It’s That Small Blue Time Again

May is surely the most glorious of months, filled with the delicious promise of the summer to come. In the sunshine of this week, we have been delighted to welcome Small Blue butterflies back to the meadows. Each year we forget quite how small they actually are, and are surprised afresh to see such miniature things. The British population has dropped nearly 50% since the 1970s, and their range has considerably contracted, but numbers are currently thought to be stable. They are rare and special little butterflies, but in this part of East Kent there is a minor hotspot of them. The larval food plant is Kidney Vetch and I always try to make sure that there is plenty growing here for them to lay their eggs onto.

This is a blade of grass that he is resting on – they really are very tiny. The wingspan of the male above can be as little as 16mm. Like the butterfly itself, its latin name, Cupidus minimus, is also very pleasing
The underwings are pale blue with black spots
But the upper wings are dark. Although, as here, the males do have a scattering of blue scales

Other butterflies have also been newly seen in the meadows, flitting about in the sunshine this week:

Brown Argus. Another diminutive butterfly, but a bit larger than the Small Blue
The Small Heaths are out now too
A Purple Bar moth, out flying by day

Nest building is continuing in the meadows. We were watching a robin nest being built in a worryingly open position at the bottom of a shrub in the garden

This nest is not well hidden at all
The female lays one egg a day, usually first thing in the morning, until the clutch is complete with 4-6 eggs. She then starts sitting on them for thirteen days until they all hatch together. Three eggs so far here
I should not have taken this photo. I subsequently read that, whilst still egg laying, robins are notoriously liable to abandon their nest if they think it has been discovered. I felt guilty once I learnt that and, although I did get away with it this time and more eggs were subsequently laid, it was a valuable lesson learnt. Sadly all did not end well though. Once five eggs had been laid, but before the female started incubating them, they completely disappeared, having been discovered by a predator. I suspect a magpie of course

There has been a lot of blackbird nesting activity as well. As with robins, it is the female that does all the nest building:

The bird can scarcely be seen behind this leaf she is carrying

The male maintains a presence in the vicinity and is generally on guard although I am not sure what is going on here:

Before dawn one morning, a pair of Song Thrush were mating in the grass in front of a camera:

Two magpies, the scourge of our nesting songbirds

The magpie on the right is very distinctive with its facial feather loss, possibly caused by mites. You can see its ear which is lower than might be expected

One night a hedgehog walked the entire length of the meadows south to north along the side of the cliff. It was caught on four separate cameras during this journey, until it reached this water dish at the northernmost extremity:

At this point, there is a hole under the fence back onto the cliff and I presume this is where the animal then went. Hedgehog sightings always a cause a stir around here since they are so very occasional with no more than one or two a year.

Fox amongst the buttercups

There have been more sightings of the One-eyed Vixen’s single cub. So far there just seems to be one fox cub in the meadows this year:

Playing with its mother, the One-eyed Vixen

The baby badger twins are also being seen out and about a bit more:

The adult male in the daylight:

Broomrape, parasitic on clover, is starting to make an appearance:

One thing that we hadn’t properly realised before coming to the meadows was how different every year is. One year something can be in complete abundance, only to be scarcely seen the next. We have found that this is generally not something to worry about because, the year after that, it will be back again. This is Empis tessellata , a predatory dance fly. At this time of year it is normal to see a male Empis tessellata, perched in the hedgerow, holding his St Mark’s fly prey as an offering to a female so that he can mate with her while she eats it:

But not this year. Usually in late April and early May there would be clouds of these St Mark’s flies around the hedgerows, flying with their legs distinctively dangling. This year, however, there have been hardly any. We have barely seen any Green Hairstreak butterflies either, whereas ordinarily the meadows are a good place for them. We have missed both of these species very much and hope to see them back in good numbers in 2023.

We walked down to our local white cliffs this week to see if the cliff-nesting House Martins had returned from Africa and were busy building their mud nests under the overhangs and into the crevices of the vertical chalk faces. But no House Martin was yet to be seen and only the forlorn footprints of last year’s mud dwellings were clinging on to the cliff:

There was one nest that looked freshly built, but no House Martin visited it whilst we were there:

This is surely a newly built nest

Last year, it was only really at the end of May that things got going there, so we will return in a couple of weeks to see if there has been any progress.

Linnets were definitely nest building though:

Linnet gathering nest material

We saw this very large and hairy Drinker Moth caterpillar crawling through the long coastal grasses:

And this was a lovely green beetle:

Cryptocephalus aureolus

There are quite a few Early Spider Orchids flowering down there on the vegetated shingle:

Over in the wood, we wanted to get another no-glow trail camera on the owl box. Our options were very limited and it felt imperative to keep disruption around the box to a minimum, and so this skewed view below was the best we could do in the circumstances. We hoped to get photos of the young owls when they start branching and, pleasingly, this is now what we are getting. An owlet peers out of the box:

This next photo is a screenshot from a wonderful video where the adult landed at the box with a vole. Having piqued the chicks interest, the adult then flew up to a nearby branch still holding the prey, as if to lure the chick out of the box to get the food:

And then it happened. The young owl came out of the box and started hopping around the branches and even flew short distances

Eventually the small owl safely returned to her box.

