it has been getting a lot of shaking because something this beautiful is catching our eyes a lot.

A Dormouse Wood

It is impossible not to be charmed by a Dormouse but these lovely little animals are in great trouble in Britain. An ecologist from the Kent Mammal Group visited us in the wood about a year ago to talk about managing the woodland for Dormice and advise on how to discover if there is already a population present.

When not hibernating, Dormice live at the tops of trees and are nocturnal and so it is very easy to have Dormice and just not realise it. We bought some mammal footprint tunnels to strap to branches because Dormice have distinctive footprints, but Covid got in the way this year and we never got round to putting them up.

However, even though we failed to get moving on that, we now do know that there are Dormice in the wood because one has made a nest in a bird box:

It is a very special thing to have Dormice because Britain’s population of them has declined by 51% since the millennium. They have been seriously affected by the loss and fragmentation of their woodlands and hedgerows but also by a change in woodland management practices. They need structurally diverse woodland with tree holes to nest in, dense understorey to feed in and hedgerows to disperse through. Coppicing is an important aspect of managing a wood for Dormice because it creates a mosaic of habitats and ensures that there is always Hazel of an age that will produce a good crop of nuts.

Dormice are legally protected and it is an offence to deliberately kill, capture or disturb one. You can put up Dormouse nest boxes and check them but, as soon as you find your first Dormouse, from then on only people with a licence can check the boxes. This is now the position we are in, of course, but we have a trail camera on the bird box to see if we can get some further photos whilst remaining within the law. Here is the best that we have got so far:

Back in the meadows, it is not uncommon to find dead Pygmy Shrews, abandoned by their predator because glands in their skin produce a foul tasing liquid. They are tiny things:

Their whiskers come off their snout at all angles for more effective foraging amongst the leaf litter for insects:

It has been an extraordinary autumn for Lesser Redpolls and hundreds have been moving through the meadows. One day this week, the Bird Ringers caught and ringed a satisfyingly round number of 100 of them here. More than 1,200 have been ringed recently up at Sandwich Bay Bird Observatory.

The Crests are now starting to move as well and we have been seeing these diminutive birds hopping around the pine trees and hedgerows. They have also been flying into the Bird Ringers’ nets.

Although we had seen Redwing here before, for the first time one was caught and ringed here this week:

One day a Goosander came in off the sea and flew over the Bird Ringer’s head – this bird goes in as species number 85 on the list. It is quite a strange bird list for a meadow, actually – it doesn’t include some reasonably ordinary birds such as Nuthatch but it does have Gannet, Goosander and Goshawk.

Now that the wild pond is once again an open expanse of water, we hoped that it might attract down some passing waders and waterfowl. Sure enough, the dog found a small duck on the pond one morning but barked at it and scared it away before we could get a proper look. This was very annoying because we have only seen Mallards here before and this duck was smaller than that. Does the dog not realise that we wanted that bird on the list?

The reeds that we pulled out from the pond were stacked near the Badger sett to see if they cared to use them for bedding.

They did – we suspected they would. Even though the reeds can hardly be soft and hadn’t even had a chance to dry out, a lot have already disappeared underground.

I have been seeing night time images of this Fox in the middle below for several weeks. He catches my eye because he seems older, darker and more moth-eaten than the other Foxes.

And here he is again, on the left, showing that he only has half a tail:

Finally he appeared on the cameras by day and I got a chance to have a proper look at him. He does look like a venerable old boy who has had a hard life, bless his cotton socks. Hopefully he will find some peace here – he certainly seems very fond of the nightly peanuts.

The resident Foxes here all have tails that look pretty much the same colour as their bodies when viewed in the infrared lighting of the trail cameras. This Fox looking in the pear tree is demonstrating this point for me:

But one night this week a Fox with a very different colour tail came through:

What an absolutely amazing tail. I would love to see what this animal looks like by day but sadly this is the only time it has made an appearance.

Meanwhile, buckle up for this week’s photos from the raptor perch cam:

We have now launched the new coppicing season in the wood, putting some visiting family to good use.

A successful start with several coppice stools completed:

This last photo for today was taken through the car window on the way back from the wood. I would like to think that all these Seagulls are an indication that the just-ploughed soil is wonderfully full of worms and other invertebrates and that is lovely to see.

A Perch Revisited

A few years ago, we started rotavating a long, narrow strip of ground as part of a Turtle Dove conservation project. We also put up a perch in the hedgerow alongside this strip because Turtle Doves like to perch high when they are singing in that distinctive purring way that they do.

Several years on now and we are yet to see a Turtle Dove here and actually had all but forgotten about the perch. That is, until we noticed that Kestrels had started using it as a look-out post when scanning the meadow for rodents.

We decided to get a camera trained onto this perch and, over the past week, have been making tweaks to perfect its positioning. Ideally it doesn’t want to be pointing upwards where it is vulnerable to the rains, although that has meant that it has ended up at a lofty and somewhat inaccessible height.

