Reculver Towers

This week we drove north up to Reculver near Herne Bay – not very far away but somewhere I had never been before. The iconic twin towers of St Mary’s Church, Reculver have been used as a navigation marker at the mouth of the River Thames for centuries.

The Romans built a fort here in AD200 and then, in the 7th century, an Anglo-Saxon monastery was constructed on the same site. Over time, this became the Reculver parish church until the 19th century, when coastal erosion became a problem and the structure was largely demolished, other than the twin towers.

Present day remains at Reculver showing the coastal erosion problem from an information board on site

The clifftop path here is a busy spot for dog walkers and cyclists, but we needed to be down on the beach for what we were looking for, and we had that more or less to ourselves.

Sandy cliffs stretching west towards Herne Bay from Reculver. We want to return soon in the afternoon when the cliffs will not be in heavy shadow

There were signs that many invertebrates had been making use of the soft, sandy cliffs but it was too early in the year for there to be any activity:

The thirty turbines of the Kentish Flats wind farm, eight miles out to sea

This is what we had come to see, the largest Sand Martin colony in Kent:

But even though I stood and watched for a while, there was nothing going in or out of the nest holes. Perhaps the birds were not back yet from Africa?

A short distance further along towards Herne Bay, however, the sky suddenly became alive with Sand Martins. This second, much smaller, colony was right up near the clifftop:

That distinctive brown band across the chest distinguishes them from other hirundines

Having seen what we came for, we found a path to get up and walked back to Reculver along the clifftop. Even though the meadows at the top are well frequented with humans, Skylarks were singing and Sand Martins were everywhere. We saw our first Whitethroat of the year with its scritchy-scratchy song:

A Black Oil Beetle lumbered across the path in front of us, although it played dead when it realised it had been spotted. What an amazing thing it is:

These animals have an interesting life cycle. This female, bloated full of eggs, will soon dig a hole to lay all her hundreds of eggs into. Once the larvae hatch, they climb up the stems of flowers and wait amongst the petals for a suitable mining bee to visit that could be its host. They attach themselves to the fur of the bee’s back using special hooks on their feet, and get carried back to the bee’s nest.

The beetle larva then lives off the bee’s store of pollen and nectar until it emerges from the nest as an adult. Although the south-west of the country remains a stronghold for them, all four species of British Oil Beetle are unfortunately under threat due to loss of wildflower-rich meadows and decline in their mining bee hosts.

Meanwhile, over in the wood, this blurry image was actually quite exciting:

A Brown Hare runs across the woodland clearing.

Hares are most commonly seen in grassland habitats and at woodland edges such as this, and their simple nests are above ground rather than underground in burrows as with rabbits. But they are less frequently found where there are lots of buzzards and foxes and so, although it was lovely to see this one, we might never expect good hare numbers here.

A buzzard in the wood this week…

…and action from the fox den:

We are still not sure what is going on in the owl box. As I stood under it to download the photos to the computer, there was repeated soft tapping coming from the box. Could that be young owlets I was hearing – or was it baby squirrels? The camera did have this photo of an owl flying out of the box, presumably alarmed by the nearby squirrel climbing the tree:

But that was its only photo of an owl – it is all very intriguing. We are now awaiting the return from holiday of the bird ringer who is licensed to handle owls and who is going to open the box to look inside once he is back.

One thing we know for sure is that squirrels are nesting in the former woodpecker hole this year:

Squirrel at the hole
A whole lot of grass stuffed into the hole

A large number of birds have been ringed in the wood this spring, including five Great Spotted Woodpeckers. This female, with her lovely red under-feathers, was very feisty and drew blood from the other bird ringer as he attempted to hold her so that I could take these pictures:

The woodland floor in the regeneration area is a beautiful mass of bugle spires, wild strawberry and foxgloves at the moment:

In the meadows, the breeding season is well underway. The Woodpigeon are nesting:

Feeding crop milk to the adult that will have been sitting on eggs
The Woodpigeon nest with two eggs. We can see into this nest and so hope to follow its fortunes as the spring progresses.

The Herring Gulls are nesting too:

And the Blackbirds:
Magpies are still carrying sticks around, despite having started building their nests as long ago as January:

A photo of some of the black-and-white animals in the meadows. An Ashy Mining Bee and our border collie dog would complete the collection:

Magpies like to escort foxes around whenever they can:

A beautiful Speckled Wood on the last of the Blackthorn blossom:

A Wall Butterfly

Late to the party, some of the beech trees are only now breaking out into leaf.

