A Day for Mothers

It is Mothers’ Day here in the UK and a time to celebrate the unconditional love that mothers have for their children and acknowledge the sacrifices that they inevitably have had to make for them. We know of two mothers in the meadows so far this year. In this photo from last week, a badger moves her cub between burrows:

The other mother is the One-eyed Vixen, with her blind left eye, who has returned to her former svelte self – there will now be a litter of cubs safely tucked away somewhere. Foxes often utilise unused badger setts and there are certainly plenty of those on the cliffs:

Her mate is a very fine fellow indeed with a distinctive dip at the end of his tail:

Here he is bringing another rabbit in to feed his family this week..

…and one more as well:

This is him yet again, out and about during the day, with a pair of magpies keeping him under close observation:

It is perhaps a case of keeping your friends close, but your enemies closer. The fox is in the magpies’ personal space and they are watching his every move.

Here, the magpies are with him again, but this time they are hoping for an opportunity to get at the nightly peanuts. I deliberately wait until it is heavy dusk before putting these out so that I do not feed magpies, but even so it looks like I was too early ..

..although if I go later, I keep the foxes hanging about and they have better things that they should be doing:

Every evening I attempt to get the balance right.

There is a camera looking at a new badger hole in the meadows. We have noticed before that rats often utilise badger tunnels and this week they have been seen in and around the entrance of this new one:

The camera has also been taking photos of Peacock butterflies basking on the bare soil of the diggings which will be at a much higher temperature than the surrounding vegetated ground:

In fact, we decided to measure this temperature difference with an infrared thermometer:

The result was really quite amazing – the grass was 16° C but the bare soil was 28° C.

Under a reptile sampling square it was even hotter at 31° C. This week lizards have emerged from hibernation and are to be found warming up in this heat:

Slow worms hibernate in holes under the ground and the entrance to one of these tunnels is very obvious here:

So fond have we become of Herring Gulls these days that we now find ourselves admiring other gulls when we are out and about. This pair, with the larger male in the background, was down on the beach and they both look so very similar to Chuckles and the colour-ringed X9LT that we see in the meadows. If it wasn’t for the lack of that orange ring, I’d have thought it was them.

This next gull is being seen in the meadows at the moment. Herring Gulls are long-lived birds and take four years to fully develop their adult plumage and start to breed. I think this must be a bird born in 2020, the grey in its wings now starting to replace the mottled brown feathers of a juvenile gull:

Before the storms of a month or so ago, there was quite a flock of Yellowhammer building up. Sadly, numbers now seem to have dropped but it is lovely to hear them belting out their distinctive song from the hedgerows these days.

Four is the maximum number seen on the cameras at the moment

This bird looks so much like a racing pigeon, that I was sure I was going to see rings round its ankles. There aren’t any though, so it must be an odd-looking feral pigeon passing through.

Until last autumn, we would always see several racing pigeon each year, stopping for a quick rest during a race back from France or Spain. I believe that international pigeon racing was going to have to stop in the UK last October due to European regulations concerning movements of livestock – but I haven’t been able to find out if that actually happened or if a last minute exemption for racing pigeons was negotiated. We shall have to see if any of these birds turn up this summer.

It is rare to see a Wren taking a bath here:

The charismatic Bee-flies are now hanging around the meadows, on the look out for mining bee nests to parasitise. This is a Dotted Bee-fly with black spots on its wings:

It has been beautifully sunny all week, although the keen north-easterly breeze blowing in off the sea is a constant reminder that it is still only March. Nevertheless, we been working in the garden and catching up on jobs in the meadows.

One of these outstanding jobs was to build an insect hotel in the paddock using wood from the winter coppicing work and other assorted things that were lying around. We under estimated how many logs it would need, though, and didn’t have enough to quite get to the top:

But there are plenty more logs available in the wood to finish this masterpiece off in due course. I do love an insect hotel.

In the wood, there is a camera on a pole looking at this Tawny Owl box:

The Beech grove owl box in the wood

There has been some recent and exciting owl activity around this box and I’m pleased to say that I have another image of an owl going into the box to show you:

There have also been many photos of a buzzard sitting on the horizontal branch in front of the box:

It is always the same bird. Elsewhere in the wood, a different camera has also often been seeing this bird, perched up in a hazel coppice:

We do have a second camera on a pole – this one is looking at the cherry tree that woodpeckers have nested in for the last three years. It is not taking many photos but here is a Green Woodpecker at the hole:

I’m not sure what is going on with that Squirrel but I view it with suspicion.

A female Blackbird has been collecting wet leaves from this mini pond for about a fortnight so far. I suppose that wet leaves stay where they are put more and are easier to weave into her nest:

Moschatel, or Townhall Clock, grows well in a damp patch of the wood:

For the last photos today, I am taking you off to the lovely village of Wye in the North Downs, where one of our daughters lives and where we went today for Mothers Day lunch. We accompanied them down to the nearby River Stour where they test monthly water samples for phosphates and nitrates as volunteers for Kent Wildlife Trust:

It is really good to know that a group of volunteers set aside time in their busy lives to keep an eye on water quality at set points along the river like this.

