Visiting Wildwood

This week we visited the Wildwood Trust near Canterbury. Here you can see British native animals, both past and present, and the Trust is also heavily involved in conservation and rewilding projects. For us it was a chance to get a really good close look at some of the animals that we have only seen fleeting glimpses of in the wild.

We had Red Deer in the wood last year but we only saw them on trail cameras:

We have had quite a few long distance sightings of Short Eared Owl in the meadows over the years:

Sadly we have never seen a Barn Owl in the meadows or the wood. Hopefully one day:

A few months ago we visited West Blean Woods here in East Kent where Kent Wildlife Trust are going to be releasing Bison as part of a rewilding scheme next year. The hump on their back seems especially prominent when they are lying down:

Four young Red-billed Choughs that hatched at Wildwood earlier this year have now been transferred to an aviary at Dover Castle, as a stepping stone to the release of this species onto Dover Cliffs in due course. Choughs used to live on the white cliffs of Dover but went extinct in SE England two hundred years ago as a result of changes in farming practices. Several cliff-side farms to the north of Dover have been bought up and managed by the National Trust for a few years now and suitable Chough habitat has been restored. It will be so wonderful to have them back.

The ongoing rewilding project at Alladale in Scotland has plans to one day release Wolves into the wild but that is still a dream rather than a reality and there is much discussion and unease about it. A small pack of Wolves can be seen at Wildwood:

Brown Bear were native to Britain until they were hunted to extinction about a thousand years ago. The Wild Place Project near Bristol now has Brown Bear and Wolves living together in seven acres of woodland and it is hoped that this experiment will further the debate on the rewilding of these animals. Of course the introduction of the apex predator tends to grab the headlines, but it is the background habitat restoration, necessary to create conditions in which that predator can survive, that is the real benefit.

The two Brown Bears at Wildwood were rescued from Bulgaria. Happily, the enclosure they now live in is so large and lovely that we only got very distant views of them:

Wildwood also has Lynx, our largest native cat that was lost here about five hundred years ago due to habitat loss, hunting and persecution. A campaign called Lynx To Scotland has been running to assess public opinion and an application for a licence to release Lynx, possibly into the Cairngorms, might follow in time.

We had been meaning to visit Wildwood for a long time and are pleased that we now have. It felt like much money could be spent on improving the infrastructure and signage there but I am sure that they also need those funds for their conservation and restoration work. Its been a very difficult couple of years for zoos.

Back in the meadows, just as the first streaks of light appear in the sky and long before the sun pokes her head above the horizon, a Robin comes in for a drink:

Robins have large eyes which means that their pupils can open wide and gather sufficient light to see at low light levels. They are among the earliest birds to start singing in the morning when, with less background noise and still air, their song carries up to twenty times further than it would later in the day. But they are not guaranteed to be safe from predators at that time of the day because we often see Sparrowhawks hunting in very low light:

Sparrowhawk eating a Blue Tit way before dawn last winter
The sad aftermath of a Sparrowhawk kill this week

Also active in the dark is the Garden Spider who we have been observing recently to see what she gets up to. She caught a moth one night and had it wrapped up tight by the time we passed by in the morning:

Later that same day, she was eating a wasp at the edge of the web:

There then followed a period of strong winds during which her web was completely destroyed. But, once the winds had dropped, the web was reconstructed overnight and reopened for business by the morning.

The new web, rebuilt over one night.

At the moment there are four Badgers and four Foxes that are regulars at the nightly peanuts. Here are all of the Foxes in attendance..

