Late Summer Scenes

This weekend I completed another step on my journey to qualify for a dormouse disturbance licence by attending a handling course at Wildwood.

Wildwood near Canterbury – a zoo of British native species but a lot of conservation work goes on there as well

The course took us behind the scenes at the zoo where the enclosures for the dormouse captive breeding scheme are sited. The young born here are used in reintroduction schemes throughout the country.

The dormouse enclosures at Wildwood

We learned how to hold the animals and the best ways to transfer them from nest to bag, then on to a smaller bag for weighing and then safely back into their box.

Laboratory mice and hamsters have been found to be vulnerable to catching covid and so rigorous precautions were in place before handling the dormice
A ridiculously adorable juvenile dormouse in its weighing bag. This animal will be released into the wild next year

Dormice are nocturnal and so shouldn’t ever fall prey to magpies, but over the years in the meadows we have seen all manner of things in the beaks of these birds – snails, bird eggs, heads of wheat, berries and also rodents:

Photo from last year

I was discomforted by this photo of a magpie with a small bird last week:

And this week I have a photo of a magpie with another prey item – a lizard:

They have a very mixed and varied diet.

These birds also make it their business to closely monitor any predator activity in what they regard as their territory.

A magpie keeping its beady eye on a fox earlier this year, back in those halcyon days when the grass was green

A sparrowhawk has been using this pond a lot recently:

In the next photo, she can still be seen in the background in the water, but now two magpies have arrived to watch her:

They stayed throughout her bath:

Until eventually she finished and flew off.

I am reminded here of two boxers assessing each other from opposite sides of the ring as they wait for the starting bell:

Two magpies on the perch:

This sparrowhawk in flight this week shows the barring of her underwing feathers

We saw a juvenile cuckoo on the same perch last month. Cuckoos are thought to be trying to mimic sparrowhawks with that same barring on their wings – perhaps hoping to temporarily scare host birds away to give them a window of opportunity to sneak in and lay an egg in their nest.

Photo of juvenile cuckoo from last month

It is approaching that jay time of year when these charismatic birds pluck and bury all the thousands of acorns on the holm oaks. But while they wait for the acorns to fully ripen, they are busying themselves with eating apples in the orchard:

There is a common wasp nest in the chalk bank this year and, at the end of July, a badger made an attempt to dig it out to get at the tasty wasp larvae:

Wasps are still flying in and out of the nest through the now-enlarged entrance. Photo from July

But the nest is deeper than the badgers were prepared dig and so it survived the attack and continues to thrive. I put a camera on it to see if anything else interesting is going to happen – is it too much to hope that a honey buzzard might be tempted in? We have seen a honey buzzard here before and the badger diggings have exposed a lot of bare chalk, which must make the nest very obvious to a bird flying over:

This week a badger has been back several times to check on the nest – they have an extremely good nose and can smell the best time to raid it. So far there has been no further digging and so I suppose that the time is not yet right:

The One-eyed Vixen looks for all the world like she has a Bonio dog biscuit in her mouth:

When we arrived here in the meadows, we inherited a garden pond that had goldfish in it. We don’t feed these fish but they continue to do very well by sadly eating all the wildlife in there. However, this week I did disturb this Stratiomys soldier fly larva when I was pulling some weed out of the pond:

A fish came in to investigate the larva as I was photographing it, which gives this large larva some scale:

Late summer is the time when the front lawn becomes covered in autumn ladies tresses orchids. The annual appearance of this diminutive, late-flowering orchid means the lawn is out of bounds to us during the second half of August and the whole of September.

I had wondered how these little plants would do in this dry, drought year. In the event, perhaps they are not quite as widespread and exuberant as normal but the individual plants seem healthy enough.

The lack of rain doesn’t seem to be affecting the autumn fruitfulness of the hedgerows either. Blackberries seem particularly abundant and are ripening fast:

The Bird Ringer sent me these wonderful photos of starlings enjoying the blackberries at Sandwich Bay, a few miles up the coast:

He also saw a whinchat:

Despite high probabilities of rain being forecast by the Met Office for Wednesday this week, dishearteningly hardly a drop fell. However, a delicious 5mm has arrived this weekend even though none was being predicted. I might have known that the rain wouldn’t be able to resist putting in an appearance for the Bank Holiday weekend.

