The Magic of May

Yockletts Bank is twenty-three hectares of beautiful ancient woodland on a valley side in the North Downs. It is now a Kent Wildlife Trust reserve, famous for its orchids, and we visited it on an overcast and cold afternoon this week.

Our route to Yockletts Bank took us through Dover. The cruise ship Disney Magic is now a very familiar sight, having been moored up there since the start of the Covid crisis, and apparently her schedule is still cancelled until August.

There isn’t any parking at the reserve but there was a really uplifting bank of spring flowers where we managed to pull the car off the road.

The Lady Orchids at Yockletts Bank are numerous and magnificent but they are terribly scarce plants and this part of Kent is absolutely their stronghold in the UK. They are woodland plants, liking to grow on fairly steep slopes, often close to Yew.

The flower of a Lady Orchid – the ladies are wearing spotty crinolines with burgundy bonnets
A fine Lady amongst the Cowslips
…and with Bugle

The Lady Orchids were the main attraction of the afternoon but there were more orchids and other interesting plants too:

Early Purple Orchids
Early Purple Orchid with its wonderfully spotted leaves. This orchid is more common and widespread than the Lady
Early Purple
Fly Orchid
The flower of the Fly Orchid
Common Twayblade
The Twayblade flower
White Helleborine, not yet in flower
Fantastic spreads of Wild Garlic. The smell was wonderful.

Although the reason for our visit was the orchids, the highlight of the afternoon was actually hearing a Turtle Dove purring nearby. We have only heard Turtle Doves sing twice in the UK and both times it has been at Yockletts Bank. This reserve is somewhere to go to truly experience the magic of May.

Buttercup season has arrived, bringing its own magic to the meadows:

Buttercups and a Whitebeam just coming out into leaf

Fox cubs are starting to explore away from their dens on the cliff and are now turning up on the cameras:

The first sighting of a cub on Thursday

The tummy of the one-eyed vixen tells the story that she is feeding cubs:

The starey-eyed vixen stretches and yawns. Love the way that tongue curls up at the end.

The Old Gentleman’s fur is falling out in such vast amounts that surely all can’t be well. I have decided to start another week of mange treatment for our resident foxes here and this old boy will be so easy to get medicine down.

His tail is looking really quite bald in places

We have redeployed a couple of cameras to places we know are close to fox dens to see if we can see the cubs as they venture further afield. It was interesting to see the starey-eyed vixen coming and going into the hedgerow right at the end of the second meadow which is 200m from where we usually see her.

On one warm evening this week, we went out after dark with torches to look for the caterpillars that feed at night to avoid being eaten by birds and other daytime predators.

Many caterpillar species adopt this strategy – but of course we failed to find any. We did, however, see these odd things below, gathered together in the shallow water in the wild pond:

They were quite big – about 5cm in length – and they were sticking their breathing siphons up to the water surface to get air.

We thought that they were leeches but its turns out that they are Soldier Fly larvae of the genus Stratiomys. I don’t know anything about Soldier Flies but I will research them because it would be now be satisfying to also spot the adult flies.

One morning, seven Broad-Bodied Chaser Dragonflies hatched out from the hide pond – hooray, Dragonfly season has begun.

This week, we have spotted several species of Butterfly for the first time this year:

The Common Blue are out

And a Burnet Companion, a day-flying moth

We found two distinctly blue beetles in a compost heap and they turn out to be quite exciting – they are the Blue Helops Beetle (Helops caeruleus), a species that develops in decaying Oak and is very local to this part of the country.

From the beginning of May, we have been scattering seed onto a rotavated strip of ground as part of Operation Turtle Dove. The seed attracts many Wood Pigeon and Stock Dove and this crowd of birds will hopefully interest passing Turtle Doves. The strategy has clearly worked for this Homing Pigeon who has been with us for most of the week and is still here, although surely someone somewhere is expecting it back home by now:

Homing Pigeon ringed on both legs

Yockletts Bank might have Turtle Dove but sadly none have been seen here yet.

After discovering that both sides of the original Swift box were occupied by nesting House Sparrows, two new boxes have been hurriedly purchased and put up so that they are available for any Swift to nest in should they wish. This does make the house look slightly eccentric but we are hoping that it will all be worth it. However, despite playing loud calls into the sky all week, no further Swifts have been sighted.

The day after the new boxes went up, we were rather exasperated to see this:

A male House Sparrow was clearly delighted to see that a new home has been put up and is cheeping loudly in there to see if he can interest a female to come and nest in it with him.

This is the third blog post in a row that I have included photos of a ringed female Blackbird collecting nesting material. Just how large is this nest? She has been showing up on several cameras:

And a Song Thrush is also collecting lovely wet mud from the pond for her nest:

Other photos from the past few days:

The yellows and reds on a Yellowhammer
This Crow has found a bit of baguette from somewhere and is dunking it in the water to soften it
A Magpie with angel wings
A pair of Chaffinches
Our first baby bird of the year this morning. I’m calling this a fledgling Starling but someone please correct me if I am wrong – I’ve never seen one this young and fluffy before
Mating Woodpigeon

There may not have been any baby Badgers in the meadows this year, but here is one in the wood, already looking quite grown up:

I am so pleased that the Green Woodpeckers are nesting once again in this Cherry tree and we plan to see if we can digiscope the comings and goings once the chicks have hatched to get some lovely crisp images:

I have called this post The Magic of May, but I see that the month is already halfway through – can it not slow down? There are two spring-flying butterflies we want to make trips out to see this month as well as some more orchid sites. So I am hoping for some sunny days over the next couple of weeks so that we can fit all of this wonderful nature exploration in.

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