However, it has been getting some good stuff. While we were away last week, the meadows were visited by a Short Eared Owl:

This week we have seen a Tawny Owl:

A pair of adult Kestrels have also been frequent users.

The camera captured a surprising sequence of these Kestrels mating although I am only including a couple of the photos here – there was condensation on the lens and the quality of the photos is not brilliant:

Apparently the day length at the moment, similar to that in the spring, can sometimes confuse the birds and trigger them to mate. I have to say that it was very accommodating of them to do this in front of the camera.

Sadly, there was fogging of the lens again when the male caught and ate a mouse on the perch:

Some other photos of the Kestrels on the perch this week:

Sparrowhawks are also using the perch, although often at dawn and dusk:

Here on the gate, as well, just as it is getting light:

The Bird Ringers achieved their biggest score yet in the meadows this week by ringing 98 birds in a morning. 74 of these were Chiffchaffs, 15 were Lesser Redpoll along with 8 Blackcaps and a Robin.

They also saw a Hobby hunting over the meadows, six Grey Wagtails fly in off the sea, a Sparrowhawk shoot past, a Meadow Pipit and several hundred Redpoll fly through. Needless to say, if it was us spending the morning in the meadows, we would have missed most of this.

One further thing that they saw were the Grey Partridge and they are now reinvigorated to attempt to catch and ring them and may be trying this next week if the weather stays calm.

It’s a busy time of the year for Jays:

They are collecting and burying acorns from the Holm Oaks to feed themselves through the winter. But they don’t always remember where they have put them. We have a large bag of topsoil left over from when the raised beds were constructed in the allotment.

Jays must have put acorns in there and not rediscovered them and now we have three little Holm Oaks growing:

I have now extracted these little trees and put them in pots to grow on and maybe they will get planted out properly in the meadows this time next year. Holm Oaks seem to love these coastal conditions.

There is also a Walnut tree growing in the middle of the second meadow and we presume that this is also the work of Jays because this new tree is at least 200m from another Walnut tree. It is growing so well that we have decided to leave it there for now.

I do so enjoy a muddy Badger at the end of a long, wet night’s work

And there is always a spot of socialising that goes on before bed:

I was worried about the male Badger, Scarface, this week. Four nights ago, we had a video of him unable to put any weight down on his left front paw. A Badger’s front paws are vital for digging up the worms that make up 70% of his diet. Here he is, hopping along on three legs:

Then, for the next two nights, he didn’t appear on the cameras at all which was unusual and concerning. However, it seems that all is now well because he was on the videos again last night with no sign of a limp. He even did some digging in front of the camera to prove that he is now better:

There are a few Wall Butterflies to be seen in the meadows, still fluttering around deep into October.

Several autumn jobs are outstanding and we now need to be getting on with these. One of them is to pull the reeds out of the wild pond to stop them falling in and rotting. They are very vigorous and, if we didn’t knock them back once a year like this, they would quickly choke the pond.

We bought the 4.5 acre extension to the wood in January this year and initially started exploring but disturbed a lot of Woodcock, who were resting up by day in its undergrowth. So we decided to wait until the end of winter when they would be gone before we had a proper look around. By then, of course, the country had gone into lockdown and we couldn’t visit the woods for several months. When we did finally return, we had somehow lost momentum. Therefore, here we are, now in mid October, and still we haven’t really properly got to know the wood that was bought nearly a year ago.

This weekend we spent a couple of hours hacking a new path into the vegetation using loppers and a heavy duty hedge cutter.

We plan to create several more leisurely-rambling routes over the next few weeks, although we are aware that the Woodcock will now be returning before too long and a tactical withdrawal may again be necessary.

This sky lantern had landed in the wood:

These lanterns cause injury and death to animals by ingestion and entanglement and they can also start fires because they use an open flame to float. It seems so obvious that these lanterns are a danger to wildlife and a threat to the natural environment and I cannot understand why they have not been made illegal. Perhaps I need to write to my MP.

These two Beech trees below, standing side-by-side, are telling a story of the effect of Squirrel damage:

The Beech Tree on the right, clothed in its beautiful autumn yellows, has actually gone into premature shut down because Squirrels have removed its bark in a complete ring around the trunk.

The vascular tissues that transport water and nutrients up from the roots sit just under the bark and have been removed along with the bark leaving the tree in extreme distress.

The green-leaved Beech has escaped the attentions of the Squirrels so far and remains perfectly healthy.

As we walked around the wood, we started the job of clearing out old bird nests from the boxes. Parasites will be attempting to over winter in the old nest material, hoping to jump onto a new host when the birds return next year.

Every box we came across had been used this year and contained an old nest. We need to put up still more boxes for next year, particularly in the new section of the wood.

This nest below was most probably Great Tit but a Rodent has been using it to eat acorns after the birds fledged.

This next one had a leafy Rodent nest on top of the mossy Bird nest but the Rodent was still in it.

I didn’t notice at the time, but now that I have downloaded the photo, I see that this little animal has the yellow fur and black whiskers of a Hazel Dormouse. I so wish that we had taken a closer look at it so that we knew for sure – I hadn’t considered this possibility because I thought that Dormice beds are made of strips of Honeysuckle bark rather than leaves. Thankfully we didn’t disturb this animal further.

