A Bird In The Hand

After weeks of wearying north-easterly winds, there has finally been a shift to south-westerlies, bringing with them some much needed rain. One night this week there was a storm with wild gale-force gusts battering the meadows for several hours.

On two of the calmer mornings, the bird ringers swung into action. They were particularly targeting Yellowhammer and they caught seven of them. It is such a privilege to be able to see these birds up close when in the hand:

Male Yellowhammer
Female Yellowhammer
Male Linnet
Female Linnet
Female Starling. She has a brown iris whereas a male’s eye would be all black. Also, at this time of year, the base of her beak is buffish and a male’s would be pale blue
A very smart male House Sparrow
A male Whitethroat. At this point, the only way they knew he was male was because he sang as he was released back into the hedgerow

Over the long Covid winter, we watched a lot of natural history Zoom talks, including two given by the Kent Bat Group. Although we still don’t know much about Bats, we did learn that they sometimes use log piles to roost in during the summer – yet another user of log piles that we hadn’t previously considered. There is a ready supply of logs from the wood and so, whenever there is space in the car, some are brought back to enhance the meadow habitat. One of our sons visited recently and he was put to work helping to build a log feature right at the end of the second meadow.

As well as being good habitat and shelter, I think this is also a thing of beauty.

The trolley that is being used to carry the logs is new and is already proving itself indispensable – the dog hurt her leg and it was converted into a temporary invalid carriage for our pampered princess.

There are two projects underway at the moment for our summer visitors. Across the country, Swifts are now returning and it is time to once again turn on the loud Swift calls. Our other son built us a sound system which plays the calls up into the sky to bring in passing Swifts so that they notice the nest box that we have on the side of the house. Over the last two summers this has been very successful in attracting in Swifts to the box but they have not yet nested here and we are hoping that this will be the year.

The good news is that we could still remember how to rig up the sound system and that it is working. But the bad news is that we failed to get round to putting polystyrene bungs into the nest box entrances to stop other birds nesting in it before the Swifts return. This has turned out to be a significant error because we noticed that House Sparrows are already nesting in both sides of the box.

The male House Sparrow of the pair that are nesting in the right hand side of the Swift box. Another pair is nesting in the left hand side as well. House Sparrows are red listed birds and we are pleased to have them nesting in the meadows but we really wanted Swifts in this box. We do have Sparrow nesting boxes elsewhere for them, in which, of course, they are showing no interest.

We decided that rather than giving up on the Swift project for this year, we would take decisive action and buy two more Swift boxes with express delivery and get them up as fast as possible to try to retrieve the situation.

Two new Swift boxes arrived and waiting to go up

The second project for summer visitors is the scattering of supplementary seed onto the rotavated strip of meadow in an attempt to attract and support Turtle Doves. By spreading the seed thinly and widely, Wood Pigeon and Stock Doves are now spending a lot of the day pecking over the area and it is these birds that will hopefully interest the Turtle Dove enough to come down and see what all the fuss is about.

The pair of Grey Partridge and many other birds are also enjoying the seed:

We have now seen Swallows and House Martins, and a visiting daughter spotted a single Swift fly over the meadows. So we went down to our local chalk cliffs this week to see if the House Martins that nest on the cliffs there had arrived. But they were still not to be seen and actually neither were the Kestrels in evidence, although presumably they are quietly sitting on eggs tucked away in holes in the rock. We were very pleased to spot this female Wheatear though:

This image is digiscoped and is much sharper than the ones I managed with my camera

And the Fulmars were noisily carrying on as normal:

The Herring Gull pair in the meadows have now started collecting nesting material. I wonder where they are nesting? I am not aware of any Herring Gull nests in the area:

Blackbirds are still building their nests as well:

And the Crows are also nest building. A couple of the houses down on the seafront are having building works at the moment and it looks like the Crows are purloining their roof insulation. I have had a lot of similar Crow-with-roof-insulation photos this week:

I would also love to know where the Tawny Owls are nesting…

Enviable neck flexibility

…and if the pair of Kestrels we see here are the ones nesting in the nearby white cliffs:

Male

This looks like Stock Dove courtship to me, but it seems that he is failing to impress:

Other photos this week from the meadows:

You can just make out that this Sparrowhawk is holding prey in its right talon
Sparrowhawks like to hunt from this gate
Willow Warbler passing through to places further north and west to breed.
The Old Gentleman is in heavy moult and is looking even more of a wreck than normal
I get the chance to have a very good look at him most evenings
These two vixen look very comfortable with each other. I recognise them both – the one-eyed vixen with her blind left eye is on the left and the other Fox with the starey eyes is the one that I recently treated for mange.
The one-eyed vixen
The starey-eyed vixen
The same two Foxes at peanut time with a Badger
The handsome male Fox, distinguishable by the downturn of the end of his tail
Badgers and Foxes are never at ease with each other. I could feel the tension in this video
We have found another place where a Song Thrush has been bashing snails open on stones.
The caterpillar of the Yellow-Tail Moth on Alder Buckthorn. This species spends the winter as a caterpillar, but tucked within a silken refuge until April. It can then afford to feed out in the open because of those irritant hairs.
We saw a Painted Lady in the meadows this morning. All the Painted Ladies that are still in the UK at the onset of winter do not survive and so, every year, the country is repopulated by migrants flying in across the Channel
Woodlouse shedding its exoskeleton. It moults in two stages. First the back half is shed and then, a day or two later, the front half falls off as is happening here
Euleia heraclei, a picture-winged fly
Mating Craneflies, Tipula vernalis. The more fleshy female is above and she will go on the lay her eggs in the soil which will grow into leather jackets, beloved of Starlings and many other birds
We are having a particularly stupendous year for apple blossom in the orchard this year

In the wood, I do now think that Green Woodpeckers are nesting again this year in the cherry tree hole:

The female with a black moustachial stripe
The male with red in his moustache

At the moment we have a roving camera in the wood. On every visit, we move it on to a different nest box to see what birds are nesting in it. We are hoping for Marsh Tits, but so far are almost exclusively getting Great tits.

This box is in the new section of the wood:

Great Tit taking moss into the box
There were many photos taken of Great Tits going in and out of the box
But also several visits by a pair of Blue Tits over the few days that the camera was on this box. I suppose the Blue Tits are still prospecting for nest sites and seeing if this one was available. We shall have to put more boxes up for next spring.

This is a different box but it also had Great Tits nesting in it:

Having determined that there was no adult around, we peeked inside the box and found nine lovely warm eggs:

There are Marsh Tits in the wood and they do apparently use nest boxes and so we will continue to move the camera around all of the eighteen small boxes just in case.

As the meadows roll through the year, waves of different plants come to prominence and then fade back as another one has its day. This all kicks off with the Buttercups and these are starting to build to their beautiful crescendo right now:

At the same time there is another unstated yellow plant flowering, Black Medick. It might be small and easily overlooked next to the showy Buttercups but it is a heavy-weight for the insects.

Green Hairstreak on Black Medick

Our trips round the meadows are starting to take so long, surrounded as we now are with all this wonderful blossoming nature at long last. Today, we didn’t even need our coats!

A Murder Most Foul

There are many suggestions as to why the collective noun for Crows is a murder but, after the events of this week, we have our own ideas.

There has been a sustained, vigorous and noisy turf war amongst Crows being fought in the skies above us for several weeks now. Some days ago, I intervened to break up a lynching where three Crows had a fourth pinned to the ground as they set about attacking it. This has now culminated in finding a dead Crow lying on the grass, having almost certainly been pecked to death by a mob of its own kind. Surely a murder of Crows.

We put a camera on the dead bird and saw that other Crows kept visiting the carcass over the next couple of hours to further jab at it and pull it around.

Eventually, as dusk started the draw in, a Fox took the bird away. Things have been very much quieter since then and so perhaps that was the last battle in the long war and the matter is now irrevocably settled.

