Summer’s End

I have to keep reminding myself that it is still August. The weather has been dull and grey with a chilly north-easterly for much of the week. We even felt the need to turn the heating on one evening although in my head was my father’s voice telling me to just go and put another jumper on.

Not having known much about them until the last few years, the insects of the meadows often amaze us. How about these two beasties, standing side-by-side on an Alder Buckthorn leaf and looking like Pixar cartoon characters?

They are an early instar and a late instar nymph of the Box Bug. This bug was first found in the UK at Box Hill in Surrey feeding on box plants but it has rapidly spread its distribution up as far as Yorkshire in the last decade by shifting to several other food plants, including the Buckthorn that I found them on.

I think that this must also be a Box Bug nymph in the wood because apparently they can turn red in the autumn:

And here is another very strange little animal. We actually rescued it from the conservatory but I couldn’t believe my eyes when I looked at it closely:

I don’t know if anyone remembers Gonzo from the Muppets, but it really reminded us of him:

This is probably an Acorn Weevil (Curculio glandium) although there are three species that look similar. These weevils live in Oak trees and the female uses that long snout to bore her way into acorns to lay her egg. Her larva then develops within the acorn.

Kite-tailed Robberflies are often seen here, sometimes carrying their hoverfly prey. I hadn’t noticed those really odd feet before though:

We are still in the happy position to stop and take note when we see a squirrel in the meadows. This is certainly the first one that we have seen this year, if not for longer and I suspect that the reason that we don’t see more might be fox related.

Badgers turn up and rearrange the bird feeding cages most nights and we chuckle to ourselves when we see the cages in such disarray in the mornings:

I am fairly certain that there are currently four Badgers living under the meadows

After the long and ultimately unsuccessful battle to try to save the Old Gentleman this summer, I find it heartening to see that all the other foxes are looking really healthy. The medicated honey sandwiches that I put out did cure the two vixens of mange and they are now better, with fur regrown.

From mid August, our front lawn becomes a no-go zone as hundreds of Autumn Ladies Tresses orchids pop their elegant heads up above ground:

Autumn Ladies Tresses with clockwise spirals..
..and one with an anti-clockwise spiral

These orchids grow in low Nitrogen, low Phosphorus calcareous grassland, including closely mown gardens by the coast. Although they can spread a bit by producing lateral buds from underground stems, they are mainly pollinated by visiting bumblebees and the resulting dust-like seeds are then dispersed by the wind. But there then needs to be a prolonged symbiotic association with mycorrhizal fungi. This means that, amazingly, the first leaf rosette doesn’t appear until eleven years after germination, with the first flowering stalk appearing two to five years after that! Knowing this, we can’t help but feel honoured that our lawn is somewhere that they like to be.

Last autumn there was an extraordinary movement of hundreds, if not thousands, of Lesser Redpoll, Siskin and Crossbill through the meadows. The bird ringers caught and ringed well over a hundred Lesser Redpoll and here is a lovely male from back then:

No one quite knew at the time whether these birds were arriving, departing or just moving around.

It now appears that the Redpolls, at least, were leaving the country because the bird ringer has just been advised by the BTO of two ringed recoveries. A Lesser Redpoll that he ringed in the meadows on 12th October 2020, was recaught in Limburg in the east of Belgium ten days later on 22nd October. Another Redpoll, ringed here on 30th September 2020, was subsequently recaptured in Luxembourg on 5th November. Ringing provides lots of information on size, age and health of the birds ringed. But it is always particularly satisfying when the bird is subsequently recaught in a different place and we can learn of its migration as well.

This Crow is moulting its neck feathers giving it a vulture-like appearance

In the wood, there is one area that has a large open glade rich in Marjoram which, at this time of year, is heart-warmingly filled with visiting insects. Silver-washed Fritillaries are big, woodland butterflies with a distinctive swooping flight and there are several feeding up in the Marjoram glade this year. The female is on the left below and the bright orange male is on the right with the dark lines on his forewings.

A Small Tortoiseshell was also on the Marjoram and this is the first time we have seen one in the wood. In fact we only ever see about one a year in the meadows as well so they are quite a spot in this part of the country. A beautiful butterfly with that blue margin to its wings:

It has definitely not been a hot, dry summer and birds of prey haven’t been drawn in to the water as they have in previous years. However, a Tawny Owl did visit the new pond on two successive nights this week.

