The Hedgerow Haircut

Managing our hedgerows here is one of the most important things to get right and we are happy with how wild and untamed they have become. They have even been admired by visiting naturalists!

The western boundary hedgerow

Tall hedgerows with wide bases provide food and shelter for all sorts of wildlife as well as being essential corridors linking habitats. Hedges support up to 80% of our woodland birds, 50% of our mammals and 30% of our butterflies as well as much other invertebrate life.

The hedgerow dividing the two meadows

But in order to stay as a hedge rather than growing up into trees, the occasional cut is required. Hawthorn and Blackthorn only flower on old wood, so the best practice is to cut a third of the hedgerow each year and it will be just this third that will not flower and produce fruit the next season.

It has been a while since we have done anything to our hedgerows, though, because we couldn’t find anyone to do the work. However, we have now been recommended a local agricultural contractor with a flailing arm on his tractor and he came to the meadows this week:

By January there is no fruit left on these hedgerows

We have 400m of hedgerow that is actively managed and the same again that has not been touched for decades, much of it now overgrown and heavy with ivy. We made the decision to get the tops trimmed from most of the actively-managed hedgerow, since it is at least a couple of years since any work has been done. However, the sides were mainly not cut and should still bear plenty of fruit to feed the birds next winter.

The tractor heading off into the second meadow

The aim was for the hedges to have a trim rather than a scalping and the contractor did such a great job. The flailing arm munches what it cuts off and this then falls back into the hedge and disappears meaning that there is not a big clearing up job to do afterwards.

In the seven years we have been here, the paddock hedges had not previously been cut and had become billowy and ferociously thorny. But this new, tidy look will take some getting used to
Kestrel with a backdrop of the freshly-neatened hedge

It is going to be some years before we will need to ask him to cut the 85m of new hedgerow that was planted in January 2020. This hedge still seems to be in the stage of establishing its root system rather than doing any growing above ground:

Regrettably, in places, the heavy tractor has made quite a mess of the soft January ground:

Now that we have discovered this reliable agricultural contractor, we hope to get our hedgerow management back on track and have the recommended third of it cut every January. Unfortunately, of course, it is a bit of a balancing act because we do need to give him enough work to justify his trip over here but we shall have to take each year at a time.

The average life expectancy for a Magpie is only three years but the oldest recorded individual is more than twenty-one years old. They mate for life and both birds build the nest together, although it is the male who gathers most of the sticks and constructs the walls and roof. The female will concentrate on the interior decoration, lining it with mud. The nests take up to forty days to build, usually high up in a tall tree, and they are unusual in having a domed roof of sticks with one or two side entrances.

Photo: Bengt Nyman under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

This week I have been getting photos of a Magpie carrying sticks on this gate:

But are they building a new nest this year or repairing last years?

On searching the internet for the answer to this, I came across an academic paper on this very subject (Antonov and Atanosova in Acta Ornithologica, Vol 38, 2003, no. 1) 􏰀􏰁􏰂􏰁􏰄􏰀􏰄􏰅􏰂􏰃􏰄and it seems that the situation is not straightforward. Magpie nests are robust and often survive until the following season, yet most of the time the birds invest the effort into building a new nest. They found that nests were only reused 17% of the time in the urban areas of Sofia in Bulgaria, and 36% of the time in Manchester in the UK, but much less often than that in rural settings such as in our meadows.

The two year study investigated if the building of new nests each year was to evade parasites, avoid predation or was affected by the unavailability of good nest sites. However, it found no evidence to confirm any of these hypotheses and fledging success was the same with both new and reused nests.

Crows are probably the most likely birds to predate a Magpie nest here

But it did find that birds reusing their nests laid eggs a week earlier than birds building from new, giving them more time to start again if the nest fails. This suggests that it would be an advantage to reuse a nest, yet mostly this isn’t what they do. Clearly there are other factors at work that we don’t yet understand.

The 2021 Magpie nest at the top of a tall Holm Oak in the meadows

We think that the Magpies nesting here build a new nest every year and last year’s nest was high up in a Holm Oak. This is an evergreen tree and so, annoyingly, even now in the depths of winter, we are unable to see it properly.

The 2020 nest was towards the top of a Corsican Pine and again it was impossible to see clearly. In fact we only got a good look when the remains of the nest fell onto the grass in high winds just before Christmas:

Over the next few weeks we hope to be able to work out what is going on and see if they are building a new nest or have decided this time to renovate the old one.

