The March of Spring

Spring has arrived and, although no one has remembered to tell this to the weather, the pond snails have definitely got the message:

Identification is tricky but these may be wandering snails, Ampullaceana balthica 

Numbers of these snails were floating around upside down on the water surface. Perhaps this is how they ‘wander’ and disperse:

Further investigation revealed that there were also many pairs joined up in the shallows. Pond snails are hermaphrodite and are capable of being either the donator or receiver of sperm. Here are two mating:

I tried to find out a bit more about the biology and life cycle of a pond snail but it was quite difficult. I was, however, amazed to discover how much there is going on inside them:

A diagram of a generalised snail – although this is a land snail with four tentacles rather than the two that pond snails have. I do find the large size of the lung and the brain very surprising. I also note that both male and female reproductive organs are there – but I still have so many unanswered questions about how it all works. One of our sons had a Giant African Land Snail called Charlotte as a pet and we were shocked and dismayed to see that she produced hundreds of baby snails all on her own. Diagram from Wildlife Gardening Forum website

We had not noticed synchronised snail mating in the ponds before but will watch out for it again at the next spring equinox. Perhaps by then I will know a bit more about them.

The two large ponds in the meadows are only 100m apart and were dug within a year of each other, but they don’t have the same depth profiles and planting. Interestingly, they support noticeably different species – for instance the hide pond is absolutely packed with smooth newts.There are far fewer newts in the wild pond but this is the pond with all the frogs.

While the hide pond on the left was hosting this wandering snail event this week, there was not a single one of these snails to be seen in the wild pond on the right

But the wild pond has snail species of its own:

This large snail from the wild pond is probably the Great pond snail
There are also many ramshorn snails in the wild pond, although I am not sure of the exact species yet

I look forward to doing some pond dipping this spring and learning more about what is going on in the depths of these ponds.

It is not just the snails that have noticed that spring is here. The birds are pairing up as well:

A lovely pair of robins

Unfortunately there is still no sign of the colour-ringed female herring gull X9LT, the mate of the charismatic Chuckles who is here in the meadows every day. I haven’t seen X9LT for months and am fearing the worst. The website of the North Thames Gull Group shows that she was colour-ringed by them in January 2015 at Pitsea landfill site in Essex when she was estimated to be about four years old. She moved here to the Kent coast in 2020 and a few sightings of her have been logged since then. However, there has been nothing since I last submitted a sighting of her to them in May 2022.

Chuckles is a real character and we have grown very fond of him. We particularly like how he dive bombs the dog when she barks at him

X9LT and Chuckles have raised young together for the last two years and brought them here to the meadows once they fledged. Herring gulls live for about twenty years and mate for life and so sadly Chuckles might be on his own from now on.

The magpies have reached the advanced point in their nest building where they are lining it with mud:

Groups of starling that have been murmurating over our British reedbeds and piers all winter are now stopping off in the meadows to feed up before crossing the North Sea back to their breeding grounds:

Grey wagtails are also moving. We often see them here in the spring and autumn:

A mother rabbit has been venturing out with two sweet little Easter bunnies in the reptile area where the grass is longer and more tussocky. We haven’t seen rabbits living in this area before and I read that females who are lower down the rabbit hierarchy are often forced to take themselves off to have their young away from the main warren.

The young rabbits are ridiculously sweet but I worry for them because they are isolated from the main group and there are a lot of foxes here.

But the One-eyed vixen’s mate has a dogfish rather than a rabbit this time:

Despite having just finished a seven week course of Arsen Sulphur mange treatment, his mange is still advancing and I have now started him on a week’s course of Psorinum in the hope that this will be more effective. Both these treatments are recommended for foxes with mange and have worked for me in the past.

There have been no signs that there are any badger cubs this spring. Usually the cameras catch the cubs being moved between burrows or there is evidence that the female has been suckling – but this year, nothing – although I am still prepared to be surprised.

I went round the meadows with the ecologist who is continuing to monitor our slow worms this year – a few years ago he moved about a hundred here from a site that has been developed. We found two neonate slow worms that will have been born last autumn, along with some lizards and a pygmy shrew.

