The Summer To Come

For the first time in a long while, both of us were away from the meadows one night this week meaning that no peanuts and sandwiches were put out at dusk. It twangs my heart strings to see on the cameras that, as we were happily drinking wine in our son’s Berkshire garden at dusk, there was a little gathering of Foxes back in Kent waiting for their sandwiches which never arrived. I wonder how long they were lingering and hoping before they gave up?

But, by the next night, I was back on duty and normal service had resumed.

Five minutes after I had scattered the peanuts and retreated. Surely that Magpie is not thinking of coming down to the ground amongst five Foxes?

There is a long-ago but just remembered way of living where it was possible to go away on holiday and such fabled days are rumoured to be returning soon. These animals have become rather indulged over lockdown and I need to ready them so that I can leave the meadows this summer with a clearer conscience.

We have had yet another week of cold north-easterly winds blowing in off the sea that continues to slow down the onward march of spring, although we have seen Green Hairstreak and Small Copper Butterflies newly out this week. Two mornings were foggy, with the Dover foghorn atmospherically sounding through the mist up from the south.

The Herring Gull pair in the fog

But what fun we have been having with a wool dispenser that we put out in the meadows with a camera on it. Crows and Blue Tits are still pulling out nesting material:

And now Great Tits have started as well. The wool is a mixture of different colours and I was interested to see that the Great Tits were selecting the darker hues:

The summer visitors will be arriving and starting to build nests soon and maybe they too will use this dispenser.

A House Sparrow with a feather suggests that they are also busy finishing off a nest somewhere:

And Magpies have been building nests for weeks:

Song Thrushes appear on the cameras every day:

But this week we found a Song Thrush’s anvil – a stone used by the bird to smash open snail shells:

Then, this morning, we have found a second anvil, still wet with snail juice. The bird had used a stone that was securing a camera’s tripod legs to stop it blowing over:

When I looked at the pictures taken by that particular camera, it had captured the moment the Thrush found the snail:

I subscribe to Birdguide alert emails which tell me that a few Turtle Doves have started arriving in Kent. Bags of special Turtle Dove seed have been delivered from the RSPB and Operation Turtle Dove to be put out on the rotavated strip for eight weeks from the beginning of May. The hope is that the seed will attract in Pigeons and Doves as an advertisement to a passing Turtle Dove that this is a great place to be. Should they decide to come down and take a closer look, the supplementary seed will then help them feed up and get back into breeding condition quickly after their migration.

Turtle Dove seed arrives for our fourth year of Operation Turtle Dove. One additional bag still expected
A group of Stock Dove. Now that Turtle Doves have started arriving, I’m going to have to take better care to check out all of the Doves as I go through the trail camera footage.
Collared Dove

This photo gave me a bit of a shock when I downloaded it off the camera. Perhaps the prey she has got is a partly plucked Blackbird?

Sparrowhawk with prey
Bedraggled Jay after a bath
One of the Crows here with a very distinctive domed head. Crow wars are still continuing unabated.
The dome-headed Crow and his mate
Sweet Rats drinking
I was pleased to find such a beautifully marked small fly. It is one of the picture-winged flies, Tephritis neesii
A gorgeous female Tawny Mining Bee. We have identified several of their nests around the meadows now.
There are ten species of Pond Skater in the UK, some of which are difficult to tell apart. These are possibly the long-winged form of the Common Pond Skater, Gerris lacustris
Green Hairstreak on Alexander seen for the first time this year
Walking amongst a forest of Alexanders. We have operated a zero tolerance policy on Ragwort for several years and last year we also started controlling Wild Parsnip with its irritant sap that was spreading alarmingly. This spring we have additionally been hitting Alexanders hard because it is a worryingly successful plant at propagating itself. Its flowers are very popular with insects though and so the ideal time to remove the plants is after the flowers fade but before the seeds set.

It was also foggy in the wood this week. On three different occasions the Buzzard was perching in this exact spot at the top of this photo. This is near the feeders and so I wonder if it is waiting for Pheasants and Squirrels?

