The Longest Day

The year has now rolled past its tipping point and the days are inexorably starting to shorten once again – but there is still a whole lot of summer left and we intend to make the most of it.

On the longest day we returned to Reculver, near Herne Bay on the north coast of Kent, to give the dog an outing and see how the Sand Martin colony was getting on.

The imposing twin towers of the medieval church at Reculver

Strung along the cliff there are clusters of Sand Martin burrows and, around them, the air becomes wonderfully alive with the calls of Sand Martins as they bring food in for their chicks and take out their faecal sacs.

Sand Martins – a brown and white hirundine with a broad brown chest band

This next photo was taken of an adult Sand Martin just about to emerge from its burrow on the right with a faecal sac in its beak. It was only when I was going through the photos later that I saw the three chicks huddled together in another hole on the left:

Two more chicks peering out of their hole:

I came across a blog of someone who has been birding in the Reculver area for many decades. He reported that there are only about thirty pairs here this year which is much lower than normal. Since this is the first year that we have visited the colony, we didn’t know to be depressed about this and were actually delighted with the nesting birds that we saw.

Although we did notice that this section of Sand Martin burrows, nearest to Reculver, was completely devoid of birds:

Let us hope that this year is a blip for them. We shall visit again next year and hope for better things.

There are a thousand or so different plant galls in Britain, where an insect or other organism co-opts a plant into forming a protective structure to assist it through a particular stage of its lifecycle. There are fifty different galls on our oaks trees alone. We were on holiday recently with a lady who was fascinated with galls, particularly their artistic form so that she could draw them, and I think she would have liked this attractive one that we found on ground ivy in the wood this week:

A red hairy sphere on a ground ivy leaf
The underside of the leaf

The gall is caused by the gall wasp Liposthenes glechomae and the sphere will contain a single wasp larva at its centre:

A gall cut in half to reveal the wasp larva. Photo courtesy of bladmineerders.nl under ShareAlike 4.0 International Licence

The larva pupates in the galls over winter and the new adult will emerge in late spring

It was a dull day in the wood and this well camouflaged Hummingbird Hawk moth was resting on the woodland floor, awaiting some sunshine

I have lost count but I think that it is about ten Great Spotted Woodpeckers that have been caught and ringed in the wood this spring. Possibly our peanut feeder is bringing them in from far and wide.

A ringed male with red at the back of his head

During a ringing session in the wood this week, a juvenile with its red cap was also ringed.

A juvenile, although its right leg isn’t visible to check if this is the one that was ringed

A badger cub with its parent in the wood:

A male badger out in the wood at first light
A woodland fox
A buzzard at the owl box
Bullfinches breed in the wood each summer

Once again, the camera looking at the woodpecker hole in the cherry tree has caught a bat going in to roost in there:

Before our daughters wedding last week, we were seeing a lot of this young badger in the meadows. Every day it was coming out into the meadows in the afternoon:

The scruffy little bottom of a badger cub as it makes its way back to its burrow

However, since we have returned from our few days away, there have been no further sightings of any of the badger cubs, even on the cameras. The dry spring and early summer will have been very difficult for them since their main food source, earthworms, have gone down deep and inaccessible. I hope to see them again but suspect I might not.

We have this very distinctive magpie here this year, with lost facial feathers revealing its ear:

Here is it eating a snail and we have often seen magpies eating these, as well as rodents, eggs and small birds:

However, we have never caught them red-handed with lizards before:

But magpies don’t always have it all their own way. Predator became prey this week when we saw one in the mouth of a fox:

Another camera caught this as well and I can see that it is the One-eyed Vixen that has got the bird:

This next photo caused much discussion amongst the family when asked what they thought this was in the mouth of the fox cub:

Can I see black furry legs? It’s not a black cat, is it? Or a crow? I have a second photo from a different camera:

This is definitely another bird in the mouth of the One-eyed Vixen:

And this is a dogfish:

