The Narrow Straits of Dover

The village of St Margarets lies just to the south of here, where the English Channel is at its narrowest and the chalk cliffs rise dizzyingly high.

The Dover Patrol Memorial standing proud on the cliffs north of St Margarets Bay. It was built to commemorate the two thousand men of the Dover Patrol who lost their lives in the Channel during World War I
The South Foreland Lighthouse is just south of St Margarets. Surprisingly, there is a newly planted vineyard up here now in what is surely a very exposed position

This area was called ‘Hellfire Corner’ in World War II and still bristles with the remains of fortifications from back then.

Photo of an information board up on the cliffs. The guns Winnie, Pooh, Clem and Jane were all situated in the South Foreland area and were removed after the war, although evidence of them remains

We stumbled upon two fortifications that we had never seen before when we took the dog for a walk up there this week:

This was the Fortress Plotting Room for all the gun batteries north of Dover, although it has now been partly filled in and grilled for safety. These days it is a winter bat roost and I know that Kent Bat Group gets round all the roosts that they are aware of every winter to check on number and species of the hibernating bats. Perhaps they have no access to this one though. In January this year, the group hit the national headlines when they found a Greater Horseshoe Bat roosting in the bowels of Dover Castle, the first such sighting for a hundred years.

Nearby was a second structure, built as a deep shelter:

This shelter had one hundred and twenty five steps down to a space that would be safe even in the worst of attacks. Apparently civilians were welcome to use this shelter as well, although it is a fair old walk up from the village. I suspect that most of St Margarets was evacuated of civilians anyway during the war.

Eighty years on now and the narrowness of the Straits of Dover once again mean that this part of the country is on the forefront of another crisis. More than 24,700 desperate migrants have risked their lives packed onto flimsy boats and crossed the Channel so far this year, already three times more than last year. We witnessed a boat arriving this week:

The overloaded migrant boat is on the left. A Border Force rib is on the right and the BF Hurricane is speeding in. I hadn’t seen this boat before but she seems to be specialised for these situations

The BF Hurricane had presumably already just rescued people from another boat because she was towing an empty rib on her port side. The people from that previous boat were now on an RNLI boat, making its way back to Dover:

An RNLI boat, full of migrants at its bow, sprinting back to Dover
The BF Hurricane now comes alongside this second migrant inflatable dinghy
Offloading the people from the dinghy. I see that there is a portaloo on the stern for them – probably much needed too after all that time at sea

A few days after we watched this boat being safely intercepted, there has been a terrible tragedy and one of these woefully inadequate vessels has sunk off Calais, heavily overloaded with its precious human cargo. At least twenty-seven lives have been lost, every one of them someone’s son or daughter. Hopefully now Britain and France will work positively together to come up with a solution to this heartbreaking problem.

In the meadows, it has been cold with bitter northerly winds and abrupt showers:

Preparations for winter are well under way at the Badger sett. A large volume of pond reed has been taken off underground as bedding:

In the garden, all these leaves came off one tree over the course of a few hours. So, there’s a job for us:

We usually make leaf mould with the fallen leaves by bundling them up and putting them into crates in the meadows. A couple of years of inattention, however, and the whole structure has practically disappeared behind a vicious bramble patch. So, that’s another job:

A lovely Yew grows in the garden, covered in berries at this time of year that are much loved by Blackbirds and Thrushes:

As Blackbirds start to gather around the tree, I think the fun is just about to begin. This is made all the more enjoyable for us because we can view it all from the comfort of our kitchen:

This photo is from this time last year when the Yew was stripped of its berries in no time at all once the birds got going. They only start on these Yew berries once the Hawthorn berries are all gone from the meadows

Growing in the lawn are a few beautiful Amethyst Deceiver toadstools. I can’t help but notice that there is not actually much grass in our lawn:

Green Woodpeckers have been keeping a low profile in the meadows recently and this was the first summer that I have not seen any speckled juveniles around. Good to see this female then:

Things have been generally very quiet on the trail cameras but one morning a male Sparrowhawk came in for a bath:

In the wood, we still have a camera strapped to a pole and looking along a horizontal branch. Over the months that it has been there, we have got some great shots from it:

Buzzard in the wood this week

Now that the Woodcock are back, I am always excited to see what this pond camera has to offer, because we often see them here:

Pheasants can apparently be very variable and this is a surprisingly dark female:

Grey Squirrels do so much damage in the wood but I cannot deny that they are also rather sweet:

One of our daughters moved to the lovely village of Wye in the North Downs this year. They were delighted to discover a healthy population of hedgehogs in their garden and have provided a safe place for them to hibernate in, should they so desire. The box has an internal wall to create a room within that is inaccessible to reaching paws. This week, prospective viewings have been taking place…

…but there was also a reminder of the perils these little creatures face every day:

What a fabulous trail camera photo

This Christmas Cactus always gets it wrong and flowers in November:

I now see this flowering as a herald of the start of the Christmas season. It’s getting wintry out there and, as my thoughts are turning to the upcoming festivities, I do so hope that all the wildlife is getting itself tucked up snugly until spring.