The next time we visit the wood, we will tour round clearing the rest of the boxes out, this time alive to the possibility of Dormice. The moment we become certain that we have Dormice, all of this species’ legal protections will kick in.

It’s always nice to have an exciting photographic project on the go. Last week we were trying to get a good trail camera photo of Otters in Wales. This week we have been busy getting a camera to take good photos of the Kestrel perch. We have also now decided to train a camera on the bird box in the wood that had the query Dormouse within.

But there is another upcoming project for the wood and that is to capture the spectacle of Tawny Owls worming. It seems that this has already started – this Tawny Owl below, staring hard at the ground, is looking for worms to eat:

Over the winter, when the soil is soft, Tawnies are often to be found worming in the wood. We now need to redeploy some cameras across onto these worming duties and see if we can get some good photos. Definitely one of the things to look forward to as the winter rolls in.

Autumn Rains

We have been away for a week in West Wales and in our absence an awful lot of water has fallen from the skies. The ponds are now refilled and looking admirably good:

It rained a lot in Wales as well, turning the gentle, babbling rivers into terrifying, raging torrents. One of the aims of the holiday was to photograph Otters and this is the best we could achieve before the rivers got too scary:

Luckily, one of us had the foresight to tie the cameras to bits of vegetation higher on the bank with boot laces. But for that, all three cameras would have been lost as the rivers rose three feet in an hour.

Back in the meadows, it has been quite an exceptional autumn in terms of bird movements. Flocks of Siskin, Crossbill and Lesser Redpoll have been moving up and down the coast although it is not really known if they are coming in, going out or just moving around.

In the last week the bird ringers have caught over 50 Lesser Redpoll – a bird which we hadn’t seen here before and so has now gone onto the bird list at number 83.

They also caught some Swallows:

There have been lots of Crossbill flying over, including a group of about 15 landing briefly in one of the Scots Pines. They also spotted a male and female Stonechat in the hedgerow – now added as species number 84 on the list.

On the day we returned, they started the morning’s ringing in a most flamboyant style by catching a much sought-after rarity – a Yellow-Browed Warbler:

This was then followed up with a Firecrest, another exciting bird:

They caught 59 birds during the morning which included 27 Lesser Redpoll ands 5 Robin. Apparently a lot of Robins arrived in this part of the country last week.

Going through the photos taken by the trail cameras while we were away, there was this blurry image of an Owl:

Although we have occasionally seen a Short Eared Owl hunting over the meadows, the usual Owl that we see here is the Tawny. However, the wings of this bird above are much longer than a Tawny’s and so this is either a Short Eared or a Long Eared Owl, both of which also have that noticeable wing bar. Here is the wing of a Long Eared Owl that the Bird Ringer ringed some years ago:

But both the Bird Ringer and the Warden of the Bird Observatory, whose opinion was also sought, are leaning towards our bird being a Short Eared Owl and so, for now, we cannot jubilantly also add Long Eared Owl to our list. Maybe one day.

Although we see Great Spotted Woodpeckers in the wood, it is extremely rare to see them in the meadows:

This cat, looking like a small black Panther, continues to hunt and kill our small Mammals. This first photo looks like something out of ‘His Dark Materials’:

So much of the year is spent longing for more rain that we forget some of the downsides – soggy trail cameras with their lenses fogged with condensation. There were many photos of Sparrowhawks, Kestrels and, yes, even those Stonechats, that I am not including because the picture quality is too awful. However, the moist weather does mean that we all get to enjoy photos of wet cuddly Badger fur:

We always see a lot of the Rose Bedeguar Galls on the Wild Roses in the meadows. The Gall Wasp Diplolepis rosae causes a distortion of the end bud of the plant, turning it onto a mossy looking ball which contains the Wasp larvae. Usually, these galls are no larger than a conker, but we have a prize-winning one in the meadows this year:

Interestingly, this Gall Wasp is parthenogenetic, meaning that the embryos can develop from unfertilised cells. Therefore, fewer than 1% of these Wasps are males which sounds like something from futuristic science fiction.

The cameras in the wood were more protected from the elements by the trees and didn’t suffer the same drenching inflicted on those in the meadows and also in Wales.

Red Deer antlers are made of bone and begin growing in the spring. They can grow at a rate of an inch a day but, with the approach of autumn, the antlers stop growing and calcify in preparation for the rut. They are then shed at the end of winter. The only way to properly age a Red Deer is by looking at its teeth, the number of spikes on the antlers not being a reliable indication. However, to me, this male has all the feel of being a young animal.

While we have been away, the work on the stone groynes down on the beach has been progressing but still appears far from finished. Today, there is yet another barge offshore, loaded with granite and awaiting a favourable tide to offload its cargo onto the beach.

What an enormous amount of work and expense it has been. As we approach winter and storms continue to batter the coast, it will be interesting to see how effective these new groynes prove to be.