Brightening Up November

November can be a difficult month, with dank and dreary days and the daylight petering out not so very long after lunch.

It has also been very wet and windy and this trail camera tells that story:

This wooden swing seat is extremely heavy yet has been blown over by the gales:

I am envious of people who get themselves away to some sunshine at this time of year. My sister-in-law is spending November in Australia and has been seeing sights such as this:

Australia is such a long way away and I’m sure I will never get there now, but how I would love to see koala bears and kangaroos in their natural habitat.

It feels like a good time to take stock and remind myself of the many reasons there are to be joyful this week.

We haven’t had a frost yet and many of the pots in the garden are looking better now than they have done all summer:

It is lovely to dive into the greenhouse out of the wind and the rain. It’s like you are entering a microcosm of warmth and sanctuary, where tender plants are steadfastly sitting out the winter

I have been taking my tiny grandson out for walks in the countryside around the appealing village of Wye which sits at the bottom of the North Downs. He and I have been enjoying ourselves and, more importantly, his mother has been able to get a bit of sleep in the afternoon because she currently isn’t getting much at night.

The River Stour flows through Wye and is looking pretty swollen and angry at the moment:

The hedgerow larder is well stocked with berries to feed the birds through the winter:

Berries on Hawthorn – these are clearly delicious and are always the first to go
Ivy Berries are less popular and are often left until last
This may be an ivy berry in the blackbird’s beak – it looks a bit small to be a sloe

We built this insect hotel in the paddock as a winter project last year and I hope that there are many invertebrates cosily tucked away and hibernating in there now:

We have a few winter projects planned for this year, the most interesting of which is to build a bigger and more natural pond in the wood with the hope of encouraging in palmate newts and other woodland amphibians and reptiles.

The mahonia up by the bins is just fabulous in November. Have-a-go-hero buff-tailed bumblebees attempt a winter generation here and this plant is a big attraction for them.

In the background of the photo above you can see the Bolette – a Fred Olsen Line cruise ship that was here for several days. She gave us quite a shock when she first arrived and we were concerned that she had lots of passengers on board who were being forced to spend several days boringly anchored alongside us.

But, looking up her schedule, I see that her next cruise is a White Christmas in Norway, a thirteen night voyage departing on 21st December. Well, that does sound tempting right now, but how could I be away on Christmas Day and miss the excitement of seeing if the hyacinths come into flower for the big day?

These forced hyacinth bulbs are already poking their noses above the soil. Apparently they need to be brought into the house on 4th December for them to flower for Christmas Day. It feels unlikely that I will have got it exactly right but let us see.

My Christmas cacti never get it right and always flower in November, but actually November is in need of a bit of brightening:

The glorious colours of autumn are at their best this month:

A walk in a wood near Maidenhead this week

Once again this week, the trail cameras are mostly fogged up and have not provided me with many photos, but I do like these of our two badgers in the meadows.

The meadow badgers have had a bad couple of years. In 2021 there were no cubs and, this year, all three cubs died once they had been weaned. I presume this was because they were unable to get at earthworms in the hard ground of the drought. As a result there are only two badgers left here now. In late summer 2020, however, we were treated to sights such as this which is quite a sad contrast:

Photo from 2020

I can no longer deny to myself that the One-eyed Vixen seems to have mange yet again. This will be the fourth or fifth time – I’m losing count:

I have once more started her on a course of mange treatment. It has always worked in the past, so let’s hope it does again.

This little dog, without any associated human, spent some time in the meadow yesterday.

It even went under the fence onto the cliff path which is usually the preserve of the wild animals:

Five minutes later, the fox with the down-tipped tail did extensive sniffing in the same place. This handsome fox is the mate of the One-eyed Vixen and strangely he has never caught her mange even though they spend a lot of time together:

This gate often has interesting stuff going on and the camera is sheltered by a hedgerow and still working well:

A blackbird bathing very enthusiastically:

Over in the wood, I don’t always look at the camera at the badger sett and this photo of the polecat (or polecat-ferret hybrid) was probably taken a fortnight ago when this animal also appeared on some other cameras:

This squirrel is collecting leaves for its nest. I suspect it is filling up the nearby tawny owl box again:

Less than a month now until the winter solstice when the days start getting longer. For us here on a windblown and soggy east coast of Kent, the knowledge that the tipping point will soon be passed brings us some comfort.

A Listening Ear

One windy afternoon this week we went for a walk to see the sound mirror up on Abbot’s Cliff between Dover and Folkestone. This concrete listening ear was built in 1928 to collect and concentrate the sound waves of enemy aircraft approaching from across the Channel, although this technology was soon superseded in the 1930s with the invention of radar.

