The Gentle Purr of the Turtle Dove

Three years ago we visited Yockletts Bank, an East Kent nature reserve famed for its orchids. We had timed it just right and the orchids were in their full glory, although what we really remember of that visit was the Turtle Dove purring in a tree above us. It was the first and only time we have heard one in Britain.

The number of Turtle Doves in the UK has fallen by 98% between 1967 and 2016 and this will be our fourth year of participating with Operation Turtle Dove to try to persuade Britain’s fastest declining bird to come and breed in the meadows.

We visited the captive Turtle Dove breeding programme at Pensthorpe in Norfolk in January last year. One day I hope to be able to post a photo of a wild Turtle Dove in the meadows, but it hasn’t happened yet.

On paper we have everything they want. We have freshwater and thorny, dense hedgerow of the right height for them to build their nests. We will be putting down supplementary Turtle Dove food provided by the RSPB during May and June so that they can rapidly feed up after their long migration from Africa and get into breeding condition as soon as possible.

In addition, we rotavate a strip of land each spring so that, over the course of the summer, it gets weedy whilst still retaining about 30% bare earth. This is the sort of habitat found at the edges of agricultural fields which is where Turtle Doves like to be.

Here is the strip that gets rotavated each spring. By this point of the year, it was mostly covered in vegetation and difficult to distinguish from the rest of the meadow.

Rotavator at the ready

This time the rotavation took less than two hours – apparently it gets easier every year as the soil becomes used to being turned over, although we are yet to attempt the job ourselves.

For the rest of the day, the ploughed-up soil attracted in the Gulls – Herring Gulls on the left, Black-headed by the water and Common Gull flying on the right. The Black-headed Gull at the front now has the chocolate brown mask of its summer plumage while the one behind it is still in its winter clothes.

I include this next photo because I like the composition:

Last week we attended a virtual talk given by Kent Wildlife Trust on their Wilder Blean project. Lack of woodland management in the UK is one of the biggest factors causing species loss and the Wilder Blean project is going to introduce European Bison and carefully selected species of pigs, cows and horses to naturally manage Blean Woods, a large area of woodland around Canterbury. This year they are doing base-line surveys to measure future progress against, and building some infrastructure necessary for managing the Bison that are due to arrive next year. How fantastic to have such an exciting project on our doorstep and looking forward to hearing how the wood gradually recovers and species build over the years.

Ideally we would bring in grazing animals here to do our own smaller-scale rewilding of these meadows but we have never wanted the responsibility of livestock. However, although we are two kilometres away from the nearest cow, these Yellow Dung flies (Scathophaga stercoraria) have been seen all over the meadows this week, on the budding flowerheads of Alexanders.

This male is a lovely-looking fly with its yellow furry legs and abdomen although admittedly his love of cow pats could count against him for some. The males live in and around the dung, awaiting the arrival of females for mating and the eggs are then laid into the pat. Although they do visit flowers for nectar, they are mainly predators of other flies.

Here is a female, looking similar but without the yellow fur. She’s got pollen all over her chops, I see.

Between her thorax and abdomen, it is possible to see one of her yellow, club-shaped halteres. Other flying insects, such as bees and dragonflies, have two sets of wings but the second set in flies has been modified into these halteres – they function as gyroscopes providing the fly with good in-flight information and so allowing it to have great manoeuvrability.

Zoomed in a bit more to show the yellow haltere.

Here is a mating pair of Yellow Dung flies, although with no nearby dung into which to lay the eggs:

I don’t understand why we have so many dung flies here, so far from the dung of grazing animals. There are surely plenty of flowers available closer to the horse fields and the cattle farm – why are they coming all the way over here?

We saw these furry flies here last year as well and this photo was taken on 1st March 2020. But see how open those Blackthorn flowers were right at the beginning of March last year:

Photo from 1st March 2020

Here is this same Blackthorn bush on 21st March this year and only now on the brink of coming into flower – that is three or four weeks behind 2020. What an amazing difference from year to year.

For a couple of days this week, we had a group of around two hundred Starlings, gathering here at the coast before making the crossing across the North Sea back to Continental Europe to breed.

They were captured by only one of the trail cameras, probing the ground for soil invertebrates and perching in the hedgerows:

Perhaps it is a bit difficult to see in the photograph below, but some areas of the meadows were covered in the holes made by their beaks. We have never noticed this before:

All Starlings have departed now, including the birds that had arrived earlier and that I was hoping were summer residents coming here to breed. It seems that they too were winter visitors, simply slightly ahead of the main pack.

