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.

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