The first night:

And the second night:

We hadn’t seen an Owl in the wood for many months so were really pleased to see one again. There has also been a Buzzard:

And a Sparrowhawk:

Also in the wood:

Juvenile Green Woodpecker
Rabbit on guard

As the country has started to return to normal this year, vintage aircraft are once again to be seen in the skies above the meadows as Spitfires take passengers on a trip of a lifetime along the white cliffs:

The dog can detect a 1940s Merlin engine from miles away and madly chases the planes up and down the length of the meadows, exhausting herself. This results in the need for a cool down in a pond and, inevitably, a dog that looks like this:

Although embarrassingly disreputable at times, she is very much part of the fabric of the meadows.

Blog On Tour

This year we decided to have a series of weekends away with each of our children rather than a longer holiday. So this week we launched ourselves across the country to the Pembrokeshire town of Saundersfoot with one of our daughters and her fiancé.

Grey Seal on a boat ride round Caldey Island. Our daughter’s photo
Another of her photos of Choughs on the cliffs at nearby Lydstep. There were but 335 pairs of these birds in Britain as of 2014-5 and most of them were and still are in Wales. But they are only green listed because their numbers are thankfully rising slightly, helped by reintroductions and targeted conservation habitat management. In fact, Kent Wildlife Trust is shortly hoping to reintroduce Choughs onto the white cliffs of Dover not far from the meadows, possibly next year.

Of course we couldn’t be in Saundersfoot without a spot of rock pooling:

Animals living in rock pools are very vulnerable to bird predation at low tide. This Goby uses camouflage to protect itself
There are about a dozen species of Chiton in the intertidal waters around the UK. They are grazers and move slowly over the rock eating the films of algae using their rasping tongue. They are also called coat-of-mail shells because of the eight interlocking plates across their backs
The thin and pointed triangular tail flap on this crab tells us that this is a male. A female would have a larger rounder flap.

We were only away three nights but this was long enough to get very behind with the harvesting at this time of year.

Overgrown courgettes anyone?

Whilst we were in Wales, the bird ringers set up their nets in the meadows one morning and caught a variety of warblers – Garden Warblers, Willow Warblers, Chiffchaffs and this Reed Warbler:

For the first time ever in the meadows, they caught a Magpie. We are now enjoying spotting this ringed Magpie on the cameras:

Newly-ringed Magpie

Another thing that hasn’t happened before is that they caught a Short-tailed Field Vole in the nets – what a sweetie:

I like this trio of photos captured by a trail camera. The female Sparrowhawk is passing the time of day on the perch:

Then, just visible in the top right hand corner, a Magpie lands on the camera and the Sparrowhawk cranes her head around to look at it. A few years ago we got a trail camera photo of a Sparrowhawk taking a Magpie and I should think no bird whatsoever would want to catch the eye of a Sparrowhawk like this:

The Magpie promptly flies off, although I personally would have chosen to go in the opposite direction, away from the Sparrowhawk:

Other photos from the meadows this week:

Magpies generally look very amusing at this time of year
Jays always look amusing when they bathe
Unusual to see a Pheasant in the meadows but this female must have appeared on practically every camera whilst we were away. The Pheasant shooting season runs from 1st October to 1st February in the UK and so she might be well advised to hang around here for a few months where she will be safe
Delighted to now be seeing juvenile Yellowhammer (Dunnock on the right)
Fox with unidentified prey
A bundle of Slow Worms under the sampling square
A group of Gatekeepers enjoying the bramble flowers

I am finishing this week by taking the blog off on location again. My brother was so lucky to get the chance to see a family of Barn Owls in North Somerset recently. He only has a camera phone but his friend took this fantastic photo of them in very low light:

Here are two more that his friend has taken of these birds recently:

Time lapse of a vole being brought in to the chicks
Silent gliding across the field

We don’t get Barn Owls here unfortunately and it is thrilling to see them doing so well over there in North Somerset.