A neonate slow worm, just up from below ground now that it is spring

The camera at the feeding cages caught a squabble amongst yellowhammer:

A blackbird with a worm:

Alexanders are plants that love a coastal setting and in the early spring they grow in absolute profusion in these parts, blanketing out other things. We are scared of what they would do if we don’t control them and last year we ensured that no alexander set seed in the meadows. This involved a mixture of digging up the plant with its parsnip-like tuberous root, or simply taking off all the flower heads. Even after all that work, this year we are faced with an even bigger battle with the plants growing in increased abundance along the hedgerows and advancing into the meadows. We are determined that no seed will set again this year but it is a back-breaking job. The hope is that next year things will be better.

Alexanders growing in our hedgerows

What a joy it was to see brimstone butterflies flitting between primroses in the wood this week:

Adult brimstones hibernate overwinter in woodland and emerge on warm spring days
They are beautifully camouflaged on primroses and seem to disappear as soon as they land on them. There are surely far fewer primroses in the wood this spring – perhaps the heat of last summer took its toll
Scarlet elf cups grow on twigs and small branches in the leaf litter

My brother bought me two treecreeper nest boxes for my recent birthday:

The advice was to put the boxes up two to three metres high in a sheltered position on a tree with a heavily textured bark. What fun it was going round the wood looking for a good place for them:

It will be interesting to see what uses them this year – because I am already presuming it won’t be treecreepers!

But I have saved my most exciting spring news until last. There does still continue to be some squirrel activity around the tawny owl nest box…

..but owls raised chicks in this box last year and I was really hoping they would again. This week it is tentatively looking like they might – every night they have been photographed around the box…

…and even peering in on several occasions:

I need to change this camera onto video to be able to tell if the owls are actually going into the box and hopefully there will be more news on this next time.

Wobbin in Essex

Before this week, we had only ever passed through Essex in our enthusiasm to get to the wildlife wonders and reserves of Norfolk and Suffolk – we had never viewed the county of Essex as a destination in its own right. But this week we stayed a few days in The Wobbin, near Tollesbury, in the very rural south east of Essex around the Blackwater Estuary.

The Wobbin is a listed pair of old farm cottages built around 1800 and now knocked through into one. It does look like a rather large self-catering cottage for just two people and a dog but it is only one room deep.

This part of the Essex coast has miles of wild coastline and salt marsh and far too many nature reserves for us to have visited them all in one short break

The salt marsh at Tollesbury at high tide. Photo from the Wobbin website

The part of Tollesbury marsh closest to the village is used as a natural marina, although we only saw it at low tide when it looked a lot less desirable:

On the other side of the Blackwater estuary stands Bradwell nuclear power station, built in the 50s but now decommissioned since 2003.

There are plans to build a new Bradwell B nuclear power station close to the site of this old one, but these are yet to get officially sanctioned.

There are large numbers of dark-bellied brent geese over-wintering on this part of the coast. Around ninety-one thousand of these birds spend the winter in eastern England before returning to Arctic Russia to breed:

These small geese are about the size of a mallard duck.

Once you get on the seawall around the Blackwater estuary, you can walk for miles.

The English Coast Path, which will be 2,700 miles long when it is complete, follows the sea wall round the Blackwater Estuary
Walking along the sea wall at Tollesbury Wick nature reserve

Other than two training yachts packed with children, the only other vessel we saw in The Blackwater estuary was the Radio Caroline radio ship, Ross Revenge. This is now permanently moored in the centre of the river with a team of volunteers still broadcasting the sounds of the 60s and 70s via the radio waves to parts of Essex and Suffolk and also nationally online.

Ross Revenge with its tall radio mast. In the 1960s the BBC had the monopoly over radio broadcasting in Britain but the music being played was old fashioned. Pirate radio ships such as Radio Caroline were moored far enough out to sea to be in international waters and beyond British law and restrictions, but they could then broadcast new and exciting pop music back in to the British youth of the 60s.

