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.

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