A Crow has found a honey sandwich that had been overlooked by the Foxes and is dunking it in water to soften it

Every day the pair of Herring Gull are waiting for us as we arrive and we are charmed by the companionable chuckling noise they make to each other. One morning we arrived unexpectedly early before the gulls were there, but the male soon spotted us and flew in from wherever he had been hanging out.

The cages are all askew because they have been rearranged by Badgers overnight

Once landed, he threw back his head and made that loud, characteristic ha-ha-ha-ha cry that Herring Gulls make. This was clearly to let his mate know that we had arrived and were about to dispense seed, because very quickly she joined him from the other side of the hedgerow. It was so heart-warming to see how they look out for each other like that.

The females is colour-ringed

My friend the Old Gentleman Fox isn’t much around at the moment but there are generally three other Foxes now waiting for the peanuts and sandwiches each evening, all probably having to provision cubs at this time of year.

The Fox on the left is the one that I have recently treated for mange. The One Eyed Vixen is in the foreground and I see that she has mange again now, for goodness sake. The Fox at the back is a very handsome fellow

The handsome Fox has a bit of a lion’s mane and lovely black paws:

An atmospheric Fox photo early one morning
A nice Fox stretch

Here are some other photos from the meadows taken over the course of this week:

Still no Badger cubs in the meadows, or actually the woods either, but we are seeing adults out and about in daylight much more as the days get longer
Four Slow Worms of assorted ages, heating up under a reptile sampling square
I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times we have seen a Hedgehog in the six years we have been here
Adult and young Rat that appear to be living down the Badger tunnel which feels like a stupid decision but seems to be working for them
Mating Crane flies
A Wren taking wool for its nest
Another Blackbird nest is under construction in the meadows. The females build the nest alone
Tawny Owl flying the meadows at night
The pair of Grey Partridge are still going strong and its lovely to see them
Mating Woodpigeon
Song Thrush preparing to bash this snail against the flint stones to break it open

May is prime orchid time and we hope to get out and about this month to visit some of the fantastic orchid sites of East Kent. In the meantime, an Early Spider Orchid has appeared on our lawn to whet our appetites:

Cowslips are at their very best in the meadows at the moment:

And the Apple trees are blossoming in the orchard, showing all those exquisite shades of pink:

Spear Thistles form enormous rosettes in the grass

The only orchids we have ever found in the wood is a little group of Twayblades but this colony seems to be thriving:

Our wood is fantastic for Primroses but less so for Bluebells and it is not carpeted in them as some woods are. It does have a few, however:

My brother, who lives in North Somerset, sent me a photo of a Purple Gromwell that he saw there in his local woods and I include it here because it is such a rare and special plant and one that used to grow in Kent. But it no longer does and it is now only to be found on the limestone of the Mendips, South Devon and parts of Wales:

Back in our wood, both Great Spotted and Green Woodpeckers seem to be inspecting the hole in a cherry tree, although I don’t think either are visiting often enough to be actually nesting there. I thought that Great Spotted Woodpeckers never used the same hole twice and so I am surprised at their interest in it:

The male Great Spotted Woodpecker is in the hole looking out, while the female approaches
Green Woodpeckers were looking in this hole on several occasions this week
The camera also just caught a confrontation between the Green Woodpecker and a Squirrel further down the tree

Great Tit and Blue Tit having a fight:

And another Blackbird nest is being built in the wood:

What a glorious time of year it is in the allotment, full of promise and with the rhubarb starting to poke up above the ground. This is perfect timing just as we are reaching the last bag of last year’s roasted rhubarb in the freezer.

Historically, juggling freezer space has always been stressful as the gluts of fruits and vegetables are harvested over the course of the year. But we hope that this problem has now been solved by installing an additional freezer in the hide, and we are looking forward to it being packed to capacity with home grown goodness. It is difficult to beat a gooseberry crumble in January, lighting up those short, dark days with memories of a sun-soaked summer.