Review of the Year – The Wood

Its been three years now since our dream of owning a little piece of woodland became a reality. We may not have had the wood for long, but already it has taught us so much and has become a quiet and precious haven both for us and the wildlife that lives amongst its lovely trees.

Woodcock fly across from Finland and Russia to spend the winter in the wood. They rest up during the day on the ground amongst the brambly undergrowth but come out at night to probe the soft ground with their long breaks, searching for soil invertebrates to eat.

Redwing are also to be found here in the winter before returning to Iceland and Scandinavia to breed.

This year there was a cold snap in February and snow settled onto the woodland floor:

Woodcock’s beak covered in snow

A rare sighting of deer in the wood:

Fox in the snow:

And Fox stalking a Magpie:

As spring finally arrived, parts of the wood became covered in a blanket of primroses and violets, visited by Bumblebees and Bee-Flies…

…and birds started to make their nests.

Blackbird gathering wet mud

Seventeen of the eighteen small bird boxes that we have put up in the wood were used by Great Tits and Blue Tits this year.

Great Tit taking in a wad of moss

In our first spring here, a hole in a mature cherry tree was dug out and used by a pair of Great Spotted Woodpeckers. Then, last year and again this year, Green Woodpeckers have reared their young in this same hole:

Each spring, a pair of Bullfinch has arrived and raised a family here:

Male and female Bullfinch in amongst the Bugle

There is small colony of Twayblades, a type of orchid, that comes up every year:

This year we also found a single White Helleborine, another orchid:

As the weeks advanced, young animals began to appear on the cameras:

A family of Jays
A juvenile Green Woodpecker
A pair of young Bullfinch
A fox cub tagging along behind its father

The adult foxes needed to work extra hard to find food for their cubs as well as for themselves:

Fox with rabbit

Badger cubs were also seen in the wood this year but I particularly enjoyed this photo of three adults sprawled out relaxing together. Badgers really know how to lounge:

Unfortunately there are large numbers of Grey Squirrels here in the wood. They have killed so many beautiful Beech and Oak trees by stripping bark in the early summer and are also notable predators of bird nests.

A family of Squirrels

A Roe Deer in the wood in June:

Molehills pock-mark the boundary between the wood and the adjoining field but this is the first time that we have actually seen a mole and I was surprised to see that it had a tail:

In the summer, one of the clearings in the wood becomes carpeted in Marjoram which attracts a wonderful variety of insects such as these Scorpion Flies..

The males have scorpion-like tails

.. and Silver Washed Fritillary Butterflies, gliding serenely amongst the Marjoram flowers on sunny days. It was a particularly good year for these butterflies:

As the heat of the summer started to build, birds of prey came down to the ponds to drink and bathe. Tawny Owls….

Buzzards….

.. and Sparrowhawks

In the autumn, with the breeding season long over, we went round clearing the old bird nests out of the boxes. It was surprising to find that five of the boxes had Dormice nesting on top of the bird nest.

A Dormouse in a bird box

But now it is winter once more. The Woodcock and Redwing have returned and we have again begun our winter work of coppicing the Hazel and creating dead hedge habitat along the boundaries with the cut wood.

On the brink of 2022, it has been lovely to reflect on the year that is finishing as I put together this post. I now look forward to what further natural history discoveries and delights the new year will bring.

The Lull Before Christmas

On a strangely warm and calm morning this week, the Bird Ringers put their nets up in the meadows for what is probably their last session of the year.

A Continental Blackbird – although the beak is largely yellow, the weight of this bird, and longer length of his wings, means that he is almost certainly a bird from the colder parts of Europe, flown across to spend the winter here with us.

For a few years now, the Ringers have been participating in a Blackcap colour-ringing scheme organised by the British Trust for Ornithology. They caught a Blackcap here this week and she is now wearing coloured bracelets that will allow her to be identified without having to be recaught. A lot of additional measurements needed to be taken under this scheme, such as beak length, width and depth.

Our preparations for Christmas are now mostly complete and there is now a bit of a lull as we hold our breath and wait to see if plans for having the family to stay can come to fruition. Covid cases are soaring and the dispiriting weather has predominantly been foggy, grey and damp.

Looking back towards the nearby historic town of Deal from the end of the pier on a chilly, dull December day

There was so much moisture in the air that the furry leaves of the sage bush in the allotment looked like they had been studded with rhinestones:

There is a trail camera pointing onto the badger sett in the cliff. However, it isn’t actually taking very good pictures of the badgers because the infrared isn’t strong enough to reach down there. The badgers do still trigger the shot, but the camera then takes a photo of the gnarled Hawthorn tree in the foreground. But, in this way, it has accidentally been providing me with images of slugs going up and down the tree every night.