I look forward to hearing more about what all these results will reveal about the health of this lovely river.

The Helpful House

Each morning, at first light, a pair of Crows like to sit on their thrones on the roof of the house to survey their kingdom:

They call loudly and energetically from here, proclaiming that this is their land and anyone brave enough to question that fact can expect a fight.

However, Chuckles the Herring Gull is not prepared to accept any such nonsense from a Crow:

X9LT, the colour-ringed female gull

But it is not just as a lofty Crow perch that our house makes itself useful to wildlife. In places, it has Kent hanging peg-tiles on its walls and, getting old as they are, more seem to have fallen to the ground every time we look. We are going to have to do something about this eventually but, in the meantime, House Sparrows are enjoying the cavities that the lost tiles create.

This hole looks occupied and from inside the house I could hear that something was in there:

I loitered outside for a while and saw this female House Sparrow come out:

Should we ever get round to replacing the tiles, we will consider putting up some nest boxes on this side of the house to compensate the Sparrows for their loss.

Another aspect of the house has a jolly assortment of Swift and House Martin boxes up:

All of these boxes are nested in by Sparrows rather than the birds they are intended for, but a new nesting season is just beginning, so who knows?

Although badger cubs don’t officially come above ground until April, in mid February we saw a ten day old cub being moved from one burrow to another in its mother’s mouth:

This week, the cub was moved again. It is now thirty-five days old and much bigger than the last glimpse we had of it:

There seems to be just one cub this year and we are looking forward to getting to know it better when it is allowed properly above ground in about three weeks time.

Rabbit haemorrhagic disease has caused a catastrophic crash in rabbit numbers across Europe in recent years and we do not often see rabbits in the meadows. But there is a small community of them in a neighbouring field and sometimes they do venture under the fence to us.

Peering through the hedgerow to photograph a rabbit eating grass in the next field. There is a small warren in amongst that dense bramble behind

This week we saw a sweet baby rabbit and its parent in our meadows:

But seeing rabbits here makes me worry for them since the densely vegetated cliffs allow for a thriving population of foxes and other would-be rabbit predators. As if to nicely illustrate the point, there was this photo one evening:

Twenty minutes later, the fox returned with just the hind legs and tail of the rabbit:

In the last post I mentioned a distinctive Magpie, with feathers lost on his face, that has been building a nest here:

It could be a mite infection that has caused this feather loss

The Bird Ringers set their nets up in the meadows this week and caught and ringed two Magpies, one of which was this very bird:

Great to get an opportunity to see him up close. You can just make out the ear hole behind the eye

They also caught a very smart Chaffinch, born last year. He had long wings, suggesting that he is an over-wintering continental bird, now about to leave the UK to return to his breeding grounds:

A Brambling was seen this week that is also on his way back:

As are these Starlings too:

Every day there continue to be more photos on the trail cameras of Magpies carrying sticks and mud:

We first saw a Magpie with a stick in its beak here on 24th January. One of the Bird Ringers can see a Magpie nest being built from his back garden in Folkestone and tells us that his birds started before Christmas.

This bird is now wearing a silver ring

Other photos from the meadows this week:

A Peacock on Blackthorn
A Comma feeding on Wild Plum blossom
A Blackbird with an ivy berry
The Phoenix, a two-masted brig, went past the meadows this week. Built in 1929 in Frederickshavn, Denmark, she began her life as an evangelical mission ship. She is now available to hire for events or to be used in films
A view over Dover Port this morning. Three P&O ferries, The Spirit of Britain, The Pride of Kent and The Pride of Canterbury are laid up on the cruise ship berth following the dramatic and depressing events of this week. All three of those ship names seem very ironic right now
The collateral chaos on the M20 resulting from the P&O ships being out of action

One morning this week, we walked the dog under our local white cliffs and enjoyed watching the Kestrels there. As a bird flies, the meadows would only be two minutes away from these cliffs and so surely these must be the same birds?

There is quite a lot of Goat Willow growing in the wood and it is not a tree that we had ever properly appreciated before. But when we visited this week, the catkins on the male trees had turned yellow with pollen and were alive with visiting bees. There were so many bees at work that their drone could be heard from some distance away – it was wonderful.

In the mature part of the wood, the catkins had only been produced right at the top of the tall trees, but on the smaller trees in the regeneration areas, they were lower and we could get a better look. The bees appeared to be mostly Honey Bees.

Clearly Goat Willow is a fantastic resource at this time of year and, from now on, we will give these trees their proper respect.

