A few racing pigeons drop by the meadows every year on their way back from the continent. One this week was particularly tame and surprisingly came into the conservatory and had a walk around inside whilst we were having a Pilates lesson in there. I fed it some seed and a broken up suet ball and it spent a long time feeding up before continuing its journey home.
Pigeons have been raced across the Channel for 125 years, the birds being released from points in France and Spain and completing the up to 500 mile trip in a few hours, mostly returning home on the same day that they are released. But it seems that the world of international pigeon racing might be about to become collateral damage of Brexit. Post-Brexit animal health regulations, due to have come into effect in April, require the birds to have a certificate signed by a vet and also to be in the EU at least 21 days before release. The birds would not be exercised during these three weeks and would lose a lot of condition. The implementation of these regulations has now been postponed until October but at the moment the future of cross-channel pigeon racing is looking bleak.
The weather has been hot and sunny although mainly with a delicious sea breeze here which has taken the edge off the heat. You always know that summer is in full swing when the Darters arrive.
Sandwich Bay Bird Observatory, just up the coast from here, recently raised a lot of funds to double the size of its scrape and to build a second hide. This project was finished just as the country went into lockdown last year and has only recently opened to visitors. We were excited to see it at long last and went there this week.
Sitting in a hide is immensely relaxing, putting everything else on hold for a while while you spend some quiet minutes observing nature. I am so pleased that we can once again get ourselves along there to see what’s about.
Back in Berkshire again this week, we walked the dog up into Ashley Hill Woods. I first remember this Forestry Commission wood from when I went on an infant school trip there, not so very long after it had been clear-felled in the early 1960s. Thankfully, since then it has been more sensitively managed and is now a beautiful place – probably my all time favourite wood and one that I have done a lot of dog-walking in over the years.
We have been watching this Red Kite nest on Ashley Hill for several years now. It is much larger than it was when we last saw it a few months ago, so hopefully this means it has been active this year. Red Kites are famous for weaving plastic and other bits of human detritus into their nests.
Hiding under a shady roof of Bracken, we found a thriving colony of Common Spotted Orchids:
Another old haunt of ours in Berkshire is Carpenters Wood and we also visited there this week. It is nearly the seventy-seventh anniversary of when a Halifax bomber, with seven men on board and loaded with bombs destined for France, crashed into these woods. There is still the disquieting sight of a large crater at the crash site:
A plaque at the site says: ‘Tread softly because this is hallowed ground’ and that exactly describes how it feels.
Back in our own wood in Kent, the wet summer so far has meant that the undergrowth is distinctly more rampant than normal and we are slashing and hacking back nettles and bramble to remake our woodland paths. A battery powered hedge cutter seems to be working best for this.
The new part of the wood is densely planted and badly needs thinning and so, in the autumn, our first job is going to be some selective clearing. We are going to prioritise English Oaks and clear space around them so that they have a better chance to become sturdy, beautiful trees.
But because we are not confident that we can recognise these young Oaks once they no longer have leaves, this week I have started to identify suitable trees and tying red rope around them. It’s a shame that it wasn’t yellow, but I was singing the song to myself anyway.
Fresh bark on the ground below a birch, alerted us to look up and notice that Grey Squirrels have been up to their old tricks again and are stripping bark:
I am so looking forward to the successful end of the trials that are currently underway to test a contraceptive that can be delivered to Grey Squirrels via hazelnut spread in a specially designed box. UK Squirrel Accord is a partnership of environmental, wildlife and forestry organisations working towards making this happen and it is definitely something that we would be very interested in for our wood as soon as it becomes available. It seems a humane and perfect answer to a big problem.
Back in the meadows, a young Blackbird appears on the gate…
…and then the ringed female comes to feed it. This female was photographed here carrying nesting material for so many weeks, it is wonderful to discover that it all that work led to a satisfactory conclusion:
I think this is a different Blackbird family down by the wild pond:
Although we often catch glimpses of Wrens poking around in the vegetation, it is rare that the trail cameras get photos of them. What a long beak they have:
The camera taking videos along the cliff edge captured these two fledgling Jays with fluffy white bottoms:
We spotted a large and rather extraordinary fly feeding on Wild Carrot that we had never seen before – Nowickia ferox. Its larvae grow within the caterpillars of the Dark Arches moth:
It had a strange white face:
This is another large fly, Myathropa florea. This hoverfly is irresistibly drawn to the revolting-smelling buckets of Comfrey fertiliser that are brewing away. She is looking to lay her eggs in there, from which rat-tailed maggots will develop. These maggots get their oxygen by sticking their tails above the water surface and so have no need of clean water. However, this has reminded me that I must sort out some lids for the buckets.