A pair of Magpies making a Kestrel feel uncomfortable during her daily ablutions

The flock of around a hundred House Sparrow continue to be very busy up on the strip:

But I am delighted to report that the Yellowhammers are definitely now back to join them. The highest count last year was seventeen birds and there are are currently only five here so far, but it is early days:

A lovely group of Stock Dove also visits:

The two birds on the right in the foreground are Woodpigeon, though, slightly larger with white edges to their primary flight feathers

And of course all this bird activity is always of interest to the Sparrowhawks:

We are seeing a bit more of the colour-ringed female Herring Gull X9LT, ringed at Pitsea Landfill Site in Essex on 24th January 2015, just over seven years ago now:

A bedtime snack of a Short-tailed Field Vole for this Kestrel before calling it a day:

On both of the past two years I have successfully treated the One-eyed Vixen for mange. But it is with a sinking heart that, once more, I notice her tail is starting to show a few telltale signs. Am I going to have to serve her up medicated honey sandwiches yet again?

Maybe I am worrying unnecessarily but her tail was definitely pretty uniform until recently

The time is fast approaching when badgers give birth in their warm burrows underground. But, in the meantime, there is certainly time available for some lounging around and a spot of tummy scratching:

This week’s highlights from the wood include what I think might be a Tawny Owl investigating a nest box. There is a series of three photos and, in the first, the owl is sitting on the branch. In the second, it flies up to the box:

In the third photo of the sequence, taken thirty seconds later, it has returned to the branch:

This is definitely no basis to get our hopes up that an owl will soon be nesting here, but these photos are at least evidence that the bird knows the box is there if ever it should need it.

The group of Fieldfare are still coming at dusk every day to bath. Six birds here:

The Woodcock over-wintering in the wood are seen every night on the cameras and we also regularly put them up from the undergrowth as we walk round the wood during the day:

The camera on the small, new pond has been triggered by a Great Tit but it is the background that is more interesting. Once again, there are two Great Spotted Woodpeckers working their way up the trees looking for insects:

This was the weekend of the 2022 Big Garden Birdwatch, the world’s largest citizen science survey which has now been running for forty-three years. Last year more than a million people took part, counting seventeen million birds, which is really rather amazing and uplifting. We always look forward to the excuse to spend an hour quietly observing what is going on here.

In preparation for the count, the hide was set up two days beforehand to give the birds a chance to become accustomed to it

In the event we had a very exciting birdwatch this year. Perhaps it helped that it was a sparkling, calm and warm day with deep blue skies. We divided the hour between time in the hide overlooking the feeders and watching the birds visiting the seed up on the strip. Our final tally was twenty species and ninety-nine birds.

This trail camera was taking photos of the strip during the hour. There are six Yellowhammer here but actually we spotted nine of them at one time
A Skylark was up doing glorious song flights – the first time we have heard him this year
The Kestrel was hunting at various locations throughout the hour. She kept being moved on by Magpies
The grand finale was the arrival of the Sparrowhawk who came in high and landed on the feeding cages
Unfortunately I disturbed him and he took off across the meadow

Our final tally, that we have now reported in to the RSPB, was: Crow 3, Magpie 4, Herring Gull 2, Stock Dove 1, Collared Dove 1, House Sparrow 42, Dunnock 4, Linnet 1, Blackbird 4, Chaffinch 5, Yellowhammer 9, Woodpigeon 10, Kestrel 1, Blue Tit 3, Great Tit 3, Robin 2, Green Woodpecker 1, Greenfinch 1, Skylark 1, Sparrowhawk 1.

Let us hope that once again a million people or more have taken part this year and lots of useful information will be gleaned on the current state of British birds as a result.

January Days

January is generally a bad month for trail cameras. Poor light, cold nights and heavy dew often lead to disappointing results and lenses that stay fogged for days.

But some of the cameras have been doing quite well – it is a rare treat to see a Tawny Owl in the meadows:

On a different night, the same camera caught an Owl in flight along the hedgerow:

We have a few perches up around the meadows and a Kestrel has been using the one in the ant paddock every day:

On several occasions she has caught voles from here but this is the best photo that I can offer of this:

Of course, it is not very helpful when the bird stands on the camera rather than on the perch:

One more photo of a Kestrel for your consideration:

The camera at the hide pond got this shot of a Heron having a bad hair day:

With frog spawning time fast approaching, we will need to bring the scarecrow out soon to keep Herons away from the temptingly large concentration of frogs that is expected.