Beautiful just-opened beech leaves with their burnished edges and grey furriness

A badger trundles its way home at dawn this morning:

I was hoping to be able to give you a fluffy grand finale this week with some photos of the baby badgers, newly allowed up above ground by their mothers. But they are proving most elusive this year and currently this is the best that I can offer:

Hopefully, by my next post, I will be in a position to offer some better images of these adorable bundles of fun and fur.

Easter Round Up

Last autumn I planted some crown imperial fritillary bulbs in the garden. Whilst these are arresting and wonderful plants in their own right, what particularly interests me is that they are the only plant in Europe to be pollinated by a bird.

The plant is native from Turkey across to India and is bird pollinated across its entire range. Here, it is only Blue Tits that are exactly the right size and shape to make contact with both the male and female parts of the flower and thus pollinate it. They access the flowers from below, holding on to the central stem until launching themselves upwards into the bells. The plant produces plentiful amounts of nectar and this is sucrose-free so that the birds can digest it. Interestingly, the nectar of other species of fritillary, pollinated by bumblebees rather than birds, does contain sucrose.
Blue tit in the wood last year

I would absolutely love to see Blue Tits visiting the crown imperials and so have put a camera on them. Possibly it might take the birds a few years to realise that this resource is here for them, but I’m prepared to wait.

We put thirty Dormouse nesting boxes up in the wood earlier in the year and the Blue Tits there must be delighted with the sudden influx of potential nesting sites! This weekend we went round with the licensed ecologist on the first of the monthly monitoring visits and found that fourteen of the boxes had Blue Tit nests in them at various stages of construction. One even had a clutch of eggs already, discreetly hidden under a layer of feathers.

Box 11 with a bird nest of moss, hay and feathers within. A yellow duster blocks the hole as the lid is edged sideways to peer in

There were no signs of Dormouse activity in any of the boxes this time but they will be checked again next month.

We have discovered that there are six cubs in the fox den in the wood. Although the average litter size for foxes is four to five, bigger litters are not uncommon:

Night-time suckling
The cubs are now starting to be seen out during the day, but stay very close to the den:

As I was crouching down beside this camera with my computer to download the photos, one of the cubs came above ground. It visibly jumped when it saw me, not two metres away from it, and retreated back into the mouth of the burrow to stare at me from there. A very memorable and special moment indeed.

The cubs are ridiculously sweet, the colour of the earth with a reddishness about the face as a sign of what is to come. Some of them have a white tip to the end of their tail.

Thermoregulation in the young cubs is not great and so, when not busy exploring the world around the burrow, they huddle together to keep warm awaiting the return of their mother:

A ball of cubs

Although the cubs themselves are not yet on solids, the adult foxes are bringing prey back for each other.

There has been lovely weather all week, bringing the wood alive with spring butterflies. Orange Tips visiting the bluebells, Peacocks, Speckled Woods, lots of Brimstones…

A female Brimstone, the males being lemon-yellow

… and we followed a Green-veined White as it worked its way along the woodland path from violet to violet:

This young rabbit stayed still long enough for a photo:

An Easter Bunny

A Brambling sighting was a first for the wood:

Every spring a pair of Bullfinch have arrived to raise a family:

A Marsh Tit has been coming to the wool dispenser to collect wool and I wonder if it is nesting in one of the bird boxes? Last spring we moved a trail camera on a tripod from box to box to see what was nesting within each one. It was exclusively Great Tits and Blue Tits back then, but who knows what we shall discover this year.

Marsh Tit about to collect some wool

Across in the meadows, the Smooth Newts are very active in the ponds at the moment. The bellies of the females are swollen with eggs and the over-attentive males are making nuisances of themselves.

Not a great photo but the female is lighter with a rotund abdomen

It surely can’t be very long now before the badger cubs come above ground. Yet again, the babies have been carried around between burrows a few times this week:

The Blackthorn blossom in the hedgerows cannot fail to lift the spirits, with the Hawthorn yet to come:

And the fruit trees are in glorious flower in the orchard. Pear blossom:

And deliciously pink apple blossom:

Dark-edged Bee-fly enjoying the flowers…

..and in profile showing its tufty long fur and spindly legs:

A lovely image of a hedgehog in our daughter’s garden in the North Downs. What a shiny, wet nose it has:

At this time of year, there is an endless list of jobs to do in the garden and allotment, and the beautiful Easter weather has got us out to get some of these ticked off.

Getting the first early potatoes in

In one corner of the allotment, the rhubarb leaves are starting to thrust themselves up above ground and, from time to time, we stop by to note the progress, dreaming of the rhubarb crumbles to come.