I find it so interesting to see the range of prey items taken by our country foxes. Of course the foxes in the meadows also have a small serving of peanut protein at dusk each night:

One of the adult foxes with a lovely shiny nose
The sole cub in the meadows this year, offspring of the One-eyed Vixen

What an extremely sweet young rabbit and how nice to not see it in the mouth of a fox:

We are enjoying seeing all the Starlings that are here at the moment:

One of them is colour-ringed although I am not even close to being able to read that ring. There is apparently a lady who colour-rings starlings in nearby Deal and no doubt this bird is one of hers:

In the wet early summer of last year, I loved seeing blackbirds and song thrush with their beaks stuffed full of worms to give to their young. This year it has been so dry and there hasn’t been anything like that at all on the cameras – I wonder how they are feeding their chicks?

Song Thrush with a solitary worm. How different this is from last year

But baby blackbirds are starting to be seen in the meadows now, so some alternative food was clearly found for them:

When the neighbouring field is growing grain, plucked seed heads are discarded all over the meadows and we did suspect the crows. Now we have some evidence for this:

This crow has an orderly row of four brown pellets in its beak. I don’t know what they are but the bird has come to soften them in the water before swallowing:

On a cool day this week, I looked under one of the reptile sampling squares where there is a black ant nest and there were a very large number of ant pupae of two different sizes:

The ants were in the process on transporting some more of the larger pupae up to the surface:

The next day was much warmer and there were no pupae at all to be seen under the reptile square. They had all been taken back underground:

Presumably the pupae are being put in different places to keep them at the right temperature, but what an extraordinary amount of work that is for the ants. Ants are a very important part of the meadow ecosystem here and I have set myself the challenge of finding out a bit more about them and why there are two different sizes of pupae.

Some other images from the meadows this week:

Sparrowhawk on the gate
Haven’t seen much of our kestrels in recent weeks
The length of a wren’s beak and the angle that they cock their tail make this such an eye catching little bird
We see a few Grey Wagtails here every year on passage
A Privet Hawkmoth found on the gate
The Marbled Whites are back in the meadow
A Hummingbird Hawkmoth on red valerian. It all happened so fast and this is the best I could get
Pyramidal Orchids are starting to flower
An Early Bumblebee enjoying some nectar
Mason bee season is now over for another year. It seems to have been a good one here and I will have quite a few completed tubes to send back for processing as part of the Red Mason Bee guardianship scheme come September
The June bugs are out and swarming around the hedgerows at dusk. They bump into me as I go to put the peanuts out which is most disconcerting

Sunset over the meadows shortly before 10pm on the longest day:

A section of the first meadow that we seeded seven years ago with native perennials is looking absolutely fabulous and is heaving with bees and butterflies:

What a wonderful time of year, I wish I could bottle it.

The Wedding and Beyond

Last weekend one of our daughters got married at beautiful Firle Place near Lewes in Sussex.

On the perfect June day, it was an occasion filled with unalloyed joy, love and friendship.

The bride is known for her admiration of seals and her sister had made seal toppers for the ‘cake’ of cheeses

The following day, happy but exhausted, we made our way onwards to a comfortable hotel we know in Wareham in Dorset for some rest and relaxation. The hotel is set in four acres of charming gardens on the banks of the River Frome and we were really looking forward to returning there.

This time, we stayed in the hotel’s old boathouse which is on the banks of the river. We could sit outside on our little terrace and quietly watch the water as it flowed in and then flowed out again with each turning of the tide.

Our room was on the right hand side of this boathouse

Wareham is three miles upstream from the sea and we were surprised to see a seal so far inland:

It made the kayakers happy too. A few seconds later, the seal had gone back under but the camera caught the mens joy:

Sitting on our terrace, we often heard a cuckoo calling and the local mallard and swan families frequently swam by, just to check if we had any bread for them.