Magpies are very obvious at the moment. There are ten of them in this tree and I absolutely hate to see so many:

Magpie bathing
Magpie with what I think is a Blue Tit

We have been outside working in the winter sunshine this week and I have twice had a male Sparrowhawk glide right past me at hip height as he patrols the hedgerow for potential small bird prey.

Action shot. Male Sparrowhawk with Magpie exiting left
The Sparrowhawk that we have been seeing a lot of in the meadows

January is the time of fox mating and I am certainly noticing the foxes going around in pairs much more than they normally do. The male sticks close by the vixen until she is ready to mate:

One of these foxes looks like a prancing show pony
It looks like the time is not yet quite right

The badgers are in their winter torpor, when they slow down to conserve energy. They are still seen on the cameras every night but just not for very long. But, even so, this badger has managed to get herself very muddy indeed:

There has been a bit of bedding collection:

A vertical hole that appeared last year, and that we thought was a ventilation shaft, has now been dug out into a proper tunnel entrance:

We intend to get a camera on this because I am really interested to see what other animals live alongside the badgers and make use of the opportunities that these diggings and tunnels create.

There is a large flock of over a hundred House Sparrows enjoying the winter feed we are putting down on the strip. The contented cheeping emanating out of the hedgerow from these birds can be heard far and wide and brings me such joy:

At one point three juvenile Herring Gull came down to the feeding cages:

Chuckles, our adult male who considers these meadows his own, was seriously displeased by this development:

Yellowhammers have been missing for several months but are just starting to be seen again now. It’s lovely to have them back:

Unusual to see Bullfinch here:

It has been an exceptional winter for the White Saddle fungus that grows in association with the roots of a Holm Oak:

The fungal fruiting bodies are such weird contorted things:

In the fragile sunshine this week we became aware of the languorous buzz of winter-generation Buff-tailed Bumblebees making their way to and from what flowers are available in the garden:

Enjoying the Mahonia in the garden

The nice weather has lured us out, too, to work in the allotment and we have finally got round to weeding it and applying a cosy blanket of garden compost, ready for the worms to pull down into the soil. I feel that the allotment is now poised to begin another fruitful year of vegetable growing when the time comes:

This snail graveyard near the comfrey patch is evidence that a Song Thrush has been helping us out with natural pest control in the allotment:

The job of weeding and mulching the new hedgerow has, at last, been finished as well. What a relief to have ticked that one off:

One advantage of the short January days is that I am more likely to be up and about with my camera at sunrise. We have had some corkers recently:

First light over the wild pond
The sun appearing behind an offshore supply ship that spent a few days with us recently

The cameras in the wood are less exposed than in the meadows, but still have been similarly affected by the January weather.

I continue to delight in seeing the Woodcock at night:

Three Woodcock in the photo (one just seen in the background top left)

A group of Fieldfare has been coming in to use this pond at dusk every night:

A pair of Bullfinch come to the wood each spring to breed and they seem to be here already. Here is the female…

…and the male:

Just before Christmas this strange looking ship caught our eye. It looks half super-yacht and half cargo vessel:

She is the Frank Bonefaas and, at 119m long, is one of the infamous super-trawlers that have controversially been licensed to fish in UK ‘protected’ waters. We have read all about these vessels but had never seen one before.

Our son and his girlfriend, continuing their world trip, spent a few weeks over Christmas in Costa Rica and have now moved on to Columbia. Here are a few of photos that they sent us from glorious Costa Rica – we have been there ourselves and would love to return one day:

Central American paper wasp (Apoica pallens). These insects are nocturnal but during the day they take up this extraordinary defensive position, circling their nest to see off any intruders
Hoffman’s Two-toed Sloth, with only two claws on its front paw
Brown-throated Three-toed Sloth, with three front claws. This is a male with that characteristic patch of orange and black on his back

I had set myself the challenge of getting Hyacinths flowering in time for Christmas. I bought the specially-prepared bulbs but then planted them up too late last autumn, and so it wasn’t until early January that they came into flower and filled the house with their wonderful fragrance:

However, it turns out that this was much better. The chaos of Christmas had all been cleared away and packed back up into the loft and a brand new year was beginning, ushered in on a wave of the most uplifting scent of spring flowers.