It was a really nice day with the sun shining strongly onto the newly coppiced area that we finished working on at the end of February:

Finishing off the last bit of coppicing at the end of February

It was extremely pleasing indeed to discover butterflies basking in the heat of this new clearing:

Brimstone in the newly cleared area
A pair of Comma were also appreciating the warmth, although they often broke off from their basking to fight each other, spiralling together high into the sky

We return to the meadows for the last photo today. 2022 is the year of The Queen’s Platinum Jubilee and The Queen’s Green Canopy initiative has been running since October to encourage the planting of thousands of trees across the land to mark this auspicious anniversary. It runs until the finish of the tree planting season at the end of March and then restarts in October until the end of the year.

This week we planted a Beech tree in the meadows to commemorate Elizabeth II’s 70 years on the throne:

Planting a tree always feels momentous and I can’t help but imagine what this tree, and indeed the meadows themselves, will look like in 70 years time.

The Progress of Spring

A few fresh, spring sprigs brought into the house, guaranteed to lift the spirits

Our son and his girlfriend, continuing their travels around the world, have now reached Ecuador and spent some days in the Amazon jungle. Here are some of the wildlife wonders that they have seen:

A pair of extraordinary Crested Owls. These birds are nocturnal and mainly eat insects but not much more is known about them, it seems. They have chosen a great place to roost here
A magnificent Scarlet Macaw
These parrots are licking the clay from the cliffs – called geophagy, eating the clay neutralises the quinidine and other toxins contained in the seeds and nuts of their daily diet, making them easier to digest
A clearwing butterfly

The UK has around 59 species of butterfly but Ecuador has 4,000 and that thought makes me want to jolly well pack my bags, get on a plane and go and see some of them. But – wait – there has been some warm spring sunshine here this week and our insects are tentatively starting to emerge. Perhaps there is no need for me to go anywhere – we have been delighted to welcome back a few early butterflies, some bees and hoverflies to the meadows.
The first mining bee of the season – a Yellow-legged Mining Bee male, I think
The hoverfly Eupeodes luniger on a daisy flower. There are several similar species but E. luniger is likely to be the one that is out and about this early in the season

We had been watching for the reawakening of the reptiles and it was yesterday, 12th March, that Slow Worms came up from their underground burrows. We haven’t seen any lizards yet.

The grand magpie nest building project is continuing apace:

I have realised, however, that there is now a second magpie nest being constructed. One of the birds that has recently been seen carrying sticks is very distinctive, with feathers lost from his face, and he is not one of the pair that has been building since January:

This idiosyncratic magpie has recently started building a nest

A magpie breeding territory is apparently twelve acres, and is held throughout the year. Perhaps the meadows, at only six acres, contain the junction of two separate territories both with a nest? We don’t know where either of these two nests are, but continue to try to work out what is going on.

Crows also build new nests every year but the pair here are yet to start. This is perhaps a crust of bread below that is being dunked into the water to soften it – we see these intelligent animals doing this sort of thing a lot:

A group of around twenty Stock Dove have been with us all winter. They are such lovely birds and we here in the UK are custodians of 60% of the global population, so we need to make sure we take care of them:

A Stock Dove courtship bow, but the female seems far from impressed:

A flock of House Sparrows has also been with us throughout the winter and remain here still. Hopefully they will be staying for the summer to breed:

A soggy House Sparrow flies away after his bath

A pair of Collared Dove are daily visitors. I was surprised to see how black and white, almost magpie-like, the underside of the tail of these birds is:

We don’t get Starlings here in the winter at all. But, every March, groups of Starling arrive from across the country, awaiting favourable conditions to fly back to their breeding grounds in the more northerly parts of Europe. Some years we have seen very large numbers indeed, but this is the most that have appeared on the trail cameras so far this March:

A rare sighting of a Tawny Owl in the meadows last night. Is it carrying something?

Our male Herring Gull, Chuckles, continues to have problems with an interloper on his patch. Chuckles always trumpets with his neck outstretched, while the new gull bends its neck down to call:

In this photo from last week, the two adult birds are adopting these same postures:

Over in the wood, we have been getting the rest of the Dormice nest boxes up so that they are ready to be discovered by the animals when they emerge from hibernation shortly:

Box 15 – halfway through the job

Sadly there has been no further action at the owl nest box. However, a Tawny did come down and drink at this pond on four nights this week:

Buzzard by the owl box
Sparrowhawk in the pond

The Bird Ringers visited the wood with some students who they are training. The students are teenagers which is great because it feels so important to inspire a love of nature in the younger generation. The group caught and ringed forty-four birds over the course of the morning, including a Great-spotted Woodpecker and two Marsh Tits:

The last photos for today are of the view out to sea on this spring Sunday morning. Two bulk carriers, Alda and Aspri, both of which have been here for several days waiting to get into Dover port, atmospherically flank the Dover lifeboat:

The Dover lifeboat, The City of London II, is presumably out on a training exercise. It is impossible not to have great respect for those brave volunteers who put themselves in danger and freely give up so much of their time to rescue others.

