A Two Garden Week

It is always a delight to visit a garden and we have been to two this week. The first of them, Sissinghurst in Kent, is surely one of the most famous gardens in the country, created by the poet and writer Vita Sackville-West and her husband, Harold Nicholson, who bought the estate in 1930. They lovingly worked on developing the garden for many decades until Vita’s death in 1962 when the property was given to the National Trust. The Trust has continued to honour Vita and Harold’s legacy and vision for the garden and now, sixty years on, it remains most impressive.

The orchard was unfortunately out of bounds because the ground was boggy after the very wet spring
The garden is divided into a series of rooms, each with a different theme and with Vita’s joyous informal planting around Harold’s hard landscaping structures. The lime walk was amazing with all the spring flowers – I’m afraid that my photo doesn’t really do it justice
It was a great time of the year to visit Sissinghurst. June will also be lovely no doubt when its celebrated roses are out in flower
This is the little cottage in the grounds where Vita and Harold actually lived. Another stunning planting scheme of spring bulbs and flowers
We felt inspired by so many things that we saw in the garden, including growing quince against a brick wall like this – maybe we will attempt this ourselves?
Bringing smaller flowers up higher so that they are more noticeable was also a successful trick
I could have spent hours wandering around these beds admiring the plant combinations
I bet there are lots of bats hunting over this pond at night
I loved the way the fig had been artistically trained into swirls on the wall

Sissinghurst is only an hour away from home and we hope to visit again this year to see the garden in a different season.

The second garden we visited was Pashley Manor just over the border into East Sussex.

Pashley Manor itself is privately owned

A tulip festival is held here every April although, with this late spring, several of the tulip varieties were yet to open:

This bed had not yet reached its full glory – the vagaries of the British weather must be such a stress for the festival organisers
Enough of the tulips in the garden were open, however, for there still to be a magnificent display. Tulipa Banja Luka
Pashley Manor was training its figs in the same way as at Sissinghurst. I would love to see what this looks like when it is all in leaf
Unusual use of a strawberry planter
Surely these mallards would prefer to be on the large lake that was nearby?
I very much liked this goldfinch sculpture by Joel Walker, but not enough to consider paying the £3,400 being asked for it

Bloms Bulbs had a tent at the exit displaying some of the varieties that that they offer, and you could order bulbs to arrive in a few months ready for the autumn planting:

We like the elegance of the goblet tulips. This eye-catching variety is called Fly Away

I asked if they had any suggestions to stop rats removing bulbs from the ground over the winter and I’m pleased to say that they did – they recommend that I buy a big bag of chilli powder and roll the bulbs in the chilli before planting them out. What an excellent idea and one that I will certainly be trying – that will give the rats a shock.

Although most of the tulip bulbs I planted last autumn did disappear, the rats missed one or two and I cut these and brought them into the house this week. Something about the riotous hotch potch of colour and form brings me such pleasure:

But not much to show from 160 tulip bulbs

Elsewhere in the meadows, the apple blossom is out and it is the most beautiful thing, like raspberry ripple ice cream:

We saw our first damselfly of the year. With his black legs and black wing spots, this is a just-hatched large red damselfly. When he is mature he will have red stripes on his thorax rather than yellow:

This male smooth newt was wagging his tail at a female – I had heard that they do a display dance but had never seen this before:

Males look very splendid at this time of year
Wagging his tail at the female who is on the left

We are interested to see what the new chalky butterfly bank does in its first year. There are seedlings germinating on it now and we are filled with anticipation to see what grows:

The reptiles are up and about. Here are two lizards under a sampling square, one of them watching me with a beady eye….

….and a female slow worm with her dark flanks:

In the wood, we have had our first glimpse of a fox cub:

And lots of foxes and badgers have peered down this rabbit hole this week:

A male pied flycatcher comes down for a pit stop. We only see these lovely birds briefly on passage, tantalisingly luring us to follow them to the woods of Wales and the North:

I think this is an absolutely amazing trail camera shot with the shadow of the great tit carrying moss emblazoned across the front of the box:

And this same camera has also caught a dormouse around the box on several nights:

So, what is going on at the tawny owl nest box this week? Although I did get photos of owls at the box in the first half of the week….

…when we visited yesterday there were no owl photos at all around the box. There was, however, this stock dove looking in. Stock doves will definitely nest in a big box like this:

What I am hoping is that, when she peered in, she saw an owl incubating eggs and decided to go elsewhere

The last photos this week are of what is surely the King of the Forest here, one of the magnificent buzzards who sit at the top of the avian food chain and grace us with their presence:

The Quarrels of Spring

Reluctant as I am to tempt fate, I can now report that there is a victor in the power struggle over a nesting box that has been playing out this spring:

Finally, the owls have won and the squirrels are just going to have to find somewhere else to nest

What exciting news this is, particularly since there should be an opportunity for us all to peep inside the box once John and John, the bird ringers, decide the time is right to ring any owlets that might be in there.