The Weald of Kent

Kent is a big county. The Weald in the west with its sandstone and clay has completely different geology to our dry chalk downland in the east, and what an impact that has on the landscape. The clay makes the Weald much wetter and muddier, heavily wooded with lots of with streams and ponds. We decided to stay there for a few days and explore what it had to offer.

Our home for four nights – a medieval cottage in the middle of a wood and beside a small stream. Tawny Owls called around the house until just before dawn which was completely atmospheric and wonderful

There are a lot of grand houses and gardens to visit in the area but most of them were closed for the winter. Some were still open, however, and we started the trip with a visit to Chartwell, Sir Winston Churchill’s beloved home and now a National Trust property.

The house wasn’t open but the gardens and grounds were

Churchill famously used to paint in order to escape from his worries and stress but he also had a lifelong interest in wildlife – particularly butterflies. This building below had originally been a meat larder but, when the Churchills bought the house in 1922, they removed a wall and it became first a summer house and then a butterfly house where Winston stored the larvae of British butterflies to release into the garden.

Churchill’s butterfly house

Alongside his wife Clementine, they created a beautiful garden to relax in but also one that was a haven for wildlife, particularly his beloved butterflies.

Photo from an information board in the butterfly house, although possibly he was out catching dragonflies here?

On the next day of the trip, we visited Bedgebury Pinetum – the largest pinetum in the world and a centre for international conifer tree conservation. Winter was a great time to visit because we more or less had the place to ourselves and these evergreen trees, of course, still had all their leaves.

We spent a happy couple of hours wandering around admiring the trees.

Monkey Puzzle trees – named by the Victorians who felt that even a monkey would be puzzled about how to climb up with all those spines on its trunk

We have come away from Bedgebury with the names of several beautiful trees that we would like to try to grow ourselves.

On the way back to the cottage that day we visited Eridge Rocks near Tunbridge Wells, where a bit of that soft Wealden sandstone pokes its head above ground.

It is a popular place for rock climbing – so much so that, during Covid times, this has had to be temporarily prohibited – the precious ecosystem of mosses and lichens on the rock was becoming damaged.

The rocks are just over the county border into Sussex

Our cottage was close to the Ashdown Forest and on the third day we went for a walk at Old Lodge nature reserve. I was surprised to discover that Ashdown Forest is actually mainly heathland:

Sussex Wildlife Trust’s Old Lodge nature reserve
Some magnificent Beech trees at Old Lodge

A A Milne lived at Cotchford Farm, just north of the Ashdown Forest and Winnie the Pooh’s Hundred Acre Wood was based on this area. We walked down to Pooh Sticks Bridge where the author reputedly played the game with his son Christopher.

This is the location of A A Milne’s bridge although the bridge was rebuilt in 1999

The highlight of our stay was probably the visit we made to Wakehurst Place the following day. Left to the National Trust in the 1960s, they have leased it to The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew since then and it is now home to the Millennium Seed Bank.

The exhibition at the seed bank was so interesting

As well as the seed bank, there is a grand house (now used as offices for Kew staff and for school visits) and the most wonderful garden and estate, housing several national collections.

We were very taken with these Wollemi Pines.

The Wollemi Pines’ closest living relative is the Monkey Puzzle Tree

These trees had been found in the fossil record and were thought to be extinct until a small population of less than a hundred trees was found in 1994 in their native Australia, hanging on in a remote gorge, the exact location of which is kept secret to protect them:

Specialist fire-fighters had to be deployed to save these trees from a bush fire in January 2020

Kew has found a way to propagate these trees and now sells them to the public as another way to protect the wild population.

Wakehurst Place
Moon rising above an outbuilding
Dogwood used to great effect in the winter gardens
As you approached this bed, you were hit with the fragrance from these Daphne shrubs in amongst the winter-flowering heather in the winter garden

An exciting project underway at Wakehurst is to research and create six acres of the endangered American prairie habitat:

The grounds at Wakehurst are so extensive and we didn’t get round everything by any means. We would love to revisit in the summer to see the full glory of the gardens and especially to get a feel for how that prairie is coming along.

Our cottage did not have an enclosed garden and so in the mornings I took the dog on her lead up to this beautiful meadow and took its photo at about the same time on several different days. What an inspiring start to any day:

On the final day we called in at Sissinghurst Castle on the way home. This famous garden is only an hour from the meadows and yet we had never visited before.

