Looking For Linnets

Kestrels need to eat between four and eight Voles a day, depending on the time of year and how much energy-consuming hovering they need to do.

Here is a Kestrel in the meadows with one of his Voles of the day:

Then a bit of cleaning of the talons:

Some preening of one’s feathers:

A stretch of the wings:

And off to search for another.

We had an extraordinary autumn migration this year with flocks of Redpoll and Crossbills flying around the meadows for several weeks. But where were the Linnets? In every previous year, there has been a sizeable flock of Linnets gathered here to spend the autumn with us. Last year the Bird Ringer ringed about 150 of them but this year there was nothing.

In 2017, the National Trust raised a million pounds to buy Wanstone Farm, a 178 acre piece of land just a bit south of here, high on the white cliffs around the South Foreland Lighthouse. It was land that had been intensively farmed since the Second World War.

They are now restoring the land with natural grassland and wildflower meadows. In some of the fields they have planted a ‘bumble bird’ seed mix to provide food through the winter for birds and nectar for pollinators in the summer.

The late Dame Vera Lynn supported the fundraising campaign to buy this farm, but, even so, there never have been and surely never will be Blue Birds over the White Cliffs of Dover, unless she was referring to Blue Tits. However, if there are winter food plants now being grown, it is a possibility that this is where all the Linnets have gone.

We walked up there one day this week to see if we could find them.

Looking north towards St Margarets and the Dover Patrol Memorial on the skyline. The cliffs are terrifyingly high here:

When we were last here, this field below was full of waving wheat. Earlier this year, there was a good news story in the national news about this land now being a fantastic wildflower meadow for pollinators – but nothing looks quite the same on a dull day at the bog end of November.

Apparently the number of Skylark and Yellowhammer have already tripled and Corn Bunting are also to be seen here – a bird that is yet to be added to our meadows Bird list. However, we didn’t manage to find any of the fields that are planted with this ‘bumble bird’ crop to feed the birds and actually we saw very few birds at all. The mystery of our disappearing Linnets remains unsolved for now, but we will return in the early summer next year to see what’s going on then.

Although the excitement of the autumn migration is now over, the Bird Ringer was back this week for a spot of gentle ringing in the meadows.

This is a continental Blackbird. It reminds me of old news footage of coal miners coming above ground at the end of their shift.

Those brown primary flight feathers on the leading edge of its wing tell us that this is a young bird born this year

This is also a continental Chaffinch. Its wings were over a centimetre longer than another adult male Chaffinch that was also caught the same morning:

There are a lot of Blackbirds in the meadows at the moment, very busy on the Hawthorn:

They are also very much enjoying Yew berries in the garden:

Stock Dove numbers have also built up recently:

As have House Sparrow:

I have quite a soft spot for Badgers:

The photo below is a screen shot from a video and, on the video, I could hear myself scattering the nightly peanuts. Nice to know that the moth-eaten old gentleman and the one-eyed Vixen were waiting just behind the fence for me to finish:

Sparrowhawk always seem to appear at low light at the moment:

The Patricia moored alongside us one night with her lovely yellow funnel. She is a regular here – operated by Trinity House, she looks after the lighthouses and lightships around our coast. The notorious Goodwin Sands, just offshore from the meadows, have claimed thousands of ships over the centuries and now have lightships and buoys marking them that need looking after.

There have been some fantastic winter skies over the meadows this week. The dog has just had her seventh birthday but her leaping days are not yet over:

In the wood, we have just about completed what we had hoped to achieve last winter and are ready to move on to the next section. The coppice that we cut last year is now growing away strongly, and what a lot of growth there has been in one year:

We have built a round enclosure with some of the cut wood. The intention is to develop this a bit further and put up poles from which tarpaulins can be quickly hung to give some shelter when it rains. On several occasions we have been soaked to the skin in the wood and that is not very enjoyable.

We identified this section near the Beech grove to start on next:

So, this winter’s coppicing season finally got under way this week:

We used the cut wood to make dead hedge habitat on the boundary of the wood:

Quite a satisfyingly noticeable area cut and cleared away as a result of our morning’s work.

Another prospective tenant has been viewing the nest box that had (or has) the Dormouse in:

We know that we have a few Marsh Tits in the wood and it would be very exciting indeed if a pair were to nest in one of the boxes.

I started with a Kestrel and now I finish with a Kestrel. I took this through the windscreen as we were leaving the wood. We have only once seen a Kestrel in the wood so it was great to see one again in the area.

Blooming November

Five years ago, my mother was very ill in hospital in Slough. This horrible chapter of my life lives in my memory now as a rather surreal time, the weirdness being exaggerated by the fact that great swathes of Daffodils were in full bloom in Slough by the sides of the roads in November. It felt like the world had gone wrong in so many ways.

