Hello Crimson Speckled!

The undisputed wildlife highlight of the week has been this very rare immigrant moth that we spotted in the orchard one morning. It is a crimson speckled, a moth common in the Mediterranean and in North Africa but only a very occasional visitor to Britain. It flies both at night and in the day but is toxic to birds and the red coloration is a warning to them of that.

Up until this autumn there have only been two hundred UK records of this moth in the last century. But the weather system currently in place over the UK has plumes of warm air coming up from the south and is thought to have carried them up, resulting in quite a few recent sightings here.

Screenshot of Thursday’s BBC weather forecast

As well as blowing up North African moths, this strangely warm air has brought things unexpectedly into flower around the meadows such as this apple tree in the orchard:

I submitted the crimson speckled sighting to the county macro moth recorder and it felt like a long time since I last reported anything to him. During the lockdown in 2020 I did a lot of moth trapping, but haven’t done any at all since then. The excitement over this moth, however, has fired me up again and I have vowed to restart trapping next spring.

It was a disappointing year for the allotment. We took the decision not to water it (although occasionally I relented for the courgettes) and consequently nothing whatsoever did well. But now our enthusiasm is reinvigorated and preparations have been underway for a brand new growing year. The allotment is weeded and has been given a cosy blanket of garden compost to be dragged down into the soil by the worms over the winter.

Broad beans, garlic, elephant garlic, shallots, onions and unusual varieties of daffodil to be used as cut flowers in the house have all been planted into the ground. Tulip bulbs are waiting in the wings to go in at the end of November once cold weather has had a chance to kill pathogens in the soil.

I adore hyacinths and have planted several different types into pots, including forced bulbs that will reputedly flower for Christmas, if treated correctly. They were potted up in early September and have already just begun to grow. I did try this last year as well but started too late and missed Christmas, although they were flowering in time to cheer up early January with their wonderful fragrance:

Photo from back in January

Wrens often pop into our sheds and greenhouse through open doors and windows, to have a poke around and eat any insects and spiders that they find. But a little wren this week was flying around in a panic when I went into the greenhouse and seemed to have forgotten the way out:

I went away several times to give it time to leave but unfortunately it didn’t and, by then, had gathered a cumbersome ball of cobwebs dangling from its leg. It is pleasing to report that the story ended happily when I managed to catch the bird in my hands and remove the webs before releasing it outside. But it’s a salutary lesson for us to remember to check for wrens before shutting up outhouses.

The wren took a little while to recover before it flew away. I apologise for that hand – I was in the middle of gardening without gloves

There has not been a camera on the feeding cages over the summer and so I haven’t been seeing much of Chuckles, the herring gull who has made the meadows his territory. He is still around, though, now with this year’s chick in attendance.

Chuckles chasing off an interloping juvenile gull. He is such great entertainment

A large flock of house sparrow are once again coming down to the feeding cages and, inbetween times, cheeping loudly and contentedly in the hedgerow behind. They weren’t around so much over the summer and it’s nice to have them back:

There are a lot of blackbirds around, eating the berries in the hedgerows. Our resident birds have no doubt been augmented by birds arriving from the continent for the winter:

Blackbird with rosehip

They love the berries on the female Yew:

I have lots of photos of blackbirds pulling wet leaves out of this water bath, although I don’t know why they are doing this

Slime moulds are strange organisms. At one time previously thought of as fungi, plants and even as animals, they are now in a classification Kingdom of their own. They contribute to the decomposition of dead vegetation, feeding on bacteria and fungi and so are usually found in soil, on lawns and on the woodland floor. We found two different slime moulds here this week. In the grass under the orchard trees were several ten centimetre diameter circles of grey slime mould, Physarum cinereum:

Physarum cinereum
Physarum cinereum

..and some dog sick slime mould, Mucilago crustacea, on the front lawn. There is also dog vomit slime mould, Fuligo septica, although there seems to be much confusion between the two.