Sissinghurst Castle was once a large Elizabethan manor house, now largely demolished. The famous tower remains and it was thought that the ladies would ascend to the top to view the hunt in the grounds of the estate

Vita Sackville-West and her husband Harold Nicholson were very keen amateur gardeners and bought the place in 1930. They then spent the next thirty years creating a world-famous garden, now in the hands of the National Trust.
Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicholson from a photo in an exhibition at Sissinghurst

There was not a whole lot to be seen of this garden in January, however:

View from the top of the tower

We had not expected much of our short break in the bog-end of January, encumbered as we were with the dog and scarcely leaving our home county. But it turned out to be inspiring and interesting and we learnt a lot about natural history. We definitely want to revisit every one of these places in the summer.

I will leave you with this strange assortment of suggestions from the Millennium Seed Bank of things that we could personally do to make a difference. It is the last one that feels most important.

2021 in the Meadows Part 2

In Part 1, earlier this week, we went on a whistle stop tour of the meadows through the first part of 2021. Now you will need to hold on to your hats as we are off again, this time looking at the highlights of the second half of the year.

Fledgling birds

2020 had been so dry, and the ground so hard, that there was much concern in the press that birds such as Blackbirds were not able to get at worms to feed their chicks. 2021 was altogether a much wetter year and this, at least, was one thing that no one had to worry about.

I have so many heart-warming photos of Blackbirds with their beaks stuffed full of worms to take back to their nests
I wonder how it went when this Blackbird tried to stuff a large dragonfly down one of his chick’s throat

After all the photos of Blackbird chicks being well provisioned, it was lovely when they started to fledge and appear on the cameras:

Yellowhammers also bred successfully here:

Two fledgling Yellowhammers in the water (and a Dunnock)

Unusually, there were no speckled, young Green Woodpeckers this year. There was a juvenile Great Spotted but these birds are not around here very often and the nest was probably not that local.

Magpies and Crows also successfully raised families in the meadows. These young Magpies were being brought food by a parent as they waited on the gate and they’ve been given a dead bird here, possibly a Blue Tit:

When we cleared out the nest boxes in the autumn, we were dismayed to discover that only three of the seventeen boxes contained nests, suggesting that Great Tits and Blue Tits had had a really poor breeding year. A spell of very cold weather in the spring must have impacted these early nesters.

Bird Ringing

It is always exciting when the Bird Ringers set their nets up in the meadows. In 2020, 1059 birds were ringed here, this number boosted by the exceptional autumn migration that year. In 2021, for one reason or another, only 253 birds were ringed but this did include 26 species.

Meadow Pipit
The extraordinary hind claw of the Meadow Pipit, thought to help them spring off from the ground away from predators
A young Redstart on its way south
Song Thrush
Long-tailed Tit with yellow eyelids. The colour of their eyelids can vary from yellow to deep red, possibly depending on their mood, and amazingly the change can happen in a few minutes
The Bird Ringers participate in a BTO Blackcap colour-ringing scheme. This female was caught and colour-ringed here in December – if you see her, please do let us know…
One of the more unusual catches in the net – a Short-tailed Field Vole

Kestrels and Other Birds of Prey

For the last few years we have been following the fortunes of a Kestrel nest in a hole in the white cliffs, a short walk away. In 2021 there were four chicks in the nest:

Some of the Kestrels that we see in the meadows surely come from this nest

It is only when the meadows were cut in the autumn, and voles had fewer places to hide, that these birds started hunting here in earnest.

Kestrel holding vole prey
This bird is holding a Bumblebee in her left claw. I didn’t know that they ate bees
The Kestrel was in constant attendance as the tractor was cutting the meadows, hoping to spot fleeing rodents. This photo was taken from the seat of the tractor
Stopping for a drink. What beautiful birds they are

Our residents Crows are annoyingly quick to escort any visiting bird of prey off property:

Seeing off a Buzzard

But Kestrels and Sparrowhawks are usually tolerated. One day, however, we enjoyed watching a Crow make four attempts to get a Kestrel to move on but she wasn’t to be intimidated and stayed put.

I was most impressed to see how far round a Sparrowhawk can rotate its neck..

