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.

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