..and here are all the Badgers:

The Badgers are working away at getting the reeds underground as winter bedding. We pulled these reeds from the pond and then left them out for the Badgers:

The Kestrels continue to enjoy the cut meadows and we have been seeing a lot of them:

Not long after arriving here, we planted several Corsican and Scots Pine trees because they do well in these exposed coastal conditions. They are now growing away strongly and, at this time of year, each one is surrounded by rings of these Bovine Boletes (Suillus bovinus):

This ectomycorrhizal fungus is found in conifer woods and plantations across Europe, where it lives in symbiotic association with the trees. The trees’ roots are enveloped in sheaths of fungal tissue and the fungus helps the plant take water and minerals out of the soil. In return, the plant provides the fungus with carbohydrates that it has manufactured by photosynthesising the light.

The fungal fruiting bodies are very distinctive with their honeycomb undersides.

The fungus is mild and edible but not highly regarded by humans. However, slugs seem to love them:

I am generally not a fan of fuchsia and orange together but I do think that these Spindle berries get away with it:

The orange berries in the Stinking Iris pods are about to burst forth. This is our native Iris and there is a lot of it both in the meadows and the wood:

Two years ago, just over a hundred Slow Worms were rehomed here from land nearby that was to be developed. Since then, an ecologist has been regularly visiting the meadows to check on their welfare. This autumn he was hoping to see neonate, or newly born, Slow Worms as evidence that the population is now happily settled and breeding. Females incubate their eggs internally and give birth to live young in the late summer but we had never seen a neonate Slow Worm before. But we finally saw one this week under a sampling square, top left in this photo with the adults to give it scale:

We also found this tiny Toad under a sampling square. It was only about 3cm long and is the first Toad we have seen here this year:

This very small day-flying micro moth is probably the Diamond-backed Moth (Plutella xylostella)

A beautiful Comma butterfly bathing in the October sunshine:

A dramatic cloudscape out to sea:

We visited the wood this week and decided to do the annual clear out of this year’s old nests from the small nestboxes. However, five of the nest boxes in the regeneration area had Dormouse nests in them, so we left them well alone:

One Dormouse popped its head up – what an absolute sweetie

We bought thirty Dormice nest boxes last winter but haven’t put them up yet – our plans for the wood to become an official Dormouse monitoring site have been delayed because of Covid. But, with so many of the bird boxes being used by Dormice, I feel that I should now seek expert advice as to how best to proceed.

Also in the wood, a Buzzard comes in for a bath:

A Sparrowhawk takes a bath in the same pond:

I finish today with Grey Squirrels. Although the awful damage that Grey Squirrels do to the Beech trees do not endear them to me, there is something about them that is quite lovable. At this time of year, a lot of the mossy tree stumps in the wood are adorned with the outer casings of Sweet Chestnuts:

Most of these stumps are an awfully long way away from a Sweet Chestnut tree – the Squirrels are carrying the spiky nuts a considerable distance to then perch on the stumps to eat them:

Both these Squirrels and the Dormice will be be preparing for the coming winter, and the weather is already turning decidedly chilly. This will be our third winter in the wood and we are looking forward to commencing this year’s coppicing soon.

Mad Dash to The Finish

The tractor has been been repaired, serviced and returned and now the race is on to get the four acre second meadow cut whilst the weather still holds. But by this point in the year the field is generally too wet with dew to be harvested in the mornings without clogging the tractor, and it is only after lunch that work can commence.

The annual cut is vital to the health of a flower meadow but there is no doubt that it can be a catastrophic event for many of the small animals that are sheltering in amongst the tall vegetation.

A pair of Kestrels have been perched up watching the proceedings with rapt attention, hoping to spot any rodents that have become exposed by the cutting process:

Kestrel perched on the top of the hay pile

Kestrels need to eat between four to eight voles a day, depending on the time of year and how much energy-consuming hovering they have to do. Here is the female with a vole, as viewed from the tractor:

The Kestrels have also been turning up on the trail cameras. The female has got a bumblebee in her left claw here which is a new and interesting bit of information for me:

And this is the male:

You get to see a lot of wildlife whilst driving the tractor up and down the meadow for many hours. The resident corvids here tolerate Kestrels and Sparrowhawks but any other raptor is swiftly escorted off property. A Buzzard flew in close, hotly pursued by two Crows:

A flock of Goldfinch came down to eat Knapweed seeds. Sections of the meadow are left uncut every year on a rotational basis and we always try to leave some Knapweed areas for the birds.