..and also at the length of that leg:

Given all the eggs and young birds we have seen in a Magpie’s beak over the course of the year, it is sort of nice to see a Magpie on the back foot for once, as it became aware that it had caught the eye of a Sparrowhawk:

Foxes

It’s difficult to know how many foxes live in and around the meadows because I do not recognise them all. But some, such as this handsome fellow with the tip of his tail dipped down, I see on the cameras a lot and have got to know:

He seems to be a successful hunter and here he is with what we believe to be a Tawny Owl, for goodness sake…..

…and another unidentified but interesting-looking bird

Two small litters of fox cubs were born here in 2021. The male with the tail dip was the father of a single cub. His mate was a vixen with distinctively starey eyes:

We put a camera close to their den and it captured the most wonderful sequence of photos of the little cub being taken on its first trip out into the big wide world. To begin with, the vixen looked out to check that the coast was clear:

Then both parents came out with the cub, the father watching over it so tenderly that my heart melts every time I see it:

The mother of the second litter of cubs was our old friend the One-eyed Vixen:

A heavily pregnant One-eyed Vixen in mid-March
The One-eyed Vixen, with her blue left eye, and her two cubs
Her pair of gorgeous cubs
Wet from some summer rain

Both of the vixens with cubs are relaxed in each other’s company and perhaps are themselves related:

The One-eyed and Starey-eyed Vixens

These two vixens had mange on their tails in the summer but I successfully treated them with medicine-laced honey sandwiches. This did not work for the Old Gentleman but I’m so pleased that it did for these mothers with cubs to care for.

There have been a lot of photos of foxes carrying fish this year. I am not entirely sure how they are getting hold of them but guess that they are opportunistically hanging around night fishermen down on the beach:

The Starey-eyed Vixen with fish.
Fox with rabbit

The final thing that I want to say about foxes is to mention their love of pears. As the fruits ripened on the tree towards the end of September, the foxes got to work to take off as many as they could, although this year we did not see them climbing into the tree as they had the year before.

At the same time, apples lay on the ground untouched. All very interesting.

Invertebrates

Every year we take a little step forward in our understanding and appreciation of the invertebrates that we share the meadows with. Here are some of the invertebrate highlights of 2021:

A just-emerged Broad-bodied Chaser Dragonfly with its still shiny wings and the now-empty larval case
An emerging Emperor Dragonfly. I never tire of watching this transformation
A female Emperor laying eggs into the pond
Mating Marbled Whites. The females are generally a bit larger than the males but the size difference here is extreme
A male Wall Butterfly. We have two separate small colonies of Walls at either end of the meadows
This amazing thing is an Acorn Weevil (or one of several very similar species)
Different instar stages of a Box Bug nymph
With light shining through, it is possible to see the alimentary canal of this snail. Also, its eye at the tip of its antenna
A spider web in the fog
These are lovely blue darkling beetles, Helops caeruleus, a speciality of the east of the country

I had never considered that Woodlice would need to shed their exoskeleton in order to grow. They do this in two parts – the back half is lost first followed, two or three days later, by the front half as here.

Other Interesting Photos from the Second Half of 2021

This Spotted Flycatcher, stopping here on its way south, caught our eye because of its short circular feeding flights out from the hedgerow
Love to see Goldfinch eating seeds in the meadows in autumn
The Holm Oaks were stripped of their acorns by Jays in November. These birds can apparently carry up to nine acorns in their gullet at a time and it does looks like this bird has several in there
The first time we have evidence of Magpies eating rodents
This Crow is anting. It has rested itself down on an anthill and is allowing the ants to crawl over its feathers. Not yet fully understood, it is thought that the ants secrete a liquid that repels insects and mites or has a bactericide or fungicide effect
We saw this several times and think that one adult bird is feeding crop milk to its mate that is sitting on eggs
We don’t often see toads here but this little one turned up this year
This is a very green Viviperous Lizard
A lovely bundle of Slow Worms
Slow Worm shedding her skin
Broomrape, parasitic on clover, always does well in the meadows
We hadn’t seen Sainfoin growing in the meadows before. The bees absolutely loved it.

2021 was another year in which the world was beset by problems and concerns and it was easy to be overwhelmed. But here in this little corner of East Kent, we have managed to find a certain amount of solace and escape for a while into the wonders of nature. I would say that we are definitely feeling positive about this new year just beginning and there is much to look forward to as we roll on towards spring.

A happy new year to all and let us hope that this one is a good one.