A tawny out and about elsewhere in the wood

Over the winter I lost a battle of wits with a rat who carried off all my tulip bulbs. By the looks of it, nearby Walmer Castle has had no such problem and now has a wonderful display in their kitchen garden. How have they done it?

One war we were determined not to lose, however, was the one we have been waging with alexanders these last few weeks. It has been hard work but we are not going to let a single alexander set seed here and have pulled thousands of these plants from the meadows. On-going patrols will still be necessary for a while to deal with any regrowth, but thankfully this job is now done and we have emerged, bloodied but victorious, out from the prickly hedgerows.

However, down by Walmer Castle, this scarily vigorous plant is blanketing out everything else:

A veritable hedge of alexanders along the coastal path
A bench bathed in alexanders

From the state of her tummy, this vixen in the wood is feeding cubs, but sadly we don’t know where the den is this year:

There has been a couple of other entertaining fox photos this week from the wood:

The pond we dug this winter has had its first raptor visitor:

A buzzard down at the new pond

A buzzard has also been perched up on this branch by the owl box – watching for young rabbits perhaps?

But the young rabbits are also looking out for the buzzard:

Some other photos from the wood this week:

Badger out during the day – this is most unusual
A blackbird sunbathing
Is it the flamenco where the dancers hold their fans like this?
We are in peak primrose season and the wood is looking pretty fabulous

Although the weather has continued to be very suspect, there have been two recent ringing sessions in the meadows.

A female and male yellowhammer
A chiffchaff, a small bird that has probably just flown all the way from Africa
A smart male blackbird

Somewhere in the hedgerows, a baby blackbird has now hatched:

Again this year, a male house sparrow is cheeping very loudly and insistently around the swift boxes in an attempt to interest a female in coming to nest in one of them with him. The advice is to keep bungs in the boxes until the swifts arrive to stop the sparrows taking early possession, but we never seem to remember to do this.

The results of the 2023 RSPB’s Big Garden Birdwatch have just been published and more house sparrows were counted than any other species – 1.4 million house sparrows counted by the British public over one weekend at the end of January. Although the UK sparrow population has fallen by almost 70% in the last forty years, more recently the rate of decline has slowed and their future is looking more hopeful.

We do see lot of house sparrows here but we are not the only ones watching them:

Sparrowhawk inspecting the hedgerow for small birds
And a sparrowhawk with plucked bird prey

Chuckles, the male herring gull who considers the meadows his territory, seems to have got himself a new mate. Herring gulls do mate for life but, should their partner die, as I suspect has happened here, they will find a new one. There is now a new adult gull coming down to the feeding cages with Chuckles and he is ordinarily not tolerant of other gulls on his patch.

Chuckles with what we hope is his new partner

The pair of mallards are still visiting the ponds every day but are spending less time here – perhaps all the eggs are now laid and the female has started incubating them. In this phase she will only leave the nest for a short break each day, but with the male still accompanying her for protection. Once the eggs hatch, the male departs and she will lead her ducklings to water within a few hours.

These days the pair of ducks are often arriving at dusk
Sometimes the male is even coming up on his own
A rabbit lolloping down the meadows at dawn

I am always interested in photographing and trying to identify invertebrates that I haven’t seen before and I saw this tiny little beetle inside the house one morning. It was only 2mm long but with distinctive colouring that I hoped would make it easy to ID:

Unfortunately the beetle turns out to be very ominously named – the varied carpet beetle. Although the adults feed on pollen and flowers, the larvae of this beetle feed on natural fibres such as wool and leather – the larvae are called woolly bears and are bigger than the adults, causing damage to household fabrics and carpets. The windows haven’t been open much and there is little chance that this beetle has flown in – it’s a deeply uncomfortable thought.

The weather has been mostly chilly and wet and, for the last few days, there has been a brisk and constant north-easterly wind blowing.

On Easter Sunday, while the rest of the country was bathed in sunshine, there was an entire day of fog here with horns atmospherically sounding at sea

Yet it is definitely spring out there even though we are not always tempted outside to enjoy it.

The cowslips are out in the meadows and the buttercups are waiting in the wings. We are looking forward to the butterflies arriving and surely it can’t be long.

Sunshine After the Rain

On Monday the wind dropped, the sun came out and suddenly the meadows were filled with flying insects. This, finally and incontrovertibly, felt like spring had begun.

