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

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