We have had a lot going on recently and had rather forgotten that we were booked on an evening wildlife cruise on the River Stour. The boat left Grove Ferry at 6pm and set off upstream towards Canterbury. There was a lot of wildlife potentially to be seen but without a doubt the main attraction was the beaver.

We had a wildlife guide on board and straight away he identified a Cetti’s warbler singing. This bird is now a British resident and the very first record of its breeding in the UK was here in the Stour valley in 1972.

The rather nondescript Cetti’s warbler. Photo by Mark S Jobling courtesy of Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported
The lovely Stour at the end of the day from the back of the boat

Beavers had been hunted to extinction in this country but, in 2002, The Wildwood Trust – a charity championing the conservation of British wildlife – imported beavers from Norway and Bavaria and reintroduced them at Ham Fen, a Kent Wildlife Trust reserve in the Stour valley near Sandwich. Ham Fen had been especially prepared for these animals with electric fences to contain them but, perhaps inevitably, some escaped and started living wild on the Stour. There are now estimated to be fifty beavers on the river between Sandwich and Canterbury, not including those animals still at Ham Fen.

It was not very long at all before we saw our first beaver. The light was going fast and photography was difficult:

A young beaver
One of the three beaver lodges we passed between Grove Ferry and Fordwich on The Stour. There are branches at the front and holes dug into the bank behind
An adult beaver with that distinctive flat tail
The same adult beaver, but with the branch in focus showing stripped bark and gnawings

We returned Grove Ferry at 8pm in the dark, a bit damp but with an inner warmth of delight having seen eight beavers on the trip.

As well as their dormouse reintroduction programme that I learnt about when I attended my dormouse courses at Wildwood this summer, The Wildwood Trust and Kent Wildlife Trust are also involved in another exciting local project to reintroduce red-billed chough to the White Cliffs Country around Dover. These will be the first choughs flying free in Kent for two hundred years which is how long they have been extinct in the county due to habitat loss and persecution.

Red-billed Chough photographed in the Canary Islands courtesy of Malte Uhl under CC-by-SA
Our daughter’s photo of choughs that they saw when they were holidaying with us in Pembrokeshire last year

We understand that, after a few years of careful habitat preparation and building up of a stock of birds, some choughs were finally released into the wild near Dover on Thursday 22nd. On Friday, the very next day, the Bird Ringer heard and saw two chough flying along the hedgerow at the western edge of the meadows and we are very pleased to now enter this species onto the meadow bird list at number 96. This list is getting increasingly bizarre for a Kent meadow, with gannet, cormorant, wood warbler, ring ouzel, bee eater, honey buzzard and red-billed chough on it, amongst others.

A juvenile sparrowhawk posed on the gate this week with its ringed house sparrow prey:

It then proceeded to eat the bird:

This photo of a sparrowhawk hunting swallows was taken by the Bird Ringer at our nearby white cliffs recently:

There have been two successful bird ringing sessions in the meadows this week. Today, two male firecrests flew into the net together, each weighing a mere 5g:

This bird fledged this year
This slightly tattier one was a full adult
Those fire-coloured feathers in the crest of a male

This blackcap was already ringed and so we should get more details on where and when she was previously caught before too long:

There were a lot of chiffchaffs in the nets this week:

When we returned from holiday last week, there was a fox lying dead by the side of the road below the meadows. I thought it was my friend The One-Eyed Vixen from the glimpse I got as we drove past, and so, once home, I raced out with a torch to either confirm my fears or to put them to rest. To me every fox is precious, but I was nonetheless pleased to see that it was not her but a poor dispersing youngster with slight mange on its tail.

The One-eyed Vixen, still going strong
What a fantastically bushy tail she has at the moment. This feels a triumph because she has been treated for mange three times now, here in the meadows
Here she is with prey. I suppose this must be rabbit
I can’t even begin to guess what this is that she is carrying

In the Lake District last week we saw a rather scary-looking devil’s coach-horse beetle that had caught a violet ground beetle:

Back in the meadows, we spotted one of these predatory beetles again and, this time, it had caught a moth that was still helplessly flapping its wings:

These devil’s coach-horses are rove beetles – a large family of beetles distinguished by their very short wing cases that leave more than half their abdominal segments exposed. A look in my insect book shows that there are lots of common rove beetles in the UK, but I only really know this one – I must try harder to spot some more.