Tree slugs were thrust into the limelight in May 2018 when they were featured on the country’s best-loved nature television programme, Springwatch. It included this memorable quote from an ardent slug admirer and scientist: ‘Because, until you’ve seen a tree slug, you haven’t lived’. Tree slugs (Lehmannia marginata) climb trees, even right up into the canopy, to graze on the lichens and algae that they find there. This specialised diet of theirs means that these are not the slugs that you would find eating your lettuces and courgettes. They are a woodland species and indeed the cliff here is densely vegetated with stunted trees, albeit also heavily overgrown with rampant Ivy and Old Man’s Beard

On another night, a slug coming back down from the tree towards dawn.

I love that there are Tree Slugs trundling around the trees at night. Presumably they need to come back down to the ground each day to find a nice, damp place to rest up until it gets dark again.

This large bag of prickly bramble cuttings has been hanging around the meadows for a while and it is a bit of an eyesore:

When we eventually got round to moving it, there was a collection of Stinking Iris berries stored beneath it. Presumably this is the work of a little Wood Mouse:

We were pleased to see that at least something values these berries because there are a lot of them around:

Our native Iris, Iris foetidissima, or Stinking Iris. Lots of bright berries but nothing much eats them
We protected the store of berries under these tiles so that the mouse can still access the berries and move them somewhere else if it wants to
A tiny Smooth Newt was under a sampling square one day this week. This little one would have hatched this year and has now dispersed out of the pond
There have been no recent Grey Heron visits. However, I did get the opportunity to see one up close when visiting my father in Berkshire this week, and I have to admire those black eyebrows
The Herring Gulls have a very distinctive drinking posture at this mini pond, probably because they are having to reach into the tray to get to the water
Sparrowhawk on the look out at the perch above the feeding cages…
…his interest probably having been piqued by all these House Sparrows that are visiting at the moment
This feels very theatrical. The One-eyed Vixen by the wild pond whilst another fox eats peanuts in the infrared spotlight behind
Resting up by the baking tray pond
Yet another fish in the mouth of a fox this week
Oh dear. I can’t identify this dark bird but it looks like perhaps it has webbed or wader-like feet
A Dandelion clock

Mahonia in the garden, now out in full flower and great for late-flying pollinators

Hoverfly comes in to the Mahonia this afternoon, in the first bit of sunshine that we have had all week.

We have a camera looking at a new, small pond that we have built in the wood. Much like the tree slugs that are being incidentally photographed at the badger sett, it is the background of this photo that is much more interesting than the Blue Tit who triggered the photo:

Two Great Spotted Woodpeckers working their way up opposite sides of a tree

On another day, yet again there was a Great Spotted Woodpecker in the background of the shot, and on the same tree:

The tree that the woodpeckers are visiting is a Field Maple which has deeply textured bark with lots of lovely crevices into which insects can go to hide themselves away:

The interesting bark of a Field Maple tree

A Tawny Owl has perched on this branch on a couple of nights. Could it be looking with interest at that nest box?

A Tawny has also been seen elsewhere in the wood:

I was very pleased to see this Marsh Tit. We haven’t been seeing much of them in the wood this year:

A Woodcock taking a bath:

One night there was an extraordinary sight shining in the darkness out to sea. Anchored alongside us was Matador 3, a heavy-lifting, floating crane:

In the morning, there was a chance to get a better look at her. The crane barge isn’t self-propelled and needs a tug to move her around but, together, they have worked on offshore wind farm projects throughout Europe.

Tow line now reattached and ready to move off

Our son and his girlfriend, off round the world for a year, have sent us this atmospheric photo of the Guatemalan rainforest at Christmas time:

They had a wonderful time in Guatemala and have now flown down to Costa Rica where they plan to stay a while.

Today is the winter solstice and Christmas approaches fast on its heels. Whatever your plans, I wish you an enjoyable but also restful Christmas and hopefully there will be an opportunity to get out and about and immerse yourself in the restorative power of nature.

Tales from Deep Midwinter

The beautiful start to a December day:

And here is the sky at dawn yesterday. There are some beautiful sunrises to be had at the beginning of these short, frail midwinter days.

Another big storm has run amok across the country this week. Heavy rain was forecast and so I decided to bring in most of the trail cameras from the meadows to avoid them getting overly wet. If water worms its way into the lens casing, the camera becomes fogged with condensation for days afterwards.

