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!

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