The small flock of Goldfinch also appeared on a trail camera:

A very large frog was uncovered and rescued. What a monster this one was:

The male Herring Gull and his offspring were photographed from the tractor. I wonder how long this young bird will stay with its parent while it learns the ropes?

The pair have appeared many times on the trail cameras this week:

In fact they are waiting for us every morning as we walk up to scatter seed at the cages. But it has been some time now since the colour-ringed female gull has been seen.

On Sunday morning Swallows and House Martins were swooping over the meadows, readying themselves for their migration south. But we also saw flocks of Starling flying in off the sea and these are arriving rather than leaving. I went out with my big camera to see if I could photograph all this bird movement but instead spotted a Grey Heron down at the wild pond.

Our British Grey Herons are mostly resident throughout the year but they are joined for the winter by herons from the colder parts of Europe. These birds arrive on the east coast of Britain in the autumn and my guess is that this is a migrating bird hoping to feed up on our frogs after a long journey.

I was fifty metres away but still the heron didn’t like me pointing my big lens in its direction:

I have had another go at pulling reeds out of the wild pond. The water is much deeper now than when I last did this two or three weeks ago:

Progress has been made but we are not done yet

I will leave the pulled reeds close to the pond for a day for any displaced animals to make it back into the water. The reeds will then be stacked near the badger sett for the badgers to take as bedding – they love these reeds

All the reeds that were pulled last time have already been dragged underground

This grassy area near the tree copses only ever has sparse vegetation with patches of bare earth showing:

A lot of insect holes and fresh diggings have appeared here:

I waited to see what was coming in and out of these holes and found that it was an Ivy Bee colony. These bees were discovered as new to science as recently as 1993 but, since then, have been recorded over much of Europe. They were first seen in the UK in 2001 in Dorset and have spread quickly, now being found throughout southern Britain. Being new arrivals, they are here before any of their specific predators (such as the Ivy Bee Blister beetle, which has got to the Channel Islands but not yet onto mainland Britain) and this has probably allowed them to colonise so rapidly. I couldn’t find any reference to them harming any of our native species and it seems that these late-flying, Ivy-loving bees have slotted into a niche that was generally otherwise unoccupied.

These bees do like to nest in colonies but they are solitary bees meaning that each bee has her own nest hole. The hole can be a foot deep with up to eighteen brood chambers that are lined with her protective and waterproof saliva and each provisioned with pollen, onto which she lays a single egg. The egg hatches into a larva that feeds off the pollen and then pupates, the adult not emerging until next autumn.

A late Southern Hawker Dragonfly resting up in the weak October sunshine. This is a male and I love his spotty blue eyes:

This photo was taken by my sister-in-law of a very showy caterpillar that she found on her post box this week. It is the caterpillar of the Pale Tussock Moth and, although I often catch the adult moths in my trap, I have never seen the caterpillar before. What is the purpose of that red tail tuft? This is a fully grown caterpillar that has finished feeding up and is now wandering around looking for somewhere to pupate over winter:

What an amazing looking thing.

Here we are, it’s now Monday afternoon and the tractor has done its job and the meadow is finally declared cut. The harvest is over for another year and not a moment too soon since the weather is forecast to be deteriorating later on today.

