Big Garden Bird Watching

On the way to the wood this week, we visited Bishopsbourne to continue our exploration of the Elham Nailbourne – an intermittent stream that only rises in really wet winters and which is running now.

I have used Keynote to put some labels onto this Apple Maps image of Bishopsbourne, a lovely little hamlet that time seems to have overlooked.

Bourne House lies at the edge of the hamlet and the Elham Valley Way runs through its grounds and so it was possible for us to walk there. Although the nailbourne itself is mostly dry, another spring rises here and this one looks like it keeps going all year. It feeds into the bed of the nailbourne and then down into the lake in front of Bourne House.

Bourne House is the home of the mother-in-law of ultra Conservative politician, Jacob Rees-Mogg – someone who’s Wikipedia entry says that his anachronistic upper-class mannerisms and consciously traditionalist attitudes are often seen as entertaining. Whether you find him entertaining or not, here he is infamously lounging during a debate in the Houses of Parliament last year:

We hope to return to Bishopsbourne in the summer to revisit the Bourne House spring and also have a drink at the nice-looking pub in the hamlet once it has reopened in future, happier times.

This time of year is when Foxes mate and I have more footage of the moth-eaten old gentleman being rebuffed:

I am very fond of him but I can see why a vixen might not view him as much of a catch. He has half a tail, his backbone is often arched upwards perhaps suggesting an old injury and for the last couple of months he has been carrying a back hind leg.

On the videos, I have seen signs that this leg of his has been improving recently and he does now occasionally put it down on the ground as he walks, but his ability to help provide for a young family in a few weeks time has to be compromised.

Other than our dog, we don’t eat meat here and so we never have those kind of scraps for him but he is currently the most keen of consumers of the nutritious and energy-packed nightly peanuts that we lay on. I am so pleased to have been able to support him while his leg recovers.

Magpies are a problem unless the peanuts go out when it is almost completely dark – I don’t want to encourage our over-abundant Magpie population in any way and so usually try to put them out late. But even though I have put the peanuts out in the light here, the Magpie is wary of getting too close to a Fox, even a rather tatty one with a bad leg:

When we first came here, I was surprised to see male Foxes cocking their legs just like a male dog. For some reason it had never occurred to me that they would do that:

On the last weekend in January every year, the RSPB runs the Big Garden Bird Watch, the world’s largest wildlife survey. Last year 485,930 people throughout the UK counted 7.8 million birds. This weekend, it is the 42nd year that the event is being held although the number of people taking part this year might be affected by today’s horrible weather.

We set up the mobile hide so that we could see the feeders at both of the ponds at the same time and spent a happy hour in there quietly observing. The rules are that the bird has got to actually land and you count the maximum birds of a species seen at one time. At the end of the hour, we had recorded 75 birds of 15 species which I think is probably a fair representation of the birds that are around the feeders at this time of year (Wood Pigeon, Crow, Magpie, Wren, House Sparrow, Dunnock, Robin, Chaffinch, Blackbird, Great Tit, Blue Tit, Long Tailed Tit, Green Finch, Stock Dove, Green Woodpecker).

We were particularly pleased that a Green Woodpecker choose that particular hour to come and do some probing around the meadows..

..and a small flock of ten Stock Doves landed in a nearby tree:

For the last few days, a Blackcap has been coming in for a drink and it would have been good to have spotted her during the magic hour, but she was a no-show:

At this time of year, male Robins get very territorial and so I presume that these two must be a pair since they seem to be relaxed in each others company:

As we go round the meadows, we have started to hear the uplifting and surprisingly piercing call of the Song Thrush. There is great variety in its song but each phrase is repeated several times before it moves on to the next one which makes it unmistakeable, even to us.

A little Wren has twice now been discovered inside the hide if the door is left open. It is poking around the windows, presumably after Spiders. Personally, I am very happy for it to come in and do that, whilst also being a bit neurotic about trapping the bird in there by mistake:

It is a few months now since we put a perch and accompanying camera up along the margin of the reptile area. This area hasn’t been cut for two or three years and now the sward is getting fabulously unkempt and tussocky. There are also about ten log piles here, to help shelter the Slow Worms that were released by an ecologist back in 2019 when they were saved from land being developed nearby.