The Abbot’s Cliff sound mirror is depicted in a painting by the war artist Eric Ravilious, who was stationed in Dover for six months in 1941. Poignantly Eric became the first British war artist to die on active service in the Second World War when the aircraft he was in went down off Iceland in 1942.

Bombing the Channel Ports by Eric Ravilious. Copyright Imperial War Museum Art. IWM Art LD 1588
The concave dish facing towards Continental Europe

There has been so much rain this autumn and many of the trail cameras in the meadows have become fogged with condensation that doesn’t clear for days.

One of the offending cameras against a mackerel sky

As a result they haven’t provided me with many photos to use this week, but I do have a few. Here is a sparrowhawk with two magpies who are monitoring its every move:

A Kestrel, also with a magpie escort:

One of the highlights of the year has been seeing a weasel passing back and forth across this gate:

Photo from September

We have seen this pocket-sized predator twice again this week and it’s interesting to see that it is hunting in both night and day:

A solitary common darter sunbathing on a fallen autumn leaf this week. These dragonflies are late fliers and can still be seen on the wing into December some years:

There is now very little activity going on at the wasp nest that we have watching for a few months:

The common wasp nest in the chalk bank

There were, however, a few wasps leaving the nest whilst struggling with heavy loads. Earlier in the year we had seen them carrying out small boulders of chalk as they mined the rock to make the nest bigger. Initially I thought this must be what was still going on, but now I see that they are carrying larvae out. I don’t understand this.

Wasp carrying a larva

This wasp nest will die off shortly and not be used again. Only the queen with survive but she will leave the nest to find somewhere with a constant temperature to hibernate over the winter.

Now that it’s November, the mahonia in the garden is out in its full glory:

What a spirit-lifter

The flowers are buzzing with bees in the weak, autumnal sunshine. Common carder bumblebees are usually the latest bumblebees to still fly out of summer nests each year:

Buff-tailed bumblebees have a winter generation in this part of the country:

And there are a few honey bees on the wing:

November is also the time when the weird and contorted white saddle fungal fruiting bodies appear. This fungus is believed to be mycorrhizal on beech and oak trees – certainly it always appears somewhere in a large circle around a holm oak here:

There are just a couple of photos from the wood this week. A jay carrying an acorn:

Unfortunately we are seeing a lot of squirrel activity around this box. We cleared it out this autumn and are hoping for a return of the owls next spring:

And finally, I dedicate this blog post to my father who died this week and it feels so very strange that he is no longer here. We are left with memories of a man who was centred in his family, but one who often jovially declared he loved dogs much more than he liked people. He was also liable to give tours to visitors around the twenty or so waterbutts in his garden, play croquet by torchlight and numerous other mild eccentricities which have long been the subject of indulgent family folklore.

Nick Hart 1935 – 2022, rest in peace.

Standing in amongst the cowslips on Maidenhead Thicket flower meadow, close to his home for the last fifty-eight years
Flying the flags of my Welsh mother and English father, together again this week

Woodland Wading

You are almost certain to disturb several woodcock as you step round our wood in the winter. These birds are waders but probe their long beaks into the soft soil of the woodland floor rather into the muddy waters of a foreshore like most waders. They breed in Finland and Russia and then fly all the way here in the autumn to take advantage of our milder winter where the ground will not be frozen hard for long periods of time.

The first woodcock arrived back here on 30th October this year. They are mostly nocturnal and it’s always a nice surprise to glimpse one in the daylight
The eye is positioned close to the top of the head to give the bird 360° vision

We do have the odd bit of snow and frost ourselves of course, but nothing like Finland and Russia do. Here is a woodcock in our wood during a cold snap in February 2021:

I love that snowy beak

In the UK around 160,000 woodcock are shot each year for recreational purposes, the shooting season running from 1st October to 31st January. But since the influx of migrant woodcock doesn’t happen until November, any bird shot at the beginning of the season will inevitably be one of our fast-declining resident woodcocks. Wild Justice, an organisation that campaigns for wildlife through the courts, has a petition running, asking to simply delay the start of the woodcock shooting season to 1st December in order to protect our resident birds. The petition currently has 57,000 signatures:

Prior to our ownership, there was a winter shoot in the wood but thankfully those days are gone and now these birds find sanctuary here after their long and arduous journey.

These next photos are not great quality because of fogging on the camera lens, but they earn their place because they provide a tantalising glimpse of an elusive animal that is only rarely seen in the wood:

The photos might be poor but you can still make out the distinctive black and white facial mask and white ear tips of a polecat or a polecat-ferret hybrid – identification between the two is often tricky and requires DNA analysis. Ferrets are domesticated polecats but there is a feral population of them living in the wild. These wild ferrets can then breed with polecats resulting in hybrids between the two – it’s a complicated situation.