Every autumn a lot of fungal fruiting bodies appear in the meadows in association with the roots of the pine trees. They are called bovine boletes because they are meant to be the colour of a Jersey cow:

There are really quite a lot of them and they can get very large. The underneath of the fruiting body is distinctive because it is a honeycomb rather than having the more normal gills:

There are some very large toadstools coming up in the wood as well. I’m not sure what this one is:

A redwing has arrived in the wood which feels quite early:

And we have again seen the buzzard with lots of white feathers.. well as the browner one that we have been seeing all summer:

Here the bird is again, presumably coughing up a pellet:

This tawny owl has got itself a worm:

What amazing eyes it’s got:

I’m finishing today with our dog who is shortly going to be nine years old, which is all a bit shocking.

Even though nine is getting on a bit for a dog, I’m so impressed to see that she can still get herself over this gate when she wants to. There is life in the old dog yet.

Lake District Special

Both of my parents were keen hill walkers and, whilst my friends skipped off to sunny beaches with their buckets and spades, my siblings and I were dragged complaining up the mountains of the Lake District or the Alps for most of our family holidays. It was The Lake District, in particular, that held a special allure for my father – our family made the long journey up the M6 several times a year, to slog up its hills and experience the exhilaration of standing aloft its high peaks with the wind in our hair and with astounding views all around…when not obscured by mist and driving rain, of course.

Somewhere along the line, I stopped being a reluctant walker and fell in love with the Lake District in my own right. We still try to return there frequently and found somewhere rather wonderful to stay this time – a converted 19th century chapel, with its own land reaching down to 300m of private shoreline on Coniston Water.

Sunny Bank Chapel on Coniston Water. Built in 1875, it closed for worship in the 1940s and was more or less derelict by 2020. It has now been renovated and is reinvented as a very comfortable self-catering cottage

Next to the chapel, its baptismal pool can still be seen in the grass:

Down on the lake shore, we had our own Canadian canoe for the week:

Walking down to the lake for a paddle before breakfast

The lake looked different every morning:

The southern end of Coniston is quiet and we scarcely saw another soul on the water:

Sunny Bank jetty
The benevolent outline of the Old Man of Coniston
Grizedale Forest extends down to the eastern bank of the lake
Every morning atmospheric formations of honking geese flew along the lake:

One day we saw a group of twelve goosander, all diving down in synchrony for fish

There was often the azure flash of a kingfisher, although this was the best photo I got:

Kingfisher on the Sunny Bank landing stage
This pied wagtail was singing

The author Arthur Ransome used to holiday at the southern end of Coniston as a child in the 1890s. His mother was an artist and his father loved to fish and so the children were largely left to their own devices and had many adventures in and around the lake. This became the basis for his Swallows and Amazons books that he wrote in later life. Wild Cat Island in the books was based on Peel Island which was an easy paddle from the chapel:

Peel Island from the top of Beacon
Visiting Peel Island
Peel Island
The view up the lake from Peel Island

Returning back for breakfast after one of our outings on the lake:

After breakfast, it was time to pack our rucksacks and go off for a walk. These days we much prefer to climb lesser summits and admire the landscape and the drama of the higher peaks from there.

On the first day, we walked from the chapel across Torver Common and up to Coniston village, then catching the launch boat back to Sunny Bank jetty.

The Coniston mountains as viewed from Torver Common. Juniper might be struggling in other parts of the country, but in the Lake District it seems to be doing well
Juniper berries
Long Moss Tarn on Torver Common
Black darter dragonflies at Long Moss Tarn

A series of devastating storms earlier in the year, with unusual wind directions, meant that a lot of trees have been lost throughout the region:

The museum in Coniston was packed full of interesting stuff. It had a yacht that was very much like the one that Arthur Ransome would have been mucking around in on the lake as a child:

I can remember the six o’clock news headlines of Donald Campbell’s attempts to set the water speed record in Bluebird on Lake Coniston back in the 60s. I can also recall the nation’s shock and horror at his final attempt in January 1967 when he crashed and died.

There is a whole room in the museum dedicated to Donald Campbell and Bluebird

Donald Campbell had always asked that ‘skipper and boat stay together’ if anything went wrong, and Bluebird, with Donald Campbell still strapped in at the helm, lay on the bottom of the lake for many years. However, in 2001, she was recovered and Donald’s body is now buried in Coniston cemetery.