Up on the Downs

My mother grew up in a small, close knit community in South Wales and only started speaking English when she went to senior school.

1st March was St David’s day, which is a good opportunity to celebrate Welsh heritage and proudly fly the red dragon

It must have been quite a culture shock for her when she chose to come to England to do her teacher training in Eastbourne in Sussex, and it was the little primary school in Alfriston nearby where she was sent to get her first work experience.

Alfriston primary school where my mother taught seventy years ago, although it looks like it might have been significantly extended since her day. She met my father around this time and never again returned to Wales to live, although her heart remained in the country of her birth for the rest of her life

This week we stayed for a few nights in the lovely village of Alfriston where she first taught, which is nestled underneath the South Downs.

The Star in Alfriston – our most comfortable home for three nights this week – began life in the 14th century as a hostel for pilgrims, travelling between Battle Abbey and Chichester Cathedral
The hotel was beautifully decorated with spring bulbs

To the south of Alfriston, Seaford Head has an iconic view of the Seven Sisters, although I personally find the white cliffs around Dover to be more majestic and breathtaking:

The Seven Sisters with coastguard cottages in the foreground.
An information board at Seaford Head identifying each of the seven sisters

The Long Man of Wilmington was cut into the chalk of the South Downs possibly at the beginning of the 18th century. At 72 metres high, he is Europe’s largest portrayal of the human form.

One day we parked in the little village of Firle, where nearly all of the houses are still owned by the Firle Estate and it feels very much like you have stepped into the past.

Firle Place, the heart of the 7,500 acre estate and owned by the Gage family since the 15th century. One of our daughters is getting married here this summer and it was good to familiarise ourselves with the area in advance

We did a circular walk from Firle up onto the Downs and taking in Firle Beacon:

The camera has a high drama setting which nicely accentuates the abundant sheep paths:

On another day, we really enjoyed a visit to the 780 acre Scotney Castle estate, now owned by the National Trust:

The old Castle, built on an island of the River Bewl
In the 19th century, the family decided to build a new house up on the hill behind. They then deliberately dismantled parts of the old castle to create picturesque ruins
The new house and the sandstone quarry from whence they obtained the building stone
The contents of the house are more or less as they were when the family lived there. Although the estate was left to the Trust in 1970, the house has only been open to the public since 2007 after Mrs Hussey died aged 99
Several kilometres of hedgerow have been planted by the Trust on the estate in the last few years. Once established, these hedges have been ‘laid’ in the southern style. The stems are partially severed and laid over, allowing them to continue to grow, whilst also providing a thick barrier beneficial for wildlife and livestock control. Additional stakes and binders, coppiced from local woodland, are then added which give the hedge extra height and strength
There are lots of veteran trees on the estate, many being allowed to gracefully decline – standing deadwood is extremely valuable for wildlife. But there have also been new trees planted to succeed them in due course.
A spring near the old castle trickles forth bright orange, iron-rich water. Two ancient conifers nearby make it feel like this has been a special place for centuries. Mrs Hussey used to drink the waters from this spring every day which she thought helped her live to such a great old age
We also visited the 300 acre Bateman’s estate, the home of Rudyard Kipling and his family for many years before they donated it to the National Trust, none of their three children having produced any heirs

Back home again, I have been trying not to get excited about a Tawny Owl, who was spending time sitting near a Tawny nest box in the wood. But this week any such self-control has proved impossible, once I had seen these next two photos.

This may be blurry, but we have never before seen two owls together:

This is the photo that got me dancing round the room:

A Tawny Owl roosting in the box

A Buzzard also likes to sit on the same branch:

A Sparrowhawk comes down to a wood pond to take a bath:

By this point of the year, the Fieldfare seem to have gone but they have been replaced by Redwing. I remember this same pattern last winter as well. Two Redwing here:

We have now finished coppicing for the season and it will be interesting to see how this newly-cleared area develops over the next few years:

The next job is to get the rest of the Dormouse nest boxes up before the animals emerge from hibernation.

Across in the meadows, I first got a photo of a Magpie with a stick in his mouth on 24th January. That is six weeks ago, yet still they are at it:

X9LT, the female of our pair of Herring Gulls, poses up on the strip:

It is really nice that the male, Chuckles, continues to be seen with his chick from last year:

When a new Herring Gull has the audacity to try to come in, Chuckles with his chick on the left, is seriously displeased:

A Kestrel on a perch:

A fox sits and looks across the meadow at night:

My last photo for today is of the tadpoles that have already started to hatch in the pond:

It is estimated that it is only one in fifty of the eggs laid make it out of the pond as froglets and so I wish them the best of luck.