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.