Stirrings of Spring

Over the course of a year hundreds of moth species turn up in my moth trap. Most of these, and the twenty-three species of butterfly that we have here, will be going through their complete lifecycle in the meadows, yet rarely are any of these caterpillars seen. Since caterpillars make such a nutritious snack for all sorts of things, many are well adapted to not being easily found. Some will be hidden within plant stems, others only come out to feed at night or are well camouflaged to blend with their background, and a few will even be tucked up within ant nests being tended to by the ants.

Therefore, it was surprising to find this Oak Eggar Moth caterpillar out in the open, sunning itself on a reptile sampling square this week.

This caterpillar is deploying an alternative strategy for not being eaten – covering itself in hairs that have an irritant effect so that they are avoided by birds.

I find this all very interesting and have set myself the challenge to find five new species of caterpillar in the meadows this year. The Oak Eggar is the first of my five but I am expecting the other four not to be quite so easy.

There has been some work going on around the Badger sett over several nights this week.

The dog’s ball accidentally rolled into another Badger tunnel this week:

But she was prepared to go in and get it:

A colour ringed Herring Gull has been seen up at the feeding cages. The bird has a normal metal ring on its right foot and a colour ring on its left, the idea being that the bird can now be identified through binoculars without being recaught. Unfortunately, although I have quite a few different photos of this bird, I can’t quite get all the numbers and letters on that ring. There have been numerous gull colour-ringing schemes over the years and gulls are long-lived birds and so the scheme could actually have been a while ago. The last big project was finished recently because the land fill site in Essex was closed down.

Hopefully we will see this bird again and I can piece the code together and report my sighting of it to the British Trust for Ornithology

The rattle of Magpies has seemed to be everywhere this past week. A pair are making a nest at the very top of this pine tree and have been busy carrying in sticks:

Another pair are building a nest at the top of one of the Holm Oaks.

We assembled some sticks and got a camera onto them. As we had hoped, the Magpies couldn’t resist this and came and collected some:

Here a pair are collecting mud and grass which I presume are used to bind the sticks together. Or perhaps there is a softer mud lining to the nest?

In March we would expect to see some large groups of Starlings gathering here waiting for good conditions to get back across the North Sea to their breeding grounds in Continental Europe. These are our winter visitor Starlings that have been murmurating in fantastic displays over reed beds throughout the winter, but are now returning to their summer home.

However, a lone pair of Starlings have arrived this week in the meadows ahead of them and I hope that these birds are British residents who will now be stopping to breed. 2020 was a very successful year for Starlings here with a lot of young being fledged and I am hoping for this again – these British resident Starlings are red-listed birds of high conservation concern because their population fell 70% in the twenty-five years to 2014.

Another red-listed bird that did very well here last year is the Yellowhammer. The Bird Ringer caught several juvenile birds last summer that will have fledged from our hedgerows. But this year is looking even more promising with a small flock now being seen feeding in the cages. There are seven Yellowhammer here:

And nine here:

The Bird Ringer came this week to set his nets up in the meadows to try to catch these Yellowhammer. Bird Ringing has been allowed to continue through this lockdown because of the vital scientific data that is collected, but we just haven’t had the weather and this was the first time he had been here for many months.

Some of the frogspawn laid last week is in really shallow water. With no rain for a while now it was already starting to dry out. Once the tadpoles hatch it would be difficult to rescue them all, so we decided to move the spawn from the shallows and reposition it somewhere deeper.

We will keep an eye on that – it may shortly be necessary to move some more as well.

Elsewhere in the meadows:

Two years ago Great Spotted Woodpeckers drilled out a cavity in a cherry tree in the wood and raised a brood of young within. These Woodpeckers never use the same nest hole twice, but Green Woodpeckers do sometimes use the abandoned holes of Great Spotted rather than making their own, and this is exactly what happened last year. So what is going to happen this year? I don’t know if Green Woodpeckers reuse a nest a second time but I am hoping to find out. We strapped a camera to a pole to look at the hole and got this photo this week, which looks promising:

Hopefully this camera will get some good photos this spring.

This is the first time we have seen Scarlet Elf Cup in the wood. However, it does look likes the Slugs have been at it:

The Bird Ringer spent some time in the wood this week and sent me these photos:

There are a large number of Pheasants in the wood. Apparently 57 million Pheasant and Red-legged Partridge were released into the wild in Britain last year for shooting purposes and the sheer scale of that number is difficult to comprehend. However, for comparison, I can tell you that the total number of all native British birds in 2020 from Goldcrests to Golden Eagles and everything inbetween was only 83 million pairs. Before these released game birds get shot, they hoover up resources in the countryside that should be supporting our proper wildlife. Wild Justice, an organisation that is very close to my heart, is not afraid to stand up and challenge many of these anachronistic practices that make no sense in a 21st century world, if ever they did.