When we bought the wood three years ago, we never dared to hope that we would have the privilege to watch something as special as this.

At another point, a sparrowhawk landed in the vicinity of the box. She wouldn’t take a Tawny owlet, would she?

In the last post, I was wondering if this unidentified bird was a Nightingale. I had never seen one before but it seemed to fit the description:

The bird ringer tells me that this is actually a Reed Warbler that will have been passing through. Still a new species for the wood list, but not as exciting as a Nightingale.

A Nightingale would be more robin-like with a rounded head, a definite rufous tail and a pale eye ring. Well, I will keep looking:

Image of a Nightingale courtesy of The rounded head and pale eye ring are apparent in this photo but not really the rufous tail

The fox cubs are growing up. It is difficult to say how many of them there are any more because they are only ever seen singly or in pairs these days:

They are wandering further from the den and are now turning up on other cameras around the wood:

This buzzard, with a lot of white on it, appeared on several cameras in the wood this week:

I finish this week with the cherry tree that has quite a few woodpecker holes in it. We have a camera trained on this tree and, earlier this year, it caught Brown Long-eared Bats roosting in the hole. But now there is something else interesting going on. A bright yellow fungus is billowing out of a high, upper woodpecker hole:

This is chicken of the woods, a sulphur yellow bracket fungus. It got its name because the fungus is meant to taste like, and have the texture of, chicken meat. What an amazing thing – I look forward to seeing how large this fungus gets as the summer progresses.

The Junipers of Samphire Hoe

This week we walked the dog at Samphire Hoe, a seventy-five acre country park at the bottom of steep chalk cliffs near Dover. The land here has been reclaimed from the sea using the chalk dug out when building the channel tunnel in the 1990s and it is really interesting to visit such new land that is still very much settling in:

The iconic lighthouse memorial at Samphire Hoe

Juniper grows on the steep and inaccessible cliffs behind the hoe:

Inspecting the cliffs for Juniper
Juniper bush growing high on the cliff

Britain only has three native conifers – Scots Pine, Yew and Juniper – and there is much worry about Juniper. It has declined in the south of England for a variety of reasons and needs urgent conservation work to understand the problems and put them right where possible.

We got talking to a park ranger there who told us a lot of very interesting stuff about the human history of the place. He has initiated a project trialling different ways to propagate new Juniper trees from the few existing, accessible Junipers that are growing wild in Kent. He showed us his little group of fledgling trees behind the visitor centre. But not only is Juniper very slow growing, it has the additional complication that it has male trees and female trees. This male one seemed to be doing very well though:

But most of his trees are absolutely tiny still:

Juniper likes chalk downland and so last autumn we bought four bare root Juniper trees from the Woodland Trust and planted them in the meadows as an experiment. These trees are probably not pedigree Kent thoroughbreeds like at Samphire Hoe, though, and we also now realise that we do not even know the sex of them. Nonetheless, these small trees all seem to be doing alright and are now showing signs of new spring growth and so hopefully we will eventually get a chance to find out which are male and which are female.

One of the newly-planted Juniper trees in the meadows

Six species of orchid now grow at Samphire Hoe, but the place is best known for its Early Spider Orchids. As the land matures, fewer are growing there though – from a peak of 11,500 in 2012, there are now only a few thousand but they were at their best for our visit:

This Hoary Cress was introduced to the country when its seeds were contained within mattresses that had been packed with straw on the continent to transport injured soldiers back home from the Napoleonic Wars. When the mattresses were dismantled, the straw was given to a farmer in Margate to spread on his land. The seeds germinated and the plant has been growing here ever since:

These Brown-tailed Moth hairy caterpillars are what Cuckoos love to eat, being able to tolerate their irritating hairs:

Back in the meadows, there are always a lot of woodpigeon, each of which must represent a substantial and easy meal for a sparrowhawk. We saw this sorry sight as we took a stroll round after lunch one day:

The feather shafts still had their pointed ends and so had been plucked out by a sparrowhawk rather than bitten off by a fox

We had probably disturbed the predator at her work and so, in the hope that she would return to reclaim her prey, we brought across a couple of cameras that had been on baby badger duty elsewhere. But after a while, the One-eyed Vixen, out for a stroll herself, came across the pigeon and took it off with her:

It looks like this unfortunate pigeon might well have been the bird that was sitting on the nest that we found last week. We had been hoping to monitor the progress of this nest but it has been forlornly unattended ever since. After a day or so, the eggs disappeared as well, no doubt discovered by crows or magpies:

The ill-fated Woodpigeon nest

Here is one of the culprits, although this is the smaller male Sparrowhawk with his brown cheeks. It would have been the much beefier female that would take a pigeon:

A while ago I finished treating the One-eyed Vixen for her mange with a course of Psorinum, and have since been scrutinising photos of her to see if she seems to be getting better, or continuing to get worse.