This habitat must surely suit small rodents as well as reptiles and we put the perch up to see if birds that hunt them, such as Kestrels and Owls, might like to use it as a look out. This week, for the first time, one of our target birds was caught using the perch:

The Sparrowhawk has been using the perch as well, although always on the lookout for bird prey rather than rodents.

We found one of the log piles had been bulldozed apart to get at rodents sheltering within. The logs are really heavy – only a Badger has the strength to have done this:

There are exciting plans for the wood this year and hopefully the Covid situation will not delay them too much. The People’s Trust for Endangered Species (PTES) and Natural England run the National Dormouse Monitoring Programme to try to understand more about Hazel Dormice and what can be done to stop their recent catastrophic population crash – down 51% since the millennium. We have joined together with our woodland neighbour, and a local ecologist who holds a Dormouse handling licence, and we are entering our combined twenty acres of woodland into this programme. Thirty Dormouse nest boxes will be going up in our wood and twenty in the neighbouring wood, a total of fifty boxes to be checked at least twice a year by the ecologist with the data sent to PTES. Our neighbour and I also hope to start the three-year training to get our own licences and then eventually we can take over the monitoring of the boxes ourselves.

In preparation for the start of this project, we took delivery of thirty Dormouse nest boxes this week. These will be put up with the holes facing the trunks of the trees so that they are less likely to be used by Birds.

Birds continue to check out the bird box with the camera on it in the wood.

This is as far as they have got though so far. We buy our bird seed from the inspirational Vine House Farm run by Nicholas Watts in Lincolnshire. He has hundreds of boxes there occupied by Tree Sparrows each year, and he reports that 50% of these boxes already contain nesting material (they were all cleared out in September last year):

Elsewhere in the wood, there was this lovely shot of a Woodcock:

And a photo that manages to encapsulate how cold it has been recently:

This January I have put down my customary escapist fiction books and picked up some nature writing. I’ve completed two books so far, The Butterfly Isles by Patrick Barkham and Orchid Summer by Jon Dunn. Both have the similar underlying premise of trying to see all British Butterfly species and all British Orchids in a single year.

I’ve really enjoyed them both and will now be emerging from this long, dark, windy and wet winter knowing an awful lot more about both of these topics and very much looking forward to seeing my first Butterfly and Orchid of the year.

Woe Water Rising

On the way back from the wood one day this week, we took a small diversion to the village of Barham where we had heard that the nailbourne had started flowing. East Kent has very little running surface water, but it does have four intermittent streams, that are called nailbournes here.

These nailbournes start running when the water table rises above ground level in an area where there are fissures in the rock and springs bubble up through them. The intermittent stream that flows through Barham is the Elham nailbourne and it runs for fifteen miles until it joins the Little Stour river at Bekesbourne. In the photo below, it crosses a road creating a ford.

In times past, before it was understood why these streams suddenly appeared, they were seen as harbingers of bad luck and were known as ‘woe waters’. Even in the twentieth century, the rising of the Elham nailbourne in the spring of 1935 was widely thought to have been a portent of the death of King George V.

This woe water is said by local legend to rise once every seven years. It ran in 2014 and again in January last year and so perhaps it wasn’t expected again quite yet but these days people get very excited to see it and there certainly has been a lot of rain.

In the meadows, the weather situation can be summed up by just this Badger photo alone:

As well as all the wetness, there have also been days of relentless wind as Storm Christophe blew his way across the country. The rain has worked its way into the lenses of the more exposed of the trail cameras and it will take a few days now for them to properly dry out. In the meantime, I am afraid I am having to offer up some misty photos this time.

A pair of Kestrels have been hunting together in the meadows most of the year. We have seen them previously on this blog sitting companionably shoulder-to-shoulder. So what is going on here?

The female could have simply misjudged her landing but I think it looks deliberate. A minute or so later, she was sitting on the perch on her own looking as if butter wouldn’t melt in her beak:

On another day, she was on the perch in the ant paddock. I took this long shot with my camera and was filled with anticipation because that trail camera trained on her there should surely be getting some lovely photos:

But, as it turned out, this camera, too, had been affected by the rain and all that it could offer me were photos that looked like this:

The cameras in the wood are more sheltered from the elements and don’t suffer quite as badly. Although it clearly did snow and I wish I had been there then because it must have been very beautiful.