And finally, some shipping! One evening this week two ships dropped anchor alongside us, both blue and white with yellow funnels. The THV Patricia feels like an old friend. She is operated by Trinity House and comes here to look after the buoys and lightships guarding the notorious Goodwin Sands that lie just offshore.
The second ship’s funnel was a very different yellow:
Cefas Endeavour is a fisheries research vessel, owned by the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science (CEFAS), and she supports their activities such as monitoring fish stocks. She was designed to minimise underwater noise to reduce fish disturbance.
A little further up the coast in Sandwich, The Open Golf is being held at Royal St Georges golf club this weekend, postponed from last year due to Covid. Over thirty thousand people a day are flocking to the area for what is expected to be a very hot and sunny weekend. We shall be keeping our heads down, enjoying the weather and looking at nature, with the odd peek at the television to see who’s winning.
This week we revisited the National Trust land by the South Foreland Lighthouse, high up on the chalk cliffs north of Dover. In 2017, the Trust raised a million pounds to buy the 178 acres of land which had been intensively farmed since the Second World War. They are now restoring it to natural grasslands and wildflower meadows and in some areas they are planting a ‘bumblebird’ seed mix to provide seed for the birds through the winter and nectar for pollinators in the summer.
The Trust are still farming the purple section at the top of the photo above but are leaving a very wide conservation strip at the edges of the agricultural field:
The Old Gentleman Fox has started to come up very close to the house at dusk. One evening when I went out to take some photos of him, he was waiting by the back door and came in when it opened.
This is all wrong and I know that the dog would violently object which would not end well for the fox because he is such a frail little thing. From now on, I will exit the house at dusk from a different, see-through door so that I can be sure that he is not around and trying to come in when I go out to put the food down by the wild pond.
He is continuing to lose fur at an alarming rate, even though I am approaching the end of a three week mange treatment using Arsenicum sulphur on honey sandwiches. He also sounds like he has catarrh on his chest and a bit of a cough.
I have once again approached the Fox Project charity to ask for their advice and guidance. It seems the cough will be either ringworm or lungworm and I should buy some Panacur granules to add to the sandwiches. They have also advised that I add some fox ‘infection stop’ medicine to deter secondary infections getting a hold in the sores on his skin. Other than that, it is a question of giving it a bit longer to see if the mange treatment starts to work. If it doesn’t, the final resort is to see if we can catch him in a cage and get him into a wildlife hospital for treatment. Let us hope it doesn’t come to that.
As I was going through the images from the camera at the hide pond, my attention was drawn to several photos where a pair of House Sparrows were repeatedly hanging around a clump of water reed:
But when I saw this next photo, I realised what they were up to – hunting emerging dragonflies that were clinging to the reeds while their wings hardened up
I expect that the dragonfly prey was taken to the nest in the Swift box from whence the family of House Sparrows is cheeping noisily and both female and male adult bird are working hard to get food in to their chicks:
There is a very generous amount of space in that box for them. Elsewhere in the meadows we do have a sparrow terrace with three boxes in a row since sparrows like to nest communally. The central nest has its hole facing the front and there is a hole at each end for the side boxes. However, sparrows have never shown the slightest interest in it, even though we have tried several different locations:
It is, however, being used this year for the first time, although not by sparrows:
We found the nest of a Nursery Web Spider:
The female carries the white egg sac around with her until it’s nearly time for the eggs to hatch, at which point she stops and builds the nursery web around the sac to protect the young as they emerge.
I had intended to continue to watch this nest as it developed but, in the middle of the week, there was a day of gale force winds. The nursery web, strung as it is between bits of foliage, was badly buffeted and pulled apart by the winds and is sadly no more.