The One-eyed vixen in the foreground and her mate at the back. In the middle is another vixen who we think is their daughter from a previous year.

This is the third year that the One-eyed Vixen has brought up a family in the meadows and, each time, she has caught mange although I have been able to cure it. Now, even though it does look like perhaps there is short fur growing back in the bald patch, I have lost my nerve and started her on a course of Arsen Sulphur. This is an alternative cure for fox mange that has worked wonders in the past. Whereas the Psorinum is only a week’s course, the Arsen Sulphur needs to be given for much longer and so these foxes will be getting medicated honey sandwiches at dusk for a while yet. They will be pleased about this because they absolutely love them. Both these medications and dosages have been recommended to me in the past by The Fox Project, and can safely be given even to lactating animals.
The One-eyed Vixen with her blind left eye

This is the first glimpse this year of fox cubs in the meadows. This young fox was trying to get its father’s attention:

It then tried to bite his tail:

The cub seen by day. Looks to be older than the ones in the wood

The baby badgers continue to be a bit elusive this year, despite my best efforts. The twins are now being allowed up above ground for a limited time each night, watched over by their ever-attentive mother:

A robin is making her nest at the base of a shrub in the garden and I watched her as I sat at my desk:

It was difficult not to call attention to herself with so much activity – she certainly caught my eye and I was not alone. Before long a Magpie arrived and stood menacingly on the top of the shrub she is nesting in:

This does not augur well. To my mind, there are way too many magpies round here.

A few other photos from the meadows this week:

A Redwing, on its way up to the far north to breed
The first Small Copper of the year
Common Carpet Moth, often out flying by day
Three Yellowhammer – camouflaged amongst the buttercups
Haven’t seen a Kestrel in the meadows for a while
Lovely shot of his tail feathers

Over in the wood, I am finally starting to calm down after the exhilaration of finding Tawny Owl chicks in the nest box last weekend. The bird ringer sent me this photo that he took from the top of the ladder once he had safely returned the chicks to their box:

No doubt this is one of their parents at the nearby pond:

We are delighted that there has been so much bird ringing in the wood this spring. This is the third Marsh Tit that has been caught and ringed:

The down curved beak of a Treecreeper:

Treecreepers have stiff tail feathers to push against the tree trunk for extra support:

A Mistle Thrush is a new species for the wood:

There is also a potential and very exciting second new species seen this week although I am still waiting for the bird ringer to confirm – could this possibly be a Nightingale below? I think it is, myself, although I have not seen one before:

This action shot is of a confrontation between two Blackbirds. The female on the right is carrying nesting material in her beak:

The fox cubs are becoming more reddish and less snub-nosed:

They are now on solids and here is one with a rabbit:

Hedgehogs are gathering in our daughter’s garden in the North Downs. Pleasingly, the animals are using the hedgehog house put there for them:

And four of them have been seen in the same shot:

Our son and his girlfriend have now reached Africa on their world trip. They had just arrived in Tanzania when they saw these birds hopping around the airport carpark:

These are Superb Starlings. Our European Starlings can look pretty colourful themselves when the light hits them at the right angle:

One of the two pairs of European Starling that are nesting in the meadows this year

But it does have to be admitted that their colours are not a patch on their fancy cousins from East Africa. I am looking forward to what else we shall see of African wildlife over the next few weeks.

Bank Holiday Owlets

Today was definitely a red letter day, both for us and the wood. For a while now we have had some tantalising suggestions that Tawny Owls might be nesting in one of the boxes that we have put up. A trail camera on a pole nearby has produced an occasional photo of an adult owl in the box and, excitingly, on our last few visits we have been hearing tapping coming from within.

We met the bird ringers in the wood, one of whom is licensed to handle owls. However, although he has a lot of experience ringing Barn Owl chicks in the Stour Valley, he had never before ringed a Tawny.

As soon as we approached the box, a net was put over the opening in case there was an adult bird in the box that would try to fly out.

The ringer climbed the ladder wearing his safety specs to protect his eyes should there be an adult in there. Peeping carefully into the box, he saw two fluffy owlets within. Here is the first owlet coming out:

This first chick out of the box was the larger of the two. The length of her hind claw told us that this was a female.

A ring was put on the bird:

Although the young birds sat very calmly, they were clacking their beaks from time to time which was the source of the tapping noise that we had heard coming from the box.

Various measurements were taken while the chicks were in the hand. The second owlet was noticeably smaller yet was heavier, apparently because it had more recently eaten. The flight feathers were still encased in sheaths:

As were the feathers around the beak:

The larger female chick is on the left below. It wasn’t possible to sex the smaller chick using the length of its talons because it wasn’t yet old enough:

The female chick:

Then the chicks were placed safely back into their nest.

It really was a most special and memorable day.