A Buzzard has paid a few visits to this pond. It’s such a large bird:

We have made a couple of habitat enhancements in the meadows. Another pile of flints down by the wild pond:

We brought some logs back from the wood..

..and made a log pile in the ant paddock:

It is good to feel like we are making some forward progress in all this horrible weather and after having been under severe Covid restrictions for seemingly months. Actually, it really is months now for us here in Kent.

Green Woodpeckers are very active in the meadows at the moment, probing in the grass for ants:

Here is one breaking off for a drink:

I realised that I knew embarrassingly little about the ants here or, indeed, what they get up to in the winter. Are they like wasps and all die off over winter except for the Queens? But, if that is the case, then what are the Green Woodpeckers eating?

Where the meadows haven’t been cut for a couple of years, some pretty impressive Yellow Meadow Ant (Lasius flavus) nests have developed:

But, when the meadows are cut, the tops of these anthills are sliced off and the nests don’t have a chance to properly develop.

Last summer, we visited Park Gate Down, a local Kent Wildlife Trust reserve noted for its Monkey Orchids. The grass here is grazed rather than mown and so the Yellow Meadow Ant nests don’t get destroyed and have been there for hundreds of years.

In the part of the meadows we call the ant paddock, the grass has not been cut for two decades and the whole paddock is chock-a-block with anthills.

The anthills become their own mini habitats supporting different species of plants and animals and, in this way, increasing biodiversity.

Ordinarily, Yellow Meadow Ants don’t come above ground and it is only the winged males and females who make a hole in the mound and emerge once a year to swarm and disperse. Other than that, the ants are busy underground farming aphids (shown at A in the diagram below) that live off the roots of the plants on the mound. The aphids suck nutrients from the roots of the plants and the ants eat the honeydew that comes out of the abdomens of the aphids.

From what I could tell by researching on the internet, all of this is still going on out there during the winter, protected as the ants are under the mound of soil.

Well, I found that all really interesting and I had no idea that these mounds were aphid farms. We decided to find out for ourselves if the woodpeckers were indeed managing to still eat ants through the winter. We collected some Green Woodpecker droppings from the ground:

After drying them on the Aga, they were broken open and put under the Dino-lite microscope:

Sure enough, we could see that they were made up of the exoskeletons of thousands of yellow ants confirming to us that these Woodpeckers are definitely still eating ants in the winter.

In the last post I mentioned that this gate is used as a rodent super-highway at night:

It seems that I’m not the only one to have noticed…..

This Fox wanted to have a really, really close look at one of the trail cameras:

Winter is a time of male Fox dispersal and I find photos like this desperately upsetting. This Fox will no doubt already have moved on before I even collected the camera in but, if he would only stay a week, I could cure that mange with medicated jam sandwiches. I can only hope that when he arrives at wherever it is that he is going, someone will spot his plight and help him.

We woke this morning to a bitter day with a heavy frost.

However, the sunrise was absolutely magnificent to start another winter’s day:

I am so looking forward to spring.

Foxes and Musket Balls

Caressed as we are by the warmer sea, it is rare for temperatures to drop below zero here on the coast, but one morning this week it was down to -2°C:

Once the water had melted, a Sparrowhawk had a bath in the same spot:

We finally got out and did some metal detecting this week once the ground was no longer frozen, although it was still very cold and we didn’t stick at it for long:

Two more musket balls were discovered in the ground. We have now found four, all of the same size and weight:

This sized ammunition was used in ‘Brown Bess’ flintlock muskets which were in service in the British army from 1725 until 1838:

We have two musket balls framed on the wall that were found at the site of the Battle of Waterloo in Belgium (not by us though) and our four from the meadows are the same size as the larger one of these:

At the time that these musket balls were dropped in the meadows, the soldiers would have been dressed as below and the balls would have been held in a black leather bag on the hip. We are assuming that they were dropped rather than fired because there are no indentations on them, although apparently if they have only gone through flesh, there wouldn’t necessarily be any.

As I stand and look out over the meadows, I find it disconcerting to try to imagine these soldiers here in their scarlet and white uniforms two or three hundred years ago. It rams the point forcefully home to me that, as current owners, we are just temporary guardians of the land and this is all just a snapshot of time.