Rain clouds gathering over the yellow meadows. What a wondrous sight

In the wood, the animals are drawn to the water sources that we are keeping topped up for them:

Squirrels enjoying the water in the natural bowl at the centre of a coppice
And woodpigeon as well
Two willow warbler migrants mixing with some resident birds
It is not so much the fox that interests me here as the two frogs in the foreground
A sparrowhawk at the same pond
And a buzzard
A pair of Jays
A tawny owl is coming down for a bath most nights. Sadly I am yet to see one of the ringed young owls from this year on the cameras, even though theoretically they may still be around

I finish this week with the Seven Borealis, a heavy load lifter and pipe layer. She looked eye-catchingly peculiar as she sailed past the meadows this week, way out in the shipping lane, and reminding us of a Swiss army penknife with all the blades out.

Here she is in more detail. There is accommodation for three hundred and ninety-nine people on board:

Seven Borealis. Photo by Kees Torn courtesy of Creative Commons Attribution – Share Alike 2.0

When she passed the meadows she was on a journey from Rotterdam all the way to Bridgetown, Barbados. I wonder what she is going to do there? The idea of sailing across the ocean and arriving in the Caribbean feels very romantic although perhaps the reality will be rather less so.

Young Birds and Ancient Trees

At the weekend a small group of wildlife enthusiasts gathered in the meadows for a bird ringing demonstration.

Willow warbler in the hand

Organising events around wildlife is always a bit anxiety-inducing. Will the weather co-operate? And will any birds turn up? Thankfully we were lucky and all was well – although clear skies overnight had allowed many birds to get off and away across the Channel before the nets were set. The bird ringers were not short of juvenile willow warblers to show us though:

Being taught the important features of wing feathers on a common whitethroat
Endearingly, this young house sparrow still had a bit of a yellow gape remaining. These birds are mainly seed eaters, but this bird had clearly been feasting on elderberries as well

It is always such a privilege to see these birds up so close and we hope that everyone enjoyed themselves – we certainly did.

Black-headed gulls have been devouring flying ants above the meadows again this week. The flying ants will be mainly the black pavement ant, Lasius niger, and the new queen and male ants launch themselves from their nests on warm, calm days to disperse and form new colonies. There seem to have been so many ‘flying ant’ days this year but, then again, I suppose there have been an awful lot of warm, still days.

Black-headed gulls ‘anting’ above the meadows
This behaviour was also caught by a trail camera

Owls also like calm, dry conditions so that they can hear their rodent prey more clearly and I was very pleased to see this tawny owl on the cameras in the meadows. We have been listening to their calls at night and it was good to actually see one of them:

The shallow end of the wild pond has all dried up in this prolonged drought, and the vegetation has died back:

That is all a bit depressing, but it is good news for the badgers who are dragging the dead reeds underground to be used as bedding:

A huge great armful of dead pond reed

Other interesting photos from the meadows this week:

The mesmerising stare of a sparrowhawk
A kestrel taking a bath
Magpie eating a small bird
My friend, the One-eyed Vixen
There have been a lot of hummingbird hawk-moths around this year. I rescued this one from the house
A glorious sunrise this morning from the meadows

In the wood, squirrels are gathering bedding:

Nice to see a pair of jays:

The little bird at the natural pool at the centre of this coppice is looking up at both a green woodpecker and a great spotted woodpecker:

This hoverfly, Myathropa florea, is often to be found in deciduous woodland and it likes to lay its eggs in shallow rot holes in tree stumps that hold some water. The fly was investigating just such a place when it caught my eye, although sadly all these little natural pools are dried up this summer.

Myathropa florea

This week we went on a dog walk into our local Kingsdown Woods, now owned by the National Trust. In the springtime this wood is carpeted in bluebells and is much celebrated by the villagers. But there is more to the wood than just the bluebells, lovely though they are – it is also perhaps the only woodland in Britain with a concentration of venerable old field maples, a tree that does particularly well on chalk and limestone soils:

These field maples are thought to have been planted around 1600, probably to support a woodturning cottage industry close by. The knots and burrs in field maple wood would be used in their fine woodworking.

These slow-growing trees are fantastically gnarled

These trees are pretty amazing but there are some even older ones nearby. St Nicholas Church in Ringwould was built in the 12th century but the land on which it rests has been a sacred place for much, much longer than that. Two ancient yew trees stand in the graveyard, one planted around 1,300 years ago and the other 1,000 years ago.