The magnificent bird then visited one of the shallow baths but found it dried up:

But it did find water in this deeper pond and twice came to bathe this week:

There have been more amusing Jay bathing photos in the wood as well. They don’t seem very waterproof:

This Chiffchaff is probably a newly arrived summer visitor…..

…but all of the winter visitors are yet to leave. The Woodcock have gone but this Redwing is still here, although perhaps it is waiting for its northern breeding grounds to warm up a bit more before it starts on its way.

For more or less the whole of April I have been on tenterhooks awaiting the arrival of this year’s baby Badgers above ground. Yet here we now are at the 24th and still they have not been glimpsed. In previous years we have had clues as to their existence – some years the mother carries her young above ground to a different burrow and in every previous year I have caught sight of the mother’s undercarriage at some point and seen signs of lactation. This year there has been nothing and I am now wondering if perhaps there are no young. After all, the family had four youngsters last year and maybe they need a rest.

But then again, they could be waiting until this cold wind finally stops blowing. In the meantime, I am really enjoying the allotment. The Tulips grown as cut flowers are ready to bring into the house, and also to give to visitors to spread the joy.

Our daughter’s wedding, postponed from last June, is now going ahead on a very much smaller scale this summer with the reception hopefully being held here in an open sided marquee. This is a big incentive to keep on top of everything to try to get the meadows, allotment and garden looking at their absolute best for then. My big worry is not so much rain as the wind, but we will have to wait and see.

Broken Tiles and Blossoming Spring

Our house has Kent peg tiles hanging on parts of its outside walls. These are getting old and every so often, rather depressingly, one crumbles and drops off. It is happening on the roof too – at some point in the future we shall have to take action.

A couple of missing tiles on the walls

However, the loss of a tile might be a heart sink for us but good news for a bat or a bird looking for somewhere to roost.

The loss of this tile has created a sheltered dark nook within the wall

We spotted one place in particular that looks like it’s been used as a roost over the winter:

All that guano is reminiscent of the teapot nest box in the garden in which a Wren has been roosting on cold nights throughout this past winter. When letting the dog out last thing at night, we could flick the torch over the box and see the bird snuggled cosily within.

The box is wrapped in a bubble of chicken wire as protection against Magpies should a Wren or Robin ever decide to nest properly in there. Such an open nest is asking for trouble in these parts.
The Wren leaving the teapot at dawn back in February

Other news from the roof is that a male House Sparrow is starting to perch on it and cheep very loudly and insistently. He has chosen to do this in exactly the same spot as last year, close to the House Martin nest, and he is now hoping to attract a female’s attention and interest her in nesting in it with him. Sparrows have nested in there for the last couple of years and it looks like they might be doing so again this year.

While we were in the garden, our noses led us to a dead Fox lying at the back of a border. Although Foxes in captivity can live for fourteen years, the life expectancy in the wild is a meagre one to three years. So there will have been many deaths in the six years we have been here, nearly all of which we are blissfully unaware of.

Moving the dead Fox somewhere more out of the way to lie in peace
The pretty Fox that I have just finished treating for the mange on her tail. Hopefully fur will be growing back before too long and she’ll have several more years ahead of her
I can’t make out what prey item this Fox is carrying but I do hope that it isn’t one of the Grey Partridge
Digging is thirsty work
Still no baby Badgers above ground but a lot of adult Badger activity

We are so enjoying getting to know the pair of Herring Gulls that have adopted the meadows as their own. They have earned themselves the nickname of The Chuckle Brothers because of the noise that they make as they wait up near the feeding cages each morning.

The Chuckle Brothers in a dramatic pose

This week their courtship and mating was caught on camera:

This photo confirms that the colour-ringed gull GR94467 is indeed a female

I read that Herring Gull nest building begins in early May – I wonder where that will be? I do so hope that it is not on the roof of our house.