There is a lightship at Tollesbury marshes. LV15 was built in 1954 and for thirty years did service around the British coast warning shipping of dangers at sea. She retired in the late 80s and was bought by the Fellowship Afloat Charitable Trust who provide outdoor activities for kids who sleep onboard the lightship herself. She has been renamed Trinity and since 1991 rests her old bones in Tollesbury Marshes

She was full of children when we walked along to her. What a fantastically memorable experience for them

The RSPB reserve at Old Hall Marshes just to the north of Tollesbury is enormous and we had it entirely to ourselves:

Black-tailed godwit at Old Hall Marshes. Only about fifty pairs breed in the UK, although these birds will be over-wintering in Africa at the moment. The birds we saw at Old Hall Marshes this week are from a population that breeds in Iceland but over-winters here. Recent improvements of habitat in Iceland mean that our winter black-tailed godwit numbers have increased, but our summer breeding population is critically low and the subject of intensive conservation work to try to save them from extinction

We realised that this must be an eel ladder:

The green plastic brushes mimic grass – apparently elvers can slither themselves up grassy banks to get round obstacles:

We were also the only visitors at Essex Wildlife Trust’s Chigborough Lakes reserve. This ancient pollarded oak on the reserve has a girth of three metres according to the Ancient Tree Inventory:

There has been much rain recently and the clay soil of the area did make things muddy:

Our wood in Kent has a lot of goat willow which is now flowering, but all the action is high up in the crowns of the trees and difficult to view. This week in Essex we found a hedgerow of goat willow with the catkins down at eye level. Unlike hazel, goat willow is dioecious, meaning that there are separate male and female trees. On the male trees, the catkins are covered in yellow pollen:

Goat willow is pollinated by both insects and the wind. The male flowers produce nectar along with the pollen to attract bees

The catkins of the female trees are made up of narrow green flask-shaped flowers. They also produce nectar to lure in bees and these bees may have previously visited a male tree and picked up some pollen to fertilise the flower.

Once pollinated, each of the flasks within the female catkin grows into a fluffy seed that gets dispersed by the wind

We were a bit disappointed with RHS Hyde Hall – both with the scale of the garden and with their policy that no dogs are allowed anywhere on site so we couldn’t even get Pops out of the car to stretch her legs in the car park. We did, however, love this windmill garden sculpture of sycamore keys that were gently circling in the breeze:

These living willow sculptures on the winter garden were also very impressive:

On our way out of Essex at the end of our stay, we called in at Stow Maries Great War Aerodrome, staffed by a band of enthusiastic and welcoming volunteers. After the First World War, the farmer returned to the land and continued farming whilst retaining the buildings. The airfield wasn’t used again in the Second World War because it was too marshy and so it remains the only intact Great War aerodrome in England.

A World War I biplane, the Avro 504K

The site covers 118 acres and they are working to improve the habitat for wildlife. All five species of British owl have been seen there and, working with ‘WildlifeKate’, they have cameras on a barn owl nest in the old generator building, a little owl nest and on ponds around the site. Their website has links to live feeds from the cameras:

It was great to visit Essex off-season and have it to ourselves but we couldn’t help wondering how it will be when the invertebrates are out and the birds are breeding. This lovely part of the country deserves another visit to find out!

Hoo’s Herons

This week we returned to the North Kent marshes, but this time to visit the RSPB Northward Hill reserve on the Hoo Peninsula.

The Hoo Peninsula is a spur of land sticking out into the Thames Estuary – in fact, the word ‘hoo’ is believed to be Saxon for spur of land. The Isle of Sheppey with the Elmley Marshes reserve that we stayed at earlier this year is half in the picture to the right. Image from Wikimedia Commons

We had never been to Northward Hill before but had heard that its woods contain the biggest heronry in the country with at least one hundred and fifty active nests and that it has been established there since 1947 or longer.

Map of the reserve

Unfortunately we arrived at the reserve to see a notice announcing that the heronry has moved deeper into the wooded wildlife sanctuary and is no longer visible from the now-closed heronry trail – this was disappointing.

But we found ourselves in a lovely, low-key reserve that we had entirely to ourselves. As well as the heronry and a large rookery in the woodland overlooking the marshes, the reserve has areas of dense scrubland where at least ten pairs of nightingales will nest later in the year.

The pink path on the map that goes up the hill and through the wood to High Halstow, took us along a stretch of the Saxon Shore Way, a 163 mile long-distance path starting in Gravesend, west of the Hoo Peninsula. It traces the coast of Kent as it was in Saxon times, eventually skirting below our meadows south of Deal, and finishing in Hastings just into East Sussex.

The oak wood on Northward Hill
Coming back off the hill and returning to the marsh with views over the Hoo Peninsula

Although the dog was allowed along the Saxon Shore Way, she was not permitted into other sections of the reserve. So we settled her down in the back of the car with a chew and went into the marshy area. There is a predator fence enclosing the central wetland, which includes a sizeable reed bed with resident marsh harriers.

