Looking Up

Looking up into the skies this last week of August, you were much more likely to have seen dramatic dark cloudscapes than the longed-for blue vistas of the school summer holidays. But in the airspace above the meadows, there has been more to see than just the rainclouds. Over the course of several days, large numbers of black-headed gulls have been busy ‘anting’:

In late summer when the conditions are just right, winged queen and male ants emerge from the innumerable ant nests dotted about the meadows and take to the air to mate and disperse. The ant colonies act in synchrony and the sky above them becomes an insect-rich hunting ground for the gulls, who fly in small circles for hours making a distinctive ‘chipping’ sound. This gives us the warm sense of satisfaction that our meadow management is encouraging ants and helping to support a healthy ecosystem.

A large flock of linnets has gathered here which swarms up and down the hedgerows, the birds sometimes plunging down en masse to eat the seeds of the spent meadow flowers.

Linnets on the wing

The throaty roar of a Spitfire’s Merlin engine is the sound of the summer here as these iconic planes fly along the White Cliffs. They have mostly been adapted to take a fare-paying passenger, who will have had to part with a very large fare indeed. Flying along with the heritage Spitfire is a modern plane, also with paying passengers onboard, taking photos of the Spitfire in flight:

Spitfire on the right and the photographic plane on the left They seem so close
A pair of Spitfires from June 2021 when I had a better camera in my hand as they went over
Last year this Chinook flew low down the strip towards us and it was terrifyingly loud
In 2021 an Apache helicopter flew over the meadows and lowered its gun down as it did so

But the most dramatic event of all in the skies was the unexpected flypast by the Red Arrows this week, flying in tight formation low across the meadows. It was spectacular but all happened so quickly that I failed to get a photo.

Photo of the Red Arrows from Wiki Commons in the public domain. I think that there were only eight planes over the meadows this week and they were not producing vapour trails

The bird ringers came again early one morning to see if they could catch and ring some of the flock of linnets that has been gathering. They also wanted to see if they could encourage some migrating warblers into their nets.

They put the nets up high to try to catch the linnets flying along the hedgerow

Sadly they didn’t get any linnets this time but they did get a good variety of warblers including this common whitethroat:

Whitethroats breed here and this bird might actually have been with us all summer

This young sparrow, still with some of its yellow gape remaining, had sweet little tufts of white feathers behind each eye:

The bird also has the remains of red berries on its beak. It is a really good year for hedgerow fruit and the hedgerows are heavily laden

Now that breeding is over for the year, a flock of house sparrows is once more coming down to the daily seed that is scattered onto the strip by the feeding cages:

These proceedings are regularly overseen by sparrowhawks sitting on a nearby perch:

I have never seen two sparrowhawks together before:

The bird on the right is a juvenile and the one on the left is possibly a youngster as well, making these a pair of this year’s siblings, still flying around together

As well as the flying ants, another late summer phenomenon here is the constant background rasp of grasshoppers and crickets – the Orthoptera – that live amongst the grasses. We don’t know much about these animals but we do now know that great green bush-crickets live here, having seen a few this summer ..

At about 7cm long, this is a great beast of a cricket

There are also Roesels Bush-crickets here:

A Roesel’s bush-cricket with that distinctive cream curve and three pale yellow spots on the side of her thorax. Photo from 2021

A wide variety of predators cash in on the late summer bonanza of Orthoptera in the meadows. The wasp spider is a bit of a grasshopper specialist:

The yellow fork and camping chair mark the position of the wasp spider web that I have been watching
A wasp spider will weave a zigzag pattern, known as a stabilimentum, upwards towards the central point where the female sits and awaits her victims. There are several theories for the purpose of the stabilimentum, one of which is that it advertises the web to birds to stop them flying into it
Wrapping up a grasshopper with the numerous threads that come out of her spinneret
With so many threads, it only takes a few seconds to wrap up her prey

She is a devastatingly successful hunter and there have been forlorn wrapped-up parcels of Orthoptera waiting in the wings of her web all week:

Birds also take grasshoppers and crickets although they must be quite difficult to eat with all that body armour they have:

In the wood, a cricket had drowned in a pond and was being feasted upon by pond skaters. I see that there are now juvenile pond skaters around:

Any rain cloud that may have hung threateningly above the meadows this week literally pales to insignificance when compared to this exact day three years ago:

28th August 2020

British Bank Holiday weekends often fail to deliver!

Nuthatch Delight

Sandwich Bay Bird Observatory, a few miles up the coast from the meadows, has been keeping ringing records since 1952. In all that time, a nuthatch has never been ringed or recovered there.