Bats in the Wood

There has been some bat excitement this week and it all started with this photograph:

Intriguing night shot from a trail camera looking at a woodpecker hole. The hole is just below the thin branch near the top

There are four bats around the tree, including the one perched at the entrance to the hole. The ears suggest that these are Brown Long-eared Bats, which tend to live in light woodland and typically roost in trees. They do indeed have the most fantastic ears.

Image from Wikimedia Commons. Ernst Haeckel – Detail of the 67th plate from Ernst Haeckel’s Kunstformen der Natur (1904). Brown Long-eared Bat

The ecologist helping us with the Dormouse monitoring is also a bat expert and she told us that bat tree roosts are very transitory at this time of year, when they have recently awoken from hibernation and before they have properly settled down. We met her at the wood that same evening just before dark to try to catch them emerging from the hole.

She arrived with a lot of high tech and expensive equipment. These bat detectors were very good, showing the frequency of calls of any passing bat and also saving the data so that it can be reviewed and properly analysed later.

Two infrared floodlights and a sophisticated IR camera were trained on the hole. Even when it got completely dark, that camera had a remarkable view as if it were still daytime:

We then waited for it to get dark. The Pipistrelles are the first bats to emerge at dusk and soon we had a Soprano Pipistrelle feeding along the track behind us. It was light enough to still see it by eye and, for the first time, not only could I watch a bat but I also knew exactly which species it was, which greatly increased my appreciation of it. Before long there were several Soprano and Common Pipistrelles flying around us.

Barracuda1983. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons. Common Pipistrelle

But we were waiting for the Brown Long-eared Bats and they don’t come out until it is properly dark – around 45 minutes after sunset. And then, on cue, there were five Long-eared Bats above our heads – seen by the bat expert but but we beginners could see nothing. The bat detectors, however, recognised their quiet, lower frequency calls. Bats make their echo-locating calls in order to hear the reflected sound back, and Long-eared bats with their enormous ears don’t need the sound to be very loud to still be able to hear it.

But we hadn’t seen these amazing bats emerging from the hole in the tree that we were monitoring and, in fact, subsequent review of the camera footage showed that they did not come out of there. The manner in which they were flying, though, apparently suggested that they had just emerged very close by – perhaps even from another of the several holes in that same tree.

I wonder if the bats had looked in the woodpecker hole and decided not to go in because there was a woodpecker in there? The birds are definitely still interested in the tree:

Two Green Woodpeckers at the tree

It was really enjoyable evening although a shame, of course, that we didn’t get photos of the bats emerging. There are now plans to try to spend another evening in the wood with bat detectors once the monitoring season is properly underway from May.

In the meantime, we are now inspired to install our three new Kent bat boxes in the wood. With open bottoms, these wooden boxes with recycled plastic coverings are self cleaning and, once up, can be left alone for many years.

Elsewhere in the wood, we have a camera looking at a fox den. It seems that I was wrong last week when I said that one of the foxes using the den was heavily pregnant – even though she is definitely stout, I now see that she is lactating:

Lactating vixen

And her tiny cubs have already been born:

The cub is so dark at this age
A tender moment between a parent and cub
Two of them at least

The camera on the owl box has captured some more visits of a Tawny Owl to the box but not as many as might be expected if a bird was sitting on eggs in there. I have had a thought – perhaps the nest itself is located elsewhere and this box is being used as an occasional roost for the bird that is not busy incubating the eggs?

Other interesting photos from the wood this week:

Redwing remain with us for now. It is probably still quite wintery in the far north where they breed, so they shouldn’t arrive there too early
Woodcock, however, have gone. This one, though, was seen this week and has possibly stopped off briefly on migration
A male pheasant displaying to a female by pulling his wing down and trying to look huge. I think she actually does look a little impressed
Sometimes Buzzards just look like they are wearing a pair of brown trousers
One of the bird ringers spent a busy morning ringing on his own in the wood. He ringed over forty birds, including a Great Spotted Woodpecker, a Coal Tit and, thrillingly, two Nuthatch which are rare in our part of Kent. He also saw 8-10 Crossbill fly over which is a new species for the wood

Over in the meadows, the baby badgers have once again been moved, and in the same direction as the last two times. My latest theory is that, underground, these mischievous little cubs are crawling away from their nursery and the mother is having to repeatedly return them, doing so overground where there is more space to carry them. Here is the first cub:

Nine minutes later, a second one is carried across:

Foxes and badgers live in close proximity here and yet they largely manage to completely avoid each other. On a recent wild night, however, the roar of the wind meant they couldn’t hear much else as both a badger and a fox tried to use the hole under the fence at the same time. The badger initially jumped back in surprise:

The fox was also shocked and its knee jerk reaction was to hiss:

But then the badger, having taken stock and remembered she was the top dog, charged at the fox who strategically withdrew backwards:

What fun. I love to observe the interactions between these two species as they are forced to rub along together.