The Evergreen Oak

There are several majestic, evergreen Holm Oaks in the meadows, providing a windbreak from strong coastal winds for us and year-round shelter for birds and other animals.

These trees are native to the Mediterranean region but they do very well here in this exposed and often unforgiving coastal location, where many of our native species struggle. Only one of these trees has had a heavy crop of acorns this year but it has now been ransacked of this bounty by the Jays. We have seen three birds at one time so there is at least that number at work. Most of the acorns will, by now, be buried in the meadows, forming a stash of food to keep the birds provisioned throughout the ordeal of the winter to come:

Empty acorn cups

Jays apparently have a remarkable memory for where they have buried their acorns so that they can return. But there are always some that have not been eaten by spring that will then start to germinate. It may be that they were not needed or have been overlooked, but there is also new evidence to suggest that the Jays might actually be farming these seedlings.

Photo from October 2020. A Jay must have buried three Holm Oak acorns in this bag of topsoil the previous autumn and presumably forgotten about them

By the time they are sprouting upwards in the spring, a tap root will have formed underground to bring in food, and the tiny trees will no longer need the carbohydrates stored in the cotyledons of the acorn. Jays have been observed to half pull some of these seedlings up – far enough to get at these cotyledons that are now no longer required, but not enough to kill the fledgling tree. They then give these energy-packed cotyledons to their young. The Oaks feed the Jays and the Jays plant the trees’ seeds – I find this mutually beneficial relationship between the tree and the bird absolutely fascinating.

Perhaps a few acorns are still left on the trees – but not for much longer:

Jay with an acorn tucked between its feet
A year on and one of these small Holm Oaks, originally planted by Jays in the bag of topsoil, has now been replanted in the meadows. Here it will have the space to grow into an enormous tree for future generations of both Jays and humans to enjoy
A Holm Oak in our garden. We had this pollarded a few years ago which felt quite drastic at the time but it has now grown back to be this absolutely beautiful tree, which puts me in mind of an Olive tree. No acorns on it this year though

Six years ago we built a beetle stack by digging these logs deep into the ground, where they would slowly rot and provide habitat for beetle larvae:

By now, many of these logs are very soft and close to collapsing but the whole thing can be declared a complete success. Just from our occasional strolls past, we have noticed adult beetles emerging, a Wren spends a lot of time hunting for insects within the structure and this summer there was a bumblebee nest at the base. At the moment, there is quite a covering of Dead Man’s fingers:

The fungus Xylaria polymorpha, or Dead Man’s Fingers, growing in the soil around the rotting wood

We had hoped to encourage Stag Beetles with these log stacks, but have never seen one, or its smaller relative, the Lesser Stag Beetle, in the meadows.

The distribution of the majestic Stag Beetle in 2017 is shown in purple above and sadly I see that it no longer stretches to coastal East Kent. Stag Beetles lay their eggs in rotting wood under the ground. Image taken from the People’s Trust for Endangered Species website

Lesser Stag Beetles are similar but smaller and, unlike their Stag Beetles cousins, they lay their eggs into wood and tree stumps above ground. They are more common and have a wider range than the Stag Beetle but unfortunately are still not seen in the east coast of Kent:

So it looks like the three log stacks we have built in the meadows are unlikely to be benefiting either type of Stag Beetle anytime soon, but there are surely so many other invertebrates that have been happily using them instead. We are planning to build a few more of these structures this winter using timber that we will cut from the wood this coming coppicing season.

The other two, more recently constructed, beetle stacks in the shade of a Wild Cherry in the meadows

I was very pleased this week when the colour-ringed female Herring Gull X9LT made a fleeting appearance. She hasn’t been around for quite a while and I was getting worried:

She was ringed in January 2015 at Pitsea landfill site in Essex and, at that point, was assessed to be four years old or older but still with some juvenile plumage. This makes her approximately eleven years old now and I see that the average lifespan is twelve years although Herring Gulls have been known to live to thirty-two.