In the spring and summer nuthatches eat tree-dwelling insects and larvae but, in the autumn and winter, their diet changes to nuts and seeds. Their bill is strong enough to peck through hazel nuts but only once the nut has been wedged and held firm in the bark crevices of mature English oaks. Our thin and chalky soils in this Eastern part of Kent do not favour English oaks and consequently we do not get nuthatches here.

However, there was much excitement this week when a nuthatch was unexpectedly caught in the ringers’ nets in the meadows:

A juvenile Eurasian nuthatch, Sitta europaea ssp caesia. The bird is rather scruffy because it is going through its post-juvenile moult

I was delighted to enter the nuthatch onto the meadow bird list at number ninety-seven.

John the bird ringer sent me some of his nuthatch photos. These two birds were ringed one summer in Tonbridge in West Kent where English oaks grow happily on wet clay soils. The drab juvenile is on the left and the smart adult on the right:

This next photo was taken in The Blean, the extensive woodland that surrounds Canterbury:

As I was reading up on nuthatches, I discovered two more things that I did not know about them. Firstly, that it is potentially possible to tell males from females in the field by the more intense red-brown colouration on the feathers around the legs of males:

Another of John’s photos of a nuthatch in The Blean showing its under-tail coverts (feathers that cover other feathers). These are strongly coloured here and this is surely a male

Secondly, the collective noun for nuthatches is a booby. That just seems silly.

All this year I have been volunteering for English Heritage at nearby Walmer Castle, where there are over eight acres of garden and mature woodland:

Walmer Castle gardens this week

There are many magnificent trees there, some of which are indeed English oaks. I just wonder if there is sufficient resource in the castle grounds to support a small population of nuthatches? Or perhaps the bird in the meadows this week was simply a dispersing juvenile that has wandered out of range.

There has been a lovely family of jays cavorting around the pond this week. These birds are famous for burying acorns of the English oak as a food store to see them through the winter. They do have a fantastic memory for where they put these acorns – but a few are inevitably forgotten and thus have effectively been planted by the birds. There are no English oaks here but Jays are also partial to the acorns of the evergreen holm oak and there are several of these trees in the meadows. One of the things we look forward to in the autumn is watching the jays as they raid our holm oaks.

Another prominent corvid in the meadows is the magpie and this year’s family are sticking together for now:

Moving on to a very much smaller bird, a wren spreads out its feathers in the sunshine:

It is thought that birds splay their feathers like this in the sun to warm the preen oil so that it moves more freely around their feathers. The increased feather temperature may also kill parasite eggs. I have also seen crows spread their feathers like this on the ground over ant nests, allowing the ants to crawl all over them and remove parasites from their feathers.

We are still seeing the ringed female kestrel around the meadows:

Coming in to land
Ringed on her right leg

Now that it is late summer, linnets have arrived and there is a flock of about eighty flitting around the hedgerows. Yellowhammers are also still here:

The breeding season is well over for most of these birds, but love is still in the air for wood pigeons

The male wood pigeon doing a courtship bow

Whilst out ragworting, Dave has found me a wasp spider web to photograph:

The yellow fork and the camping chair mark where I have set up my spider photographic studio in amongst the tall grasses
The wasp spider in all her magnificence and a wrapped-up fly
She caught one of the grasshoppers and a fly while I was watching her, but she was so quick to move in, kill them and then wrap them up that I wasn’t fast enough to capture the excitement
She eats the fly whilst two dead grasshoppers await her attentions at the bottom of her web
Wasp spiders are grasshopper specialists and here are the two that she had stored at the bottom of her web

Just before posting this, I went up to have a final look at her web but unfortunately my approach caused yet another grasshopper to ping away from me and into her web. This did, however, mean that I got a photo that explains why she is able to wrap her prey up so quickly – it is not just a single thread of silk that comes out of her spinneret but many threads at the same time:

The wasp spider wrapping the third grasshopper
The spider and her final haul of one fly and three grasshoppers

Before long, this spider will move a short distance from her web and spin a large cocoon in which her eggs will overwinter. These cocoons are very vulnerable to being destroyed by the tractor when the grass is cut but, now we know where she is, we will leave her section uncut. I would like to see wasp spiders next year as well.