Foxes mate between December and February. At some point during these months, The females come into oestrus for three weeks although fertilisation is only possible for three days of that time. During oestrus, the male closely attends the female and, as the magic three days approach, he shadows her every move. The first attempts to mate are usually rejected by the female and I think this is what we are seeing here. The male on the left is the moth-eaten old gentleman – so perhaps not as moth-eaten as I thought, then:

The Badgers are in their winter torpor and are spending much more of the night cosily in their burrows conserving energy. Although they do appear at some point every night.

The chalk rock under the meadows contains layers of flints which gradually work their way to the surface. We collected some from the hedgerows…

…and made a flint pile near one of the shallow ponds as additional habitat that will be useful shelter for all sorts of things:

The paving stone along the edge of this little pond was already there and, as we were making the flint pile, we found several Frogs sheltering under its lip whilst standing in the water. A couple of days previously, this shallow water had been completely rock solid so presumably they got themselves out of the pond before this happened because otherwise they would have been frozen into the ice.

Whenever the sea is not dangerously rough, my sister-in-law and her friends go swimming every morning throughout the year from the local beach below. One day this week she had an unexpected spectator in this Grey Seal pup:

This is the second pup she has seen in recent weeks. It seemed perfectly alright and will be fully weaned by this stage of the year and so they gave it space and left it in peace.

In the wood, the camera under the feeders always takes hundreds of photos of Pheasants. As I was clicking rapidly through them, my eye caught on this one:

Up in the top right hand corner, a Buzzard is gliding through the wood. Its wingspan is so enormous, I’m amazed that it fits between the trees when at full stretch like that. Here is the same photo but zoomed in:

On both recent visits to the wood I have put several Woodcock up as I step along the paths to get to the cameras. They have also been seen on the camera at the new pond:

Now that it is January, the sound of Great Spotted Woodpeckers drumming on dead treetops reverberates through the quiet winter wood. They use this drumming to advertise their ownership of an area of the wood, the way that males of other Bird species use song.

The town of Deal is just up the coast and we went there for our flu vaccinations this week and took the opportunity to walk along the seafront. Between the pier and the castle, there is a tangle of fishing boats and winches to lower them down the steep shingle bank into the sea and haul them back up again. Actually, I have never seen these boats move anywhere but maybe they do:

On Fridays, a fisherman sells fish from these tables. It’s a quintessential Deal scene and he’s always very popular.

You can see the pier in the background of the photo – another iconic part of Deal. This is the third pier on this site. The first one, built in 1838, was washed away by a storm some twenty years later. The second one was opened in 1864 and sounded great with salt baths, a tram running along it and a concert pavilion and reading room at the end. However, in 1940 during the war, a Dutch ship, the Nora, was damaged by a mine and was lying incapacitated just to the south. Inevitably, it got swept onto the pier and destroyed a large part of it and Winston Churchill gave the army permission to take all the wreckage away to allow the coastal guns a clear line of sight. The current pier, built of reinforced concrete – and, dare I say, a bit ugly?- was opened in 1957 and now is held in great affection by the people of Deal.

There are often fishermen strung along the pier and you can promenade to the restaurant at the end which is still open for take-aways in these locked down times. I hear that the lobster rolls are very good.

As I write this morning, we have had the lightest of dustings of snow:

In the seven winters that we have been here, we are yet to experience the wonder of an old-school thick carpet of snow covering the meadows – the sort of snow where I used to wake the children up early so that they could dress up in hats and gloves and go out into the garden to make a snowman before school. I know that it comes with lots of hardships to wildlife and inconvenience to travellers but a part of me can’t stop wishing for it nonetheless.

Piddocks in the Chalk

Daffodils are beginning to poke their heads up through the soil, the sun is going down a whole twenty minutes later than on 21st December and my father has been called up for his first dose of the vaccine – these are things to be cheerful about. Yes, its been cold and wet and the country is again in lockdown, but we remain positive.

This odd-looking vessel below has become a very familiar sight, having been here on and off all week. She is the Ocean Marlin, an offshore supply ship, although she is is now on fishery protection duties.