Harvest time

The large field of wheat that runs along the entire western boundary of the meadows has been harvested this week and the combine harvester was still working away long after it got dark and we had gone to bed. By the next morning, the job was all done.

The tractor provides the scale to be able to appreciate the gigantic size of the harvester

One of the farming contractors told us the fantastic news that, although spring barley was planned for next year, there would then be two years of meadow flowers grown in this field under an environmental scheme.

We went down to the white cliffs for the first time since early June and saw that all the Fulmars had now done what they needed to do here and have returned out to sea for the rest of the summer. The cliffs felt very empty without their noise. The House Martins are still around, though, and they should remain until September or even into October, finishing off rearing their final broods of chicks.

Photo from back in June

There was also this Wheatear on her way south:

As I was inching closer to the Wheatear to try for a better shot, I found a colony of Bee Wolves under my feet. These are large predatory wasps who fill their sandy underground burrows with paralysed Honey Bees to feed their young. Most of the tunnels were still actively being dug by the wasps and I couldn’t see any Honey Bees being carried in during the time that I was watching. I plan to return in a couple of weeks to see how the colony is getting on.

A Bee Wolf hauling out a white piece of chalk from her tunnel

An ecologist visits the meadows from time to time to check on the relocated Slow Worms that came to us a couple of years ago from nearby land that was to be developed. He tries to persuade us to grow more nettles here because they are good for snails, one of the main prey items of Slow Worms. But there is no way that we want to be especially planting nettles, although we have let this one patch grow in order to please him. This year it is six feet high:

The nettle patch

It actually does seem to be supporting a lot of life:

Comma Butterfly caterpillar
Lots of Ladybird larvae although sadly they are the invasive Harlequin ones which out-compete and actually also eat our native ladybirds
Ladybird pupa

And plenty of adult Harlequin ladybirds of various forms:

What I do not see is many snails on the nettles. However, the underside of the courgette leaves in the allotment is another matter and perhaps he should have been persuading us to grow courgette instead:

A snail nursery on the courgettes

One of the glories of the garden in August is the Agapanthus in flower:

By the end of the summer, all these flower heads will be swollen with seed. In its native South Africa, Sunbirds help pollinate the Agapanthus flowers but what is pollinating it here? I do see some bees visiting by day.

As darkness falls, the blue of the magnificent flowers really begins to pop…

….and the plant becomes busy with visiting Silver Y moths

Using the camera flash in the dark to capture this Silver Y moth visiting the flower

Moths are the unsung heroes of pollination, getting to work under the cover of darkness unnoticed by us.

It is only recently starting to be fully appreciated what an important role moths play in the reproduction of a wide variety of plants and crops.

I found this Silver Y moth caterpillar on a Mullein growing as a weed in the greenhouse:

I had difficulty identifying it because I was looking in the book for a green caterpillar with dark spots. However, I now realise that these spots are puncture wounds where the caterpillar has been predated by ichneumon wasps, sticking their ovipositor in to lay an egg into the caterpillar. Horrible but fascinating, as is so much in the invertebrate world.

Here is another very interesting invertebrate I came across this week. It is a debris-carrying Lacewing larva and I found it on my arm, although I had just pushed myself through a hedge backwards:

Although adult Lacewings feed only on nectar, pollen and honeydew, the larvae are voracious predators that eat mainly aphids, but also caterpillars and other soft-bodied things. They stick the carcasses of their prey along with sundry bits of organic vegetation on their backs to disguise themselves:

Close up of the debris on the Lacewing larva’s back

But why do they need to disguise themselves if they are mostly eating immobile aphids that can’t get away anyway? Ants have a mutually beneficial relationship with aphids – the aphids provide the ants with some of the honeydew that they are sucking from the plant and the ants provide protection for the aphids from predators. A scientific study has found that if a Lacewing larva approaches an aphid colony with no debris on its back, the ants will detect and eject it. If, however, it approaches with the debris in place, the ants don’t seem to be able to notice it and it can get past the ants to eat the aphids. I find that really rather amazing.

It is thought that Greenfinch numbers have fallen a devastating 60% since a protozoan parasite called Trichomonosis started causing a disease of their throats in 2006. The parasite is often passed on when a sick bird leaves infected saliva on the feeder and so everyone is urged to clean bird feeders once a week to slow the transmission of the disease.