The predator fence keeping foxes away from the islands and reed bed. Given that the largest heronry in the country is nearby, you would have thought that we would have seen a lot of heron, but this one that can just be seen fishing in front of the fence was the only one we saw that morning. A buzzard perches on the rear fence

It was an odd but strangely captivating view from the Ernie Helmsley viewpoint:

Sitting on a bench looking across the marsh to the River Thames and Essex beyond. This deepwater port, DP World London Gateway, is on the Essex side of the estuary and is Britains newest port, opening in 2013 and capable of handling the World’s largest container ships

Through our binoculars, we could see an abandoned First World War cordite factory further west on the peninsula:

Aerial photograph of the Curtis and Harveys cordite factory by John Fielding, shared under CCA 2.0 generic license

We want to return to Northward Hill reserve in April or May once the nightingales are there. The chance of hearing the song of a male nightingale calling down his female from the skies above has to be worth the trip.

Unfortunately we are not expecting any nightingales to be arriving in our wood this spring – we have never seen or heard one there. We do still have the winter- visiting woodcock though:

I like the way this one has fanned out those white-tipped tail feathers that they have:

These birds will be returning to their breeding grounds in Finland and Russia very soon now.

We have a small flock of redwing as well, although they too will soon be leaving for the Far North. I have counted up to nine redwing all trying to bathe here at the same time:

The pheasant are also turning their thoughts to breeding. Here is a male displaying to one of his harem, pulling his wing down and fanning his tail to make himself look larger and more impressive:

The new pond is establishing itself nicely. Our woodland neighbours have a pond which is now filled with frogspawn. Maybe we can hope for some spawn to be laid in this pond next spring.

There are now six small ponds spaced around the wood. Here is a sparrowhawk at one of the others:

And a buzzard at another:

A tawny has been perching up close to the owl box, but I am sad to say that there have been no recent photos of owls actually at the box. Since the typical timing for tawnies to lay their first egg is around the third week of March – which is next week – it does now look like it is not going to happen this year

Despite us clearing the box out last autumn and again in January, there is unfortunately still ongoing squirrel activity there:

With the dormice hibernating down at ground level for now, we went round the dormouse boxes this week, clearing them out with a paint scraper, checking them over and rewriting the numbers that had been washed off after a year out in the elements. Only two old dormouse nests were found in the thirty boxes in our wood although there were also two mouse nests:

A mouse nest in a dormouse box. No mice were at home and so I cleared it out

But earlier this winter we had found at least five dormouse nests in the heavy woodcrete bird boxes when we cleared these out:

A dormouse nest in a bird box with its distinctive core of tightly woven material

Dormice certainly seemed to have had a preference for the bird boxes last year which would probably have been cooler. It will be interesting to see if this happens again this year.

In the meadows, I can see ten yellowhammer in this photo:

There are a lot of woodpigeon here at the moment, eating the ivy berries in the hedgerows:

A lovely flock of house sparrow has been here all winter:

The One-eyed Vixen emerges from her den at dusk:

One morning I found this twenty-plume moth inside the house, drawn to the light of the alarm controller:

This common micromoth has rather wacky wings, each with six deeply divided plumes to the rear – this makes a total of twelve and I can’t find an explanation as to why this moth is called the twenty-plume moth. The plumes can be better seen if the photo is taken without the flash:

The caterpillars of the twenty-plume moth feed within the flowers of honeysuckle.

We have walked the dog in a couple of woods close to our wood this week. In Covert Wood, we saw this amazing ancient hazel coppice:

Some of the venerable silver birch on the edges of the wood had been affected by the witches broom gall.

Galls similar to this can be caused by many organisms but on silver birch they are very likely to be due to the fungus Taphrina betulina. The fungus causes the tree to produce a tumour with a dense cluster of twigs in which it then lives.

In Gorsley Wood, we were very surprised to see this old woodpecker hole so close to the ground and right next to the footpath:

There has been quite some weather this last week and 35mm of rain has fallen. There was no snow in the meadows although there was a bit in the wood.

My last photo for today is of Jupiter and its four Galilean moons, Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto. Galileo Galilei discovered these moons in March 1610, which proved the theory that everything in the universe did not revolve around the Earth.

There is nothing like a contemplation of the universe for widening one’s horizons and getting things in perspective. It will be the spring equinox before too long and I do hope that spring itself will be putting in an appearance shortly.