Directly across the river from the boathouse was one end of a row of trees:

The line of trees from another angle

These trees are a major crow roost and thousands of these charismatic birds converge on them at dusk, presumably flying in from all over the Isle of Purbeck. It was quite a spectacle to watch from our terrace as it got dark- and to listen to as well because it was all quite a racket.

One day we took advantage of the long summer evening and went on the two rivers walk, carrying a picnic supper with us – out along the side of the River Piddle, returning along the River Frome.

Along the way we came across this wonderfully eccentric Wareham house:

We had a look in the Priory Church of Lady St Mary and this font, astoundingly dating from 1100, is the only hexagonal lead font in existence. The twelve apostles surround the bowl and I wonder how many children they have helped baptise over the last thousand years:

In the graveyard of the church, I was very moved to see this border collie, who has been waiting by his master’s grave since 2005:

As we were wandering around, reading the gravestones, the strawberry moon came up:

By then it was gone nine o’clock and time to get ourselves back to our terrace to watch the crows coming in to roost.

Dorset has some of the biggest and best lowland heath remaining in the UK. A lot of specialised species are supported within a heathland ecosystem – most of which we are totally unfamiliar with. But when we were in the area last August, we did spot two exciting heathland species:

The nocturnal Nightjar, resting up by day
The small and sweet Heath Bee-fly

This time we returned to Arne RSPB reserve and also went to two Dorset Wildlife Trust reserves – Higher Hyde Heath and Tadnoll and Winfrith Heath – and were successful in seeing some more wonderful heathland species.

A butterfly that I had long wanted to see is the Silver-studded Blue, a specialist of heathlands. This butterfly has a close association with black ants which look after the caterpillars within the ant nest, feeding off their sugar-rich secretions in return. Although I had never seen this butterfly before, I have now seen hundreds and hundreds of them, since all three of the reserves we visited had good numbers of them fluttering around. I read that an individual butterfly never travels further than twenty metres from the ants nest where it emerged.

Photographing Silver-studded Blue butterflies at Arne

The butterflies got their name because the underside of the hindwing often has beautiful metallic blue-centred spots, as seen in the brownish female below. Although this doesn’t explain why they are not called blue-studded rather than silver-studded:

The brownish female on top in this mating pair
The blueish male on top in this one

These butterflies were much less easy to photograph when they were not mating because they rarely stayed still for very long. The upperside of the wings has a thick border of black between the blue and the white:

We had never really come across sundews before and so were very excited to see lots of them growing in the nutrient-poor heathland soil at the Tadnoll and Winfrith Heath reserve. Although they are very small, once you got your eye in for them, you realised that there were so many growing at the sides of the paths where the heather was low. These carnivorous plants supplement their diet by catching and digesting insects on their sticky leaves:

Photographing the sundews (Drosera rotundifolia)
Many of the plants were starting to flower. The flower stalks are very long, presumably to reduce the risk that the pollinating insects get stuck on their leaves and perish
The leaves have long red hairs with a drop of a sticky mucilaginous substance at the ends. This substance is loaded with sugars to attract in insects and I suppose the red colour of the hairs might be mimicking flower petals too
The leaves can respond to touch and, when an insect is caught, the leaf bends round it to ensure as many of the red hairs are in contact with the insect as possible to speed digestion. Fascinating stuff

These Red-banded Sand Wasps were very busy digging out nests on the heathland floor:

Once they have made their nest, they then sting and paralyse caterpillars and carry them back to feed their larvae

There are several heathland dragonflies. I had never seen a Keeled Skimmer before. The thin dark line down the length of the abdomen gives it the name:

A female Keeled Skimmer. The males are blue

Another heathland dragonfly is the Four-spotted Chaser:

Each wing has two spots, rather than the more normal one, along its leading edge

Sika Deer were introduced into the country from the Far East in the 1860s and there is a large population of them in Dorset. Whilst they do help maintain the heathland habitat with their grazing, these deer have no natural predators and so the RSPB now hires professional stalkers to control numbers at their Arne reserve.

