Kites and Cockroaches

My sister celebrated her birthday this week and I went up to visit her in Berkshire. I took the birding scope with me because red kites have been nesting high in a pine tree at the bottom of her garden this summer. One of the young kites had already fledged but the second was still at the nest.

The remaining chick at the nest. These birds are famous for incorporating plastic into their nests giving them a very shambolic appearance
The young bird is yet to develop its grey head and blue eye
One of the adults was observing proceedings from a nearby oak

These are lovely birds but we don’t often see them in our part of East Kent. Between 1989 and 1994, birds from Spain were successfully reintroduced into the Chilterns and the population has spread from there although not yet as far as us.They are mainly sedentary, although juvenile birds do range widely during their first winter, sometimes across to continental Europe, but returning by the spring to the area they fledged from. I think the red kites that we occasionally see over the meadows are these juvenile wanderers but perhaps one day they might decide to stay – perhaps the extensive Blean Woods surrounding Canterbury, where bison were reintroduced last year, would be very attractive to them.

Back at home, I saw a small insect that I didn’t recognise on the draining board one morning and rushed off to get my macro lens:

The whole structure of this insect was one that I was unfamiliar with. In particular I noticed the two short cerci sticking up at the end of the abdomen

I had thought it was going to be simple to identify this little thing with that white stripe, but this didn’t prove to be the case. Having failed to find it in any of my invertebrate books or internet searches, I put the photos onto a wildlife identification site and the experts there told me it was a cockroach nymph. This was alarming news since I had found the animal in my kitchen.

When I was in my 20s, I worked for a while in a hospital where there were cockroaches in the kitchen of the ward. These were enormous and their scuttling about was horrifying but this was a long time ago and I haven’t seen one since. There are four species of invasive cockroaches in the UK. These find the British weather too harsh for them so they live inside our buildings as pests. The large hospital cockroaches of my youth would probably have been oriental cockroaches although I wasn’t interested in attempting an id back then.

An oriental cockroach. I see that the body of these animals is about an inch long but they had lived on in my memory as much bigger than that. This animal also has those two cerci sticking up at the end of the abdomen. Photo by Dimitar Boevski from Wiki commons under CC share alike 4.0

Yet Britain has three of its own native cockroach species – the tawny cockroach, the dusky cockroach and the lesser cockroach. These are all adapted to living outside in our country and are not interested in being household pests. They are active by day and feed on plant material as well as scavenging dead animals – they are not a nuisance to us in any way.

The cockroach I found on the draining board, however, was not one of those four invasive house-dwelling species or one of these three known British native species. It was a nymph of the variable cockroach, Planuncus tingitanus:

An adult variable cockroach. It is very pleasing to learn that these cockroaches do not live in human houses. Photo from Wiki Commons in the public domain

This species is newly arrived into the UK but is extremely under reported with little currently understood of its abundance and distribution. There is now a study underway to find out more of what they are up to. Having previously known next to nothing about cockroaches, I now know perhaps a little bit more but have to admit that even our native species do still make my skin creep – and I so hope that there are no longer cockroaches in hospital kitchens.

Rabbits are lovely though. A mother has been bringing her sweet babies out in front one of my cameras:

There are three young rabbits and their mother, in the centre here, remains ever alert to danger whilst they hop around and explore:

One even tries to snuggle up to her:

I also like this photo. A badger hoovers up the remaining nightly peanuts while the One-eyed Vixen and her mate, a long-standing couple for many years now, look on from the sidelines:

A similar scene from another evening, although this time it is the One-eyed Vixen and one of her daughters from a previous year who wait patiently for the badger to polish off the peanuts and to leave:

This is the first time a tawny owl has appeared on the meadow cameras this year:

There is a new sparrowhawk on the block and he has been appearing on the cameras a lot recently, as well as being responsible for several sorry piles of feathers around the meadows. Here he is, nonchalantly dangling his long limbs on the perch:

And on another day, he has fanned his tail out into a skirt:

I am enjoying watching our solitary blackbird chick this year, still always out and about with its father:

There are so few dragonflies here this year but I did see this migrant hawker resting in a hedgerow:

Most of the ragwort has now been pulled from the meadows, although we keep thinking we’ve got it all but then spot some more:

A heap of ragwort

Now it’s time to turn our attention to the dreaded wild parsnip. The latex from this plant causes light-sensitive burns on human skin and we therefore treat it with the utmost respect, but it is worryingly good at reproducing itself and grows like a thug on our calcareous soils. There are two really quite large areas where it is still growing densely, despite us not letting any seed set for three years now. The plant is theoretically a biennial but I think we have perennialised it by stopping it seeding.