2021 in the Meadows Part 1

Over the course of this year I have accumulated so many photos that I wanted to include in a round up of the meadows’ best bits. But I’ve had to be firm with myself and edit them down to make things more manageable. Here is the result – my favourites from the first part of 2021. 

The Old Gentleman

The Old Gentleman Fox first arrived here in the autumn of 2020 and quickly became an enthusiastic consumer of the nightly peanuts. To begin with, he waited unseen on the cliff path but soon ventured closer.

So much so that, as the months rolled on, I started to wear wellies to deliver the peanuts because otherwise he had a tendency to nibble the bottom of my trousers which was very disconcerting.

But he was beset by problems – firstly carrying a hind paw, then a forepaw, he had bad eyes, a cough and, finally, a devastating attack of mange.

Carrying a front paw and losing the fur on his legs
Starting to get very frail. By this point he had begun waiting for me up by the house at dusk which wound the dog up a treat. In fact, in desperation, I was also giving him some of the dog’s meat along with the peanuts to try to keep him going while the mange treatment had a chance to work
One evening he was waiting at the back door and came in when I opened it

I repeatedly consulted the Fox Project charity for advice and did my best for him, giving him worm and mange treatments and whatever else they suggested. But ultimately it was not enough and we lost him.

The lovely Old Gentleman. RIP July 2021

Chuckles the Herring Gull

Another prominent personality from this year is thankfully still going strong. Chuckles is the male half of a pair of Herring Gulls that we got to know as we put seed down at the feeding cages every day. Watching them through the year has taught us that there is much to appreciate about these characterful birds.

Chuckles the Herring Gull in his full glory

The female of the pair was colour-ringed and so we were able to discover that she was ringed at Pitsea landfill site in Essex in January 2015 when she was around four years old. This means that she is now eleven or twelve years old.

These two gulls formed a very tight pair bond although Chuckles was much the braver and more vocal and often making his chuckling call.

Chuckles and wife

The dog objected to him strutting around the feeding cages as though he owned the place and she would sometimes chase and bark at him. This was very entertaining because he retaliated by dive bombing her:

Dog about to be dive bombed from above by Chuckles

The birds were good enough to mate in front of the camera which helped us to be certain that Chuckles was the male:

The colour-ringed female then started to gather nesting material and shortly afterwards more or less disappeared – presumably because she was on eggs. Chuckles, however, still waited for us every morning as usual.

The female gathering nesting material

Towards the end of the summer, we were delighted to meet Chuckles’ offspring when they both started arriving each morning:

Chuckles and his chick

Chuckles is now in his winter plumage with greyish speckled neck feathers:

Ever since she disappeared to go and sit on eggs, the female has made only occasional visits and always on her own. But I hope that she will return properly next spring and once again join up with Chuckles.

I love this atmospheric photo in the fog

February Snow

In mid February there was a bitter spell of weather and snow lay on the ground for several days.

Badger out in the snow

We became aware that the exceptional weather had brought different birds to the meadows and were interested to observe them:

Sitting on the deer stalking seat to try to photograph the unusual birds in the second meadow. There was a hot water bottle shoved up his coat to keep him warm
A flock of Meadow Pipit were pecking around the tussocks of grass sticking out from the snow in the rougher reptile area
Several Snipe stayed for up to a week
A few Woodcock were also here along with a Lapwing (sadly no photo of this bird)

The Snipe and the Lapwing were new species for the meadow bird list. The other four new species this year were Common Gull, Sand Martin, Reed Bunting and Curlew, bringing the total to ninety-one.

On particularly cold nights throughout the winter, a Wren roosted up in a teapot nest box in the garden. Here the Wren is, leaving just before dawn one morning:

Frog Spawning

It feels like the spectacle of the annual frog spawning in February is the inaugural event in our natural history year.

A male frog in position, awaiting the arrival of a female
The distinctive white throats of the males. Many of them will have overwintered at the bottom of the pond, so that they can be in position and ready for when the females, their bellies already swollen with spawn, arrive at the pond
This female, with her enormous tummy, has been flipped over onto her back by two over-enthusiastic males. But now she is in trouble because they won’t let go and she is stuck like this
A male, still waiting, but now on top of a mass of lovely fertilised spawn

Now that we have sorted out the Heron problem with the tactical placement of our scarecrow, the frogs seemed to have a good year with a lot of spawn laid and then successfully hatched into tadpoles.