Sika Deer – small head, rounded ears and somewhat spotty

Common Cotton-grass – a plant of boggy moors and heaths:

The final heathland species we saw was the Stonechat. These birds are a birdwatcher’s dream with their penchant for perching in prominent positions and calling attention to themselves with their chatting noise.

The male looks so smart
The female in her dog collar
The spotty and stripy juvenile

There are so many more heathland species that we wanted to see but failed to – the Dartford Warbler for instance. Arne is famous for having all six species of British reptile living there (including the Sand Lizard and the Smooth Snake) yet we saw not a single one of these. It does look like we are just going to have to return to our comfortable hotel in Wareham sometime soon and do some more searching…

A Lovely Jubbly Jubilee

The whole country has been celebrating Elizabeth II’s seventy year reign over this special, long weekend. In the sunshine of Friday, we attended the Wye village street party in the North Downs where one of our daughters now lives:

A riot of red, white and blue at the street party in Church Street, Wye with the church of St Gregory and St Martin overseeing the proceedings at one end. There has been a church on this spot, dedicated to St Gregory, since early Saxon times

As we ate our picnic lunch, swifts were circling the church tower, presumably nesting within. A kestrel was also perched up on the tower – perhaps he too is nesting within the ancient masonry of the church.

An unexpected visitor was this Spitfire that flew over, saw the party below, circled back to us and barrel rolled over our heads. The sight and the sound of that made me feel very emotional:

One of the villagers is clearly an extraordinarily good knitter. I remember that this post box was adorned with a wonderful knitted creation last Christmas as well:

The Queen together with one of her beloved corgi dogs

The Queen’s corgi also had a starring role on this brownie tray bake that we brought along to the picnic. It purportedly serves six but we didn’t need that number to polish it off..

This beautifully decorated brownie, courtesy of The Blushing Cook, was apparently completely delicious. Shame that I cannot taste or smell anything having recently recovered from covid

There has been a nationwide competition to devise a celebratory pudding for the Jubilee. There were five thousand entries and the winner was a lemon Swiss roll and amaretti trifle, now renamed the Platinum Pudding. It is quite an involved recipe but I thoroughly enjoyed making it to take to the party. It is a lovely thought that this trifle will have been made and eaten up and down the country this weekend.

A Reed Bunting in a statuesque hemlock, spotted on a stroll down to the River Stour after the party

We are often to be found admiring the wonderful, sculptural weeping beech tree that stands in the garden:

Eight years ago, when first viewing the house, we walked under this tree’s canopy into the atmospheric green cathedral at its heart and I pictured our as-yet-unborn grandchildren building secret dens in there and having tea parties with their teddy bears:

Although, at this time of year, it is not just its appearance that is mesmerising, but also its sound. The entire tree hums loudly as if it were an enormous beehive.

But why are there so many bumblebees coming to the tree? It is not flowering at the moment – but even if it were, the flowers are wind pollinated and not designed to attract insects.

The visiting bumblebees were crawling around on the leaves

The answer to the puzzle lies with these Woolly Beech Aphids (Phyllaphis fagi) with their ridiculously furry white cloaks. They are to be found in low densities underneath many of the beech leaves and it is the honeydew that they produce that is bringing in the bees:

For most of the spring and summer the aphids will be this unwinged form. Then, towards the end of the summer, winged aphids will be produced that can disperse off to other beech trees.
Copious drops of sweet aphid honeydew for the bees to enjoy

I love the thought of this beech tree being an enormous free energy filling station for our pollinators, where they can come to to refuel whenever they need to.