The Royal Navy’s Overseas Patrol Squadron monitors 80,000 square miles of sea around Britain, protecting our fishing rights. It also carries out inspections of fishing boats in UK waters to ensure that they are operating within the law.

A year ago, the squadron was called the Fisheries Protection Squadron and there were just three ships and a helicopter:

As a result of Brexit, there are now eight Naval ships and other vessels such as the Ocean Marlin have also been seconded in to help. 80,000 square miles is, after all, an awfully large area.

One day this week, we went for a walk around the village and down onto the beach.

Some of the chalk has been burrowed into by Piddocks (Pholas sp). These Bivalves can bore a hole into the soft rock by first locking on with their sucker-like feet and next twisting their shells to drill. The animal is then completely protected in its rock tunnel and extends a siphon out to filter feed on organic matter in the water.

On the underside of a big lump of chalk that had broken away, one of the Piddocks was still there – this was exciting for us because, in all the years of seeing their tunnels, we had never actually seen one of the animals before. The flesh of these Bivalves is bioluminescent and apparently it is possible to see them glowing in the dark at low tide.

We also found some fossils in the chalk wave cut platform:

The Gunnery stands up on the cliff – a recently renovated, James Bond-style house that has incorporated a Second World War gun emplacement within its structure. Building work had been going on for ages and it’s good that it is finally completed. The only access to the house is by a lift up from the bottom of the cliff. I don’t know if this house is still for sale, but it was on the market for £6million in March 2020. This seems a lot for something with very little land indeed and a chalet holiday park nestling around it, but what do I know.

Back at the meadows, there are cameras on two of the gates to photograph perching Birds but we also see these gates being used as a super highways for Rats and Mice throughout the night.

Perhaps they feel safer being off the ground away from the Foxes when they are crossing open areas.

We watched through binoculars as a Fox ran at, and probably caught, a Stock Dove that was pottering around under the feeders. There was also this bitten-off wing of a juvenile Herring Gull lying in the meadows.

This Gull must have provided an excellent meal for a Fox because they are really quite large.

And here is another chance to admire how great the one-eyed Vixen is looking these days. Back in the summer, she had scarcely any fur at all on her tail because of mange:

I hadn’t seen Yellowhammer for a while but now they are back:

The Kestrels have been doing a lot of hovering above the meadows hunting for Voles. The male has also been turning up on the cameras:

Woodpigeon are busy working the hedgerows for any remaining food:

In the ponds, the time is approaching when Frogs gather to spawn. We are certainly noticing increased activity:

Across in the wood, this Squirrel is out and about in the cold weather and has managed to find a Hazelnut:

I’m always surprised to see how high up in its head a Woodcock’s eye is:

Finally today, this picture was taken on our walk to the village and it tells the story of our week of weather – wet with a bitter easterly wind:

It is a good time to curl up in the warm with a book and a 1960s edition of Charles Darwin’s Earthworm book has arrived that we are both intending to read. Who knows, we may even try to reproduce some of Darwin’s experiments on our own Worms here…

A Shiny New Wildlife Year

We have had an assortment of different weathers over the festive period. Storm Bella raged across the meadows one wet and wild night and, the next morning, there were lots of these long Earthworms stretched out across the grass. They were alive but we didn’t understand what they were trying to do.

We realised that we knew next to nothing about Earthworms, and yet they have such immense importance to the ecosystem here and everywhere. Charles Darwin spent forty-four years studying Earthworms and carrying out experiments in his garden in Kent and he published a book on them a year before he died which is apparently very readable even now, after all this time.

Worms break down organic matter into substances that plants can use and their burrows allow air and water into the soil, vital for soil health as well as providing space for plant roots, fungi and microorganisms. And, of course, the Worms themselves are an important part of the diet of all sorts of birds as well as Badgers, Foxes, Moles and other animals.

Before long, we ended up at the website of The Earthworm Society of Britain. There are twenty-nine species of Earthworm in the UK and, given how vitally important they are, they are desperately under recorded. So little is known about the distribution of the different species and one of the reasons for this is that they are tricky to identify – many of the species need to be killed first and then put under a microscope to do it properly.

That is something that I do not want to do myself, but I can tell you that our worms, spreadeagled on the grass on the morning after the storm, are probably Blue-grey Worms, Octolasium cyaneum.