Mollycoddling the fleet of trail cameras. I am incredibly fond of chickens and kept them in my back garden for many years, although these days there are only these ornaments to care for

I am not sure that the cameras have repaid me for my consideration towards them by coming up with anything particularly spectacular this week, but then it is a very slow time of year. There was this large and unwelcome visitor though, accompanied by members of the neighbourhood watch committee:

After putting down seed each morning, we like to stop for a moment to see which birds had been watching and waiting for us and are then quickly on the scene. Chuckles, the male Herring Gull, is nearly always the leader and is still sometimes accompanied by his offspring. It’s nice to see a pair of Collared Doves, as well, at the moment. They are quite a rare sight here.

The delicate Collared Dove

There is also a large flock of House Sparrow visiting the seed:

I apologise for the sloping sea – the trail camera was wonky

There are three Crows that call this land their territory. They staunchly defend it against other Crows and swiftly escort any passing bird of prey off the premises.

The triumvirate of Crows at the top of a pine, waiting for us to put the seed down

But the Crows usually make an exception for Kestrels, allowing them to use the meadows unhindered. However, one morning we saw this wonderful interaction. A Kestrel was purveying the meadow from the top of a pine tree and a Crow landed alongside her:

The Crow then launched itself on four separate hovers above the Kestrel in an attempt to get her to move off, but she would not be intimidated. Between each hover, the Crow perched back down alongside her for a while, seemingly companionably.

Eventually the Crow gave up and flew off – the Kestrel had won.

This Fox looks like it has a pantomime black moustache…

..but when viewed from another angle it becomes clear that it is carrying a fish:

A lovely study of a Badger:

Badgers play-fighting:

The weird and wonderful White Saddle fungus lives in association with the roots of one of the Holm Oaks and, at this time of year, puts up these strange, contorted fruiting bodies at points along a circumference around the tree.

For the last two or three years, we have been managing one area of the second meadow specifically for reptiles and it has its own cutting regime – only a third gets cut each year on a rotational basis. As a result, the vegetation is getting decidedly rougher, now with sturdy grass tussocks and log piles providing the reptiles with protection from predators.

The part of the meadow being managed for reptiles

We have also noticed the impressive Yellow Meadow Ant nests that are forming in this area:

I think we are going to have to consider cutting this bit by hand, avoiding these ant nests so that they can continue to thrive.

There is a lot of available timber in the wood as we commence this year’s coppicing, so we brought a car-load back to the meadows..

..and built a log pile by the wild pond. The hope is that amphibians and invertebrates can find safe refuge amongst the logs, while beetle larvae and many other things get going to slowly break the wood down.

A small flock of Cormorants flying over the meadows this week
Buff-tailed Bumblebees have a third, winter generation in this part of the country utilising what flowers are still going

There are reports in the news that the country is in the grips of our worst ever outbreak of Avian Flu and half a million captive birds have had to be culled in recent months. Had I still been keeping my pet chickens, I would have been required to keep them under cover since the the disease really took hold at the end of November. I have to say that another pandemic feels overwhelming to cope with on top of the last two long years of Covid, but there you are. The disease has been brought across from mainland Europe by wild migrating birds, arriving here for the winter, and it can pass into our populations of resident wild birds and captive poultry.

We have noticed two Blackbirds lying dead but untouched in the meadows. This seems strange and suspicious – why have they not been carried off by a Fox? Of course these birds could have died for any number of reasons but we, too, have decided to leave them where they lie.

After this week’s storm, we went for a walk up to Sandwich Bay and called in at the bird hide at Restharrow Scrape. It was wonderfully packed with healthy wintering ducks and Lapwing which was lovely to see. The male Gadwall is a very handsome bird:

There were also several beautifully marked Snipe:

Of the eighteen small nest boxes up in the wood, seventeen contained bird nests when we went round to clear them out last month. This is very gratifying and there certainly seems to be capacity for more. We have bought three of these weird-looking ones:

The idea is that the three holes let in lots of light so that the bird can afford to build its nest low and at the back of the box, keeping the developing young safer from predators. I am not sure how convinced I am by this but we thought we would give them a go anyway. These three boxes are now installed in the wood, bringing the total number of small boxes there to twenty-one.

I’m always delighted when a magnificent Buzzard is seen in the wood:

At this time of year, as we walk round the woodland paths to check the cameras, we invariably disturb several Woodcock, resting up for the day on the ground in amongst the low-lying, brambly cover.

There used to be a winter shoot in these woods before our time and I think the population of Pheasants here is a vestige of that time, when game birds were released into the countryside in order to be shot. I do not know whether the number of birds we have now will be self-sustaining or if it will gradually wane over time as no more are released – we shall have to wait and see.