There seem to be a lot of these Jersey tiger moths in the country this year. They are now resident along the south coast of Devon and Dorset although every year there is also an immigration of varying proportions across from Continental Europe:

Jersey tiger

Butterflies, hoverflies and bees are loving our new butterfly bank which was sown with native seed this spring:

Common blue on cornflower

This next photo was not good enough for identification, but the amazingly long, white-tipped ovipositor of this tiny wasp is one and a half times the length of her body. I suspect she might be sticking this into holes in trees to lay her eggs into caterpillars living within. The life cycle of invertebrates so often astounds me:

Just as it was getting dark one damp evening, I noticed this army of snails and slugs emerge from the drain and start out across the wall to commence their nightly assault on the hostas.

I love hostas but so do slugs and snails. Over the years I have gradually moved to only growing the types of hosta that they are less fond of because I don’t have the energy to engage in nightly patrols

One of my daughters lives in the North Downs and she sent me this wonderful photo of a worm from her garden. I don’t know much about ants but these seem larger and more vigorous than any we have here:

A few photos taken at the woodland ponds this week:

One of the delights of the summer heat is that the owls come down to cool off in the water

Buzzards as well
I’m not very good with warblers but I think this is a group of five willow warblers being watched over by great tits

I return to the meadows to finish today. The second wild parsnip patch has now been cut and removed before there was any chance of these thuggish plants setting seed. We have resolved to keep both of our wild parsnip areas cut short throughout next year:

The builders have been here for many months now as they construct a new garage and utility room. This week I thoroughly enjoyed myself building an insect and small mammal hotel using unwanted pallets, bricks and tiles from the project:

I hope this is just in time to be of use for hibernating animals this winter.

Making Green Hay While the Sun Shines

Natural England is making something rather wonderful happen here in East Kent. Dan Tuson, Conservation Adviser for Natural England, has been working with farmers in the area for many years to create flower-rich grasslands and restore biodiversity. There are now around a hundred farms involved in the East Kent Landscape Recovery Project with the aim of creating wildlife-rich landscapes hand-in-hand with food production.

This week we attended a green hay spreading demonstration since this is something of potential use in our own meadows to increase plant species diversity. The event was held at a local farm that has been working with Dan for a long time.

Taking a look at the species-diverse meadow that was about to be cut
Dan Tuson, local conservation hero, standing in one of the wildflower meadows he has helped create
Using the flail collector attachment to cut the meadow

Spreading the cut hay onto the receiving field. Ideally this field would have been harrowed, or broken up in some other way, so that about 50% of the surface was bare soil before the hay is spread. Then animals would be let into the field to tread the seeds into the ground
A second tractor was towing a bale chopper attachment to demonstrate an alternative way to spread the green hay. This machine is ordinarily used to break up a bale of straw and fire it out of a chute into a cowshed over the winter
Transferring the cut hay from the flail collector into the bale chopper. Unfortunately they were not quite the same size but a tarpaulin ensured that nothing was wasted
The green hay in the bale chopper about to be spread
The bale chopper trundles off and does its stuff – firing out a fine jet of green hay across the receiving site

Of course the six acres of our meadows wouldn’t require such large machinery to be involved but many of the same concepts apply, just on a smaller scale. We have come away from the morning with a lot more knowledge and several ideas that we hope to put to good use.

In the nine years we have been here, the wildlife has largely left us alone and has not stung or bitten us, but this year, for the first time, I have been under attack from a little bug. I will feel a sharp pain on some bare skin, look down and find an innocent-looking small insect there. I had no idea what it was, but the next day the area will be swollen, red and very itchy. I lost patience and squashed one, bringing it in for identification – I definitely wanted to know what creature this was.

Photographed next to a small fingernail to give a sense of scale

It is Campyloneura virgula, a predatory mirid bug. It lives on a range of trees throughout the UK but particularly hazel, oak and hawthorn and eats small insects such as aphids and red mites. What I don’t know is why it is biting humans, although I can see the mouthpart that it is drilling into me in this next photograph of its underside:

As usual, biting and stinging insects only ever target me, Dave being left completely untouched. Why is this?

An interesting thing about Campyloneura virgula is that males are extremely rare, giving rise to the supposition that this species might reproduce parthenogenetically making males somewhat redundant.

Males are definitely needed in the world of dragonflies and damselflies, though.

Mating common darter dragonflies at the hide pond, the red male on top
After mating, the male continues to grasp the female by the head, ensuring his continued possession of her…
…and then they fly off together, the male dabbing her down into the water as they go so that she can lay her now-fertilised eggs

Blue-tailed damselflies have also been very active down at the ponds this week:

The female is at the bottom. Blue-tailed females come in several different colour forms and this greenish one is ‘infuscans’
In the pair at the top, the female is the blue ‘typica’ form

Pond skaters are mating at the pond as well..