The second meadow is now finished
Only a third of this area between the new hedgerow and the eastern boundary gets cut every year as part of the plan to manage this area for reptiles

Over in the wood, we have been hacking back dogwood to keep open a clearing that was becoming overgrown. A trail camera captured the work in progress:

We have now installed a cheap but cheerful picnic table at the edge of the clearing and we can imagine ourselves sitting there next summer with a cup of tea, possibly some cake as well, and surrounded by woodland butterflies:

Other photos from the wood this week:

Beautiful Buzzard
Sparrowhawk
Surely the same Sparrowhawk but on a different camera
Fox carrying Squirrel
Fox carrying Rabbit
A sweet little Wood Mouse

I finish with this morning’s sunrise over the sea. What an uplifting way to start the day:

Rain, Rain, Sunshine, Rain

Things were very changeable at the beginning of this week with plenty of gusty wind and sudden intense bouts of rain. The sort of weather that could trick the unwary into skipping off coatless around the meadows, bathed in sunshine and blue skies, only to find themselves soaked to the skin before they were halfway round. So, yes, that happened to me twice. The ponds are pretty much filled to winter levels:

Many of the trail cameras in more exposed positions have now got water on the lens and it then takes several days for them to dry out and start taking clear photos again. As a result, half our fleet of cameras has been out of action for most of the week:

The lens is that top circle that is fogged with water droplets on the inside

The cameras struggle with condensation like this for much of the winter and so we are going to experiment with ways to give them some protection from the worst of the weather. Perhaps build an outer casing around those most affected? Or maybe we buy more expensive cameras for these very exposed locations?

One morning we were out photographing water drops dangling off the Hawthorn berries….

…when we saw a Spotted Flycatcher doing its distinctive aerial loops to hunt down flies. We only see these birds on migration:

Thankfully the weather improved in the second half of the week, good enough for the Bird Ringers to come one morning and catch sixty-four birds, mainly migrating Chiffchaffs and Blackcaps. The highlight, however, was this young Redstart:

The two central tail feathers are brown rather than red

They caught a Song Thrush, also born this year:

This young Wren looks a bit of a mess because it hasn’t yet got its adult feathers through:

On another sunny day, we had a grand day out to the Dungeness RSPB reserve, an hour down the coast:

The Dungeness nuclear power station as viewed across one of the reserve’s lakes

The reserve is still not fully back up and running and only three of the hides were open, although they have built a couple of additional viewing platforms for these Covid times. We were pleased to see this male Ruff:

Male Ruff in front of a monster Great Black-backed Gull

In the breeding season, male Ruffs have a collar (or ruff) of long neck feathers that they use to impress the females. One day I would love to see this display but it would need careful planning since, in the UK, Ruffs only breed in a few places in East Anglia.

By Arjan Haverkamp – originally posted to Flickr as 2009-05-22-14h06m00.IMG_9725l, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9141547

Back in the meadows, this is the male of our pair of Herring Gulls. Now that he is in his winter plumage, his head is flecked with grey rather than being brilliant white:

Jay drying off after a bath
Kestrel hunting for rodents from the perch
Sparrowhawk hunting for birds from the gate

This is a lovely portrait of the One-eyed Vixen, with her blue left eye. This fox has been with us through two summers now, raising a litter of cubs both years, and I have successfully treated her for mange twice. I feel a very personal connection with her, although she reciprocates with a healthy wariness of me and always keeps her distance.

This is a screen shot from a video of a fox carrying prey. The prey seems to be both squirrel-sized and shaped but with a furless tail with a white pom pom at the end. I have no idea what this can be:

In the sunshine of the second half of the week, we had a chance to enjoy the insect life around the meadows before it all disappears from sight for the winter:

Peacock Butterfly in such beautiful condition that you can observe all the wonderful details
Red Admiral. I always particularly like the two unexpected turquoise bars at the back
Small Copper
Ivy Bee on an Ivy flower with a leg loaded with pollen

We have been following the fortunes of a large European Garden Spider that has spun its web in a Hawthorn, about four feet off the ground. Today it had caught a woodlouse and was in the process of consuming it. How did a woodlouse get into the centre of the web, or did the spider go off and get it?