Blue-grey Worms are in the Endogeic group – worms that feed on the soil itself and don’t usually come to the surface. Their burrows are horizontal to the ground and not particularly deep down.

But, as I understand it, when conditions are really wet, it is suddenly much easier to move across the surface of the ground rather than tunnelling through the soil below and so they come up to grab that opportunity to disperse quickly and easily. However, they should definitely have ensured that they were back below ground before it got light – once the sun came up I think a lot of them were left exposed and were hoovered up by Seagulls.

I have now joined The Earthworm Society of Britain, watched some of the educational videos on the site and am now much more informed about what is going on out there under the soil and it is fascinating.

Another thing that interested me recently were these next two photos. Here are a Woodpigeon and a Stock Dove having a bath in the wild pond:

Once they had left, there was a slick of dust floating on the surface of the water:

Perhaps we are all familiar with the print that a Pigeon makes on a window if it flies into one by mistake:

This white dust on Pigeons and Doves comes from their soft down feathers which have fine barbs that crumble away to form this feather dust. The bird then preens itself to spread this waxy dust all over to make itself waterproof.

Most other birds have a preen gland which produces an oil with which to waterproof themselves but Birds that use feather dust either have no preen gland or a very much reduced one. Bathing is especially important for these feather dust Birds, to wash the dirty dust off so that they can replace it with new to keep them properly waterproof and well insulated.

Our general strategy is to cut both meadows once a year and remove all the cut vegetation, thus gradually reducing the nutrient level of the grassland. But we do always leave areas uncut so that some long grass habitat still remains each year. Most of this retained long grass is in the second meadow, but the first meadow does have a few patches as well.

A couple of days before Christmas, we spotted a flask-shaped Wasp Spider egg sac in one of these patches of long grass in the first meadow.

Now that we had got our eye in for them, we instituted a search of all uncut areas and ended up finding three. One was very close to the Wasp Spider webs we were watching back in the autumn and is almost certainly the egg sac of one of those two Spiders.

How fantastic to have moved another step forward in our understanding of their lifecycle. The next stage now is to see if we can spot the Spiderlings coming out of these egg sacs next spring.

All round the hedgerows now there are Woodpigeon eating Ivy berries.

It is only Woodpigeon I have seen taking them at the moment but there are still a few Hawthorn berries left on the bushes. Song and Mistle Thrushes, Redwing, Blackbirds and Blackcaps do also eat Ivy berries but only when all other options have gone. Presumably they are not as tasty, but they have a high fat content and so are great fuel for the Birds when they do get round to them. The RSPB says that the pith of an Ivy berry contains nearly as many calories as a Mars bar, gram for gram.

During the first lockdown, flour was in severe shortage for several weeks and in desperation I bought some coconut flour but never used it. Now, as it is about to go out of date, I made some rock cakes with it. Unfortunately these cakes really lived up to their name and were indeed much like stone. We didn’t want to eat them and so they went out with the peanuts one evening and I am pleased to see that at least the moth-eaten old gentleman Fox appreciated them:

All the expected Birds of Prey have been sighted over the festive period:

In the wood, our coppicing work has been continuing slowly:

Christmas Day was unusually quiet for us as I’m sure it was for many people. We walked the dog up on the high chalk cliffs before breakfast which was a really memorable way to start the day:

I got two interesting-looking natural history books as presents. I must make more time in my day for reading:

On New Year’s Eve, it all went very cold here. A lot of the country had a fall of snow and even we potentially had some forecast, but none arrived.

On New Year’s Day, the Autumn Stream quietly came alongside and dropped anchor. She had taken seventeen days sailing from Peru and was loaded with a cargo of bananas and other exotic fruits. Dressed as we were in double coats, scarf and gloves and standing by a frozen pond, it was impossible not to be imbued with a little bit of tropical sunshine and warmth by her presence.

1066, 1666, 1914 – some years stand out from all the others and maybe 2020 will be one of these, but it is behind us now. We are embarking on a shiny new year with light flooding strongly in from the end of a long and dark pandemic tunnel. It will be wonderful when we get there but, until then, we here will be focusing on Earthworms and other wildlife to get us through.