Male Blackbirds, so dapper in their shiny black breeding plumage earlier in the year, are now looking distinctly worse for wear and are starting to moult
Bringing up a nestful of chicks through to fledging is really hard work and takes its toll on the parents – but here the young birds now are, successfully launched into the big wide world:
This Sparrowhawk looks like she has got her head on the wrong way round. What impressive rotation:
She has been on this perch a lot this week:
A juvenile Great Spotted Woodpecker – so unusual to see these birds in the meadows:
A male Kestrel:
An Essex Skipper Butterfly:
A male Ringlet Butterfly:
You might wonder why that Butterfly is called a Ringlet, until you see the underside of its wings:
There were an lot of these hoverflies around and, when I looked them up, I learned that they are the Marmalade Hoverfly (Episyrphus balteatus), and that they are Britain’s commonest hoverfly:
The background colour of this hoverfly is highly influenced by the temperature that the larvae develop in, those developing in the hotter summer are much oranger than the darker flies in the spring. This aids temperature regulation because a basking hoverfly with more dark pigment will absorb sunshine better and warm up quicker. The larvae of these hoverflies eat a wide variety of aphid species and, as such, they are the gardener’s friend.
One morning we found this dead Leopard Moth on a windowsill. A large and striking-looking moth:
In the wood, these Male Ferns are absolutely magnificent:
We have found our third orchid species in the wood with the discovery of this Pyramidal Orchid:
The pair of Bullfinch are daily users of the pond and I am assuming that they are nesting nearby:
We put a camera on this Tawny Owl box to see if it was being used and incidentally caught this Buzzard perching up:
It turns out that the box is indeed being used, but unfortunately by squirrels rather than owls.
I finish today with the sunflowers in the allotment – I haven’t grown sunflowers since the children were small. Back then, the object was to try to grow the tallest sunflower in the class but these days my priorities have changed and the ultimate goal is to see birds feeding on the seeds once they ripen later in the summer. However, in the meantime, they are bringing us a lot of pleasure:
This week we joined a small group on a Kent Wildlife Trust walk around West Blean Woods, near Canterbury. These woods are only about twenty miles from the meadows but are on acidic clay rather than our calcareous chalk and that makes a big difference to the plants and animals to be found there. The Trust are going to be introducing European Bison into West Blean next year as part of a wilding scheme and also to help them manage the wood.
They hope that the Bison will provide a nature-based solution to the problem of properly managing such a large area of woodland. These big and heavy animals are ecosystem engineers – they will knock some trees over, creating fallen deadwood and, because they eat bark in the winter, this will kill trees resulting in standing deadwood, both of which are really important for biodiversity. Their browsing will also keep the vegetation open and naturally coppiced.
Thousands of years ago, Britain would have had Steppe Bison roaming the land – a species that is now extinct. European Bison are similar, although they themselves were hunted to extinction in the wild in 1919. A small number, however, remained in captivity which included only two males and it is from these two bulls that the whole of the current global population of 6,000 has grown. Bison are highly susceptible to problems caused by inbreeding and so great care has had to be taken to avoid this.
So, six Bison are arriving at Blean woods next year from populations in Continental Europe, including one bull and one mature female. Five very large paddocks are being created for this small herd which the Trust hopes will slowly grow in number over several years. Iron Age Pigs, Highland Cattle and Konik Horses will also be managing the wood although only the pigs will be in with the Bison.
It is a very exciting and ground breaking experiment and is about to kick off in earnest in the next few months. I am so pleased that we got the opportunity to have a look round first before it all starts.
The Blean is home to a thriving population of one of Britain’s rarest butterflies, the Heath Fritillary. We were there on a sunny, hot day and we saw so many of them:
Down at our local white cliffs on Monday, it looked like the family of Kestrels were ready to fledge. There were four young in there:
When we got back from the Blean on Thursday, there was an adult and two juvenile Kestrels soaring and calling over the meadows and so it looks like they have now fledged:
This summer could not be more different to the previous one and we are certainly enjoying not having to water the pots and allotment.
A slow meander around the meadows noticing the minutiae always turns up something of interest:
I was back in Berkshire this week to visit my father and, as usual, parked near the church at Little Marlow to go birding at Spade Oak Nature Reserve. I love this little church – it feels so quintessentially English
We always walk round the churchyard first to see what birds are about but this time all our attention was riveted on this newly built insect hotel:
This is a thing of beauty as well as being a fantastic sanctuary for wildlife. I have an extreme case of Insect Hotel Envy.