The 17th century tower of the church has an onion dome used as a navigational aid for shipping in times past
The 1,000 year old yew near the entrance of the church

At first sight, the second and older of the ancient yews in the churchyard looks splendid:

But when viewed from the other side, it is obvious that something is terribly amiss. One night last week a fire was deliberately lit in the hollow centre of the tree and this wasn’t discovered until the next morning by which time the flames were six metres high. The fire brigade put out the flames but the hollow centre of the yew is horribly scorched.

The precious old yew, now with a burnt out centre

It is difficult to get my head round the time scale of this ancient tree, which has been quietly watching over the inhabitants of Ringwould since Saxon times – and impossible to fully imagine what changes it must have witnessed since 700AD. I am lost for words that someone could care so little about this. Thankfully it is being reported that the tree will likely survive and I fervently hope that it will soldier on for centuries to come.

I finish today with a selection of great photos that the bird ringer has recently taken in his nearby garden:

Willow warbler
What a lovely photo of a dunnock
Long-tailed tit with caterpillar
Blackcap with an ever-diminishing supply of elderberries

Another Week of Sunshine

Temperatures were forecast to soar last weekend for August’s check of the dormouse boxes. But nevertheless we were able to get ourselves round all the boxes, mostly working in the shade of the trees and being well provisioned with bottles of water. Once more there were sadly no signs of dormouse activity in the fifty wooden dormouse boxes, although we did find a family of them in a bird box.

There were, however, other interesting occupants to be found in the dormice boxes. Two of the boxes contained yellow-necked mice and their nests. Having got a glimpse and realising there is a rodent within, the box is taken off the tree and put into a large plastic bag, thus containing the mice within the bag once the lid of the box is fully removed.

These yellow-necked mice are about 1.5 times the weight of a wood mouse and are more aggressive when handled, as well as biting, urinating and vocalising more readily. In the UK they are much rarer than wood mice and are mainly found in the east and south of the country, living in mature deciduous woodland

Because of their tendency to bite, the mice were turned over whilst still in the bag to show that they had yellow fur forming a continuous band across their chests. A wood mouse may well also have yellow fur on its chest but not in a continuous band like this:

The nest of the yellow-necked mouse is an unstructured collection of leaves without the shredded, woven material that would be expected in a dormouse nest:

The mice and their nests were evicted from the dormice boxes since they have plenty of alternative places to nest and the mice being in the box means that it is unavailable for dormice. However, if they had had young, they would have been allowed to stay.

Another inhabitant, seen in many of the boxes this month, was the copper underwing moth which is mainly a woodland moth species:

When this bird box was opened, at least this number of moths again had already flown out before I took the photo so there were really quite a lot in there

These moths often hide in groups by day, frequently accompanied by the very similar Svensson’s copper underwing, in the hollows of tree trunks, behind bark, and of course also in dormice and bird boxes.

In another of the boxes there was an abandoned blue tit nest, together with six eggs. We had made a note of this nest and its eggs on the previous month’s inspection and so, this time, the nest was cleared out.

In July’s visit round the boxes, we had found a mother and two juvenile dormice in one of the many heavy ‘woodcrete’ bird boxes that we have up in the wood. This time, in the very same box, we found a family of much younger dormice whose eyes were only just on the verge of opening and presume that this is a second brood. Although there is generally only one litter a year, there can be two in good years:

At this young and tender age, the young dormice are quickly weighed together and an average weight is calculated before rapidly returning them to the box and their mother

These sweet young dormice weighed about 5g each and were probably approaching seventeen days old. They stay with their mother for up to eight weeks and so could still be in the box for our September visit.

Their mother was in the box with them:

The adult female dormouse

In Britain the dormouse population has fallen by 50% since the year 2000, even though it was already known by then that they needed help. So, depressingly, whatever we are doing to help them, it is not yet enough. The monitoring scheme that our wood is now enrolled in, administered by The Peoples Trust for Endangered Species, seeks to gain a greater understanding of the problems facing our British dormice to better inform their conservation.

Elsewhere in the wood, the hot and dry weather continues to bring birds of prey down to the ponds:

A wonderfully enormous buzzard comes in for a cooling bath
Probably the same buzzard at a different pond
I haven’t seen a tawny owl at this particular pond before
Sparrowhawk as well

Now finally, finally there is some rain in the weather forecast for this week, so let’s hope it actually materialises.

The ponds are also being thoroughly appreciated by the wildlife in the meadows as well. A kestrel is about to take a bath but spots a magpie coming in behind her:

She starts to square up to the corvid:

But the magpie backs down and leaves the kestrel to get on with her wash:

Kestrels don’t always have it so easy, though, and are often seen being mobbed by a group of magpies as they attempt to hunt in the meadows.