In a small part of the wood, there are a lot of clustered groups of these toadstools growing on old tree stumps:

The dark honey fungus, distinguished from other honey fungus by the dark edging to the stem ring

This is the dark honey fungus, Armillaria ostoyae. The name honey fungus strikes fear into the heart of any gardener but it is in fact a very common part of a woodland ecosystem, helping to break wood down into reusable nutrients. There is a famous single dark honey fungus in the USA, of course called the humongous fungus, in the Malheur National Forest in Oregon, that is thought to be the largest living organism on earth, covering 2,400 acres, 2,500 years old and weighing 400,000kg. This leads us to hypothesise that all the clusters of this fungus in the small area of our wood might all be part of only one organism.

The most exciting photo from the wood this week is this:

It is a ringed tawny owl and this is the first time that we have seen one of this years young since they were ringed in early May:

Tawny owl chicks leave their nest when about five weeks old but then stay with their parents for another three months until they are fully fledged. Our two babies were ringed in early May and left the box shortly afterwards which means that that they would have been forced out of their parents territory by mid August. Perhaps they didn’t go that far away.

Even though it is now late October, tawnies are still coming to this pond to bathe every night but this is the first time I have seen a ringed one – and I have been checking:

A non-ringed owl at the pond this week

Buzzards also come to this pond:

Sparrowhawks can turn up at any of the ponds:

Marsh tits have been seen a lot recently at this different pond:

Squirrel carrying a hazelnut

In our daughter’s garden in the North Downs, the news is that their hedgehogs are building a hibernation nest in their hog house:

Hedgehog carrying leaves into the box. I have never seen hedgehogs carrying bedding like this before

With the waves breaking atmospherically over the Goodwin Sands on the horizon, I finish with the Thalassa who sailed past the meadows this week.

She is a Dutch tall ship, available for hire, and she was on a journey from the Netherlands to Tenerife as she motored by – it’s a shame she didn’t have her sails up. I see that she is is planning several whisky cruises up in the Highlands of Scotland next year. Arriving at remote island distilleries by sailing ship does sound romantic but I personally would be so much more interested in seeing the wildlife than drinking the whisky.

Round the Houses

This year I have been training to obtain a dormouse disturbance licence – a process that might be expected to take two or three years. At the beginning of the year, fifty dormouse nest boxes went up across both our wood and a neighbouring wood and we have been doing monthly inspection tours. It took a while for the dormice to find the boxes – and, although we enjoyed seeing the blue tits, caterpillars, moths and yellow-necked mice that were early adopters of the boxes, they were not the reason why we were doing this.

But then gradually we did begin to find dormice in the boxes and, this month, they were housing an amazing seventeen nests. Some of the nests were empty, but others had dispersing juveniles or a mixture of both adult and juveniles within.

This female dormouse was only born this year, yet she already had a family of five youngsters in the box. We also found first year males in breeding condition. It is highly unusual for dormice to breed in their first year and is no doubt a result of the exceptionally warm, dry spring and summer

Use of the boxes peaks at this time of year with the juveniles branching off on their own and before hibernation starts when many do not survive.

A dormouse nest. Loose hazel leaves but with shredded material forming a tightly-woven structure at its core
Very often the nest has green hazel leaves in it like this, which is quite distinctive. The dormice remove leaves directly off the tree whereas other mice pick up dead leaves from the ground
The boxes are opened within large plastic bags to contain the dormice as they emerge. Our sleeves are rolled up to stop the animals running up our arms and escaping

In two of the boxes we found young families, both with five young:

A young dormouse in its weighing bag
Two young dormice having been sexed and weighed and awaiting safe return to their nest

There will be one more tour of the boxes this year, when we have a chance to see what weight the dormice are before they begin their hazardous hibernation. Our wood is enrolled on the National Dormouse Monitoring Programme and all data is being submitted to the People’s Trust for Endangered Species who administer the scheme.

But it is not just the dormice houses we have gone round this week. There are three tawny owl boxes, two barn owl boxes and a kestrel box up in the wood and we went round to check them, removing squirrel nests where necessary so that they are available for birds. The largest tawny owl box below had owls nesting in it this spring, and two young were ringed:

However, now there were sticks poking out of the box and it appeared that squirrels had moved in:

Looking in the box this week, we could see that a squirrel nest has indeed been built over the old owl nest and the box was stuffed full.

Everything has now been pulled out and the box is clear for the owls to use again next spring should they choose to.