We have had the Almar at anchor alongside us for quite a few days. She is nearly 200m long and has sailed from India bringing 7,000 tonnes of steel destined for a company in Canterbury. Sourcing steel has apparently been a big problem during the Covid epidemic and her arrival was eagerly anticipated:

As we went through Dover on our way to Dungeness, we saw her in port:

The Port of Dover issued a press release about her because she is by far the largest ship to have used the new cargo facility there since it opened in December 2019.

On another calm, still day, we saw another migrant boat come in below us and this time it arrived on its own, unescorted by Border Force vessels. I can see a little boy sitting up at the front. The BBC website reports that this weekend more than 1,100 people crossed the channel like this and arrived in Britain.

We have been working hard in the wood. In the regenerating area there is a clearing that is covered in marjoram. This native plant is loved by pollinators, and it is here we saw the Silver-washed Fritillary Butterflies this year, gracefully gliding from plant to plant. But the glade was becoming heavily overgrown with dogwood which was starting to shade out all that lovely marjoram and so we knew we had to take action. It has been very good cardio exercise – we have now had three sessions of cutting down and clearing away the dogwood and it is really pleasing how much we have achieved. But light rain had started to fall once more for yesterday’s session and again I got very damp because I had not brought a coat.

I think this is going to look great next summer. The hope is that there will be a carpet of marjoram heaving with woodland pollinators and alive with butterflies and all this effort will have been worthwhile.

Missing from the Meadows

As a rule our bird feeders do brisk business but, at this time of year, they are like ghost ships on a becalmed sea.

Up until recently the large capacity feeder at the hide pond was having to be refilled every few days. At the moment, though, the seed level is hardly going down at all. Although there wouldn’t be birds on the feeder whatever the time of year when a Sparrowhawk is at the pond

Seed-eating birds are missing from the meadows and the wood because they are off hoovering up grain in the fields after harvest and it is lovely that, for a few weeks at least, the land is amply providing for them. A badger latrine near the sett in the wood supports my point- this badger has surely been off foraging in the agricultural fields all night:

Sorry to be introducing badger dung so early in the post

The Hazel coppices in the wood are covered in these silvery blisters. These are the leaf mines of the Nut-leaf Blister Moth (Phyllonorycter coryli).

The moth larva lives and then pupates within the safety of the blister, eventually emerging as an adult micro moth.

The adult Nut-leaf Blister Moth. Photo from Naturespot.org.uk

A Tawny Owl was photographed on three separate woodland cameras this week:

Lots of birds use this branch to perch on in the Beech grove:

Great Spotted Woodpecker

This squirrel made some sort of miscalculation and ended up getting wet feet:

One morning this week we went down for a swim at the local beach below the meadows with a visiting son. There were some people going out foil surfing – I hadn’t heard of this water sport before:

The board has an attached hydrofoil underneath it and the sail is held in the hand.
The idea is to get the board to lift up onto its hydrofoil which hasn’t happened in this photo yet – possibly it wasn’t windy enough

There was also a yoga lesson going on down there:

This large and amazing caterpillar was spotted in one of the beachside gardens:

The Privet Hawk-moth caterpillar. What is the purpose of that black, hooked tail?

What immediately sprang to my mind was that the caterpillar is in the colours of the Suffragettes:

Suffragette hunger strike medal and badge in the British Museum using the same colours as the Privet Hawk-moth caterpillar

The Privet Hawk-moth is the UK’s largest Hawk-moth and one that I often catch in the moth trap up in the meadows:

Two Privet Hawk-moths with their pink and black-striped abdomen. Also two pink and green Elephant Hawk-moths and an Eyed Hawk-moth. Photo from July 2020

The caterpillar will be feeding up on various plants including wild and garden Privet from July to September, at which point it will burrow more than 30cm underground to pupate and spend the winter. Perhaps it will use that black tail spike to dig its way underground?

The tractor has gone off in disgrace to be serviced and repaired and will be missing from the meadows for a couple of weeks. Here it is being picked up in front of the enormous pile of hay that it has already harvested from the first meadow. The much bigger second meadow is largely yet to be cut and so I hope that the tractor will be back soon and we can find a weather window to continue the job.