The meadows are a site of a Crow civil war at the moment. Vigorous cawing and vicious aerial skirmishes are occuring from early dawn to deep dusk. At one point there was a murderous lynching down on the grass and I ran at the birds full pelt to break it up, not being able to just stand and observe such a thing. We do not completely understand what is going on but there still is at least one pair building a nest and they continue to visit the wool dispenser that we set up for them:

Crow taking wool
Blue Tits are also regularly visiting to collect wool for their nests

This photo of a Starling with a feather in its beak is evidence that they too are nesting:

There is a little band of six of them in the meadows at the moment

We found this beautiful Blackbird egg lying in the grass up on the strip. It was undamaged but cold and we presume we must have interrupted a nest predation. We suspect Magpies, especially since we subsequently found the broken shell under their nest.

But, down by the Badger sett, a female Blackbird is busy building another nest which hopefully the Magpies will not find:

Still no evidence of Yellowhammer breeding yet, despite positioning cameras in key locations.

Yellowhammer telling off a House Sparrow

It’s lovely to think of Tawny Owls flying around the meadows at night. We often hear but rarely see them, although this one landed briefly on the ant paddock perch. I would love to know where they are breeding.

We went down to the local cliffs to see if the House Martins had arrived yet – this is one of the rare places in Britain that House Martins use natural nest sites.

The local white cliffs with a disused Marines firing range built onto reclaimed land below

The House Martins had still not arrived there. But I am sure that this cold north-easterly wind that has been blowing for so many days now must not be helping – any birds coming up from Africa would have to fly against it

A frost one morning this week

Last summer I was following the fortunes of two magnificent Wasp Spiders who had built their webs close to each other out in the meadows.

At the end of the summer, the ladies disappeared off their webs to build egg cocoons nearby and during the winter we found several of these cocoons in the uncut areas of the meadows. They were surprisingly large with a diameter of 3-4cm:

We rediscovered one again this week. It was looking decidedly worse for wear by this point and actually at first we thought it was empty:

But, on closer inspection, there were hundreds of little spiderlings gathered within a web towards the apex. I didn’t want to prise the web apart to get a better picture because this would then leave them vulnerable but hopefully you can make them out. They were all slowly moving around.

I will check again on them in a week to see how they are getting on and I might be able to get a better photo as they get bigger.

This is the first time that we have ever seen a Treecreeper at the wood:

Treecreepers are common but elusive woodland birds who work their way up the trunks of trees, looking for spiders and insects tucked away in the bark.

Internet photo of a Treecreeper. It has stiffened tail feathers, a curved beak and adapted toes and claws to facilitate climbing up tree trunks and prising invertebrates from bark crevices. The bird can’t go downwards again very well so, once it gets to the top of a tree, it flies down to the bottom to start again.

It seems odd that we have never seen Treecreepers at the ponds in the woods before, even at the height of the summer droughts. It is really only when is it so dry that we have seen Tawny Owls coming in for a drink and a bath, but surprisingly here was one this week:

Also in the wood this week:

This Squirrel is all shoulder blades and hips
I love the way that Jays put their crests up when they bathe
Sparrowhawks always look so fierce
Green Woodpeckers are still occasionally visiting the hole in the Cherry tree but not often enough to be nesting

April is an all-round lovely month and the Blackthorn is flowering in the meadows.

We went for the full blossom experience this week when we had a picnic under the cherry trees at Brogdale, the home of the National Collection of temperate fruit trees, nearby at Faversham.

Socially distanced picnic squares under the mature cherry trees. We had the place to ourselves, however.

Gorgeous snowy-white blossom, but shame about the bitter north-easterly wind.

Pairing and Nesting

This week I went to visit my father in Berkshire and took the opportunity to go birding at Little Marlow Gravel Pit with a friend and fellow nature enthusiast. Before this pandemic, we used to get ourselves along there reasonably often but this was only the second time we had managed it since Covid forcefully rampaged its way into all of our lives over a year ago. To our absolute delight, the lake was covered with several hundred swooping Sand Martins, Swallows and a few House Martins. They had arrived!