The other two tawny boxes are smaller woodcrete ones. Having seen the tight fit in the wooden box above, these two now don’t feel big enough for owls:

Both of them had grass nests inside:

Similar nests have been found in these woodcrete boxes in previous years but we don’t even know if they are made by birds or by something else. Next spring we will get cameras on them to try to solve this intriguing mystery.

Both of the barn owl boxes and the kestrel box were empty of animals but had squirrel nests in them which have now been removed.

Barn owl box, made of recycled tyres, being cleared out through its side hatch

The advice for all these species is that they need clear fly-ways in to the nest and so we will revisit most of these raptor boxes soon to cut back some branches around them.

There are a lot of blackbirds around, probably across from Continental Europe to spend the winter here:

Four blackbirds at one of the ponds

In the meadows, the goldcrests and firecrests are also arriving and are being caught in the bird ringer’s nets:

4.7g of male goldcrest, newly arrived from the Baltic

Other birds, however, are leaving. Here is a little group of four blackcaps on their way south:

I like this meadow scene at first light as a fox makes its way home after a long night of hunting:

At this time of year, I am up well before dawn and often hear a male tawny owl hooting atmospherically to the north of the meadows. It was pleasing to capture him on camera one night:

Pheasants are not often seen in the meadows but the pheasant shooting season started on 1st October and so we are very happy to offer sanctuary to these two away from all that madness:

A young female kestrel was ringed here in the meadows in autumn 2019:

Photo from September 2019

Our kestrels nest in inaccessible holes in the chalk cliffs nearby and so the young are never ringed in the nest. The bird ringer also tells me that this kestrel was the only one he has ever caught in his nets in this area. Therefore, it is most likely that this ringed female kestrel seen at the pond this week is the same bird that took a chunk out of his hand as he ringed it back in 2019:

A sparrowhawk with his accompanying observer:

This might be a bit of a trick of the light, but what a white tip this fox has to its tail. It’s positively shining:

This week the reptile ecologist made his last trip of the year round the meadows. A few years ago one hundred and four slow worms were translocated here, saved from nearby land that was to be developed, and part of the agreement was that their progress here be monitored for five years. The drought this year has not been good for reptiles because of the effect on their invertebrate prey, but he did see a few and is pleased with how the habitat is progressing in the area of the meadows specifically managed for reptiles.

Our first grandchild has arrived, baby Kit.

It is surely of enormous importance for young people to feel connected with nature. I so regret that, when I was a busy mother of small children, I didn’t put more time aside to engage them with the wonders of the natural world. But I hope now to be able to put these previous shortcomings to right, starting with this young man who came into this beautiful but troubled world this week.

The Aquatic Life of Our Ponds

It’s been a difficult year for ponds. Both of ours were on the verge of drying out completely several times during the long hot summer and we reluctantly added tap water in the hope that some aquatic life could be saved.

But now it’s autumn and the ponds are nicely refilled and refreshed with rainwater:

The hide pond
The wild pond. The annual autumnal job of pulling out most of these reeds is yet to commence

We did some pond dipping this week to assess the health of the ponds following this most trying of summers. The two ponds are only a hundred metres apart and were built within a year of each other and yet the life within them is so very different.

The hide pond is usually very good for smooth newts and dragonfly larvae. By this time of year both the adult and the juvenile newts will have left the water but we did see some dragonfly larvae. Other than that, however, there was worryingly very little else to be found.

The large dragonfly larva has weed growing on it and is therefore difficult to identify. The smaller one is interesting with those white stripes which are thought to be some sort of disguise which stops them being eaten by the bigger dragonfly larvae

In contrast, the wild pond, which has a soil substrate above its liner, was absolutely teeming with life:

What a joyful sight
Damselfly larva in the wild pond, with three tail-like gills at the back
Ruddy darter dragonfly sunbathing on my bag whilst we were pond dipping

On a gloriously sunny but crisp autumnal day, I started the job of pulling the reeds out of the wild pond. This definitely involves waders:

Some progress was made before my lower back started aching and I climbed out for a cup of tea, but there’s still a long way to go…

The pulled reeds stacked up by the badger sett in case they want to use them for bedding – they usually do

Weasels live a solitary life and only come together to mate. We don’t often spot them here, but this year the meadows seem to be part of a territory and there has been one photographed on this gate several times:

Weasel on the gate in early September

This week we have seen it again, this time carrying its rodent prey:

The gate itself is at a right-angled junction of hedgerows and, at night, is a busy highway for rodents travelling around within the security of the hedge.