The hay will gradually be taken away over the next year with the household green waste collections. Currently, however, these have been suspended since the beginning of August because of a shortage of HGV drivers and the hay pile remains as large as ever.

Our hopes for reasonable October weather in order to be able to get on with the harvesting have been somewhat dampened after this last wild and stormy week. One night the wind was so strong that the stringing mechanism in the flag pole snapped and we found the flag in a sodden heap on the ground.

The flag has come in to get dry, and working out how to restring the flagpole has now been added to our list of jobs. It has been very autumnal out there but we haven’t yet felt the need to turn that Aga on

Last week I was getting on with another autumn job of pulling reeds out of the wild pond:

After leaving the pulled reeds by the side of the pond for a day so that any displaced animals can crawl back into the water, I put a pile of the reeds close to the badger sett.

Even though the reeds are uncomfortably coarse and still dampish, the badgers can’t resist them. There is also a pile of soft, dry hay nearby that they have left untouched:

Dragging the reeds back to their burrow as bedding

Much progress has been made on the project of revealing the young hedgerow from surrounding vegetation and laying bark chips down to stop moisture loss and discourage weed growth next summer:

We have quite a lot of this wool insulating packaging that arrives with food deliveries, stored up in the attic and awaiting inspiration on the best way to reuse it. We probably have twenty metres in all and realised that it would be good under the bark as additional mulching material.

Covering the wool with bark chips

It is so enjoyable to see Kestrels back hunting in the meadows where the vegetation is now short. They sit and look for rodents from the perches where possible because it uses less energy than hovering:

This next photo has got some rain on the lens but I like the very British queuing system to use the bath. Kestrel, Magpie and then Herring Gull.

Magpie springing from the bath

The way the gang of Magpies are surrounding and staring at this juvenile Herring Gull feels a bit sinister:

Crows are great big birds, yet it seems that they are still interested in the tiniest of millet seeds:

We found another interesting caterpillar this week – this time the larva of the Muslin Moth:

Muslin Moths are regulars in the moth trap here. They are lovely moths with their furry boleros. This is a male and the females are white:

Naturespot.org.uk

Squirrels are always largely missing from the meadows but there is a mature Walnut tree in our neighbour’s garden and this autumn this animal has been scampering around burying their nuts in our lawn:

I watched the squirrel bury a walnut, which was large because it was still in its protective green outer casing. There was a lot of digging and subsequent covering up and the whole thing took quite a long time. I hope it remembers where it put it because we don’t want a Walnut tree growing in the lawn.

Although we didn’t find any Wasp Spider webs in the long grasses of the meadows during the summer, this week we found a forlorn Wasp Spider cocoon being buffeted around by the wind in a vulnerable place on a short grass path:

A Wasp Spider cocoon, attached to a leaf by some sticky black threads

We only recognised what it was because we found some in good condition safely secured to long grasses last winter:

This is how a Wasp Spider cocoon should look. Photo from December 2020

We relocated the cocoon to within some long grass that won’t get cut this year, even if we do manage to get round to some more harvesting. Hopefully it can now survive through the coming winter and release its spiderlings next spring.

Next summer we will search the area where we relocated the cocoon to see if we can see some of these spiders and get that warm feeling that our rescue mission was successful. Photo from August 2020

This was a glorious sight when I pulled back the curtains one morning this week

Today’s weather is forecast to be awful this afternoon with winds of nearly 60mph for several hours and heavy rain. However, the day has started so peacefully with no hint of what is to come. The Herring Gulls are rising up from their overnight roosts on the sea and flying inland over our heads to their feeding grounds to start their day, calling to each other as they go. Very atmospheric:

The sun just poking her head above the horizon this morning

We do see magnificent sunrises from the meadows when the conditions are right and, now that the days are getting shorter, we are more likely to be awake to see them.