The more white fur there is on the face and body, the more likely it is to be a polecat-ferret hybrid. But this animal seen in the wood this week doesn’t have that much white and neither did the one we saw in 2020:

Photo from August 2020

By 1915 polecats were nearly, but not quite, exterminated throughout Great Britain because of habitat fragmentation, persecution from game keepers and being killed for their fur. They are now protected by law and in recent years have been spreading out from the areas where they had managed to retain a foothold. In summer rabbits are their major food source, the polecats being slim enough to chase them down their burrows. In winter they switch to rats but do also eat birds and frogs. The size of their territory varies, depending on food availability in the area, but can be up to 500 hectares for a male and 375 hectares for a female – and so perhaps it is not that surprising that we don’t often see them in our 4.5 hectare wood.

I always thought that owls do not like getting wet because their soft feathers are not very waterproof. Nobody has mentioned this to the tawnies of the wood though and they continue to come and bathe every night in this pond even though the weather is now far from hot:

A wet owl

A tawny has been photographed this week looking up at the owl box in an interested way. Perhaps this is wishful thinking, though, because I am really hoping that they decide to nest in that box again next year:

Winter is the time to work in the wood and we have decided to kick off this year with the thinning of an area that lies adjacent to our prime dormouse habitat. But the trees here have been so densely planted that there is no undergrowth to provide food and shelter for dormice. We want to improve the habitat for them and allow some light in to hit the woodland floor:

The before photo. All nice trees but too many of them

After two sessions of working on this – both in the rain, by the way – three large trees and several smaller ones have been cut down and the brash dragged off to make dead hedges along the wood boundary. There is already a gratifying difference although I’m not sure this photo really does that justice. There is a lot more light coming in:

Still a work in progress with several more trees earmarked for removal before we can declare this job done. It will take a few years for undergrowth to establish itself here, but eventually we hope the dormice will be tempted to use this area too

On one of the last golden days of October, I got the moth trap out of the shed, washed it down and ran it for the first time this year. So very late to the party, I had hoped to get a small scattering of iconic autumnal moths to get to grips with, refreshing some of what I know and making it easier to start moth trapping again in earnest next spring.

But there were hundreds of moths awaiting me in the trap the next morning, a lot of them seemingly with few distinguishing features. I was very rusty, having not trapped all year, and had somewhat forgotten how frustrating identifying moths can be. There were many more moths than I had the time to properly identify and I’m afraid that I did end up cherry-picking the easier ones.

Even so, I thoroughly enjoyed myself and will definitely be back mothing as it starts to warm up again next year.

Here are two of the many common late-flying species that I found in the trap:

The green-brindled crescent flies from September to November and has patches of metallic green scales, looking very much like a smattering of lichen
This feathered thorn is a large, late-flying moth and is easy to identify with those diagnostic white spots and conspicuous cross-lines
This angle shades moth was roosting up on a pine tree one morning. It did look rather obvious there – I wonder if it survived the day?

November has now rolled in, bringing with it an abrupt change in weather. It has been very wet indeed although it feels wrong to complain about this after months of longing for rain earlier this year.

Our local white cliffs in a brief interlude between downpours

The ponds are now refilled:

I have been bringing tender plants into the greenhouse for the winter. The greenhouse would need to be very much bigger to get everything in that I would ideally want – the rest will have to have a thick mulch of compost and then take their chances out there until the spring.

I was interested to see this sparrowhawk resting its long leg on the gate…

..because we have seen a sparrowhawk in this same posture before. Perhaps it’s something that sparrowhawks like to do – practising their death grip perhaps:

Photo from July 2021

I finish this week with the story of the honeybees. This year we have had a colony of wild honeybees nesting in a little owl box. Throughout the summer there was a lot of activity:

Then, in September, a swarm left the box and hung in a nearby tree for several hours whilst scouts went out to find a new home for it to move to:

The cone-shaped swarm

The other half of the colony remained in the little owl box and carried on as before. But now that we are in November the activity at the box has dramatically decreased.

I wanted to know what will be going on in the box over the winter. and did some research. Unlike wasps, a honeybee colony is perennial and will try to survive the winter. Special ‘winterised’ worker bees with a higher fat content in their bodies will stay in the box forming a cluster around the queen to keep her warm. The cluster moves slowly around the box consuming their stores of honey for food and shivering their muscles to keep warm. If it is a particularly cold winter, or if their honey stores are insufficient, or if they have become parasitised by mites, then the colony might die off before spring. Indeed, many colonies do not make it through winter and I worry that the position of the little owl box is very exposed to the bitter north-easterly winds that blow in off the North Sea here for days at a time.

A single honeybee crawls into the box

It will be interesting to see if the shivering little cluster does make it through to next spring and what the next chapter of this honeybee story holds.