What an extraordinarily long tail this rat has

At the end of the second meadow, an awful lot of earth was excavated by mice over the course of just one night:

I put a camera on it to confirm that it was indeed mice producing all these diggings:

A much larger rodent has recently moved in with us here in the house. Now that our youngest daughter has gone to live up in London, she no longer has space to house her chinchilla, Pebbles. We rescued him years ago when she was a little girl and he was about five years old. We think he must be well over twenty now, but he’s still going strong:

Pebbles the chinchilla now lives with us in Kent
His home is rather large and has unfortunately taken over an entire bedroom. Pebbles is a friendly chap and comes out for nightly run-arounds in the bathroom, so long as he promises not to chew the skirting boards

A year of travelling the world is coming to an end for one of our sons and his girlfriend. They set off in mid October last year and are due back at the end of November. When they were in Peru, they visited Machu Picchu, high up in the Andes mountains, and saw a wild chinchilla amongst the ruins:

A chinchilla on the rocks, bottom right
A wild chinchilla, how amazing. I see that the ears are perhaps slightly smaller and that there is a black line running down its back, but otherwise very like Pebbles

They are now in Vietnam, a country of fantastic landscapes:

The mountains don’t look the same as ours because of tropical weathering and erosion – intense heat and heavy rainfall cause the limestone rock to be worn down differently resulting in very pointy mountains called tower karst.

Some of the eroded hills are very eye catching:

In fact, for the tourists of Vietnam, this pair of hills has been given a special name:

Whilst on the subject of our children, another daughter who lives in the North Downs in Kent has a thriving population of hedgehogs in her garden. They have been monitoring them all year, as well as providing food, water and a hog house. The animals are now preparing for hibernation and are trying to put on weight so there is much activity:

With one partially hidden in the entrance to the house, there are three hedgehogs in this photo

To get myself back on track, I return to the wildlife of the meadows and have some other interesting photos from this week:

Utterly terrifying sparrowhawk
The spider over the lens of the trail camera makes this photo difficult viewing for those of us with an instinctual fear of them
Jays are always amusing bathers
Although about ten great spotted woodpeckers were ringed in the wood this year, it is highly unusual to see one of these birds in the meadows
Surely a magpie’s beak cannot break open a walnut?
There was a confrontation between these two birds at the water bath…
…and I am so pleased that the kestrel stood her ground and continued to bathe
The second meadow is now finished, although, as usual, areas have been left uncut so as not to wipe out entire populations of invertebrates. It seems to have been much easier this year – there has been noticeably less vegetation because of the drought. As well as that, beautiful autumn weather has meant the grass is dry and flies effortlessly into the catcher and the tractor hasn’t broken down and needed to go in for repair like it did last year. The tractor measures the time it has been working and so we know that it took sixteen hours to cut both meadows this year
Fox emerging at dusk and ships at anchor in The Downs
The dog has been entertaining us by chasing and barking at swallows as they swoop over the meadows getting a last beakful of food before starting off across the Channel. This photo looks more like it involved some sort of woodpigeon violation though

Over in the wood, we are starting to plan this winter’s work. Although the section below is very near to the prime dormouse area, the trees here are too close together and there is no plant understorey, making it unattractive to dormice.

We hope to thin these trees out over the coming season to let light in and ground cover to grow. Whilst the trees still have leaves on and are easily recognisable, we have marked up the ones we definitely want to keep:

There are only a couple of sweet chestnut trees in the wood, but their fruit gets carried far and wide by squirrels:

Although summer is over and temperatures have dropped, tawny owls are still coming to this pond every night to bathe:

A little group of bullfinch visit this pond:

Autumn is the time for toadstools and a lovely variety has arrived in the wood as usual:

Fly agaric come up amongst the silver birches
This is a lovely little pixie cap of a toadstool although I haven’t managed to identify it

I had thought that the lack of rain for many months this summer might have led to a poor show of toadstools this autumn. But happily this doesn’t seem to be the case and there are so many around for us to enjoy.