The Secret Life of a Wood

In the centre of the wood, there is a stand of mature silver birch:

With its understorey of thorny bramble, we don’t often venture into this section, but it’s worth stopping from time to time to admire the beautiful trees from its margins. For the last few weeks there has been very little rain and we noticed that the leaves of the bramble have become covered with a lot of white splatters:

We only ever visit by day, but came to suspect that perhaps the wood has a secret nightlife about which we knew nothing.

In a bid to find out more of what is going on, we arrived at the wood half an hour before dusk one evening and set up a viewing station at the edge of the silver birch, complete with blankets, binoculars and a bottle of wine – no reason why this detective work shouldn’t be enjoyable, and it was a Saturday night after all.

Our ramshackle temporary encampment

Then we waited and drank our Australian shiraz as the light slowly faded and the wood peacefully wound down for the night. A few woodpigeon came in and then clapped their wings noisily as they flew off when they spotted us. The wondrous song of a thrush off to the side kept us enthralled and in the distance we heard pheasant calling, presumably soon to fly up into the low branches to roost.

The silver birch grove starting to slide into the gathering dusk
All is quiet and not a bird to be seen

But then it all started kicking off as a number of crows arrived and circled the trees, very large and black against the fading blue sky. They were soon joined by many other groups coming in from all directions and then we were in the midst of a raucous but tremendously atmospheric winter crow roost. For half an hour there was so much noise and activity – the loud cawing of the arriving birds changing into a shorter, sharper but equally loud chuck-chuck call once they landed. There must have been several hundred gathered by the time darkness finally fell completely and the birds settled. A male tawny owl started hooting behind us for good measure.

I love to think of the wood providing a safe space for these birds. They converge each night from far and wide to share information, find a mate and be safer from predators in their larger group. But this is mainly a winter phenomenon – as the nesting season starts, the territory-holding crows will spend the night at their nests instead and the number in the communal roost will fall.

The trail cameras down at ground level have never given me a suggestion that there was a large number of crows gathering nightly in the treetops above them. A pair did put in a cameo appearance though this week:

And what a magnificent bird this buzzard is:

Unusual to see redpoll on the cameras:

Over in the meadows, the frog spawning season is upon us and the males are gathered together in the wild pond with their white throats and big smiles awaiting the females:

The thumbs of the male are short and stumpy and often burgundy-coloured

They favour the reedy shallows of the pond and here can be found a broiling mass of male frog, all clambering over each other in an attempt to get themselves into pole position to greet any arriving female.

But a lot of the frogs had melted away into the depths as we approached in the dark with our torches. This next photo taken by a trail camera on time lapse gives a better idea of quite how many male frogs are here:

Many of the males hibernate at the bottom of the pond over winter so that they are in precisely the right place at the right time

A low continuous croaking emanates from the pond at spawning time:

A frog with his cheeks puffed out as he croaks

When a female does turn up, she is quickly claimed by a suitor who hangs on for dear life with those especially adapted thumbs. The male is now in prime position to release his sperm over the spawn once the female lays it.

The larger female is round with spawn and doesn’t have a white throat. Her thumbs also look the same as the rest of her fingers

This year, once again, the spawn has been laid in very shallow water at the wild pond – we are going to have to move it if it looks like the area might dry out before the tadpoles are strong enough to swim into deeper water:

The hide pond doesn’t have weedy shallows and the frogs don’t like it, but it is packed full of smooth newts who have also now emerged from hibernation:

Four female newts with abdomens rotund with eggs. A spotty male lurks in the depths

The first ringing session of the year got underway in the meadows this week. John and John were hoping to catch some of the yellowhammer that been seen on the cameras, but they weren’t lucky this time. They were, however, pleased to see a firecrest and several linnet in their nets:

Female firecrest with no flash of bright orange fire in her crest feathers
Female linnet
Another female linnet
Four of the yellowhammer that successfully evaded the ringing net this week

Two weeks into the building works in the garden and the foundations have been dug for the new garage. There was only six inches of soil above the chalk and so they did not have to dig deep in order to get stability for the new building:

A medium-sized whitebeam tree was sadly in the way and has had to go, although we are using every part of it as new wildlife features in the meadows:

Very pleased with this dead hedge made from the branches of the whitebeam

Large piles of different grades of soil have built up in the builders compound as a result of the excavations:

In order to improve invertebrate biodiversity, the advice is to create lots of mosaic tiles of different habitats. One of the ways to do this is by building a curved butterfly bank of low nutrient soil. The curve means that the bank faces towards many aspects of the sun and the variable slope creates numerous subtly-different habitats which might appeal to an increased number of species. The low nutrient soil means that grasses are not favoured and flower and seed-rich plants can thrive on the bank.