If House Martins were already inland at a gravel pit in the Home Counties, then perhaps they had also arrived at our chalk cliffs here on the coast in East Kent. Once I had returned home, we sallied forth from the meadows to take a look.

But I can report that the House Martins have not arrived here yet. However, we spent a contented hour watching the Fulmars and Jackdaws that are already nesting in the holes in the rock. We set the birding scope up under this particular fissure which had two Fulmar nests and four Jackdaw nests along its length and watched the birds come and go.

Fulmars are tubenosed seabirds related to Albatrosses and feel like very special birds indeed
What fantastic eyes Jackdaws have

The Jackdaws were busy going in and out of their nest holes with mud.

There has been nesting activity going on in the meadows as well:

Crows still collecting wool
Dunnock with a stick
Chaffinch with nesting material in her beak

I am seeing Yellowhammers now on various cameras around the meadow but have yet to see concrete evidence of nesting. Actually, we have gone a bit over-the-top in this regard and have three cameras positioned along a particular hedge that we thought a pair of Yellowhammer nested in last year, hoping to see some signs.

Yellowhammer in the ant paddock, next to the hedgerow that we have under close observation.

Meanwhile, up on the strip:

Yellowhammer, Linnets and House Sparrows. All red-listed birds being of the utmost conservation concern
We do now have some Starlings that seem to be here to breed – another red listed bird
What an amazing head angle

Tensions have been running high amongst male birds. We saw two Robins locked in mortal combat and these two male Blackbirds were captured on a video having a pitch battle:

Chaffinch were also fighting in the wood:

The Blackthorn is out in its full glory in the meadows:

Chiffchaff amongst the Blackthorn
The Herring Gull is another red listed bird and this pair have become very used to our routine and await our arrival every morning up at the feeding cages. They have different head shapes and are slightly different sizes and characters and I can now easily tell them apart without having to look for the colour ring on the female’s leg.
There is also a pair of delicate Collared Dove that are now regulars up at the feeding site
I thought that this blurry image in the middle of the night is the only photo I have to show you of a Tawny Owl in the meadows in recent weeks…
…but then I noticed this on one of the videos
This Magpie looks self-conscious about the state it has got itself into
Two of the three Crows that have made the meadows their territory
We are also definitely in the territory of this male Sparrowhawk
I am still seeing Redwings on the camera in both in the meadows and here in the wood
I haven’t really forgiven the Grey Squirrels in the wood for the damage they did to so many beautiful Beech trees last summer and I have mixed emotions when I see this photo
We hear a lot about Beavers being ecosystem engineers but Badgers, too, play their part – their digging activity creates opportunities for many other species of both plants and animals. Here is a group of House Sparrows dust bathing in the spoil of the new tunnel coming up into the meadows
I have now finished the week’s course of medicated honey sandwiches to treat this Fox for the mange she probably has on her tail. It is now a question of waiting to see if we can see fur growing back in due course.
Here she is having a bit of an altercation with a Badger
No baby Badgers have been seen yet this year but lots of activity amongst the adults
The moth-eaten Old Gentleman , demonstrating how he has earned his name
And on to another disreputable canine. The dog still goes over the gates that we are keeping resolutely closed to stop her going into the second meadow without us
We have always struggled with blanket weed in the hide pond. Since it was finished a few years ago, only rainwater has ever gone into it. But the problem was that it was initially filled with tap water which contains too many nutrients, beloved of blanket weed. This is a depressing photo – the blanket weed dies back over the winter, but here it is again, starting to grow in the left hand side of the pond which is the side that gets more sun. Soon it will have advanced to cover the entire pond. However, this pond does still heave with life, seemingly unaffected by the weed.

I found one of my favourite bees, a female Tawny Mining Bee. She’s a beauty with her fox-red thorax and marmalade abdomen.