Our wood offers sanctuary for these birds, but there are an uncomfortable number of them.

I have just bought a new book that I am looking forward to reading:

As Sir David Attenborough says in the introduction, the book should enable us to take account of vulnerable habitat features so important to invertebrates, without necessarily knowing what species are present. So the book sounds exactly what we need and I can’t wait to get going on it.

Frogs and Lizards

The extreme wintry weather of last week is already feeling like a distant memory. This week has been so much milder and there has even been a little bit of sunshine. The smell of cut grass in the garden and laundry flapping on the line has always brought me so much pleasure.

Green corrugated sheets aren’t the most beautiful of adornments for a pond but they provide great shelter for amphibians:

Once the pond water had melted, we looked under one of them to see how the Frogs were getting on. This sight was certainly unexpected:

The female Frog, bulbous with her tummy full of spawn, has unfortunately been flipped over by two over-arduous males and she is stranded helpless on her back as they cling tightly to her:

The couple under the second corrugated sheet had got things much more sensibly organised. The clamping on of a male is thought to trigger the female to lay her spawn and, when she does, he is in prime position to sprinkle his sperm over to fertilise the eggs.

There was a Smooth Newt out of the water as well:

The next morning, a single dollop of spawn had been laid in unfeasibly shallow water at one end of the pond:

I put a trail camera onto it, hoping to capture any further action the next night. The camera got this photo of the spawn towards the end of the day:

The next morning, a whole lot more spawn had been laid, but the camera had failed to take another photo until it took this one:

I wondered if perhaps the camera was not working as well as it once did and so I brought in some more. They look like paparazzi crowding around a celebrity – surely one of these would get the killer shot for the morning papers?

But no, not one of them took a single shot. Obviously something the size of a Frog moving in the dark is not enough to trigger their sensors. For the following night, I put the cameras into time lapse mode which deactivates their sensors and they just take a photo at set time intervals. This worked, but the results are far from outstanding:

Luckily, we had also crept down there ourselves with torches and cameras to try to capture this wildlife spectacle.

There was a lovely loud churring noise coming from the wild pond:

It hasn’t all been about amphibians. On three days this week we have found this Viviperous Lizard basking on the top of a reptile sampling square. It has flattened its abdomen to offer the largest possible surface area to the sun. We had never seen this behaviour before – how amazing:

In the freezing weather of last week, we discovered a Wren roosting overnight in our teapot nest box. One night, there were actually two Wrens in the box – one is already in the box and another is coming in through the chicken wire:

The camera also caught one of the birds leaving at 06.47 in the morning, just as it was getting light.

Now that the nights are warmer, Wrens are still using the box although not necessarily every night.

The Snipe, Lapwing and Black Headed Gull, that arrived in the meadows in the extreme weather, have now left. The Woodcock, however, remains with us:

Some other bird photos from around the meadows this week:

I am going to finish today with the old gentleman Fox who is so much more obvious than any other Fox on the cameras at the moment. Here he is sniffing down a Badger tunnel. Actually, even we can detect a smell of warm, damp earth coming up from there.

He is willing to tolerate me so long as I continue to bring him honey sandwiches and peanuts:

I consider it to be an enormous honour to be allowed to be so close to a wild animal and peanut time has now become one of my favourite times of day.

Rediscovering Love for Hot Water Bottles

I obviously pushed fate a bit too far by calling my previous post ‘A Few Small Signs of Spring’. Snow fell on Sunday and has stayed on the ground the whole week, with temperatures hardly getting above freezing. The weather has felt, quite literally, perishing for anything trying to survive out there. Even for us, living in a centrally heated house, we have had to retrieve the hot water bottles from under the stairs and keep them tucked under blankets to stay warm.

There was another fall of snow on Wednesday which finished just after dark, creating a lovely blank canvas for the footprints of the creatures of the night.

The nights have been very cold, some of them getting down to -5°C, and often accompanied by strong and bitter north-easterly winds.

We have this teapot nest box. It’s an open fronted box, of the sort favoured by birds such as Robins and Wrens:

A few years ago, a Wren made a nest in it. A male Wren will make five or six nests and the female then inspects each one and decides which one she wants to use. Clearly the teapot nest got the thumbs down because it was never used and so we left the nesting material in it. Subsequently, chicken wire has gone around the box to provide protection against Magpies, although I notice that there is actually now quite a large hole in the wiring that needs attention – a Magpie could easily stick its head through that.

This box may never have been used to raise young, but a Wren has been roosting in there overnight during this freezing weather.

I put a camera on the box and even went so far as to set it to the correct time. Unfortunately, it didn’t perform brilliantly, but it is possible to make out the bird going into the box at dusk, at eight minutes past five.

Isn’t it pretty amazing that, on the next evening, it was also eight minutes past five that it entered the box?