It seemed a great idea to ask the builders if they would build a butterfly bank for us. It would mean less soil that they had to get removed from site and we would get a fantastic new wildlife feature as well – a win-win.

The start of the butterfly bank project. The first load of the chalk core

All the excavated chalk rock that has been dug up went to form the core of the bank:

Then several dumper truck-loads of the very chalky subsoil was skilfully spread over the core and smoothed out into a fifteen metre long curved bank facing south and southeast:

The result is extremely pleasing and we are looking forward to seeing how it develops over the next few years:

I have scattered some Emorsgate preservation seed mixture EM6F (wildflowers for chalk and limestone soils) along the ridge of the bank. The idea is that the resulting flowers will set seed later this year and the seeds will spread down and naturally colonise the sides of the bank

We have been been enjoying watching the documentary series ‘Warship:Tour of Duty’ on the BBC, which charts the seven-month maiden voyage of HMS Queen Elizabeth, an aircraft carrier, and her entourage of accompanying smaller ships. RFA Tidespring, a replenishment tanker, was on the voyage with her and appears on the programme refuelling the HMS Queen Elizabeth at sea. We remember this ship from when she was at anchor alongside the meadows for several days back in April 2020 when covid first struck. We had such a shock to see her here and have never had a naval vessel anchored alongside before or since:

RFA Tidespring A136 from the meadows in 2020

But this week we were delighted to see HMS Queen Elizabeth herself going past in the distant shipping lane:

I always think that the annual frog spawning spectacle kicks off our wildlife year. Now, an impressive stinking hellebore (new for the meadows) is showing wonderfully, and the blackthorn flowers are just about to open, so it surely can’t be long before we see our first butterfly. March arrives next week and let’s hope that this marks the beginning of spring and that there is not more winter to come.

Stinking hellebore

A Fox’s Journey

The sea can be like an enormous stage, across which the meteorological events of the day play out.

Facing east, the curtain comes up each morning with magnificent sunrises, and moonrises mark the final act:

The February snow moon arising in a purple sky as we emerged from the Zetland Arms pub down on the beach one evening

A fox in the light of the full February moon:

There has been an influx of foxes passing through the meadows these last couple of weeks. This is normal for the the time of year but there do seem to be more than usual. It makes sense that young foxes need to disperse away from their parents’ territories which won’t have the food to support them all, and to avoid inbreeding. Peak fox dispersal is apparently November and December but in our experience it is now that most come through.

Dispersal is a risky time and, heartbreakingly, many of them are in a bit of a state and affected by mange:

This next fox with a truncated tail has stayed for a while. Perhaps the meadows can give him safe sanctuary:

What happened to cause this fox to lose the fur around his right eye?

As the young foxes disperse to look for a new place to settle, they are moving through unfamiliar ground and are at much greater risk of getting injured or run over. I am certainly seeing a lot of dead foxes at the side of the local roads at the moment.

They will also be passing through territories already held by dominant animals who are willing to fight to defend them.

For several years now, the meadows have been the territory of the One-eyed Vixen and her mate. In my last post, I reported that her handsome mate had been injured – perhaps this was as a result of fighting with one of the dispersing foxes:

The dominant dog fox in the meadows with an injury to the side of his face and a closed left eye

Thankfully he is looking much better now:

Foxes mate for life and I think this will be the fourth year that the One-eyed Vixen and her mate have raised a family in the meadows. Unfortunately they both have mange at the moment but I am four weeks into their treatment with arsen sulphur and hope that it will be successful once more. The One-eyed Vixen catches mange every winter and I wonder whether it is being brought in by the dispersing foxes.

How the One-eyed Vixen looks at the moment.
The mange medicine is sprinkled onto honey sandwiches and goes out at dusk. Both these foxes are always waiting for my arrival and so are very easy to treat

Foxes only breed once a year and mating occurs in January or early February. I can tell you for certain that it occurred here on Friday 10th February:

The One-eyed Vixen and her mate

Gestation is fifty-three days and so the cubs will be born around 4th April.

Over the winter, I have been having a bit of a skirmish with a rat who has tunnelled under my defences and systematically eaten all the tulip bulbs in the allotment:

The entrance to a network of underground tunnels. The tunnels reach under the chicken wire and come up at the bulbs from below

I have been so impressed to discover what she is capable of, whilst at the same time wishing she wouldn’t:

Although normally closed, we have been leaving the gate into the allotment open to see if nature will take its course. This week we saw that our rat problem might just get sorted out for us without having to do anything further:

Foxes definitely take rats when they can, as this photo from 2021 shows:

But it is rabbits that seem to be a fox’s prey of choice:

Rabbits in the meadows this week
A wren, one of the few birds to defend a winter territory in the UK, investigates the diggings around the rat hole
The resident pair of badgers indulging in some anal rubbing this week. Badger cubs are born around now – I wonder if there are some tiny cubs tucked away underground?