Female Greenfinch

But, despite my best intentions, I don’t get round to this job anything like that often. I also wait for a feeder to be empty first before bringing it in to clean and refill which can take a while with some of the less popular seed types. Therefore I was very interested to learn of the Finches Friend – a feeder which has been re-engineered specifically to make cleaning much easier and therefore more likely to be done weekly as advised.

My new Finches Friend feeder – dispenses two different types of seed if you want

The feeders are quite expensive but I bought one anyway to see if it is as good as I hope it is. It comes with two bottom sections from whence the seed is dispensed. At any time you can stop off the flow of the seed from above and swap the bottom section for a new clean one, then turning the seed flow back on and taking the old dispenser off for cleaning and drying. It’s very simple once you get the knack of it and I will now be ensuring that I do this every week.

Four old-style feeders have now come in to be retired if the Finches Friend works as hoped

An area of the wood is a beautiful open glade filled with Marjoram, although Dogwood is now also growing strongly. On a sunny day in August, the Marjoram is heaving with bees and butterflies – mainly Peacocks and Meadow Browns but there were also at least two graceful Silver Washed Fritillaries gliding around. Both of these individuals are males:

We also saw a White Admiral although it was so very tatty that it was a wonder it was still flying:

Silver Washed Fritillaries and White Admirals are exciting woodland species and we are so pleased to see them flying in the wood. This autumn we must hack back the Dogwood to ensure this area remains open and Marjoram-filled to keep these butterflies happy.

Other photos from around the meadows and wood this week:

Young playful foxes at dawn
The One-eyed vixen with her blue left eye
Bounding along the path
Male Roesel’s bush-cricket
Over the years here we have seen Magpies with both fledgling and adult birds, eggs and Slow Worms in their beaks but never before with rodents
This male House Sparrow seems to be a single parent family and he is working so hard going back and forth to keep a nest full of noisy chicks fed
A thorough wash
Stock Doves just getting their feet wet
A pair of delicate Collared Doves
Yes, the Wood Pigeon breeding season still seems to be ongoing
Buzzard in the wood

Although we have often heard that boats carrying migrants have landed at this part of coast, we have never before witnessed the upsetting sight of a boat coming in.

A large inflatable boat being safely escorted in to shore by the Border Force

These people are arriving with practically no possessions and no certainty as to their future now that they have finally reached their destination. I try but cannot imagine the depths of their anxiety as they sit there in their inadequate boat approaching our iconic white cliffs but my heart goes out to them.

Purbeck Weekend

This week we have spent a couple of days on the Isle of Purbeck in Dorset. We stayed in the lovely town of Wareham which is not far from the spectacular Corfe Castle…

Corfe Castle

…and also not far from the Arne RSPB reserve, where we happily spent a few hours. It was our first visit to Arne and we loved it – it has a great range of habitats supporting distinctive species, many of which we are unfamiliar with, living as we do on chalky Kent downland. We set ourselves the target of seeing two sandy and heathland specialists, the Dartford Warbler and the Sand Lizard.

Father and son birding at Arne. The town of Poole is in the distance.
Sandy Cliff habitat
The cliff in more detail with so many insect burrows into the soft sandiness. A Jersey Tiger Moth gives scale
Sika Deer on the salt marsh

Sadly we didn’t see either a Dartford Warbler or a Sand Lizard, but we did see two other iconic species of the area:

A tree stump, close to the path in a heathland area of the reserve
Zooming into the picture a bit more, there is a Nightjar resting up for the day there, relying on its camouflage not to be seen
Zooming in yet more and you can see the row of bristles which are thought to help funnel the night-flying moths, flies and beetles into its mouth. Although the beak is so small, the gape is enormous
A different species of Nightjar but with a similar gape to our European Nightjar. Photo from the Bird Ecology Study Group

In the meadows, we know that spring has come when the Bee-flies arrive. Emerging during the first warm days in March and April, they are around for a short while and then they are gone. So we were very surprised to see a tiny Bee-fly still flying at Arne, so much smaller than the Dark-edged and the Dotted Bee-flies that we get at home and flying several months later. This is the Heath Bee-fly (Bombylius minor), now confined just to the heaths of East Dorset and one of the species being championed by Back From The Brink, an organisation working hard to save Britain’s most threatened species from extinction.