I think that many of the nest boxes here are used as night time roosts over the winter, judging by the amount of droppings we find in them.

This spell of unusually cold weather has meant that we have been seeing a few different birds. The Woodcock that we first saw on Sunday, has stayed with us in the meadows all week, and we have been flushing it up from the hedgerow margins every day as we walk round.

Intriguingly, there is another wader that we have been flushing several times a day but it is gone in a flash and we only ever get the briefest of views. The most we can really say is that it is smaller than the Woodcock with a white front and long bill. If only it would wander in front of a camera as the Woodcock did.

Yesterday we realised that there are now actually three of these unknown waders working the meadows by day. I have tried to increase the chances of getting the birds on a camera by redeploying six cameras from duties elsewhere and placing them to look at spots where we have previously set the bird up. Nothing so far, although I will keep trying. This approach did get the Woodcock again though:

Wrapping up really warm and putting a hot water bottle in under our coats, we have also been up on the Deer stalking seat, looking out over the second meadow:

In this way, we found the 86th species for the meadow bird list – a Snipe. Not dissimilar to the Woodcock really, but a pale tummy and three yellow stripes front to back on the top of its head clinched it for us.

Could our mystery waders actually be Snipe? Maybe, but we don’t think so and will continue investigating.

While all this was going on, our 87th species touched down briefly in the second meadow – a Lapwing.

There has been a group of around a dozen Meadow Pipit, an unusual bird here, working their way around the grass tussocks that are standing proud of the snow.

A small flock of Starlings is the first that we had seen here for ages:

Some Redwing and Fieldfare have been working the leaf litter at the hedgerow edges:

Large flights of Cormorants are to be seen every winter, flying low over the sea below us. This week, however, they flew over the meadows instead:

Lurking in the hedgerows as we were, trying to photograph the Pipits earlier this week, we started watching Gulls wheeling overhead. Herring Gulls are a very familiar bird here, but there were Black-headed Gulls too, distinguishable by a very obvious white stripe down the leading edge of their wing. In their winter plumage, they have the dark mark behind the eye but, in the summer, their heads will be chocolate brown.

There was a third type of Gull as well – Common Gull. These Gulls, with a small yellow/green bill, have almost completely white wing tips, or certainly they appear so from afar.

Common Gull has now been entered onto our meadow bird list at number 88. It’s not that they have never been here before, but rather this is the first time we got our act together and properly identified them.

This week, for the first time ever, a Black Headed Gull has been coming to feed on the strip. What a pretty Gull it is:

It must have been a very challenging week for Green Woodpeckers, needing to probe the frozen ground for ants:

I suspect that it has also been tough for birds hunting small mammals such as this Kestrel. The Voles are probably still going about their business but now under the snow layer making them so much more difficult to catch.

The winter feed that we put down is clearly being appreciated by seed eaters:

Badgers have continued to make some daytime cameo appearances:

A couple of wintery scenes from the meadows:

The one-eyed vixen has been keeping a low profile recently but good to see that she is still around and looking healthy:

The Foxes in the wood have always been quite elusive but they have certainly been seen on the cameras during this snowy weather:

The wood looked completely wonderful in the snow:

The new pond had all but disappeared:

I see that male Pheasants have an issue with their long tail feathers in this weather:

And Woodcock have problems with those beaks of theirs:

There has been a rare visit from a Red Deer. I wonder what they are finding to eat in the snow:

I had ordered some Snowdrops ‘in the green’ to plant under a tree in the garden. They arrived this week but the ground has been frozen hard.

The weather forecast for this coming week suggests that milder times are on their way. I can look forward to getting out and doing some gardening to plant out the Snowdrops, putting the hot water bottles back under the stairs and definitely starting to look again for a few small signs of spring.

A Few Small Signs of Spring

As February begins to unfurl, a few tantalising glimpses of spring are there to be seen by those who long to hustle this winter out of the door:

The more I learn about the perils of Butterfly hibernation, the more I appreciate the miracle of seeing one emerge intact in the spring.

The Freshwater Habitats Trust are once again running a spawn survey where they request sightings of spawn and publish them on a weekly map. As usual, the sightings commence in Devon and Cornwall, where it is usually milder and wetter, and then gradually spread across the country from there. As of Friday 5th February, the situation was as below:

Is this the year that we shall see some Toad spawn here? Our ponds are relatively new and Toads are slow colonisers of new places and so maybe not yet, but I will look for it nonetheless.

For the last week, the male Badger, Scarface, has seemed very testosterone-fuelled and has been making a wickering noise on every video that he appears in. Badgers mate as soon as the cubs are born in early February and he knows that his time is coming.

Seeing him out in the daylight is also suggestive of interesting happenings going on underground:

There are also signs that fresh bedding is being brought into the sett, perhaps in preparation for the birth. But it has been so very wet that all vegetation above ground is saturated and hardly ideal as bedding – but what choice do they have?