Our son, currently in Guatemala, has sent us a photo of a Keel-billed Toucan that he saw this week and what a bird it is, bringing some Central American warmth and colour to this blog post:

We have started going into Deal on a Saturday morning to potter around and visit the lovely market:

The dog biscuit stall in Deal market. Our dog is very fond of these

At this time of year, the plant stall has gone all festive:

I have made my own wreath this year, attending a Christmas workshop:

But next year I will reuse the willow base and forage what I can from the meadows and the wood to make the wreath for the door. Its good to have some appealing activities and projects planned to get us through this rock-bottom part of the year.

Tipping Points

This toadstool, with its covering of frost, perfectly captures the essence of the season – the last gasps of autumn just tipping over into winter:

We have had to reacquaint ourselves with all our warm clothes

There has been a significant storm that brought snow to large parts of the country and thousands of people had no power for a week. No snow here, although inevitably we did have strong winds. So much so that this old Magpie nest was blown out of the top of a tall pine:

This photo of a Magpie has three Blackbirds working the hedgerow behind – there are so many here at the moment:

They are busy hoovering up what berries are left:

There are also more Song Thrushes than usual

A Sparrowhawk came in for a bath. We saw him last week as well:

We put seed down every morning throughout the year and this is being keenly anticipated as the cold weather starts to bite:

Stock Doves and House Sparrows

This Fox has a fish. Perhaps he has been foraging on the foreshore or opportunistically lurking around night fishermen down on the beach:

The Badgers have been taking yet more bedding underground into their sett this week:

Back in the summer, a deep vertical aeration shaft appeared in the second meadow, about five metres in from the cliff. Now, the Badgers have begun digging it out into a proper tunnel entrance and it will be easy for us to get a camera on this to observe the comings and goings:

We toured the meadows trying to remember where the bird boxes were so that we could empty them of this year’s nests:

One of the boxes hanging in a Wild Cherry tree

Seventeen boxes were discovered but, shockingly, only three had bird nests within:

In previous years we have collected a whole wheelbarrow full of old nests and we were very dispirited that there were so few. It is surely an indication of a very poor breeding season for Blue Tits and Great Tits this year because of the cold spring weather that we had.

But this nest was very lovely. Fur from one of the dog’s pink balls was woven into the top:

When viewed from the side, you can see how much Badger fur has been collected to make a thick, soft top layer above the moss. What a comfortable nursery that must have been and all the babies successfully fledged:

This next nest was a Blue Tit nest back in the spring but subsequently the box has been well used as an overnight roost:

Many of the other boxes, although not containing nests, did have droppings inside as evidence that they were now being used as sheltered roosts. Last winter, a Wren regularly spent the night cuddled up in this teapot nest box that we have in the garden. We put a trail camera on the box and discovered that the bird went in at very heavy dusk and, here it is, leaving just before dawn:

This week we put up a selection of interesting-looking roosting boxes in the garden to see if these could be of use to the birds over the forthcoming cold winter nights:

I dressed the wreath rooster up with foliage from the garden. What bird is going to be able to resist roosting in this?

Before dressing:

After:

In the wood, this winter’s coppicing has commenced. It is hard work and we find that three coppices a session is really all that we want to do and so progress is slow. These two Hazel coppices to the right of the Goat Willow were cut this week:

The chain saw helps immensely, although all this cut timber then needs to be dragged off to make a dead hedge at the boundary of the wood:

A completed stool

While we were sitting having a cup of tea, two Great Spotted Woodpeckers came in together to the feeders:

There was also a nice photo of one of these birds on the trail cameras:

This particular camera is looking at a Tawny Owl nest box. We have put all sorts of boxes up in both the meadows and the wood, many especially designed with a particular species in mind. But it has become a bit of an inevitability that it is always a different species that takes up residence. However, this is surely ridiculous, even by our standards:

There were several Blue Tit visits to this box this week.

Other woodland photos:

It has been very cold
Woodcock stretching its wings
Woodcock unusually out and about in daylight
This Fox’s facial features all seem to have been outlined in black

Our son and his girlfriend, travelling the world for a year, have reached Guatemala having spent the last fortnight or so in Belize.

Collared Aracari, a smaller member of the Toucan family. How do they eat tiny fruits with that unwieldy bill? Do they pluck the fruit off with the point of the beak and then toss it up into the air to swallow it? It looks like they may.

December now and the eagerly-awaited winter solstice is just over a fortnight away. This always feels to us like a momentous tipping point after which, tiny step by tiny step, the days start to get longer and spring gets that little bit nearer. As I draw the curtains at 4pm with darkness descending, six hours earlier than it does in June, this can’t come soon enough for me.