IOW Special

An Isle of Wight-shaped paddling pool in Ventnor, as viewed from the north

This week we spent a few days in a National Trust cottage on the Isle of Wight. When we booked, we unfortunately had not realised that the Isle of Wight Festival was on the very same weekend, although all this really meant for us was that the ferry from Southampton was busy. But the crossing was really interesting, all the same. From the meadows we often see these enormous car transporters at a distance sailing along the shipping lane and so we appreciated getting the chance to see one up close at last:

It has an opening on its side to enable ship-to-ship transfers, such as getting the pilot on board when coming into port.

The cars being loaded and unloaded are stored in multistories on the dock

It seems that Cruise Liners are back sailing the seven seas again after their long period of moth-balling. This monster block of flats, the Sky Princess, is off this week for a six day tour up to Glasgow and Belfast and back. Three of the six days are sea days and so there must be lots to enjoy on board:

I was shocked by this apocalyptic view of the Esso refinery at Fawley on the banks of Southampton Water:

It has been several decades since I was last in the Isle of Wight and it was exciting to arrive in Cowes.

Our cottage was in the south of the island, on the secluded and wonderful countryside estate of Wydcombe saved for the nation by the National trust:

Our home for a few days

I knew that there were Red Squirrels on the island and so had brought some peanuts and a trail camera to try to see one. But I hadn’t anticipated that it would be so easy – there was actually one in the back garden of the cottage when we arrived and we pretty much saw them wherever we went.

We were surprised that these Squirrels didn’t have tufted ears but I have now learnt that they only have those in the winter

How wonderful to have Red Squirrels burying nuts in the garden:

There were some lovely walks from the cottage, one of which took us up to to St Catherine’s Oratory. This used to be a complete chapel built around 1328 but now just the tower remains which was used as a beacon to protect shipping until the 17th century.

A migrating Wheatear up on the headland by St Catherine’s Oratory
Another view of the idyllic Wydcombe Estate

A view westwards from Blackgang Chine along the south coast and ending in the Needles. This photo shows a striking change in geology – brown cliffs give way to white chalk cliffs in the distance:

One morning we visited Carisbrooke Castle, where Charles the First was imprisoned for fourteen months before his execution in 1649.

Jackdaws have been associated with the castle for hundreds of years:

Nine species of Bat have been recorded roosting at the castle:

Walking along the ramparts, we noticed something interesting in one of the gatehouse towers:

Naturally nesting Honey Bees in the tower, bottom right in the photo
When not being farmed for honey in bee hives, these bees would tend to nest in hollow trees

We also visited Ventnor Botanic Garden which felt warm and humid and put us very much in mind of Gibraltar

Ventnor has Britain’s oldest colony of Wall Lizards. These reptiles are thought to be non-native but they have been in Ventnor for hundreds of years.

A Noon Fly (Mesembrina meridiana) with orange-gold on its wing bases, its face and its feet. It breeds in dung but we saw these colourful flies sun bathing on tree trunks

We were thinking that we might see some White-tailed Eagles while we were staying on the island. The Roy Dennis Foundation has released twenty-five of these eagles on the Isle of Wight over the last three years. They are all satellite tagged and so he knows that, although the 2020 birds are mainly off exploring elsewhere at the moment, the 2019 birds have now largely returned to the island and the 2021 birds are yet to disperse, meaning that there is quite a concentration of these magnificent birds here.

The only one we saw, however, is this stuffed one at Osbourne House, Queen Victoria’s beloved holiday residence and where she died in 1901.

A Wolf from the Apennines and a Great Bustard in the background, shot by various members of the Royal Family in the 19th century

I believe that there was a card by this case that said that this five-legged deer was born on the estate and Victoria and Albert’s children tried to care for it but it died. However, I cannot find any reference to this now and so I am doubting myself
Such a beautiful island

The Isle of Wight is a relatively small island – only 36km wide and 22km deep and with a population of 142,000 people. We didn’t get to explore the west of the island during our stay and there is much more to see, so we hope that we will return before too long.