She digs a vertical shaft nest down into the earth, 20-30cm deep with several brood chambers branching off it. She then fills these chambers with a mixture of nectar and pollen and lays a single egg into each. The egg hatches and the larva eats the food that she has provided for it until it pupates for the winter. The new adult bees will emerge next spring.

I think this small volcano in the ground could well be the nest of a Tawny Mining Bee.

However, it has been cold and overcast ever since we found it and so the bee has been inactive.

Yet again back to full winter gear with a cold north-easterly wind and rain

The late arriving news this morning is that, hurray, the sun has come out and, up at the bee tunnel, the bee could just be seen at the entrance:

It was then a question of sitting quietly until she emerged:

I can now confirm that it is indeed a Tawny Mining Bee nest

We can glimpse Walmer Castle from the meadows and this weekend they are flying their flag at half mast. We too have ours at half mast as a mark of respect for the husband of our Queen who so very nearly reached his hundredth birthday.

Easter in the Meadows

We have been spending some of this Easter weekend sheltering in a gazebo in the garden to reacquaint ourselves with our children. The weather has been cold and windy but it has been lovely to see some of them in person again after what feels like a very long haul.

As we walked down under our local chalk cliffs this week, we saw that Kestrels have started nesting in their accustomed cavern in the rock:

There was a second Kestrel nest as well last year, but it looks like this might have Stock Doves now:

Our meadows are not far away and we frequently see a pair of Kestrels here. I would love to know if these are the same birds that are nesting at the cliff. We sometimes meet a nature photographer who photographs the birds of the cliff and I have now asked him to keep an eye out for our female since she is ringed and distinctive.

The male Kestrel in the meadows this week

We also see Sparrowhawks in the meadows but have no idea where they nest either:

Male Sparrowhawk this week

In fact, we haven’t ever found a raptor nest in the vicinity of the meadows. Or in the woods either, although there was a Buzzard nest there the summer before we arrived that hasn’t subsequently been reused.

I am envious of my sister who lives in Berkshire and has a pair of Red Kites nesting next door. She is enjoying seeing them flying around her garden and has dusted off her camera to send me this photo:

The iconic Red Kite silhouette

Although we occasionally see Red Kites here in East Kent, they haven’t started nesting yet although hopefully it is just a matter of time.

Perhaps we don’t have raptor nests here but we definitely have nesting corvids nearby. Ever alert to interesting or entertaining new camera positions, we stuffed a wire cage with the some wool packaging and put a camera on it to see if any birds would take some as nesting material:

Crows taking the wool

We also have Magpies nesting in a Holm Oak. I feel that Magpies are doing just too well around here and try not to encourage them if I can help it. Seeing this group of seven of them this week only serves to increase my feeling of unease about them:

I try to put the sandwiches and peanuts out for the Foxes and Badgers at a heavy dusk when birds might be expected to have roosted for the night. I was a bit too early here, though, because I was feeling sorry for how long the Old Gentleman had been waiting for me:

The Old Gentleman Fox

Magpies can and do fly in extremely low light. I am always really cross when I see them get a sandwich.

On Good Friday, I decided to start putting medicated honey sandwiches out to treat this pretty vixen who probably has mange on her tail. My thinking is that I will act fast before she has a chance to infect other of our resident foxes who might be more tricky to get sandwiches into.

When I last treated the foxes here a year ago, The Fox Project charity recommended that I tried a week’s course of Psorinum 30c pills – just one pill, dissolved in a little bit of water and then that water sprinkled onto the sandwiches. This is a medicine made from natural ingredients and it doesn’t matter if a non-infected fox or any other animal takes it, or if the fox is lactating – it will not do any harm. Last year it worked like a dream and so I am hoping that it will do so again.

We have been seeing some summer visitors arriving here after their long journey up from Africa:

Several Blackcaps have been seen

Chiffchaff

It is lovely to have them back in the country, although they are will probably not be stopping with us for long here at the coast.