An altogether more peaceful badger scene:

The One-eyed Vixen has once more caught mange and I have just finished giving her, and our other foxes here, a course of medicine delivered in nightly honey sandwiches which they love:

The One-eyed Vixen in the foreground with fur missing from her back

Now we wait with our fingers crossed to see if the hair loss continues or if the treatment has worked and her fur starts to regrow.

On this same camera this week, there was a Tawny Owl on the ground. It is unusual to see a Tawny Owl in the meadows:

I suppose owls do need to go down onto the ground to catch their rodent prey but I can’t help but worry for them after we got this photo in November 2021 of a fox carrying an owl:

Other photos from the meadows this week:

One of my favourites – the Tawny Mining Bee female. The rich colours of this bee are always a showstopper for me
Magpie with a snail
A Woodpigeon collecting sticks to build a nest
The crows are further advanced in their nest building and are now lining theirs with soft wool from the wool dispenser
We have only ever once before seen a Red-legged Partridge in the meadows. We do regularly see the native Grey Partridge here but unusually haven’t seen one this year yet
The two-year old Herring Gull with something to say for itself
X9LT, the female of our pair of Herring Gulls here
Our lovely pair of Herring Gulls enjoying a moment of tranquility together

In our daughter and her fiancé’s garden in the North Downs, the hedgehogs have awakened:

I wonder if they will get hoglets this year? I do hope they do.

I finish today with a photo of our dog with one of the cowslips which, like little yellow chandeliers, are lighting up the meadows this April.

Spring Matters

There are two trail cameras in the vicinity of the badger sett in the meadows and every spring we are treated to fleeting glimpses of cubs as they are moved between burrows. We think that, in all likelihood, the different tunnels do connect under the ground, but that it is just easier to move the young if they are brought up above. It certainly then means that we are treated to early, tantalising cameo appearances of the little cubs that will soon be joyfully romping around the meadows.

Here is our first sighting of this year’s baby badger, tiny and hairless, at ten days old on February 21st:

We then had to wait until the cub was thirty-five days old before we saw it again, now much grown, on 18th March:

This week, on 28th March, it has been moved again. Now forty-five days old, the mother badger was struggling to stop the cub from dragging on the ground:

There were two surprising things about this. The first was that the cub was being moved in the same direction as last time. But the second, bigger surprise was that, this time, there was a second cub that was moved fifteen minutes later. This second one was carried facing its mother which worked better without the cub’s legs sticking out forwards – but that did mean that we didn’t get such a good view:

Two days later, on 30th March, the plot thickened further. Now, a single cub was carried in the same direction that the other two had been a couple of nights earlier.

This baby badger seems smaller and easier to carry. Perhaps the answer is that there are two different litters, one with one cub and the other with two?

I have looked in my records for the dates that the young badgers have been officially allowed above ground in previous years: 7th April 2017, 17th April 2018, 16th April 2019 and 23rd of April 2020. Last year there were no cubs. So we have a little while to wait yet before we get to see them properly and solve the mystery of what on earth is going on.

All across the meadows are shallow little pits where badgers have pawed the ground to get at the earthworms that make up 70% of their diet. On a damp and misty morning this week, we realised that every single one of these holes that we looked at had a spiderweb strung across it as a sort of pitfall trap. There must surely be several thousand of them.

The web highlighted by water droplets in the mist

But what are the spiders hoping to catch in these webs? Possibly ants, ground beetles and other invertebrates bumbling along the ground and falling by accident into the hole and thus into the clutches of the spider?

Depressingly, the One-eyed Vixen seems to have got mange again and has now lost a patch of fur on her back:

This will be the third year in succession that I have had to treat her for mange. In the past, I have sought advice from The Fox Project charity and, as previously suggested by them, have started a week’s course of medicine-laced honey sandwiches that go out at dusk with the peanuts. She is an easy fox to treat since she is always ready waiting for the peanuts and so fingers crossed this will once more be successful.

The One-eyed Vixen’s handsome mate at the badger hole.

Another year of being Red Mason Bee guardians is commencing. The bee cocoons have arrived in the post and are now out in the release box, ready to hatch:

The cardboard tubes that we hope they will nest in are in position above the release box:

All we need now is some warmth to get things going.