Tales from the Hedgerow

One of the trail cameras got bumped sideways this week so that it was pointing at the hedgerow that runs alongside the feeding cages. Throughout that day, it took photos of a pair of rats emerging from the vegetation and venturing out across open ground to eat the bird seed:

But I now realise that these animals are risking their lives every time they come out into the open:

A Magpie spots a rat coming out
The bird then spent a long time hunting along the hedgerow for the rats
This Crow, already with a full crop of food, also tried to catch them

I was a bit surprised to see that corvids are actively hunting rodents like this. I had presumed that our rat population was held in check by foxes:

Fox with rat from back in June

This reminded me that we have also once seen a Weasel with a young rat:

February 2018

Although we have rats, we have never had a rat problem because there are so many things out there that want to eat them.

At this time of year, the hedgerows are laden with fruits and seeds such as Sloes, Rose hips, Dogwood berries, Blackberries, Old Man’s Beard and Haws.

Many of the wild roses have these Robin’s Pincushions, or Rose Bedeguar galls.

The gall wasp Diplolepis rosae causes a chemically-induced distortion of a leaf bud to form this odd looking gall which then protects the wasp’s eggs and larvae within. But what is the advantage of the gall looking so wildly hairy like this?
Migrant Hawker Dragonfly resting up in the hedgerow. There is a breeding population of these dragonflies in the UK but we only see them here in the meadows in the autumn when numbers are boosted by arrivals from continental Europe

Some parts of the hedgerows are heavy with mature ivy which comes into flower in September. Ivy nectar is very good quality with 49% sugar and is popular with a wide range of late flying insects. When the ivy is in the sun you can actually hear it humming from a distance away, such is the number of visiting bees, wasps and flies. The Ivy Bee is an ivy specialist that times its emergence to coincide with the ivy flowering and there are currently thousands of them working the hedgerows in the meadows:

Ivy Bee – such a glamorous bee I always think
Red Admiral on Ivy

We also have a young hedgerow that was planted in January 2020. It has had a bad start in life – after battling the drought of summer 2020, unfortunately it has become completely swamped by the surrounding lush vegetation during this wet summer. We are cross with ourselves for not acting sooner and there have been quite a few losses along its length, but on the whole it is just about hanging on in there. The tractor has now been run along either side to properly reveal it and we are weeding between the saplings.

We are going to apply a bark mulch this autumn to act as both a weed suppressant and moisture retainer which will give the new hedgerow a helping hand through next summer.

Whilst we were weeding this fledgling hedgerow, we found a very large and beautiful spider and brought her back to have a proper look. She is a European Garden Spider (Araneus diadematus), an orb web spider with a distinctive white cross on her back. These are centimetre squares to give you an idea of her size – she was big:

We returned her to the hedgerow where we found her.

There is bad news – the tractor has broken down! We think the belts driving the cutting deck have burnt out. Unfortunately the earliest it can go off to be repaired is the end of September meaning that this beautiful weather is going to waste whilst most of the second meadow remains uncut. We now have to hope for a dry October.

But in the meantime we are getting on with other jobs. We cut this small section of the first meadow very short with the lawn mower…

…and sowed some meadow flower seed. I now see that the EM6F mixture for chalky soils that I have used in the past has got wild parsnip seeds in it. That plant is a thug and persona non grata here these days and so I went for EM2F instead which still contains a variety of lovely plants but without the parsnip.

In a different section, also cut very short, I have laid some Lesser Knapweed seed heads that were harvested from an area where they were growing strongly. Hopefully, in this way, we get seeds for free:

One morning I found an old rusty battery up on the strip and wondered how it had arrived. But then I looked at the photos on the trail camera:

Magpie with AA battery

Dunking the battery in the water

There is folklore around Magpies collecting shiny things but, on doing a quick search on the internet now, I see that this has largely been debunked by scientific studies. So what is going on with this battery then?

This Magpie below had some sort of stick in its beak:

Then it dangled the stick down in its foot:

I am not sure what is going on here either
A fascinating and most handsome bird

The Bird Ringer came and spent a peaceful morning here with his nets, catching and ringing a selection of warblers on their way south.

Chiffchaff

The birds tend to come through in waves and, as usual this year, the Willow Warblers were ahead of the Chiffchaffs and have already mostly gone. The Chiffchaff wave is just beginning. These two species of birds look similar and I use the fact that Chiffchaffs have dark legs and Willow Warblers have pale ones to help tell them apart. However, apparently this is not true in all instances.