The wild parsnip area in the first meadow
The parsnip grows densely and dominates all the other vegetation where it is growing

Our approach to controlling this plant is to mow it now when it is about to flower but long before it sets seed. We then mow once or perhaps twice more as the summer progresses to whip away any flower regrowth. So, our 2023 Battle of the Parsnip began on Sunday but didn’t get very far when the tractor stalled on the way up to the parsnip patch and wouldn’t restart. Frustratingly it is just back from its service so that will have to be sorted out before hostilities can once more commence.

Trying to restart the tractor. But all that did was to drain the battery

Last July I found a large and hairy pupa behind a trail camera that was resting against the bark of an old apple tree. I attempted to ID it but was unsuccessful:

Photo of the back of a trail camera from July 2022

This week I remembered that pupa from last year and looked behind the camera again. This time I found an extremely large caterpillar and piles of what I presume are its droppings. The caterpillar was all of 5cm long and did move around a bit although it was probably preparing to pupate:

It is the caterpillar of the gypsy moth. This moth was common in the East Anglian fenlands in the 19th century but had become extinct by 1900. It accidentally got reintroduced into London around 1995 and DEFRA tried unsuccessfully to eradicate it because the caterpillars can do a lot of damage to deciduous trees and is a pest in areas of continental Europe. But it is now firmly established as resident in colonies around southern England and it appears that we have it here in the meadows although I am not aware of it doing any damage.

A most impressive beast, but those hairs could cause an allergic skin reaction in humans and caution is required

I now think the pupa I found last year must have been that of the gypsy moth and if I look behind the camera again in a while I will surely find another.

A large skipper has finally been seen in the meadows. They are normally on the wing from mid June and I had thought that I wasn’t going to see one at all this year:

I love this photo of a fox cub in the wood:

The marjoram is now out in flower and the clearing is alive with butterflies – particularly peacocks but I counted nine different species when I was there one sunny morning:

The peacocks were all in absolute mint condition as though they had just hatched:

I couldn’t stop photographing them:

There were also richly orange commas:

And second brood brimstone:

But I return to the meadows for today’s last photo. On Saturday afternoon, in persistent light drizzle, we witnessed an enormous movement of swifts above our heads, silently flying south along the coast. They were spread out but formed a constant stream which kept on coming for hours until we could no longer see them in the dark. By that time many hundreds if not thousands had gone by. Swifts are late to arrive in this country in the spring and then they stay only long enough to breed. Their migration south again to Africa in late July or August is believed to be triggered by a lack of insects high in the air.
Swifts are not with us very long each summer and here three of them are beginning their journey back to Africa on 22nd July

But what of the pair of swifts nesting here in the meadows this year? Have their young fledged and the little family joined Saturday’s large movement of birds south? The truth is that we don’t really know what went on in that box this summer – we so rarely saw them coming and going, although both birds were seen entering the box as recently ago as Thursday. However, there has been no sign of them since Saturday and I think the joyous sight of screaming parties of swifts circling around the house and over the summer meadows might already be over for another year.

3 thoughts on “Kites and Cockroaches

  1. Amazing to see the Kites. And i love that they recycle!
    The peacock butterfly you photographed are so vibrant.
    How patient are those foxes , it’s great that they co exist with the badgers.
    Sad to see the swifts going. Still some here up north at the mo.

    1. I found all those swifts streaming south in the poor weather really moving. I wasn’t ready for them to go – the schools had only just broken up for the summer the day before, for goodness sake!

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