Part of Bluebird, recovered from the lake in 2001

We walked from the cottage on the second day as well, getting ourselves up Beacon, one of the smaller peaks flanking the lake:

The summit of Beacon, with views north to the main Coniston mountains

All over the Lakeland fells there are wet blanket bogs, or ‘mosses’:

I used the PlantNet app on my phone to identify some of the specialised plants that grow in this waterlogged habitat:

Bog asphodel, strikingly orange in the autumn
Loads of bog myrtle

We noticed that a lot of the tips of the bog myrtle plants had been spun into a structure:

Taking a little peek into one of these capsules, I found the caterpillar of Hedya atropunctana living within the protected space:

This micro moth occurs mainly in the north of England and Scotland and is a specialist of damp mosses, utilising the bog myrtle that grows there as its larval food plant

In the wettest and most anaerobic of spots, we found common butterwort growing:

This plant grows in very low-nutrient places and supplements its diet by catching and digesting insects on its sticky leaves:

Globules of stickiness on its leaves
Several insects inescapably caught on the leaves

We observed high drama in the beetle world on Beacon. A violet ground beetle had been caught in the powerful jaws of a predatory devil’s coach-horse beetle.

However, I am happy to report that things ended well for the violet ground beetle. The devil’s coach-horse was not happy with us paying it so much attention and it released its grip and scuttled off:

This beautiful beetle lived to see another day

Dor beetles are dung beetles and were abundant on the grassy slopes where sheep were grazing:

On the third day, we drove to the Duddon Valley and climbed Great Stickle and Stickle Pike. The plateau between the two peaks has eight delightful tarns:

Stickle Pike glowering menacingly in the background of one of the eight tarns. We knew we had to get ourselves up that but it didn’t look very inviting

Unfortunately the SD card in my camera malfunctioned on this, the most challenging of our walks, and so I have only a few photos from my phone:

At the top of Stickle Pike
Looking across to the Stainton Ground slate mines and quarries on Caw

We made a diversion to explore the quarries and I had another opportunity to use the PlantNet app to identify this plant that I didn’t recognise:

This is parsley fern, a plant of very rocky places in the uplands – which is satisfyingly exactly where I found it.

We were tired after our long and strenuous day in the Duddon Valley and spent the next morning visiting Brantwood, the beloved home of John Ruskin, a Victorian gentleman who was interested in so many things that it is difficult to sum him up succinctly. He is often described as an art critic but he was so much more, including being a big fan of the Lake District.

Brantwood on the shores of Coniston Water where John Ruskin lived for the last thirty years of his life

In the afternoon we walked in the Grizedale Forest where, again, a large number of venerable trees had been lost in last winter’s storms. The visitors’ centre had an exhibition by the sculptor Richard Harris who has also created many of the woodland sculptures that can be admired on the walking trails:

On our last day, we drove to Eskdale and did a really lovely walk in the surrounding hills and back along the river Esk.

The very charming Ravenglass to Eskdale railway made us smile
Beautiful views over Eskdale

We came across a field of rams that had all been dyed purple. We don’t understand why:

A fine castellated Lakeland dry stone wall

Here in the furthermost reaches of East Kent, the Lake District feels a very long way away. But, without fail, a visit there repays any effort necessary to get there – we enjoyed ourselves so much and now feel so fit that we are already planning to return next year.

The Birds and the Bees

A shiny new species for the meadows arrived in the Ringers’ net this week- a tree pipit.

Species 95 on the meadow list

It looks a lot like a meadow pipit to me, but there are subtle differences. The Bird Ringer sent me some of his photos to illustrate a few of the ID features for tree pipits:

That hind claw might be long but it’s shorter and more curved than on a meadow pipit, the belly feathers are white, changing to cream under the tail, and the streaks on the flank of the bird are obviously finer than on the breast

Unlike meadow pipits, tree pipits are red-listed in the UK and are summer visitors, breeding in open woodland in the north and west of the country. The bird in the meadows this week will probably be on its way to sub-Saharan Africa to spend the winter.

Apart from the excitement of the tree pipit, the ringers had a quiet morning, although they did also catch a few warblers:

A very fine blackcap

On the same morning that the bird ringers were here, a pied flycatcher managed to evade their nets and turned up on a camera at one of the mini ponds:

This pair of birds below have once again met on the gate and are sizing each other up:

Magpie and sparrowhawk

Around lunchtime one day, we became aware that there were a lot of honeybees in the house, two or three buzzing at seemingly every window. This felt unusual and so I walked up to the little owl nest box, where honey bees have been nesting this year, to see if anything was going on.