The bee-flies are finally out:

The dark-edged bee-fly, with the black leading edge to its wings. I record the date of the first bee-fly sighting in the meadows each year and it has pretty consistently been around 20th March. This year, however, it was 3rd April which tells a story of what spring has been like so far

The sluggish movements of this bristly fly caught my attention. It is a male cluster fly (one of the eight Pollenia species in the UK). Although their biology is still poorly understood, it was interesting to learn that they are parasitic on earthworms. The females lay their eggs near earthworm burrows and the fly larvae then feed on the worms:

Many of the mining bees now out are really very tiny but this female yellow-legged mining bee is one of the larger ones:

Nice to see that a pair of siskin had dropped by:

We currently have some no-go areas in the meadows. A woodpigeon has built her nest quite low in a pine tree and she flies out in a panic whenever we go near. It’s uncomfortable to think that her eggs are left unprotected because of us and so we are trying to give her some space:

The woodpigeon’s nest in the copse

We are also having to steer clear of the area around the hide pond for large portions of the day because a pair of mallards are loafing about there. They are resting and regaining strength over the two week period that the female is egg laying and I feel honoured that they have chosen us – but they are here for many hours each day,,,and it’s really quite inconvenient.

I forget that both the male and the female have those lovely blue patches and I see now that the female’s is more of an azure blue to the male’s royal blue – or maybe it is the way they are catching the light:

After swimming around for a bit, they go to sleep at the side of the pond:

We are now six weeks into our building project to construct a new garage and utility room in the garden and things are progressing well.

The bizarre sight of a daffodil-yellow dumper truck in the meadows

A few weeks ago the builders built us a butterfly bank in the first meadow using the very chalky soil that had been dug out for the foundations:

I have spread native seed in this low-nutrition soil and soon it should be covered in flowers for pollinators as well as providing a south-facing warm bank for invertebrates

A whitebeam tree also had to be removed at the beginning of the works and we used the branches to build a dead hedge.

This week the trunk of the tree has been positioned to make a really quite comfortable bench with a view of the sea:

And the stump has been turned upside down and buried so that it can slowly rot down underground, forming dead-wood habitat for invertebrate larvae and hibernating reptiles.

There is a very large upside-down tree stump under this mound

By hook or by crook we have now put every part of the whitebeam to good use in the meadows.

A pine tree also had to be trimmed back a bit this week and we have used the cut material to make another dead hedge on the cliff edge:

The builders called us over one afternoon because they had found a creature that they didn’t recognise that had fallen into a trench. They thought it might be a gecko but it turned out to be a smooth newt:

He had a lovely red tummy that he wasn’t keen on showing to the builders:

We released him into the safety of the wood piles down by the wild pond.

Once again crow wars have been going on in the skies above the meadows. Bands of marauding crows have been noisily entering our airspace to test how determined the resident crows are to see them off. It is atmospheric and exciting to watch, but two years ago a crow was mugged and murdered here by the other crows and we are well aware that this is deadly serious for them.

There has been high drama in the wood as well. Some sweet young bunnies have been living down the burrow that was used as a fox den last spring. I still have a camera on the hole in case the foxes reuse it this year:

One sunny afternoon this week, one of the bunnies was sitting out in the open:

Twenty seconds later, the camera took another photo:

A buzzard swoops down on the bunny

There wasn’t another photo taken for forty-five minutes and so I’m afraid don’t know what the ending of this story is – although I suspect it didn’t go too well for the rabbit.

There has been a lot of activity at the owl box and it seems that there is still a power struggle going on between the owls and the squirrels. The owls have been very much in evidence around the box, including this photo with both of them there:

However, squirrels are still going into the box and so there can’t possibly be an owl sitting on eggs in there:

In this photo, the squirrel is even carrying leaves into the box:

Last year two tawny owl chicks were ringed in this box on 2nd May. Are the owls going to be able to sort this squirrel problem out in time?

The regeneration area of the wood is adorned with flowering primroses at the moment. It’s beautiful, especially in the warm sunshine with the brimstone butterflies flitting between the flowers:

The structure of the primrose flower means that only long-tongued invertebrates can access the nectar positioned at the bottom of the flower tube:

This means that it is only the brimstone butterflies and bee-flies who are currently on the wing and able to drink the primrose nectar at the moment:

It took me a while to get this photo. The bee-flies have to hover at the flower and they only stay there a really short time. They are also frustratingly sensitive to a dark figure looming over them with a camera
A bee-fly that has just left a flower. I didn’t manage to get this photo in focus but I include it nonetheless because it shows that the already-long proboscis of the bee-fly is extended even further when its tongue comes out – this enables it to reach to the bottom of the tube

Other invertebrates, such as this female marmalade hoverfly, were landing on the primrose flowers but only use them for basking because they absolutely do not have the right mouthparts to get to the nectar.