On two nights this week, there has been a woodcock up on the strip. Although there are woodcock in the wood, they are very unusual in the meadows:

The group of yellowhammer visiting the scattered seed on the strip is now up to at least eight birds:

Six yellowhammer here. They are not calling ‘a little bit of bread and no cheese’ yet, but the skylarks have already started their joyous song above the neighbouring farmers field
Yellowhammer are one of the more colourful of British birds and its a joy to see them here

Stock dove displaying their metallic neck patches and their kind black eyes:

Kestrels haven’t been much in evidence this winter but here is one, having a bath:

Frogs are only just starting to gear up in this part of the country (they start earlier in the southwest) and no spawn has yet been laid. However, I did find this startlingly yellow-green frog out in the open one morning. I presume it is a female with her large midriff, although I forgot to check her thumbs as I picked her up and moved her somewhere safer:

Over in the wood the new pond has started to be used by small birds such as these blue tits and great tit…..

… bigger birds….

Jays are such enthusiastic bathers
A pair of blackbirds
Redwing and fieldfare, with two blue tits

…and a very large bird indeed. This heron is a new species for the wood.

Elsewhere in the wood:

A sparrowhawk visits a different pond
A bouquet of pheasants. There are several collective nouns for pheasants – a bevy, a nye, a covey – but I like bouquet the best myself
A marsh tit with its black goatee
This is quite some snout
Redwing are late winter visitors to the wood before moving north to breed
I am not sure if mistle thrush are just winter visitors or if they stay on to breed in the wood

I finish with the Spade Oak nature reserve in Buckinghamshire, a water-filled gravel pit which is sometimes swathed in the aromas of its neighbouring sewage works. But it is a wild space in the Thames Valley that is much loved by its local birders and I have been going there for years now with a friend. We have become familiar with the rhythm of the place and always enjoy the heronry at this time of year:

The thriving heronry on one of the islands in the lake. Sixteen pairs of heron are nesting in the reserve this year

When we visited this week, the birds were busy building their nests and were flying in with sticks:

Coming in over the tern rafts

They can look like flying dinosaurs:

Or gawky ballerinas up on tiptoe:

Sometimes the sticks were carefully dunked in the water first:

Several pairs of great crested grebes nest on the reserve as well and we have seen them perform their wonderful weed dances here in the past. This week the birds were calling and it seemed like the time to dance was getting close, but was not yet quite here:

The trees around the lake are often full of interesting small birds. We saw siskin, goldcrest and this treecreeper with its needle-like beak:

But the herons were the undisputed stars of the show this time:

The biggest heronry in the country is at Northward Hill RSPB reserve near Rochester, in our home county of Kent. Here, a hundred and fifty pairs of heron nest in trees overlooking the North Kent marshes. We have never been to this reserve before but now plan to visit soon, before the trees leaf up and hide the nests.

Lambs-tails in winter

These days we are managing the wood to support the precious population of hazel dormice that it contains. Since the year 2000, the British population of dormice has fallen by a tragic 50%, and our wood is now part of the National Dormouse Monitoring Programme which is trying to work out what has gone so very wrong and how things can be put right.

Traditionally, dormice are animals of hazel coppice and an understanding of the biology of hazel would be helpful for us to manage our coppices in the most effective way for dormice. At this time of year, flamboyant catkins are dangling from the hazel branches and shivering in the breezes:

These catkins are widely known as lambs-tails

These are the male structures of the tree. Every catkin is made up of about two hundred and forty small male flowers, each covered by a triangular bract. Beneath a single bract are four stamen, each with two yellow pollen-producing anthers. Since every anther produces nine thousand grains of pollen, by my reckoning a catkin will therefore produce over seventeen million pollen grains, a number sure to make any hayfever sufferer wince. Once these male flowers open up in the late winter, the pollen is carried off by the wind and, because the trees have no leaves at the moment, it can be freely wafted throughout the tree without impediment.

But hazel is monoecious, having both male and female flowers on the same tree. In the photo above, there is a little bud where the catkins join the branch – this is the female part. The bud contains anything from four to fourteen female flowers, each with two red styles which are the only things that protrude from the bud.

Male and female flowers

These female flowers can only be pollinated by pollen from a different hazel tree but, once one is, it will develop into a nut to feed the dormice in the late summer. The nuts are produced in a cluster at the site of the female flower bud and the number in the cluster will depend on how many female flowers within the bud got themselves pollinated.

Sometimes the female bud is at the top of the catkins like this, but they are also found along the branch looking very much like leaf buds until you look closer

Now that we understand all of this, it will be interesting to watch nut development as the year progresses to see if we can draw conclusions on which trees are producing nuts well and why that is.