The little owl box where honeybees are nesting

There were still bees going in and out of the nest box but, thrillingly, there was also a swarm hanging in the hedgerow below it:

Swarming is how the colony reproduces itself – an old queen leaves the nest, taking some of the bees with her. The group leave the hive and hang nearby in a cluster whilst scout bees go off to try to find somewhere for the swarm to move to. It is no doubt some of these scout bees that were ending up in our house.

The swarm from another angle – so many bees

I went up to check on the swarm several times during the afternoon and watched enthralled as many bees arrived back and did the waggle dance, which is thought to impart geographical information. But when I last visited at 5pm the swarm was gone, presumably off to a new home that had been found for it by one of the scouts.

We have a Gardeners Beehive in the meadows which is specifically designed to provide a stress-free home for wild honeybees. Despite it being close to the swarm, and we know that bee scouts were out all afternoon searching for a suitable place to nest, this beehive was still not chosen. We clearly need to change its position and actually might even move it to the wood.

The Gardeners Beehive, still standing morosely empty

As well as the honeybee nest, we have also been watching a common wasp nest in a steep chalky bank.

We have seen badgers and magpies checking the nest out, but never a rabbit before

Some major excavation work has been going on here all week with a constant and steady stream of wasps emerging carrying small boulders of chalk. Occasionally one of these boulders is too large to fly with, despite the wasp’s best efforts, and it is in these instances that I was able to get photos:

A wasp attempting to fly with its rock
Manhandling the excavated boulder, whilst surrounded by a sea of similarly mined chalk

So much chalk has been brought out over the course of the week that the nest must, by now, be quite large.

We were fascinated to spot an attempt to parasitise this wasp nest by a large Volucella hoverfly:

This is Volucella zonaria, the hornet mimic hoverfly, which became established in Britain in the 1940s and it is rather nice that the first ever British record of it was in Walmer. The hoverfly lays its eggs in wasp nests and, once hatched, the larvae live off the wasp larvae and general nest detritus.

As we watched, the hoverfly repeatedly tried to squeeze herself through the narrow entrance into the wasp nest. The wasps do not see her as a threat, although it is currently not known how she achieves this – she certainly doesn’t look like them but presumably she smells like them.

Like a cork in a bottle, the nest entrance is blocked by the large hoverfly

After many attempts to get herself in, she gave up and flew away.

Back in 2018, we had another encounter with a hornet mimic hoverfly. In this case, we could see into the wasp nest because it had been pulled apart by a badger. As we watched, the hoverfly landed on the periphery of the wrecked nest to see if it afforded her any possibilities:

At the bottom of the nest, we could see that hoverfly larvae were already shuffling around:

They also seemed to be attacking the adult wasps:

Here we are now in mid September and, at long last, the drought has broken and there has been 86mm of rain in the last week- that is nearly 3 and a half inches.

A storm out at sea in the dark, with lightning turning night into day and reflecting off the shipping
It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a wet badger

Just before the rains came, we got the first meadow cut.

The cut underway
One meadow done and dusted… but the second meadow is yet to be started and is twice the size
A few days after the rains and it’s all looking much greener. Isn’t it amazing how quickly that happens?

Over in the wood, we had been hoping that September’s tour of the dormouse boxes would be a good one as juveniles start to disperse and set up temporary residences in the boxes. We checked some bird boxes first and found a few dormouse nests, one of which had a dormouse at home:

A dormouse nest in a bird box

However, for the first time, we also found dormouse nests in the wooden dormouse boxes this month:

A dormouse nest in one of the wooden dormouse boxes

By the end, we had found eleven dormouse nests and four dormice which was really very pleasing.

A dormouse in her weighing bag

We also found some yellow-necked mice in the boxes:

A yellow-necked mouse
Demonstrating the correct way to handle a yellow-necked mouse to avoid being bitten

Also in the wood, this is a really beautiful buzzard with a lot of white feathers:

This bird is very different to the buzzard that we have been seeing throughout the summer:

Tawny owls have been seen on several different cameras this week although, now that we have finally had some rain, perhaps we won’t be seeing them so often from now on:

I finish today with our flagpole.

We are flying a flag at half mast to mark the sad death of The Queen last week. The flag is the Welsh Dragon to acknowledge that today would have been the 90th birthday of my mother – now gone but very much not forgotten.

The Last Hurrah

The last big hurrah of the summer has now begun as the ivy comes into flower. As all the other flowering plants in the meadows start to die back, the ivy becomes a really important source of nectar and pollen for those invertebrates still on the wing. The cliff-line hedgerow is heavily laden with it and is consequently now heaving with life. It’s completely mesmerising to stand and watch, although I definitely go cross-eyed before too long.