A male kestrel
Sparrowhawk on a gate
Robins have this ability to puff their feathers up, making themselves completely globular
On a few evenings this week, black-headed gulls have been atmospherically circling the meadows in large numbers to catch flying ants. They are only over the meadows rather than the surrounding farmland and we feel proud that our management of the land has produced this resource for them

This photo of a jay in flight shows what a dramatic moult the corvids go through at this time of year:

There has been a medical drama in the meadows involving a different corvid. The dog alerted us to the fact that there was an injured crow on the ground by standing over it and barking.

The bird had quite an extensively damaged wing and so we got it into a box and phoned our local wildlife rescue lady. It was 6.45pm and she told us to jump into the car and get driving to a vet in Deal that shut at 7pm and she would ring them and ask them to stay open for us.

This vet in Deal is apparently fantastic at helping wildlife and we think we will bring the dog here from now on

I rang the vet the next morning and learnt that unfortunately they had had to put the bird to sleep. But yet again I have been so impressed and moved with the dedication of our local wildlife charities and vets for helping wildlife in distress.

The most likely explanation for the crow’s injury is that it was caught by a fox but had somehow managed to escape its clutches.

I like this photo of a fox investigating a frog:

It obviously decided that it wasn’t interested because this was the next photo taken shortly afterwards:

I always like to see the interaction of foxes and badgers:

Squirrels are only very rarely seen in the meadows but there has been one around these last few weeks:

A few colourful Jersey Tiger Moths from across the Channel have been around lately:

One landed on a window and so we could see the underside

This weekend, we hired a canoe and paddled the 8km along the River Stour from Fordwich to Grove Ferry together with one of our daughters and son-in-laws:

It is a truly lovely stretch of river and was mostly shady on an otherwise unrelentingly hot day. Although it looked very tempting to swim, I was worried about getting myself back into the canoe again afterwards and so stayed firmly put.

Swimming in the lovely Stour

We have done this paddle before and had previously seen a lot of wildlife, but this time everything seemed to be keeping its head down in the heat. Beavers now live freely on this stretch of river and we knew that they had a lodge that we would be going past. Having been given guidance as to its approximate location, we were delighted that we managed to spot it:

A beaver lodge on the river stour – what a heart-warming sight

The canoe hire company run sunset wildlife tours through the summer and told us that they have seen beavers swimming in the river on every one so far this year. We have now put this on our list of things we must do next year.

Early Morning Nets

One calm but overcast morning this week, the Bird Ringers arrived early and set up their nets in the meadows before we were even awake – you definitely need to be a morning person to be a bird ringer. The warbler migration is now underway and, over the course of a few hours, they ringed eight different species of them. For us, it was a very useful warbler revision course as well as being an immense privilege to be able to photograph these beautiful birds up close.

Luckily we had emerged to start the day in time to see the indisputable star of the morning come out of the nets – a wood warbler, a species never before seen in the meadows.

A Wood Warbler with its bright white tummy and intense lemon-yellow face and eyestripe

There was a Willow Warbler in the net at the same time:

A Willow Warbler has a yellower tummy

The two species are generally quite similar though:

Comparing the Willow Warbler on the left and Wood Warbler on the right

Four Sedge Warblers were ringed. This one shows the lovely spotty necklace that young Sedge Warblers often have on their chests – and the purple mark on the Bird Ringers hand suggests that the bird has been eating blackberries or elderberries:

Lovely wing feathers as well

And a Reed Warbler, although this bird would just not sit still to have its photograph taken and consequently this photo doesn’t really illustrate its arrow-shaped head as I had hoped to:

A Garden Warbler has no terribly obvious distinguishing features other than a pale eye ring:

One of the Bird Ringer’s photos of a garden warbler feasting on the elderberries in his garden this week and showing its pale eye ring. He used to be a professional wildlife photographer and I think you can tell

A Blackcap was the sixth warbler species to be ringed:

A Common Whitethroat was the seventh..

..and, finally, an extremely young and fluffy Chiffchaff was the eighth warbler species to be ringed that morning:

Several non-warbler species were also caught, including this young Yellowhammer:

An adult female Linnet with intricate patterning of her head feathers:

And a scruffy little Long-tailed Tit:

It was a really interesting and memorable morning.