Bird nesting season is always an interesting time in the wood and this year particularly so. There has been another photo of a Tawny Owl in the nest box:

It is now impossible for me to not be excited about this. Typically Tawnies lay their first egg around the third week of March, with chicks hatching thirty days later and fledging around the end of May. I feel like I should whisper this question: Could there already be eggs in this box?

The buzzard has also been sitting on the horizontal branch where we see it a lot. In the summer before we bought the wood, buzzards nested at the top of one of the tall silver birches here. However, this nest has long ago been blown away by the winds and the birds have made no further attempts to nest in our wood. There is a lot of buzzard activity here, though, and I feel sure that they are nesting in woods nearby.

The camera looking at this box is old and slightly temperamental so we decided to replace it with a newer, hopefully higher resolution one, and set it to take videos.

The new camera going up into position

We have another camera on a pole looking at a cherry tree where Green Woodpeckers have nested for the last two years. It seems that something intriguing is going on here as well.

As we approached the tree, there was a scurrying noise such that the claws of a squirrel might make as it scrabbled up a tree. The dog heard it too:

On reviewing the camera footage, we saw that a squirrel had been carrying nesting material up the tree:

The woodpecker nest hole is just below that skinny branch coming off the trunk

Because this tree currently has no leaves, we could clearly see that there isn’t a squirrel drey being constructed up in the branches. There are, however, many old woodpecker nest holes in this tree and one entrance is really quite large. Could the squirrels be nesting in here? If so, they would be very close neighbours of the woodpeckers:

We attached another camera to a pole and trained it on the possible squirrel nest.

The cherry tree and its two paparazzi cameras looking at different holes

On returning to review the cameras, we can now confirm that squirrels are indeed nesting in the large, higher hole:

Nesting material going in
There was a lot of squirrel activity in and out of the hole

The Green Woodpeckers also came to look in this squirrel hole from time to time, possibly to check out the neighbours…

…as well as only occasionally looking into the hole they traditionally nest in. Perhaps they won’t now nest here this year – after all, squirrels are major predators of young birds in nests.

As we step around the wood, the dog always carries out an in depth investigation of every one of the numerous rabbit holes that we pass. But one burrow in particular called for extended scrutiny this time and it was difficult to get her away. Once we did, though, we noticed that there were pheasant feathers at the entrance – the dog had possibly found us a fox den:

A very active-looking hole with a wodge of feathers at the entrance

Having established that squirrels were definitely nesting in the cherry tree, we have now moved that camera onto a shorter stick and trained it onto this potential fox den to see what we got.

This morning we visited the wood again. I went to check the camera and how about this for the first shot?

A fox sticks its head out of the burrow at dusk

One of the foxes using the den looks to be pregnant:

We will leave this camera here for now to see if we can see cubs emerge this spring

In the meadows, there have been an alarming number of rabbits seen in the mouths of foxes recently, but this has only ever been seen once on the cameras in the wood. The wood does have both foxes and rabbits:

However, there are less foxes and more rabbits than in the meadows, and these rabbits have so very many burrows to escape down if being pursued. The woodland also has good numbers of pheasant and squirrels as alternative prey for the foxes. All these factors must lead to there being a very different ecological balance in the wood which is probably good news for the rabbits.

Another rabbit lost in the meadows this week

Since birds are currently busy building their nests, we have set them up a wool dispenser in the wood. The dog’s food arrives frozen, insulated by wool blankets, and it is this packaging wool that we have teased apart and stuffed into the wire box to be reused by the birds. This dispenser is proving very popular with the Great Tits and Blue Tits and it is nice to think that their babies will be sitting cosily on the dog food wool in due course.

We have set a wool cage up in the meadows as well:

A Horse Chestnut tree unfurling new leaves in its own inimitable fashion

One of our sons, travelling the world for a year with his girlfriend, has spent the last two weeks on the Galapagos Islands but has now reached Peru. He sent us a photo of this enormous blue wasp:

It is difficult to judge the scale of the photograph but these blue-black Tarantula Hawk Spider Wasps are around 5cm long – one of the largest parasitic wasps in the world. They use their sting to paralyse Tarantula spiders and then drag them off to their nest. A single egg is then laid on the unfortunate spider, which then hatches and the wasp larva feeds on the still living prey. Luckily these insects rarely sting humans without provocation but, when they do, their sting is among the most painful of all insects. One researcher has described this pain as ‘immediate, excruciating, unrelenting pain that simply shuts down one’s ability to do anything, except scream’. 

I am enjoying being sent selected natural wonders from Central and South America without having to leave my comfortable armchair. Soon they will be moving to Bolivia, and then on to Florida en route to Africa. More wildlife wonders no doubt await….