The Year in Review – The Meadows

Part One – Birds and Other Things

The weather plays a major role in the progress of any year, but in 2022 the lack of rain had a tremendous impact on how the year proceeded here in the meadows. The ground remained hard and impenetrable for months and the water-starved vegetation frizzled away long before its proper time. Some things thrived in these extreme conditions but others struggled terribly.

The meadows in August
Cutting the meadows in September

We will certainly remember the summer drought of 2022 for years to come. Against the backdrop of this difficult year, here are the memorable wildlife events in the meadows:


Five new bird species were added to our meadow list in 2022. In late July a trail camera photographed a young cuckoo as it was about to leave the country and start its perilous solo journey south to the Congo basin:

In an unforgettable ringing session in early August, John and John, the bird ringers, caught eight different warbler species in their nets. One of these species was new to the meadows – a wood warbler with its bright white tummy. We have seen these birds in the oak woodlands of Wales where they breed, but this bird was now on its way to tropical Africa to spend the winter:

In September, John and John caught another exciting bird that we hadn’t seen here before – a tree pipit. Another summer visitor on its way down south:

This year eight European bee-eaters famously took up residence in a quarry in Norfolk, and successfully fledged some young, before they all migrated south again at the end of the summer. There were also sightings of bee-eaters in East Kent and John saw two of them fly over the meadows at the beginning of July, a very colourful new species for us here.

In September, red-billed chough were released into restored habitat around the White Cliffs of Dover as part of a reintroduction scheme. The very next day, John heard and then saw a pair of these choughs over the meadows and they were entered onto the list at number ninety-six, although perhaps a purist might argue that these birds were not really wild and shouldn’t be counted.

Over the course of the year, there have been many ringing sessions in the meadows and it’s always exciting for us to see what is caught. It is such a special thing to see the beauty of even ordinary, everyday birds up so close and there is always the added frisson that something more unusual might land in the net. This tiny male firecrest flew into the net at the end of September:

….and this sedge warbler was caught at the end of August:

Autumn is a thrilling time in the meadows when migrating birds gather to wait for the right conditions to set off across The Channel. As well as the bird ringers catching these migrants in their nets, we do also see them on the trail cameras although the photos are never so good:

Jays are prominent in the autumn as well, busy harvesting acorns from the holm oaks and, as here, helping themselves to apples in the orchard:

Winter can be an exciting time for birds too and, when it gets really cold, winter waders arrive in the meadows. They were here back in the frosts of January and then again in December in the recent cold snap before Christmas:

For several years we have been spreading some mixed bird seed on the ground every morning and are now rewarded with large winter flocks of house sparrow and stock doves as well as increasing numbers of yellowhammer.

The highest yellowhammer count has been seventeen so far
House sparrows and stock dove in the winter

We also get grey heron in the winter, probably birds across from northern Europe escaping the frozen conditions there. Unfortunately these birds are very interested in the amphibians in the ponds.

Spring and summer is all about bird nesting. Many juvenile starlings fledge here every year and proceed to use the meadows as their playground whilst their parents go on to have a second brood.

I like how one starling appears to have put a comforting wing around the other

Because the ground was so hard and dry, worms had gone down deep and inaccessible. Parent blackbirds and thrushes had to find other things to feed to their chicks. I don’t know what impact this had on the number of chicks that successfully fledged, but it surely can’t have been good:

Blackbird with a beak full of grasshopper

It is always lovely when the young birds start to arrive on the cameras:

A young crow tenderly being fed by a parent

Magpies are a big presence in the meadows and are forever on the lookout for opportunities presented by the vulnerable young birds:

Magpie with bird chick
Magpie with an older bird
Magpie with a rodent..
.. and with a lizard
The meadows are part of a vigorously-defended magpie territory but, from time to time, groups of non-breeding birds also stop by

I am pleased to say that sometimes magpies do get their comeuppance. Here, a fox has caught one:

And this magpie has probably met its match with a sparrowhawk:

Once the nesting season is over for another year, August is the time for the adult magpies to moult and get a fresh set of feathers. This can sometimes look pretty funny:

Sparrowhawks are around throughout the year, hunting for their bird prey:

Below, the sparrowhawk has caught one of John’s ringed house sparrows. I did go up to the gate to see if I could retrieve the ring from the carcass but couldn’t find anything:

I find this photo of a sparrowhawk utterly terrifying:

Kestrels are another bird of prey that we see here all year round:

Kestrel with short-tailed field vole prey
A kestrel coming towards the camera. Surely a frightening sight for any small mammal

In October we saw again the kestrel that was ringed here as a young bird in September 2019. It was a long time since we had last seen her and had thought that she might no longer be around:

Tawny owls are often to be heard hooting in the meadows at night, and occasionally are caught on camera:

At the height of summer, we eagerly await the flying ant spectacle. Winged ants are produced in the hundreds of ant nests in the meadows, and all take to the air at the same time. Then, large numbers of black-headed gulls materialise as if from nowhere and fly round in circles to catch the ants.

Difficult to get a good photo, but this one does give you an idea of quite how many gulls are involved

For us, nothing conjures up summer more evocatively than screaming parties of swifts shooting through the air and circling the house. They are here for such a brief window of time and it does seem to me that they are arriving ever later and leaving earlier. They nest in the roof of one of the houses on the seafront, but not yet in the four swift boxes we have on the side of our house. For several years we have played loud swift calls up into the sky and these have been very successful at bringing the birds to the boxes but we had never seen them go in.

Swift flying close to the semi-detached box

In mid July I was watching a group of swifts circumnavigate the house and make repeated passes in front of the boxes….and then it happened – one of the birds went into the right-hand side of the box above. It stayed in there for perhaps ten minutes before exiting and rejoining its friends. Not long after this the swifts had disappeared and flown south for another year. We were left hoping that they will now use the box when they return next spring but we shall have to wait and see.

Other Things

At the end of January we engaged an agricultural contractor to trim some of the hedgerows. No cutting of the hedges had been done for a couple of years and things were getting slightly out of control.

These days the hedgerows are kept high and very wide at the base

The first wildlife spectacle of the year is always the laying of the frog spawn in February. Male frogs gather in the pond, awaiting the arrival of a female so that they can climb onto her and fertilise the spawn as it is laid.

Many of these male frogs will have been hibernating in the mud at the bottom of the pond through the winter
Male frogs, with their bright white throats, patiently waiting

A lot of frogspawn was eventually laid, but it turned out to be a very challenging year for the tadpoles – in the heat of the summer the pond almost completely dried up, although we tried our best to divert water into it. I wonder how many tadpoles actually reached adulthood from all of this spawn?

The concentration of frogs at spawning time is a big temptation for a heron and, as usual, we were embroiled in a battle of wits with this one:

Grey heron hunting for frogs over the spawn

We had a new species for the plant list this year when two common spotted orchids flowered in the margins of the wild pond:

Over the course of the summer there is a wonderful progression of plants coming into flower. Salad burnet is one that flowers quite early on and it had a particularly good year, seen here with so many white dollops of cuckoo spit:

This cuckoo spit is produced by froghopper nymphs who whisk up the sap of the plant with their back legs. They then hide within the froth to protect themselves from attack by parasitic wasps:

So much cuckoo spit on salad burnet this year

Common broomrape also had a good year. This plant doesn’t photosynthesise, but obtains all its nutrients and water from the clover that it grows amongst:

Stems of common broomrape growing within a patch of clover

This plant also has a yellow form rather than the more normal pale pink and we see quite a lot of this:

One of the last botanical highlights each year is the appearance of the autumn ladies tresses in late August, when hundreds of these orchids come up on our front lawn. But this was at the height of the drought this year and we wondered how they would be affected:

But we needn’t have worried because happily they were as abundant and healthy-looking as usual, although I’m not sure how they did it.

These delicate autumn ladies tresses round off the first part of the Review of the Meadows in 2022. Coming shortly in part two I’ll cover what the mammals and invertebrates have been up to this year.

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