Three years ago we planted six large English Oaks in the second meadow. We now know it was a mistake to plant such big trees in these dry chalky soils – smaller trees would have demanded less of the roots whilst they are getting over the shock of planting and establishing themselves in their new position. We watered them like mad but, nonetheless, I think we have lost three of them. The ones that survive have a lot of of these marble galls caused by the gall wasp Andricus kollari. This wasp is not a native, but one that was introduced early in the 19th century when these galls were in demand as a source of tannin for dyeing and ink making.

The wasp emergence hole from the marble gall

For the first time, we have seen a different type of gall on these Oaks this year:

This is the ram’s-horn gall caused by the gall wasp Andricus aries which was first discovered in Berkshire in 1997 but now occurs all over the southern half of Britain. Neither of these galls harm the tree.

The Badgers are so busy at the moment. There has been more digging pretty much every night:

A new vertical shaft has been opened up this week, some distance from the other workings. It is coming up in the middle of the reptile area and goes down an awfully long way:

Here we are looking at this new hole. It is quite a long way into the meadow from the main sett entrance that must be on the cliff. Peering over the fence at this point, we can see that there is a lot of recently dug spoil there as well. What a network of Badger tunnels there surely is under this area of the meadows.

We are going to need to mark this hole now so that we don’t fall down it by mistake.

Last autumn we had six Badgers but by now some might be expected to have dispersed and I am no longer sure how many there are. The most I have seen together in recent times is four:

This weekend is the spring equinox – yes, we are now finally officially there and what a cause for celebration that feels like. Here are some of the other things that have been going on this week.

This is our first Bee-fly of the season – a Dark-edged Bee-fly. It is a sweet-looking little thing but appearances can be deceptive because it is parasitic on mining bees, flicking its eggs into their nests and its larvae then feed on the bee grubs.

I am so pleased that the Grey Partridge are back. We are putting them up again from the uncut sections of the second meadow as we walk round but this grainy, dark photo is the only time they have wandered in front of a camera:

Yellowhammer in flight, beautifully demonstrating those white tail feathers:

The colour-ringed Gull, GR94467, is a beautiful bird. I rechecked the North Thames Gull Group ringing record for it and this time spotted that, when the bird was ringed on Pitsea landfill site in Essex six years ago, it was recorded as being four years or older but with some immature plumage. This makes it at least ten years old now.

The bird very much seems to be one of a pair and that is why I was looking again at the ringing record to check if they had sexed it – they hadn’t. A quick look at the internet tells me that adult female Herring Gulls are smaller birds than the males and less fierce-looking. GR94467 is on the left in this picture and my guess on this basis is that she is female.

The first frogspawn was laid in the wild pond on 28th February this year. Now, nearly three weeks later, some has finally arrived in the hide pond on 18th March. Frogs just don’t like this pond as much:

I put the moth trap out one night this week. Just one moth turned up – an Early Grey. It’s a beauty though. A moth that is very much associated with Honeysuckle, both wild and garden varieties.

A wonderful clump of Primrose in the wood:

Yesterday we were surprised and slightly alarmed to see six warships on the horizon. We have subsequently discovered that is was a flotilla of four Russian warships that left the Baltic a few days ago and are now moving west through the Straits of Dover, their progress being monitored by two Royal Navy warships. This all feels uncomfortably Cold War-ish.

One of the four Russian Warships on the right

A couple of times this week, we walked the dog down under our local chalk cliffs. Last spring we followed the fortunes of the Kestrels, Fulmars, House Martins, Jackdaws and other birds that nest here.

The Fulmars are here again already, defending their nest sites, with their calls atmospherically bouncing around the arena of the cliffs.

We got talking to a fellow nature enthusiast there who told us that he had seen a pair of Kestrels mating by their usual nest hole a few days previously and we also saw Jackdaws disappearing into holes in the cliffs carrying sticks. It’s all kicking off once more and that is wonderful news. With all holidays still having big question marks dangling over them, there will be lots of time to visit these cliffs regularly once again this year and that is something I am very much looking forward to.

2 thoughts on “The Gentle Purr of the Turtle Dove

    1. I have to say that I am not filled with hope that we will see Turtle Doves, but, when I expressed doubts, the Operation Turtle Dove officer did say that coastal sites are where they are hanging on in Essex and that we should definitely keep going. So who know – maybe this is our year.

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