Half a decade on now and another mild autumn, although there are no Daffodils flowering this November. But, surprisingly, the Choisya in the garden is in full bloom and the fragrance is absolutely wondrous.

There were some Hoverflies visiting the Choisya and it was great to dust off the Insect books again and set about trying to identify them:

The Mahonia is also in full flower in the garden, but this is as expected for this shrub.

As I stood and admired it, I saw that Bumblebees were regularly visiting:

This is the Buff-tailed Bumblebee, Bombus terrestris. My Bee book tells me that two generations are regularly attempted in the south of England with queens from the second brood often seen into September and October. However, in some areas, there is also a third generation that takes advantage of winter-flowering garden shrubs. These Bees on the Mahonia must be of this third, have-a-go-hero winter generation and I’m so pleased that the garden has something to offer them.

Glorious sunrise over the meadows one morning this week:

Wrens are not often seen on the trail cameras but I have been seeing some recently.

These are probably my favourite British birds. There is just one species of Wren in the UK but, because they tend to be sedentary, over the years they have evolved into six subspecies. Four of these are on islands – Shetland, Fair Isle, St Kilda and the Outer Hebrides all have their own subspecies of Wren. On mainland Britain, the subspecies indigenus is found in the north and west, gradually merging with troglodytes in the south-east, which is the subspecies found in the rest of Europe.

Winter is a challenging time for Wrens because of their small size and the scarcity of their insect prey, although the subspecies on the islands can survive by foraging in the intertidal zone for marine invertebrates. Elsewhere, Wrens defend a territory even during the winter in order to protect for themselves what food there is. They also have the really lovable tactic of bundling into a bird box together overnight to keep warm – sixty have been recorded snuggled up in just one box. They all arrive just after dark and leave just before dawn and so we humans rarely notice this going on. How I would love to get some cameras in some nest boxes to try to capture that.

In the colder bits of Europe, Wrens are forced to migrate because they cannot survive those winters. It was always thought, however, that our British Wrens stay put, although recent ringing evidence suggests that some do actually migrate from here as well.

At low tide one morning, we went down to the foreshore near us to see what Birds were taking advantage of what it had to offer.

There seemed to be generally very few birds around and we certainly didn’t see any Wrens foraging for marine invertebrates.

You need to be sure of the tide situation when you walk on the beach here because you wouldn’t want to be on the wrong side of this wall on a rising tide.

As well as a few Gulls and Crows, we saw a Little Egret, an Oystercatcher and heard a Curlew. There was also this Pied Wagtail:

And a handful of Rock Pipits as well:

Still plenty of Fulmar on and around the cliffs here:

There was so much work going on down at the beach this autumn, building three groynes using rock that was arriving on barges from Falmouth in Cornwall.

Now that everything is finished, we walked down to have a look at this section of the beach. For all that work and all those loads of rock that were delivered, the groynes are strangely unobtrusive.

There is a bit of a problem with garden escapee plants growing on the beach and several large clumps of Kniphofia from South Africa are still flowering there halfway through November. They shouldn’t be there but they are very beautiful – naughty but nice.

As I go to put the peanuts out each evening, there is a Bat flying along the hedgerow, not far above my head. Surely there can’t be much still around for it to eat? We are yet to properly got to grips with what Bats are here, but many of our Bird boxes are designed to also accommodate Bats roosting within. We have two boxes specifically for Bats as well:

We had a look in one of these and there were signs that it had frequently been visited. There was no nesting material so it has been used for roosting rather than nesting.

Below is an internet photo of Bat droppings and so I think we can say that it is Birds rather than Bats that have been roosting in the box:

The hole into the box is very small and flattened and most birds would not be able to fit in, so could it actually be that Wrens are roosting communally in this box? Well, maybe, although there were also some yellowish feathers which points to Blue Tits having been in there at some point and they do fit in too. Here is a photo of our other Bat box earlier this year with a Blue Tit emerging:

I can’t get a camera into the bat box but I might get one looking at it to try to see what is going on.

The Owl was back on the perch up on the strip this week. We had tried to ramp down the infrared coming from this camera by putting sticky tape across some of the bulbs. However, it seems that we need to cover still more because the Bird was yet again burnt out:

Fortuitously, however, it also landed on the gate and the camera there dealt with it all much better:

As we embark on the final thirty days running up to the winter solstice, the days are now depressingly short and the sun is hanging low in the sky – what a long shadow this is for 10 o’clock in the morning:

More from the meadows this week:

Some of our family are enthusiastic to help with the coppicing of the wood this winter, although all work parties are sadly put on hold now that we are again in lockdown. But we have been working there ourselves and making slow progress – its simply lovely to spend time there and it is certainly great all-round exercise. The knowledge that there are Dormice in the wood gives us added impetus to keep going.

