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 Commons.wikipedia.org. 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.

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