The pair of Herring Gull are waiting for us every morning up by the feeding cages. One of the birds is colour-ringed so they are easy to recognise:

The colour-ringed gull, GR94467, in flight and displaying her rings

It is fantastic to hear so many Yellowhammer singing along the hedgerows this spring:

Not all of these birds in this photo below are Yellowhammer, but most of them are:

We found this specialist Woodlouse-eating spider, Dysdera crocata, in a damp, dark nook.

The Woodlouse Spider

It has disproportionately large mouthparts for grappling with its Woodlouse prey. Last year I got this photo of one:

There are forty species of Woodlouse living out in the wild in the UK (twenty more species only found in heated greenhouses). Having attended a couple of recent Zoom talks on Woodlice, I now realise that there are several different species here in the meadow and I am starting to try to work out what they all are – but this is a subject to look forward to in a later post!

It was a murky day on Good Friday but we were treated to a sighting of the biggest ship in the world, the Pioneering Spirit, sailing by. Owned by Allseas, it is the biggest ship in terms of gross tonnage, water displacement and also its width which is an amazing 124 meters. It is a twin-hulled, oil rig lifting ship, slotting the rig into the space between the two hulls so that it can lift it without tipping sideways.

The Pioneering Spirit sailing by on Good Friday

Here is a photo from its Wikipedia page, showing an oil rig in position between the hulls:

By BsnarF1 – Pioneering Spirit – Biggest ship of the world – Port of Rotterdam, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=50524379

The ship was finished in 2016 and was originally going to be called the Pieter Schelte, after the father of the owner of Allseas. However, this caused controversy because of Pieter’s service in the Waffen-SS during the war so the name was changed to Pioneering Spirit. However, the ghost of the previous name can still be seen on the hull.

By kees torn – Pioneering Spirit & KRVE 71, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=67558419

I see from the weather forecast that we are to expect an Arctic blast at the beginning of next week. Last year, it was just about this exact point in spring that we had several days of strong and bitter north-easterly winds that raced in off the sea. They hit the 300m of hedgerow at the top of the meadows, burning the tender new foliage to a crisp. This meant that the Hawthorn didn’t flower last year and consequently had no berries in the autumn to provide winter food for the birds.

The hedgerows are now in exactly that same stage as they were last year – the Blackthorn is in flower and the tender young leaves of the Hawthorn have just come out.

Blackthorn in the foreground always flowers before the leaves emerge. The Hawthorn at the back gets its leaves before it flowers

We are really worried that we will have a repeat of last year. But it looks like the winds are expected to be much less strong, and northerly rather than north easterly which would make a big difference – we have our fingers crossed but there is not a lot more we can do than that.

The reptiles have already emerged but they will have to keep their heads down as this Arctic blast passes through.

Slow worms. The adult female is curled around a juvenile.
Viviperous lizard

The insects will also have to find a sheltered spot to see out the cold snap::

Peacock Butterfly on Blackthorn

In our garden we have this south facing bank. Last year we decided not to cut the grass on the bank, leaving it to merrily flower away for pollinators. Although it looks very grassy at the moment, in a few weeks it will be covered in flowers. In the spring, this southern aspect of the bank hosts a large colony of mining bees and is alive with their constant activity.

The bees rarely rest up and consequently are really difficult to photograph but here is one of them – a male Yellow-legged Mining Bee (Andrena flavipes).

This is a common mining bee in southern England but what I find exciting is that the Painted Cuckoo Bee (Nomada fucata) is a parasite specifically on this species and I would really like to find one of these hanging around the colony. Once the Arctic blast has gone, I too will be hanging around the colony trying to find one of these cuckoo bees.

Internet photo of the Painted Cuckoo Bee

The wood is putting on a fantastic Easter display of Primroses in its regenerating areas:

Magpies have been gathering in the wood, too:

Last year we had twelve small nest boxes up in the wood and all were used.

We now have eighteen up. We looked in one and it already had a soft mossy nest within:

So, there you are. That is about it for the nature round up this Easter other than wishing everyone a happy, long and chocolate-filled weekend.