..as are gatekeeper butterflies in the hedgerows:

I have at last seen a brown argus in the meadows:

Last week I had seen a butterfly that looked really similar to this one from above, but the underwings had an extra spot that told me that it was in fact the brown form of a common blue:

Photo from last week

The butterfly seen this week did not have this additional spot, so I can feel confident to record that a brown argus has finally been seen here this year:

Beautiful magpie moths are easily disturbed from the hedgerows at the moment:

A kite-tailed robberfly has caught itself a fly:

And this common candy-striped spider (Enoplognatha ovata) has ensnared an enormous meal in its rather insubstantial web:

I love this photo of this male sparrowhawk as a magpie approaches overhead:

It’s always a surprise to see how long a sparrowhawk’s wings are:

Here he is on another day and it’s just possible to see that he has caught a small bird on the ground. The feeding cages are one of his favourite places to hunt:

We haven’t seen kestrels much this summer so far, but this female has recently started to spend time here. She has had success with a vole:

I was delighted to see that she is the female that was ringed here in the meadows in September 2019:

She is ringed on her right leg
Photo from September 2019 when she was being ringed as a young bird. I remember that she also took a chunk out of John’s hand in the process

This week she sat for a long time on the perch looking for voles until the dog came past and disturbed her:

A nice photo of a pair of our resident foxes:

The One-eyed Vixen’s mate is usually a most handsome animal but this year he has been suffering from mange. He has been treated but I have been scrutinising his recent photos to assess if his mange is getting any worse. Do I need to try again?

Now that it is August, John the bird ringer tells us that warblers have started moving south and they hope to put some ringing nets up in the meadows next week. He has also sent me some of his recent photos that were taken out and about in East Kent this summer:

We would love to see a turtle dove here one day
We do get reed warblers in the meadows on migration
A highlight of last year was when a juvenile cuckoo landed on a perch in the meadows as it prepared to leave the country en route to Africa. We haven’t seen one this year though

I finish today with the wild parsnip area in the first meadow that has finally been cut, although there is still a similar-sized patch in the second meadow that needs sorting.

The grass has been so oppressively long this year that this cut area almost feels like a relief. But it has lent the meadows an autumnal air and, still in mid August as we are, I’m not sure that I’m ready for that. I have resolved afresh to really appreciate these last few weeks of summer before they are gone.

Agapanthus in August

It’s August and the agapanthus has once more burst into flower at the entrance to the meadows:

But this was the the sight that would have met you in August last year. How different every year can be:

Photo from 2022. Agapanthus is a native of southern Africa and is well adapted to water shortage

New to the meadows this year is the butterfly bank, created back in February from chalky soil dug out for the foundations of our new garage:

Photo from February

Native seed was sown onto it and our latest habitat feature is looking pretty good at the moment. We often stop to admire it and can already see holes drilled into its slopes by invertebrates.

A very cheering sight
Cornflowers, corncockle, corn chamomile and corn marigolds – I spot a bit of a theme

This floral buffet on the bank is the only place in the meadows where these agricultural weed annuals are growing and the butterflies are loving it:

Female large white on wild mustard
Gatekeeper on corn marigold
Male common blue

Although we normally see brown argus butterflies here in May, we are yet to see one this year. So I was excited to see this butterfly on a cornflower, looking for all the world like a brown argus at long last:

However, after looking at a photo of her underwings, she turns out to be the brown form of a female common blue instead:

A female common blue. So the brown argus remains elusive for us this year

We really want to get on with cutting two large areas of wild parsnip before there is any chance of them seeding, but we have been beset with tractor problems.

The tractor has stalled once more whilst surrounded by a sea of wild parsnip

A mechanic has come out to look at it and diagnosed a blockage in the fuel line and the tractor has now gone back to the workshop with its tail between its wheels to have its pipes flushed through with hot water.

Apparently bioethanol is now routinely added to diesel fuel as a climate protection measure. The problem with this is that it encourages the growth of microbial colonies within the engine which can cause clogging

Once the tractor returns, we will then finally be able to complete the parsnip job.

As the tractor was being tested out in the meadows to try to reproduce the fault, an enormous cricket was displaced from the long grasses. When I say enormous – it was all of 7cm long. How can something as large as that be living in the very meadows that we observe so closely and yet we didn’t know?