A big bank of flowering ivy

The opening of the ivy flowers has coincided with a big influx of red admirals across from continental Europe. Having scarcely seen one this year, dozens of these large butterflies now glide majestically along the ivy-filled hedgerows to feast on the nectar.

I am always surprised to see those azure blue patches at the back of these butterflies

Small coppers also really like ivy:

Holly blue butterflies are very interesting – the spring brood females lay their eggs on holly but these second brood, late-summer ones lay their eggs on ivy.

Holly blue female on the ivy

Ivy bees only arrived in Britain in 2001 but they are here in the meadows in their thousands at this time of year. They are ivy specialists, perfectly choreographing their emergence as adults with the ivy flowering.

A variety of bumblebees are also to be seen working the hedgerow:

Other regulars at the ivy are honey bees, common wasps and drone flies. Although it is lovely to see these old favourites, and in such encouraging numbers as well, what keeps me standing there is the possibility of species I have never seen before. We got tantalising glimpses of a strange red fly but it was always so frustratingly fast – I never really saw it properly, let alone achieved a photo.

I did, however, get a photo of this bristly fly with a yellow face and this is new to the meadow invertebrate list:

Panzeria anthophila. This is a parasitoid fly, laying its eggs on or near moth caterpillars

Like the red admirals, this large and attractive black-and-white hoverfly, the pied hoverfly (Scaeva pyrasti), is a migrant from Europe, arriving in Britain each year in variable numbers:

Box bug

Elsewhere in the meadows, in the depths of the night, a small rodent triggered the camera that is trained on the wasp nest in the chalky bank. I was interested to see that a few of the wasps were clearly out of the nest during the night:

The very next night we went up there with our torches just before bed and, sure enough, there were wasps crawling around in the front of the nest in the dark:

Common wasps out of the nest at night

A badger has been frequently visiting again this week. I had supposed it was assessing the nest for its readiness to rob, but perhaps it is simply eating these crawling wasps:

On the way up to the wasp nest, we passed the little owl box where honey bees have taken up residence this year. What was going on there at night was also interesting.

It was a warmish but not hot night and there was a fresh north-easterly blowing and so I don’t think that the nest would have been either too hot or too cold. The most likely explanation for the bees to be out of the box is that, once all the foragers return to the nest at the end of the day, the box gets rather full of bees and so some stay outside.

However, I saw that the bees were also there the next day. Perhaps the box is now very full even when the foragers are out working by day:

A foraging bee returns with yellow pollen sacs and disappears deep within the nest

Other photos from the meadows this week:

Woohoo, a weasel on the gate – what a strange and amazing animal, and what a good photo the trail camera has managed
A characterful photo of the One-Eyed Vixen
And another almost science fiction-ish one of her
A kestrel takes a bath…
….and then takes off with a messy assortment of wet feathers. I also notice that she is ringed
A smart male redstart on the front lawn
Other than the ivy, there is very little else flowering in the meadows after months of drought. This migrant clouded yellow butterfly, however, has managed to find something that takes its fancy
We continue to run emergency watering missions to wilting trees in need

Over in the wood, we have had this year’s first sighting of a deer:

We believe this to be a red deer although they shouldn’t by rights be in this part of the country

Before we bought the wood, there was a big annual shoot there. This has left us with the legacy of a population of pheasants that hadn’t been shot by the time the wood changed hands. A total of 47 million pheasants and 10 million red-legged partridge are released into the British countryside every year, purely to be shot for pleasure, and it is difficult to get your head around this immense number. I know that supplementary food is put down in some cases, but these released birds are also eating our wildlife as this next photo shows:

Pheasant with shrew prey

A photo of a happier shrew having a drink:

A buzzard spent half an hour standing around in this small pond:

It ended up looking like this:

And then flew up to the branch near the owl box. It’s such a massive bird:

The Bird Ringer was extremely pleased to see this bird in his nets at Sandwich Bay, a few miles up the coast from the meadows. Apparently it is a juvenile common rosefinch:

There is an isolated colony of these birds breeding just across the Channel around Calais. This bird is most probably from that colony and has just set off in the wrong direction on its migration – it should have been going south to India.

The Bird Ringer was in Armenia earlier this year and took these photos of common rosefinch there, although the race in Armenia is slightly more colourful than the more normal European race:

Should a bird turn up in the meadows looking like this, then I would have a chance of identifying it. If, however, it looked like the one that was in the nets at Sandwich Bay, then I simply wouldn’t have had a clue.