This area of the wood has old hazel coppice and we noticed that catkins are only being produced right at the very tops of the crowns here. As well as that, the coppices are so bulky that they are shading the ground so that no understorey grows. This is not ideal because the fruits and flowers of the understorey are an important food source for dormice along with the hazel nuts We don’t know when this section was last coppiced but an ideal coppicing cycle for dormouse is every fifteen to twenty years, trying to create small mosaics of cut coppice alongside more established areas and leaving the cut material on site as hibernation habitat. My feeling is that we should try to coppice this section next winter

Following our concerns that the new pond was unsafe for wildlife with the liner creating slippery edges, some major health and safety improvements have now been made:

There is now a pebble beach at the shallow end and several exit ramps sticking into the water. The green corrugated roofing square is not pretty but does increase the water catchment area of the pond which will help to keep it filled in the summer.

We have recently cleared the squirrel nest out of the tawny owl box but I suppose it was only to be expected that the squirrels would start to rebuild in there again:

Sadly, since the box has been cleared, there haven’t been any further signs of an owl showing interest. There was a tawny down at one of the ponds though:

At the same pond this week there has been a sparrowhawk….

…a woodcock…

….and the return of the fieldfares that always arrive in the wood in late winter:

Over in the meadows, I realised that the twenty or so nest boxes were yet to be cleared out and this job needed to be done before nesting begins once more. I wonder what calamity resulted in the abandonment of this lovely clutch of eggs?

There were, however, five other bird nests that looked like they had overseen the successful fledging of all their chicks. It is very normal to find fluff from the dogs pink and yellow balls incorporated into the nests here:

One box had a mouse nest in it and so I left it alone:

This next box dangles on a wire three meters up in a hawthorn tree. Although it does sway around a bit, it is very popular and is used by blue tits every year. I found that it did indeed contain an old bird nest but there was now a wood mouse nest on top, complete with the little animal snugly curled up within. I closed this box back up and left it too:

Elsewhere in the meadows there is a brand new 2023 nest under construction and it’s a large one. Magpie nests are robust and are sometimes reused, particularly in urban areas. But the magpies here build a new nest every year, although usually very high up and obscured from our view. Happily, though, we can see this years new-build from the house:

A magpie nest under construction in a hawthorn tree, just up from the centre of the photograph. Once the tree gets its leaves the nest will be more difficult to see, of course
A digiscoped photo from the house of the pair of magpies and their nest. Deal pier and the white cliffs of Ramsgate look so close in the background in this image

The completed structure will have a domed roof for protection and there will be one or two entrances in. Both birds work on the nest, with the male primarily responsible for the walls and roof and the female for lining the inside with mud.

A finished magpie nest is quite a structure. Photo: Bengt Nyman under CC attribution 2.0 generic license

Other interesting photos from the meadows this week:

An action shot of house sparrows up on the strip
Chuckles the male herring gull and his chick from last year. No sign of his mate so far this year, the colour-ringed gull X9LT – I am watching closely for her now
A firecrest visits the baking tray bath
The camera at the hide pond was misted up but we all know what this is. I am delighted to announce that this visiting heron was not seen on the cameras at the wild pond, which is where the frogs are starting to gather prior to spawning. Mackenzie the scarecrow is on duty down there and it looks like he might be doing his job effectively

A few days ago I noticed that something was going on with the mate of the One-eyed Vixen. He wasn’t opening his left eye properly and in the infrared his fur seemed wet on that side. It is only now that I see him by day, do I realise that he has been injured. Many years ago my cat seemed ill and I took him to the vets, only to eventually discover that he had several pellets in him. My immediate thought now was that this fox had also been shot but, looking closely at other photos, I see that the cut is long and jagged like he ran into barbed wire perhaps.

Infection is always a worry but I am comforted that, now several days on, he still seems alright and long may that continue.

We have builders starting this month, with work expected to take six months. They are demolishing our ancient old garage at the top of the garden and building a new, two-storey one, complete with wildlife tower, rainwater collection system and solar panels. They are also removing the greenhouse which is attached to the house, building a utility room on its footprint and knocking a door through. We have been busy preparing for all this upheaval by clearing out the existing garage, two other sheds and the greenhouse, all of which are going.

Getting this temporary garage erected in the meadows by the hide pond was a daunting prospect but actually proved to be quite fun. Let’s hope it is sturdy enough to withstand the winds we get here

As well as this temporary garage, we have also built a small polytunnel to give a home to the tender plants evicted from the greenhouse. The normal pattern of our lives is going to be disrupted for the next few months and no doubt there are many challenges lying ahead, but our eyes are focussed on how good it will all be when it is finished.