It is the great green bush cricket, this one missing a back leg:

These crickets are carnivorous, eating flies, caterpillars and other larvae and, although they can fly, they prefer to jump around.

The ovipositor at the end of the abdomen tells us that this is a female:

The bumblebees of the meadows have probably been quite sodden for most of the week. This red-tailed bumblebee was soaked and sluggish one morning after a wet night:

That burnt umber of her tail is such an intense hue against her black fur, but I now notice that she has flashes of that same colour around her feet. How beautifully coordinated she is.

This is another beautiful insect although its name is less so. It’s the flesh fly, unusual in the fact that its eggs hatch within the body of the female fly and she then lays live larvae into manure or flesh.

These mating predatory flies are probably kite-tailed robberflies, although there are several similar species:

A chunky hoverfly, Myathropa florea:

I only got a fleeting glimpse of this parasitic wasp, but what a long ovipositor she has. Its one and a half times the length of her body:

This is a very sweet little thing, its a nymph of the green shield bug:

Green shield bug 3rd instar nymph

Spotting and identifying invertebrates and learning how they fit into the ecosystem is one of my favourite things to do these days – I think I should have been an entomologist rather than an accountant.

As we approach late summer, goldfinch start gathering in small flocks in the meadows to feed off the thistle, knapweed and wild carrot seed heads:

If you look carefully at this next photo and you can see that the crow has exposed its preen gland which produces oil. The bird rubs this gland with its beak and head and then preens its feathers, transferring the oil over them and making them waterproof.

Another unusual view of a crow:

One afternoon we heard a hullabaloo and looked up to see a magnificent buzzard flying low over the meadows:

Unfortunately squadrons of crows and herring gulls had launched to chase it out of their airspace. We despair of ever properly getting to see birds of prey here.

Crows and herring gulls buzzing the buzzard which is at the bottom of the picture

A tawny owl visits the meadows again this week:

The wood gets a bit wild and overgrown at this time of year and it is impossible to drive a car in without its sides rubbing against trees and brambles and its tummy being tickled by plants growing high in the middle of the track. Sadly no car of ours ever remains pristine for long. One day I was relocking the gate on leaving the wood when I spotted a beetle that had been transferred onto the side of the car from the trees:

What an amazing beetle

It’s a black-clouded long horn beetle. I had seen these in my insects books and had hoped to spot one some day because they are fairly common.

Those ridiculous antennae must make moving around quite difficult

The pond we dug in the wood last winter is settling in and proving very popular. The water doesn’t look very appealing though:

This hasn’t deterred pond skaters from flying in and taking up residence, utilising surface tension so that the water becomes a floor. The pond is now their amphitheatre in which they await hapless invertebrates to make a fatal error and fall in. As the drowning invertebrate struggles, the pond skater senses the vibrations through its feet and quickly moves in to take advantage of its plight.

One pond skater has bagged itself a fly, as another looks on in case there is an opportunity to steal the prize

An area we coppiced two winters ago has now got such dense ground cover that it is difficult to walk around. There is a patch of two metre high thistles there and, one sunny afternoon as we fought our way in, these were being monopolised by a group of large bumblebees. I generally find bumblebees difficult to identify, but I could tell that these were different to the bumblebees that we see working hard collecting pollen in the meadows:

Very large bees with darkened wings and boxy-shaped heads

They also had long white tails:

These are cuckoo bees, possibly the southern cuckoo bee, Bombus vestalis. Cuckoo bees are parasitic on other bees and the female cuckoo will enter the nest of its host and sting the queen to death. It then lays its own eggs in the nest and the resulting larvae will be nurtured by the host worker bees. Because of their lifestyle, there are only male and female cuckoo bees and there is no need for queens and workers. Six of the UK’s twenty-four species of bumblebee are cuckoos, each often mimicking the appearance of their host bee species – it’s all very interesting and I am now on the look out for some of the other species.

Fox cubs at a pond
A tawny owl takes a night-time bath

I finish today with another photo looking out over the meadows this morning. The grasses have grown very tall this year and in another three or four weeks we will be thinking about getting this cut and taken off the land, although as always we will leave about a third of it uncut on a rotational basis.

It’s going to be an especially big job this year and that tractor will need to be in tiptop working order by then. It is essential to get these meadows cut once a year to keep them as grassland and continue to remove nutrients from the soil to favour flowering plants rather than grass. But this is always at a cost to the wildlife in the short term and I hope that by then the great green bush crickets and all the other invertebrates currently making merry amongst the tall waving grasses will have finished their life cycles and be safely tucked away for the winter.