The new pond is proving popular. Our first visitor arrived within an hour of its completion:

Rain this week has now filled the pond:

Winter is a time when you find yourself noticing the bark of trees and Field Maple is certainly one of the more distinctive:

Back to the meadows, where this Whitebeam was planted in memory of my much-loved mother. It has lost all its leaves for now but it stands waiting to burst back into life next spring.

The Clearing in the Wood

Back in the 1990s when I was juggling a job and young children, I had a friend whose parents always spent the months of November and February in Florida. November, in particular, can be such a dreary month in England and the thought of relaxing for the month in warmer climes had seemed so impossibly wonderful at that stage of my life.

Twenty years on, the job has gone and the children have grown up and fledged but now I find that I love my home and my country far too much to ever abandon it in that way. However, November does continue to be sometimes dull and dispiriting, especially this year of all years when we are locked down with most of the entries in our diaries crossed out.

But we are keeping ourselves busy here with autumn projects and one of these was to build another small pond in the wood.

In January this year we bought a 4.5 acre extension to the wood but, what with one thing and another, it is only now that we are properly exploring and bonding with it.

On the whole it is very densely planted and difficult to manoeuvre ourselves around, although there is a clearing where a group of Ash trees have died of Ash Dieback. Young Ash are most vulnerable to this fungal disease and, once infected, they quickly die.

A lot of the dead trees had already fallen over and we have decided to clear the area, cut down the remaining standing skeleton trees and drag all the dead wood away to stack it to form a useful habitat inconspicuously elsewhere. Nothing is to be gained at this point by burning the diseased wood, the Fungus already having taken hold in the area.

Once it was no longer looking like an Ash graveyard, the clearing was already starting to feel quite nice and we decided to dig the new pond here:

Well, its a start. Room for improvement perhaps but, locked down as we are, we wanted to just reuse and recycle stuff that we had to hand. There is a steep slope of flints and ramps of split Silver Birch to allow wildlife to get at the water and also allow anything to get out should it fall in by mistake.

The green corrugated sheet at the back of this new pond is to increase the catchment area to help keep the water level up. It had previously been at the wild pond in the meadows and, when I pulled it up from there to move to the wood, I found three Frogs of varying sizes and two Newts sheltering underneath:

I felt bad about removing this safe refuge for the meadow Amphibians, especially since this is where historically they have been under attack from Grey Herons. Luckily our local builders merchant is still open and we were able buy some more:

But on the subject of Grey Herons, my ears pricked up in one section of this year’s BBC Autumnwatch. They were talking about nocmigging – recording migration at night by picking up the calls of birds passing overhead in the dark. One of the calls they were getting were of Grey Heron movements at night and this was news to me because I thought that British Grey Herons were sedentary and didn’t migrate.

On investigating this further, I see that our resident Grey Herons do generally stay put but, in Eastern England anyway, other birds from Northern Europe come and join them in the autumn. This shines a different light on the visitor we had here last week. Rather than a pesky local pond robber, this bird may have been an exhausted migrant stopping off to refuel after a long sea crossing. In these new circumstances, I find myself feeling much more sympathetic towards it.

Below is an area in the second meadow that we are managing for Reptiles. Last year a hundred or so Slow Worms, removed from nearby land to be developed, were released by an ecologist into newly built log piles here.

The vegetation is being allowed to grow up and become tussocky here, although we do plan to cut a third of it every year, starting next year. Last winter a new hedgerow was also planted along the length of it.

Although the habitat in this area is still establishing, we are already noticing that the different management is paying dividends. The dog often tells us that she has noticed interesting goings-on in the log piles – presumably the log piles are being used by small Mammals as well as Reptiles.

And Kestrels are frequently to be seen perched in the hedgerow above. Rodent urine emits ultraviolet light which is visible to Kestrels, showing them the best places to find food.

We have an agreement with Dover District Council to manage this part of the meadows in this way to benefit the relocated Slow Worms, but it is very pleasing indeed to see that the resultant habitat is already being enjoyed by all sorts of animals. We wondered if Tawny Owls were also finding it a good place to hunt and so a new perch has gone up alongside this Reptile area with an associated camera to see what we get:

A Tawny was up on the strip this week, although the photo has been burnt out by too much infrared from the camera.

This particular camera doesn’t have the option to adjust this setting and so we have put some black tape over the top two rows of infrared bulbs to see if this does any good:

There are now hardly any acorns left on the Holm Oaks. These have mostly been taken by Wood Pigeon and Jays as far as we could tell.

We had thought that it was Jays that planted a Walnut in the middle of the second meadow, resulting in this healthy little tree:

However, we hadn’t considered Crows and there was a group of Crows battling over a walnut out there today:

I continue to see a lot of the Fox with the white star on his chest on the cameras looking at the clifftop.