Marmalade hoverfly female on a pin-eyed primrose flower

I have just learnt something very interesting about primrose flowers. Some of the plants have pin-eyed flowers with a single stigma (the female part) just protruding. Other primrose plants have thrum flowers with the male parts at the top. I have drawn a diagram (although I now see that I have stupidly misspelt thrum – there is no silent b at the end)

A long-tongued insect, reaching down to the bottom of a pin-eyed flower, would pick up pollen from the anthers halfway along its proboscis. If it were next to reach into a thrum flower, that pollen would be in exactly the right place to fertilise the stigma halfway up the tube. Conversely, if the insect first visited a thrum flower, the pollen would adhere to the base of its proboscis, which is in just the right place to touch the stigma in a pin-eyed flower.

A pin-eyed primrose on the left and a thrum on the right:

I have to admit to loving Easter, and not just because of all the chocolate, toasted hot cross buns and the appealing pastel colours with which to dress the house.The spring bulbs are up in the garden and everything is bursting with the promise of things to come – what is going to happen out there this year and what exciting wildlife discoveries will we make?

The weather looks like it might be kind to us for at least part of the long weekend and we plan to get out there and enjoy it. I hope that you can too, and have a thoroughly lovely Easter.

Nice Weather for Ducks

March is now done but not without more wet and horrible weather this week – what a month it has been. The ponds are as full as we have seen them and it is lovely to see ducks here this spring:

The dog was as surprised as we were to see a pair of mallards on the hide pond

Mallards start nesting in March – the nest is made from grass and leaves and the female then lines it with down plucked from her own breast. She lays her eggs at one or two day intervals until there are about twelve – this is more than half her body weight laid in eggs in just a fortnight. This process weakens her and the male escorts her everywhere during this time as protection. Between each egg, the female needs to rest and recuperate and, after disguising the nest with leaves, they head for quiet spots such as our ponds to spend some relaxing time.

Ducks on the hide pond

The pair have also been on the wild pond, where unfortunately the dog barked at them and set them up – so much for their quiet rest time:

But we are trying very hard not to disturb them and hope they will continue to visit for the whole of the fortnight that their eggs are being laid.

Two stock dove were also having a peaceful time pecking around the feeding cages one afternoon this week:

But then look what happened just one minute later:

In this high drama shot, a sparrowhawk swoops in at them

However, there are no signs of a sparrowhawk kill up there and I think this story had a happy ending for the doves this time.

I like this action photo up at the feeding cages as a stock dove arrives at a really awkward angle:

…and the sparrow flock decides to return to the safety of the hedgerow:

Herring gulls have a very distinctive drinking style where they get their head down parallel to the water surface and scoop the water up:

This vole is reaching down to the water to drink:

But a wood mouse decided that it’s much easier to go swimming instead:

There has been more rabbit action than normal in the meadows this year. The rabbit on the right has a distinctive tear in its left ear:

This is that same rabbit again:

I don’t want to get too emotionally attached to these rabbits because I am sure I am going to be seeing them dangling out of the mouths of foxes once the cubs are born and the parent foxes need to find food for their young.

Despite the awful weather, the first cowslip is out in the meadows:

We have been spending hours working our way along the edges of the meadows digging up alexanders. Possibly introduced to the country by the Romans as a food plant, this plant is scarily successful at reproducing itself here and for the last few years we have given ourselves the target to let no alexander set seed in the meadows. Even so, the plant is particularly rampant this year and we have hundreds of metres to remove it from:

A backdrop of alexanders

It is particularly pleasing if the whole of the carrot-like root comes up like this, but I usually find that I have sliced through it.

A successful removal of an entire alexander plant
By now I am so tuned in to seeking out and removing flowering alexanders that this section that we haven’t got to yet gives me sensory overload and is painful to walk through

Over in the wood, the deep, dark pools of this owl’s eyes mesmerise me:

These nocturnal birds have big eyes with enormous light-gathering pupils

Unfortunately squirrels do continue to be seen at the owl box:

Perhaps this buzzard can sort our squirrel problem out – squirrels form part of their diet:

This spring there are two extra roving cameras in the wood. One is on a tripod to look at nest boxes:

A great tit is making a nest in this box and the bird is probably cowering in there as this squirrel gnaws outside

The other camera is on short little legs and is looking at holes in the ground:

A fox patrolling rabbit burrows

This vixen is heavily pregnant..

I think this is also her checking out the burrow that was used as a fox den last year:

I am still putting up woodcock as I walk round the wood and here is one on the cameras this week:

A jay at the new pond:

John, one of the bird ringers, has just returned from a trip to southern Morocco and the Sahara. He has sent a selection of his always-wonderful photographs of some of the birds that he saw there:

Woodchat shrike
Spotted sandgrouse – aren’t they lovely?
Serin – a bird that can occasionally be seen in the UK
Moussier’s redstart
House bunting
Horned lark
Crimson-winged finch
Bald ibis

I have been to Marrakesh but don’t actually remember seeing any birds at all whilst I was there – although I did come home with some lovely scarves and lots of saffron. Having seen John’s photos of Moroccan birds, I would now like to go and try again.