One way to categorically distinguish between them is to look at their primary wing feathers:

On a Chiffchaff wing, counting the little short feather at the front as number 1 and working backwards, there are six feathers that do not have any feather to the left of the shaft as you reach their tip. The technical term is immargination, or lacking a margin. Chiffchaffs have six feathers that are immarginated at the tips and Willow Warblers have but five. This distinction is probably only of relevance to ringers, though, and wouldn’t be any help whatsoever when viewing through a pair of binoculars.

This young Blackcap was a very feisty little bird. His cap has only recently turned black and the remnants of the brown head that he would have had as a juvenile can still be seen just above his beak.

He also had captivating white lower eyelash feathers:

Some other photos from this week:

We have had another racing pigeon with us these last few days and it is still here
Now that the meadows are getting cut, we are seeing a lot more of the Kestrels. No doubt they need the grass short to see their voles
In the autumn the badgers do a lot of bedding gathering to prepare their setts for the winter
This beautifully marked lizard was sun bathing on an ant hill. It has flattened its tummy to show as much surface area as possible to the sun
A fox in tip top condition
A rabbit with a lump on its cheek in the wood

In my university days back in the early 80s, I remember that slow cookers, house plants and rumtopfs were really popular amongst us students. Houseplants are now triumphantly back in fashion in this new century, but slow cookers and rumtopfs still languish in relative obscurity.

Although I liked the idea of a rumtopf, I’m not sure I ever actually used it back then so I decided it was time to finally give it a go this year.

As different fruits are harvested through the summer, you cut them into bite sized pieces and layer them into the rumtopf with a sprinkling of sugar. I have used our own orchard fruits but I have also added pineapple and nectarines to see how they fare too. With every added layer, rum is poured in so that the fruit is just covered. Then, by Christmas, it should all be nicely matured and you can start eating it – the recipe I read suggested you spoon it over ice cream although perhaps it would also go well with rice pudding for some winter comfort.

I have also taken advantage of what the hedgerow has to offer and made a 2021 vintage sloe gin. Just one day old and already the colour has started to infuse into the gin:

We shall look forward to drinking this in a year’s time.

Cutting Hay While the Sun Shines

Last weekend we spent two nights in a woodland cabin in Norfolk, close to the wild and lovely Yare river that heads east from Norwich and enters the sea near Great Yarmouth.

It was so restful to tip back in those comfortable chairs on the deck of the cabin and contemplate the sky through the rustling treetops. We have resolved to try to reproduce this in a small way in our own wood back home and I have ordered two similar chairs to facilitate this.

One of our favourite reserves, the Ted Ellis reserve at Wheaten Fen, is on the banks of the Yare:

Although now into September, the reserve was still thronging with invertebrate life.

Black-and-yellow Longhorn Beetle
Black-tailed Skimmer
Willow Emerald Damselfly- a recent colonist of the UK with its population centred around Suffolk
There was quite a lot of this beautiful plant on the reserve. On further investigation, however, I see that it is Orange Balsam. Like its cousin Himalayan Balsam, it is unfortunately an invasive species spreading its seeds along the British waterways

I love the round tower churches of East Anglia and I understand from the Round Tower Churches Society that one hundred and eighty of them still survive there.

The Church of St Peter and St Paul at Burgh Castle
The round tower Church of St. Edmund at Fritton – and this church is thatched as well

One of the loveliest gravestones I have ever seen was in the graveyard of this church in Fritton:

Carved by the Norfolk stonemason Teucer Wilson, it marks the grave of a woman who loved nature. Bird ringers, whom she called ‘the bird boys’, visited her land for many years to ring the Swallows and Barn Owls that shared her home with her.
There was a large flock of Goldfinch eating thistle seeds at Charlton Marshes, a Suffolk Wildlife Trust reserve near Lowestoft

Now that we are back from Norfolk, we urgently need to get going with the annual cutting and clearing away of the meadows before autumn progresses much further. The plants and grasses have to be dry so that they don’t stick to the tractor – but is there going to be a sufficiently favourable weather window to get all this work done? I certainly hope so.

Working away at the first meadow. This meadow is half the size of the second one which is yet to be started.