At this time of year, every sighting of a butterfly is precious because you don’t know if it is going to be the last one until next spring. Here is a glamorous Red Admiral this week – will this be the 2021 grand butterfly finale?

We have waded back in the wild pond and now most of the reeds have been pulled out, although leaving some as shelter for amphibians. It is pleasing to have finally got this job done:

This is a highly unusual sight for the meadows:

This sight, however, is not. This lovely little dog of ours has just had her eighth birthday but still remains very active, chasing helicopters and micro-lighters out of her airspace. Thankfully she has no interest whatsoever in killing the wildlife that she shares the meadows with, but she definitely loves to chase it given half a chance:

We had a large cargo ship, the Ocean Giant, at anchor alongside the meadows for perhaps as long as a week and it was beginning to feel like a new friend:

I wonder how the crew onboard amused themselves during all those days with nothing much going on. Did they learn to tie knots and scrub away at the decks, or am I in the wrong century?

We took the dog north along the coast for a walk at Sandwich Bay this week, and enjoyed the view back towards the town of Deal with the Ocean Giant still at anchor.

Stonechat at Sandwich Bay

While we were there, we called in at The Sandwich Bay Observatory Trust’s Restharrow scrape. This new scrape was finished in early 2020 just as Covid struck and so it didn’t actually open to visitors until the middle of this year and this was only our second ever visit. We were very pleased to see a group of nine Snipe there:

Three of the Snipe amongst some Teal

The Ocean Giant was on a voyage from Poland to Canada. Eventually, on Monday night, she raised her anchor in the dark and slipped silently away back into the shipping lane, heading west to Canada, and we are left none the wiser as to why she spent this week-long pause in her journey with us.

Over in the wood, we have had another session of clearing Dogwood from the area where we saw the Silver-washed Fritillary butterflies this year:

In the summer, this part of the wood is a fantastic carpet of Marjoram, but it was becoming very overgrown and shaded out by Dogwood. We have had fun clearing this quite large area and are now filled with eager anticipation to see how this will look next year

The Woodcock are arriving back in the wood for the winter:

I have seen this Fox on the cameras in the wood a couple of times now and feel instant affection for it because it looks so very much like the Old Gentleman from the meadows:

In winter, the wood is a good place to see the wonderfully named Dog Sick Slime Mould:

On a dull, mid-November day, what we need to buck us up is a little bit of colour. The best that the meadows can offer at this time of year are the berries of the native Stinking Iris, Iris foetidissima:

They are very colourful and might do the trick but perhaps these American Flamingos will do better? Our son and his girlfriend have launched themselves on a year-long world trip starting in Mexico and this week they visited the CelestĂșn Biosphere Reserve in the Yucatan region of Mexico.

The collective noun for Flamingos is a flamboyance which feels very appropriate.

I finish today with the moon. The moon shining on the sea forms an atmospheric background for this photo of our old friend the One-eyed Vixen:

As the moon rose this afternoon, I tried my best to capture something of its magic:

The full moon in November is called the Beaver Moon and we will look out for it tomorrow night.

Crossing Borders

Mid November and Swallows continue to be buffeted by strong winds over the meadows as they battle their way south to warmer climes. At the same time, fast, tight squadrons of Starlings shoot in off the sea at regular intervals. They do not linger but speed straight on through, drawn onwards to their destinations further inland – these seasonal visitors will join our resident Starlings and together they will murmurate in their thousands at dusk over our reedbeds throughout the winter.

We have tried, mostly unsuccessfully, to see the winter spectacle of the Starling murmurations many times. This was the best one seen to date – Otmoor RSPB reserve in Oxfordshire in December 2019

Also arriving into the country from the coniferous forests around the Baltic are these tiny little birds, a few of which were caught and ringed here this week. This is a female Goldcrest and if you gently blow on the feathers of her crest, you can see that they are all gold:

These petite little birds only weigh around 5g

This next bird is a male:

At first sight, he looks very similar but, when you blow on his crest feathers, you can see vibrant flame-orange feathers that lie mostly hidden within the crest:

The Bird Ringers also caught a female Firecrest, with a black stripe through her eye and the white stripe above:

Similar to the female Goldcrest, her crest is all yellow:

This is probably a Continental Blackbird, bigger and heavier that our resident birds and with a dark beak:

It is now known that the Blackcaps that are in the UK during the summer migrate south in the autumn, although they are replaced by other Blackcaps that arrive from colder parts of Europe to spend the winter here. Therefore, the Blackcap that was caught and ringed here this week could have been either leaving or arriving:

Meadow Pipits stay in this country all year:

The amazingly long hind claws on a Meadow Pipit, thought to help it to spring up quickly from the ground away from predators

Long-tailed Tits are also resident and a group of six flew in to the net this week:

Interestingly, eyelid colour in Long Tailed Tit can range from pale yellow, as here, to deep red. There is some scientific evidence that the colour can be a reflection of their mood:

The Bird Ringers use their ears as well as their eyes to tell them what birds are around, in a way that we are only very slowly learning to do. They told us that there were Fieldfare and Linnets in the hedgerow, Meadow Pipits in the field behind and a small flock of Siskin flying over. They also saw a Reed Bunting in the ant paddock which is a new species for the meadow list – number ninety.

The Jays have been busy all week stripping the Holm Oaks of their acorns:

Jay with acorn

The acorn is stripped down to the cotyledons and this one was eaten rather than buried:

Apparently a Jay can carry up to nine acorns at a time in its gullet but normally they carry two or three with one also in its bill:

A Jay carrying at least two acorns, captured by a trail camera. I am slightly confused why these acorns seem to be stripped of their outer casings – maybe it is just the light

It has been estimated that a single Jay will hoard as many as 3,000 acorns over the course of an autumn as a store of food for it through the winter.

Blackbirds eating the Whitebeam berries
Lovely little House Sparrow in the hedgerow
In early autumn there were very few House Sparrows around, but a big flock has returned now
Kestrel at the top of a pine tree

And watching for voles in the second meadow
There has been another Heron visit this week but I saw it come down and went out to shoo it off. If you are surprised by how dogmatically anti-Heron we are, could I explain that it is a result of bitter experience – a couple of years ago the pond became a scene of mass slaughter when a Heron fished literally hundreds of frogs and newts out, leaving it bare of amphibians. Herons are not seen here at all during the summer and I believe this to be a newly-arrived migrant bird

When the sun is shining, there are still plenty of late-flying insects taking advantage of what the flowering Ivy has on offer

Common Wasp, Vespula vulgaris. I hadn’t realised how furry they are
Eristalis sp hoverfly, possibly Eristalis pertinax but I really needed to get a better view of its legs to say for sure
The complicated underside of a Red Admiral, probing the Ivy with its proboscis
And from above
While the Bird Ringers were here, we spotted our first Clouded Yellow of the year. This is a migratory species that flies here from northern Africa or southern Europe
A spider has built a web across this camera lens creating this surreal effect

In the last post, I mentioned how wonderful it was to hear Owls hooting around the house at night. This next photo is a screenshot from a video this week. I have looked long and hard at the video and I regret to say that this looks ever so much like a Tawny Owl that this fox is carrying in his mouth. Certainly we have not heard an Owl since this video was taken:

This fox, with the end of his tail dipped down, is a regular at the nightly peanuts

On winter nights in the wood, we have seen Tawny Owls on the ground hunting for worms and I suppose they are vulnerable to pouncing foxes when they do this.

One of my all-time favourite trail camera shots of a Tawny catching a worm back in 2019

Swallows, Starlings, Goldcrests, Firecrests, Blackbirds, Blackcaps, Herons and Clouded Yellows – there is a lot of crossing of borders at this time of year. One of our sons has crossed continents and embarked on a grand adventure – a year travelling the world with his girlfriend. They will probably have to be flexible with their itinerary but they have started in Mexico. I asked them to send me photos of interesting wildlife that they see along the way, and this week we have this colourful photo of a Mexican butterfly:

An unidentified Mexican butterfly

Mexico famously provides a safe haven for millions of the migratory Monarch Butterflies from October to March, but they do also have 2,044 other species of butterfly in the country. In contrast, the UK has a meagre 59 species.

Mexico also has 19 species of Iguana. I found a website showing images of them all and think that this one that they saw is probably the Green Iguana (Iguana iguana). I see that the adult size of this one is a rather monstrous 4-5.5 feet:

I envy them the experiences of new cultures, landscapes and wildlife that are to come and it seems an awfully long time since we ourselves have stepped a foot off British soil. On clear days we can see another country from the meadows:

The white cliffs of France across the Channel

Ferries are plying back and forth from Dover just down the coast and maybe it won’t be too long now before we have the confidence to get over there, even if only for a day trip.

As Remembrance Day approaches, I finish today with this moving installation by Mark Humphreys on Dover seafront to commemorate the dead of the First World War. Every few minutes a motor starts up and the space is filled with fluttering poppies:

Lest We Forget.