Mostly he is alone, but here he is below, sitting patiently waiting for the peanuts, when another Fox, carrying a back right paw and with possibly the beginnings of mange on its tail, hops across him:

On another occasion, the male Badger, Scarface, lumbers past and totally ignores the Fox:

The Badgers will be feeding up on Worms now, trying to put on as much weight as possible before winter.

There is delayed implantation of eggs in female Badgers – although she may have mated as early as February, the egg implants once she reaches a critical weight in the autumn, with young being born underground in February. This female Badger on the left below is surely spectacularly heftier than she was during the summer – she looks absolutely enormous.

The triplets that were born this year are still very playful with each other, which is lovely to see.

A few other photos from the meadows this week:

Returning to the wood, there were no more Dormouse sightings this week on the camera looking at the nest box and so perhaps it has now hibernated. The camera did, however, photograph many more Great Tit and Blue Tit visits.

Foxes were twice caught carrying prey. I suppose this must be a Rabbit:

And this a Pheasant?

There does seem to be a healthy population of Rabbits in the wood but there are also a lot of animals that would like to eat them given a chance:

One night this week, the moon amazed me by looking just like a slice of lemon hanging in the sky. The lemon rind was shining particularly brightly and I tried unsuccessfully to take a photo. I had more luck, though, the next morning, shortly before it set:

Looking at the photo, I could see that the effect had been caused by the dark seas on the moon being positioned in the centre, leaving more reflective areas on the curved edge. I still have an awful lot to learn about the moon and the solar system.

Reasons To Be Cheerful

I am sure that I’m not alone in having felt a bit wobbly this week. Although of course this is combined with feeling guilty since there are so many people much worse off than us.

Around 1980 I went to see Ian Dury and the Blockheads playing at Exeter University and they sang Reasons to be Cheerful, Part 3. This song had been released in 1979, following a near fatal accident when one of their roadies got electrocuted from a microphone stand whilst they were touring Italy. The song lists many reasons to be cheerful, included because they were important to Ian but also because they rhymed with the item that went before. Oatmeal breakfast cereal, generosity and politeness, equal voting rights and cheddar cheese and pickle sandwiches all got a look in.

Now, as the UK goes into its second national lockdown, it is another good time to focus on the many reasons to be cheerful that surround us. Here are some of the things that perhaps haven’t quite made me cheerful, but have given me some comfort this week.

We walked down to the white cliffs this week, the first time for several months. It had all got a bit popular over this most unusual of summers, but now we had it to ourselves once again:

Lots of Black-headed Gulls, in their winter plumage these days, were loafing around in the waves. Although the meadows are very close, we rarely see Black-headed Gulls here other than on flying Ant days.

It’s lovely to see bird photos taken by the trail cameras, but it is even better to see the birds with our own eyes. This Sparrowhawk was idling in one of the Pines in the meadows. He was a long way away but we digiscoped him:

When I next went through the trail cameras, it turns out that he had just previously had a bath in the pond:

This is probably him as well:

This Kestrel allowed us to get pretty close to him:

It was a full moon on Halloween, last Saturday night:

It has been so long since we have had a visit from the Heron that we had forgotten to be scared of the full moon, when there is enough light for them to hunt in the middle of the night. But here a Heron is, at midnight, relieving the pond of one Frog and then one Newt before the camera ran out of batteries.

Well, it was time for us to pull our secret weapon out of the shed: MacKenzie, the saviour of our Amphibians.

After we built him last year and placed him by the pond, we had no more visits from the Heron, even over the most tempting of times when the Frogs gathered in large numbers to spawn. Two years ago, a Heron ate hundreds of Frogs and Newts from the pond – it was carnage, and has reduced our tolerance of these birds down to zero.

This is the darker, older Fox with only half a tail, but he is the keenest of consumers of the nightly peanuts, often waiting around for a long time for dusk to arrive which is when I put them out. I notice that he also has a bright white star on his chest.

Although I can’t tell all of the Badgers apart in the meadows, I have been paying attention to try to work out which, if any, are missing. One night this week there were six of them together at the peanuts:

During the summer there were seven – one adult male (Scarface) and two adult females. One of the females had big, bouncing triplets and the other had a single cub who was much smaller and more delicate. I’m afraid that it is this littlest cub that I haven’t seen on the cameras for some time.

Over in the wood, it is a good idea not to lose concentration when you step through the undergrowth. After all, you would not want to put your foot in this, a very full Badger latrine:

The Dormouse is still using the nest box:

A Blue Tit actually went into the box with it several times:

The Squirrels continue to check the nest box out very thoroughly. Presumably they can smell the Dormouse in there and would eat it if they could get at it?

Sun rise yesterday, November 4th, and a Border Force vessel slowly patrols the waters below the meadows. This is the dawning of the day before England goes into lockdown and the day after the US election. Also looming is the need to support the dog through fireworks night tonight. What an emotionally exhausting week it has been.