We call it the tractor but it is really a powerful sit-on lawn mower with an ability to collect up the cuttings – a very important aspect of managing flower meadows. It is easily capable of cutting the meadows but it is never a speedy job. This year we are composting a few loads of the meadow cuttings to make a mulch for the garden. This is an experiment and I worry that it will have just too many seeds that will then germinate in the flower beds once the mulch has been applied.

A pair of breeding Magpies will hold a territory of about twelve acres all year round. But the number of breeding territories is a limiting factor meaning that twenty-five to sixty percent of Magpies do not breed because they don’t have a territory. These non-breeding birds form a flock with a home range of about fifty acres and perhaps this is one such flock that we saw in the meadows this week:

A flock of eight Magpies

Here in the meadows this summer we did have an active Magpie nest in a copse of trees and young were successfully fledged:

Collecting mud for the nest in March
A fledgling Magpie begging for food back in July
Feeding young on the gate in July

These young birds stay in their parents territory until September or October when they go off and join the non-breeding flock which feed and roost together. A high percentage of the young birds fail to make it through their first winter but, if they do survive, then they are likely to live for about three years.

Until the mid 19th century, Magpies were very common in Britain and they were popular with the farmers because they ate the insects and rodents that harmed the crop.

Photo from last month

But from then until the First World War, heavy persecution from gamekeepers caused their population to plummet. Since the second World War, though, numbers have increased and in fact trebled from 1970 to 1990, helped by the birds moving more into urban areas away from persecution and where there is plenty of food. The population has been relatively stable since 1990 suggesting that they have now reached their ecological equilibrium.

I have found it helpful researching and understanding these birds a bit more because I am not very fond of Magpies. They strut around like sixth form prefects with all the power gone to their heads and they just seem to be too successful here. Their biggest crime in my eyes is the way they predate songbird eggs and nestlings. However, the BTO analysed thirty-five years of its bird monitoring records and found that songbird numbers were no different in places where there were lots of Magpies to where there were few. Availability of food and suitable nesting sites are probably the main factors limiting songbird populations rather than the density of their predators.

A photo from last year with an adult bird in a Magpie’s beak

Actually they are indisputably beautiful birds:

Here is a Magpie with a Hawthorn berry. I am always interested to see which berries get eaten quickly and which are less popular – Hawthorn berries invariably go first. Sloes on the Blackthorn bushes seem to hang around until last, often lasting right through to the next spring.

We have planted a lot of Guelder Rose trees in the meadows because we had noticed elsewhere that the berries were very popular with all sorts of winter thrushes and, excitingly, Waxwings. The Guelder Roses in the meadows are now laden with a heavy crop of berries this autumn, ready for the thrushes’ arrival in the country shortly. We are yet to see a Waxwing here but perhaps this year will be the one.

Ready for the Waxwings!

In the meadows, there are three of these log structures built for beetles. The logs have been dug deep into the ground and are in the shade so that they don’t dry out and we hope that beetle larvae will now be living on the rotting underground wood:

This week the badgers provided us with a bit of evidence that this might indeed be the case by excavating around the base of the stack, presumably to get at the beetle grubs:

Badger diggings in amongst the logs

Spurred on by this apparent success, we plan to bring back additional logs from the wood this autumn and build a few more of these stacks.

Some other photos from the meadows this week:

I like to think that this is the Herring Gull fledgling of the pair of birds that have made the meadows their home, the female of which is colour-ringed. If my theory is correct, the adult bird here must be its father rather than its mother
And here is the youngster having an argument with a Magpie
Sparrowhawk at the hide pond. Look at those powerful feet
Sparrowhawk on the gate
Young Kestrel on the perch.
The farmer was harrowing the field next door and the sky became filled with Black-headed Gulls
Common Darter
A small caterpillar shelters amongst the spines of a Teasel head….
…it is the caterpillar of the Double-striped Pug moth
Wall Butterfly basking in the sun
An adult Box Bug

Over in the wood, a Tawny Owl has been visiting the shallow bath on a few nights recently:

It has also been perching up by one of the Tawny Owl nest boxes, although sadly showing no apparent interest in the box itself:

No, not a vulture! This Blackbird is moulting its neck feathers and looking most strange
Two juvenile Bullfinch

I finish with the breaking news that the last two days since our return from Norfolk have been hot and dry and the first meadow is now almost finished. A few areas are left uncut each year on a rotational basis:

Now, on with the second one before this weather breaks!