Heath Bee-fly, a parasitoid of tunnelling bees. These tunnelling bees can fly much later into the summer here because of the soft, sandy ground
A super-sized model of the Heath Bee-fly at the RSPB visitor tent
Outside the visitor centre there is an even larger scale model of a different Back From The Brink heathland species – the Ladybird Spider, the male of which is actually only a centimetre long and looks like this. In the 1980s, only a single colony of seven of these spiders remained in the UK but they have subsequently been re-introduced at Arne and are doing well although they remain very rare. One day I hope to see one.

Back in the familiar territory of the meadows, this Crow photo from one of the trail cameras, made me wonder if the bird was ‘anting’

This behaviour is surrounded by much speculation but the general consensus seems to be that the bird tickles a nest with its wing to cause the ants to swarm up and over its feathers, shooting out Formic Acid as they do to defend their nest. The acid is thought to possibly kill ectoparasites on the bird although there are many other hypotheses as well.

The resolution of the photo is not fantastic, but I can see ants on the bird in this next photo if I peer hard at it:

I can also report that there was indeed a small nest of black ants in front of the camera

On a sunny morning this week, I saw a metallic green damselfly by the hide pond. I moved smartly off to get my camera but inevitably it had gone by the time I returned. There are several species that it could have been, but any one of those would have been new for the meadows and so I sat in the shade by the pond and lurked there to see if it would return. Sadly it didn’t but, while I waited, I did see plenty of other dragonflies and damselflies:

Britains largest dragonfly, a male Emperor awaiting his Empress
Female Southern Hawker laying eggs
Blue-tailed Damselfly with its bi-coloured wing spots
Female Common Darter, with yellow stripes down her legs

Hopefully I will see that metallic green damselfly again so that I can add it to the list.

Having removed all the flower heads off the Wild Parsnip with secateurs and bagged them up to get them off-property, we decided to mow the area with the tractor so that it is easy to spot any subsequent regrowth – we are taking this eradication programme oh so very seriously this year.

One of the two areas that had Wild Parsnip growing

We have noticed before that, as soon as there has been any mowing, the large mammals are very interested to see if this has created an opportunity for them. As dusk fell, the foxes moved in…

Foxes entering the Wild Parsnip mowed area

..followed by a Badger once it became a little darker:

There is so much variation in foxes that each one is individually recognisable. As an extreme example, here is the vixen who had the single cub in the meadows this year…

…and this male fox from the wood looks so completely different:

Looks like battle lines have been drawn up but they are all just busy eating peanuts

Other photos from around the meadows and the wood this week:

It is quite a while since we have seen this female Kestrel who was ringed here as a youngster in September 2019
A Magpie having an unfortunate moult – we mustn’t laugh.
I found this little fly on my washing machine. It is Palloptera muliebris, the Looped Flutter Fly
A sweet young Robin getting ringed this week
We have had several bouts of intense rainfall this week – the ponds have never been so full at this time of year
Playful young Grey Squirrels in the wood
A family of Jays in the wood

We really enjoyed watching the sailing in the Olympics and we are now enthusiastically noticing the variety of yachts going past:

The three-masted Eendracht from the Netherlands and the Belgium two-masted Zenobe Gramme

Both these yachts are used as a sail training ships. The Eendracht is run by a foundation that wants to give young people an introduction to the sea. She has a crew of thirteen but also space for forty more passengers. I see that in 1998 she ran aground at Newhaven and all 51 people on board were rescued by helicopter but she was able to be refloated and returned to service.

The next morning, we saw the magnificent Eendracht again, this time far out to sea and heading back to the Netherlands:

I finish with some photos from the Highlands of Scotland, visited by one of our daughters this weekend, travelling up by sleeper train to Aviemore. She spent one of her evenings there in a wildlife-watching hide and was rewarded with fantastic views of Badgers and a Pine Marten:

On a walk the next day she saw this little thing:

I am hoping that one day our beautiful native Red Squirrels will once again be seen in Kent, although I have to admit that there is an awfully long road ahead before that can happen.