Elsewhere, the small Alder Buckthorn trees have a sprinkling of Brimstone butterfly caterpillars this year and, every time I go past, I look to see how they are getting on. The caterpillars lie along the central vein of the leaf during the day to help with their disguise:

Three Brimstones to spot in this photograph

It was during one such check that I saw one of the caterpillars being predated:

This is a larva of a green lacewing (Chrysophidae), a predator of aphids and other soft-bodies insects such as caterpillars. The lacewing larva’s maxillae can be seen sticking into the caterpillar – these are hollow, and digestive juices are pumped out through them into the caterpillar, breaking down its tissues. The resulting nutrient soup can then be sucked back in through them.

Lacewings are thus considered true gardeners’ friends because not only are these larvae voracious predators of garden ‘pests’ such as aphids, the adults are also effective pollinators.

The next day, I’m afraid that the caterpillar did look pretty well digested:

Last year I found what must be a different species of lacewing larva. This one had disguised itself by sticking bits of debris onto its back in order to get access to their aphid prey – ants guard aphid colonies whilst farming them for the honeydew and these ants are apparently fooled by the lacewings disguise and let them pass in. All very, very interesting:

A ‘disguised’ lacewing larva from last year
A colony of black aphids on dock, together with their guardian ants
Speckled Wood in the hedgerow
Small Blue by the pond
Cinnabar Moth, come to lay its eggs on any ragwort that dare show its head here. These days, however, for a variety of reasons we operate a zero tolerance policy of alexanders, wild parsnip and ragwort in the meadows and so these moths had much better go elsewhere
Yellow-barred Long-horn Moth
A ball of Spindle Ermine Moth caterpillars in their protective web

I have seen Wren, Dunnock and Blackbird with caterpillars in their beaks to feed their young:

And fledglings are now being seen on the cameras. Robin:

And Starling:

And a just-fledged Great Spotted Woodpecker with its red cap was seen in the wood:

In the meadows, just before seven o’clock one the evening, look at these two baby badgers coming out into the open by the wild pond:

The problem was that, at this point, we ourselves were standing at the wild pond looking for dragonfly emergences – we were talking loudly to each other but this didn’t seem to put the silly sausages off. Actually the real problem was that we had the dog with us and unfortunately she pounced on one of the badgers. I got a fleeting glimpse of a dog with a badger in its mouth and screamed, the dog backed off and the small badger scuttled away.

Our dog is only interested in chasing rather than killing things, and I believe that she will have just mouthed rather than bitten the badger.

But things took a potentially darker turn a couple of days later. The dog alerted us to the fact that a baby badger was lying above ground in a hedge up close to the house, which is a whole hundred metres away from the badger sett. We gently poked the little thing with a stick and it raised its head to look at us and then flopped back down.

My assumption was that this is the badger that the dog caught and it was now sick with an injury or infection. I phoned around several wildlife charities to ask advice but it was the RSPCA who were able to send an inspector out. She arrived in the early evening, captured the animal and took it to a vet in Canterbury who checked the animal over, took its temperature and ensured that it had no injuries. It was declared fit and well and the inspector brought the little cub back to be released close to the sett just as it was getting dark, none the worse for its little adventure.

The RSPCA inspector returns from the vet with the little cub
The cub is released very close to its sett to return to its mother

We were all delighted that there was a happy ending but couldn’t understand what the cub was doing sleeping on its own up above ground and so far from its sett. Perhaps it had got completely lost? But what a fantastic response from the RSPCA when we needed them, and we will now give this worthy charity a donation to show our appreciation for their help.

The sole fox cub in the meadows this year is starting to look very grown up:

The One-eyed Vixen and her cub

Although the young fox is still interested in suckling, when its mother is distracted and eating peanuts:

With the addition of the cub to our band of foxes, it is starting to look like a crowd:

The cub is on the left

I would like to finish today with the daunting amount of broad beans that we have harvested over the weekend. There is now a big shelling and blanching job to be done before the beans can be safely packed away into the freezer.

What a whole lot of beans from one packet of seeds, pressed down into the soil last autumn. We do like broad beans but, even so, these should keep us going for a very, very long time.