Nesting Birds

In March, winter-visiting Starlings always gather in the meadows, readying themselves for the flight across the North Sea back to mainland Europe to breed.

For the first time this year we noticed all the beak holes in the ground where they probe for soil invertebrates.

But for the last two years, several pairs of British resident Starling have chosen the meadows to raise their families. We are delighted with this, hoping it is a sign of improving habitat.

Gathering a feather for her nest
A few weeks later and juvenile Starling are appearing on the cameras

Crow Wars broke out in the skies above the meadows at the start of the breeding season. Every day there were noisy confrontations as encroaching Crows tried to muscle in on the territory of our resident pair. At one point I dashed out to rescue a bird that was pinned to the ground and surrounded. But I couldn’t be around all of the time and, before too long, we found a dead Crow on the ground.

We put a camera on the dead Crow and saw that other Crows revisited the scene of the crime several times

This death seemed to have resolved the matter irrevocably and the victorious pair went on to build their nest on the top of a tall tree.

Gathering nesting material from a cage that we stuffed full of wool

A number of species made use of the wool dispenser including this little Wren:

Three or four years of putting seed down daily on the strip and we are pleased to report that quite a flock of Yellowhammer has built up with several pairs nesting here this year:

The Bird Ringers ringed nine Yellowhammer in the meadows in 2020 and another eight in 2021
Not all of these birds are Yellowhammer but most of them are. The largest number photographed at one time this year was seventeen

A pair of Grey Partridge were in the meadows until about July although we haven’t seen them since. I do hope that they made a nest in a local hedgerow but sadly I have no evidence of that. Maybe we will see them again next spring.

Magpies successfully nested at the top of one of the pine trees.

Taking wet mud for the nest

They were also observed robbing other birds’ nests of eggs and chicks.

Magpie with bird egg

Blackbirds were very conspicuous nesters this year. The females have sole responsibility for making the nest and I had so very many great photos of them doing this.

We also saw a Song Thrush collecting wet mud from the pond for her nest:

Another species that we were happy to get evidence of nesting this year was Linnet:

Linnet gathering feathers following a Sparrowhawk kill

This year we forgot to put bungs into the Swift box holes. By the time the Swifts were due to arrive back in the country, we found that every Swift box already had House Sparrows nesting within:

House Sparrow peering out of a Swift box

We decided to rapidly put two new boxes up because we were really hoping that 2021 would be our lucky year and Swifts would surely nest. In the event, however, poor weather dramatically delayed the Swifts’ arrival and, by the time they did finally get here, the new boxes also had House Sparrows nests.

Swifts flying by the boxes

As in previous years, the Swift calls that we were playing brought the birds into the vicinity of the boxes very successfully. But we didn’t see one stop to look in a box and there was certainly no nesting. Maybe next year….

Other Interesting Photos From The First Half Of The Year

At the end of February we saw this lizard warming up on a sampling square. We were amazed how it had flattened its body to expose the largest possible amount of skin to the sun
Always a rare treat to see a Tawny Owl in the meadows
A Siskin in March
The Turtle Dove strip being rotavated in March for our fourth year of Operation Turtle Dove. We spread RSPB-supplied seed for eight weeks from the beginning of May in an attempt to encourage Turtle Doves to stop and breed here. Unfortunately we are still yet to see one of these birds in the meadows.
The resident badgers had a very quiet year and no cubs appeared above ground in April. However, they did dig two new tunnel entrances that opened up directly into the meadows rather than onto the cliff. This has made it much easier for us to watch their comings and goings
Tawny Mining Bees are the most lovely of bees and in April we found several of their nests in the ground. We have got our eye in now and will be watching out for them next year
Sparrowhawk with fully plucked bird prey. All a bit scary
In April there were lots of signs of Song Thrushes using stone anvils to break open snail shells and get at the meat inside
We often see rats on the trail cameras but the population always seems to stay in control. In this photo, the rodent’s eyes look like drops of liquid
Fox with rat. This might be one of the reasons rat numbers stay low
In autumn 2020 we found a Wasp Spider egg cocoon in the long grass. We kept an eye on it over the winter and, by the end of May, it was filled with Wasp Spiderlings
In May there was a single Early Spider Orchid growing in the garden lawn

May is such a wonderful month in the meadows. I finish today with this carpet of May buttercups that we look forward to every year.

In a few days, I will continue the review of the year with a final post covering the second six months of 2021.