In our garden we have several areas of Crocosmia growing – it must be a plant that likes dry, chalky conditions. The foliage is now all flopped over and withered but we haven’t cleared it away in order to provide winter shelter for invertebrates. That’s our excuse anyway.

Winter is still far from over and now is not a wildlife-friendly moment to tidy this Crocosmia up, but I did do a light comb-through with my fingers to pull away some of the leaves so that I could dry them and put them out for the Badgers. I want to think of the new cubs lying on cosy bedding deep down in their sett.

I spread the leaves out on the tiled floor of the greenhouse to dry off.

This reminded me that, a few years ago now, we visited the Highland Park Whisky Distillery on Orkney which is one of the few distilleries to still dry the barley the traditional way on a heated malting floor.

We are so overdue a return trip to Orkney – it was lovely there.

The weather forecast was foretelling that one night this week was going to be entirely dry and not too cold – a rare occurrence of late. The leaves drying in the greenhouse weren’t quite ready by this point so I finished them off in front of the Aga during the afternoon, turning them frequently just as they do with the barley at the Highland Park Distillery…

…and put them down by the sett at dusk:

There is a camera trained on this hole but it let me down and failed to capture anything other than this photo of a Badger contemplating the pile:

By the morning, however, the Crocosmia leaves had largely disappeared underground, as I had hoped.

I believe that, as I write now, there are already cubs lying on those Crocosmia leaves – yes, I think that cubs have now been born. We have observed over the years that the adult female Badgers are extremely protective of their cubs and will not let the male Badger anywhere near them for quite some considerable time. So it is very telling that, in several of the videos over the last couple of days, I have seen the females launching attacks on poor old Scarface.

This young Badger was bumbling along and didn’t notice the resting old gentleman Fox until it was almost on top of him:

I wonder if he has finally successfully found himself a mate:

The female Kestrel has been using the new perch by the Reptile area again this week. In this photo she is showing her ring:

She is almost certainly the bird that was ringed here in September 2019 as a youngster:

We have a black triumvirate – a family of three Carrion Crows who live here and can be found together in a group almost all of the time. A bit of research on the internet reveals that these Crows will probably be gathering to roost overnight with lots of other Crows during the winter, somewhere in dense woodland that has traditionally been used for generations. Crows are often the last birds to go to roost at night, usually well after dusk, and the earliest to leave in the mornings, being very keen to return to defend their territories against potential intruders.

These three are always to be seen here during daylight hours and presumably they will soon be nesting close by.

The Crows are tolerant of the Kestrels and probably can’t keep track of what the Sparrowhawks are getting up to. But, should any other Bird of Prey dare to fly into the airspace above the meadows, like a war time RAF station, they scramble to get themselves up into the air to see off the enemy planes. This is most annoying for us humans who would like to get good views of the visiting raptor but often only see it rapidly departing with the triumvirate in hot pursuit.

We took the dog for a walk on the high, high chalk cliffs at St Margarets this week, a village just to the south of the meadows. At the highest point, there is the Dover Patrol Memorial, a granite obelisk built to commemorate the two thousand people from the Royal Navy’s Dover Patrol who lost their lives during the First World War. There is a matching second such obelisk at Cap Blanc-Nez directly across the Channel in France and a third one in New York City.

A decommissioned Coast Guard Station is next to the memorial that, until a few years ago, was the Bluebird Tearoom. Such a shame that this is now a private residence – much missed as a welcome stop off during walks along the cliffs.

As we neared the Dover Patrol Memorial, we spotted a Peregrine Falcon perched at the top of the cliffs. Not a great photo but it is the closest we managed to get.

As I write now, with Storm Darcy raging its way across the land, all thoughts of spring are put on hold:

This Woodcock, pictured in the wood this week, has travelled to Britain to spend the winter here. It might be completely unpleasant out there today, but it’s nothing compared to the Scandinavian and Russian winters from which it is escaping.

As we walked the dog around the meadows this morning, wrapped up warm against the strong north-easterly winds and horizontal driving snow, we put a Woodcock up from the scrubby hedgerow edge here in the meadows. Has this bird been newly blown in from Scandinavia ahead of these winds? We only see Woodcock in the meadows at times of extreme weather.

But I return to a note of calm to finish today. Earlier on in the week, when I was still contemplating the joys of spring, we were treated to a glorious yellow dawn:

The smaller vessel is the Ocean Marlin who has been here for several weeks now, seconded onto fishery protection duties. These duties seem to involve a lot of time at anchor alongside us but maybe that’s a good sign. The other ship is a banana boat – one of the refrigerated reefers that sail the ocean between South America and the Port of Dover loaded with cargoes of exotic fruits. All seemed tranquil on this lovely morning but I expect that it is a very different picture indeed out at sea today.