I read that this current drought is now predicted to continue through August and September and most of Kent is to have a hosepipe ban imposed from 12th August. Our area in the far east of the county is actually not included in the ban but we are trying to be very circumspect with our water use nonetheless – although we desperately do not want the ponds to dry out completely, killing much of the aquatic life within.

Looking out across the yellow meadows in early August

A lot of new trees were planted across the kingdom last winter under the Queen’s Green Canopy scheme, marking her seventy years on the throne. I hope that they are all being watered through this drought or there will surely be big losses.

Bottles of water being carried up for the new weeping beech, our Queen’s Green Canopy tree

Looking to the future with drier summers and tempestuous winters being foretold, we are thinking of ways to make the garden and the meadows more drought and storm tolerant. The Queen’s Green Canopy initiative starts up again in October until the end of the jubilee year and we hope to plant some more trees in this second phase, this time making them tough ones such as Scots pines or holm oaks.

One morning our attention was caught by our resident crows who had flown to the top of a holm oak and were making the most tremendous racket. They then launched off and we saw what all the fuss was about as a majestic red kite soared over the meadows, with its accompanying band of crows desperate to escort it out of their territory. When I’m visiting my father, I can look up at any point and probably see several of these wonderful birds soaring in the skies over Maidenhead. They were very successfully reintroduced in The Chilterns in the 90s but their subsequent expansion outwards hasn’t yet reached this furthest most point of Kent.

A red kite making a brief cameo appearance before being chased off by crows

A couple of days later, a single red kite was seen again, this time unmolested by territorial residents.

Initially it was quite low over the meadows but had got up quite high by the time I mobilised my camera

We exercise a rigorous zero tolerance policy of some plants here. In particular, we don’t want any seeding at all of alexanders, ragwort and wild parsnip, but we also try to control spear thistle and creeping thistle. All of these plants are scarily successful at reproducing themselves and have demonstrated that they would quickly become dominating bullies if we let our guard down.

In August, it is time to turn our attention to the wild parsnip which has come into flower and, unlike the rest of the meadow around it, does not seem to be adversely affected by this year’s drought. There is a large patch of this plant in the first meadow and a slightly smaller area of them in the second and, as I said, our approach is to make sure none of it seeds. We hope that eventually the existing plants will dwindle and disappear as well. It is a biennial plant but there is the worry that, by doing this, we have turned it perennial – however, we currently don’t know what else to do and at least the problem is contained and not getting any worse.

The yellow flower heads of the wild parsnip patch in the second meadow
Starting to cut the patch down and get the plants away before they set seed
The large wild parsnip area in the first meadow is also now cut and removed

On a walk along the cliffs around St Margaret’s this week, we saw that the broad wild flower margin created by the National Trust has become dominated by wild parsnip at this time of year. I think that this photo justifies the strict stance that we have adopted in the meadows. Wild parsnip does have benefits for pollinators, but it reproduces itself aggressively and has a sap that contains photo-sensitive chemicals that can cause skin burns.

Now that it is early August, the wildlife of the meadows and the wood seems to be in the doldrums and the trail cameras are very quiet. The crows and the other corvids are going through a moult, with their breeding season over, and they can look quite amusing. Here is a magpie:

..and this Jay. Note the ear hole set surprisingly low in the head:

There are always lots of Red-tailed Bumblebees (Bombus lapidarius) visiting the flowers in the meadows. This, however, is a male Red-tailed Cuckoo Bee (Bombus rupestris). The fur is less dense and there are no pollen sacks on their legs – these bees are brood parasites and do not have to do the work of collecting pollen:

Cuckoo bees lay their eggs into the nests of other bees, reminiscent of the behaviour of cuckoo birds.

The Red-tailed Cuckoo Bee looks very similar to its host, the Red-tailed Bumblebee. The female cuckoo bee will sneak into a Red-tailed Bumblebee nest, kill the queen and lay her own eggs. The worker bees are then fooled into rearing her young instead of their own, which is all pretty fascinating stuff.

In the wood, I am very much enjoying all the invertebrate life that the marjoram glade is attracting:

Comma butterfly
Silver-washed Fritillary

But, here too, things seem very quiet.

A Marsh Tit at the owl box
Adult and juvenile Green Woodpecker

I want to finish today with our sweet-natured but highly-strung dog who is currently undergoing training with an ex-police dog handler. We have a grandchild due in the autumn and, amongst many other things, this dog is scared of children.

She is making great progress and we are so proud of her, but she will shortly be nine years old which just goes to show that you can teach an old dog new tricks.