Dormice in the Autumn

We are now nearing the end of the second year of our wood being a part of the National Dormouse Monitoring Programme, administered by The People’s Trust for Endangered Species. For this we are collaborating with our neighbouring wood and together we have twenty acres of woodland through which fifty dormouse nest boxes are spread. Every month from April to November we tour the boxes to monitor any dormice found in them.

A dormouse from this weekend’s monitoring tour

Dormice live in much lower population densities than many other rodents and, even in absolutely ideal habitat, there would only be one to four dormice per acre in the spring. However, come the autumn, their numbers are augmented by the year’s juveniles.

A juvenile dormouse. Many of the dormice born back in the spring are getting quite mature by now and can be difficult to distinguish from adults, but their fur is generally greyer and their tail less bushy

This weekend our trip round the fifty boxes took an exhausting five hours because there were seventeen nests to process. Although some of these nests were found to be empty, nine of the boxes did contain a total of fourteen dormice, all but one of them juveniles. Perhaps the inexperienced juveniles are more likely to use the boxes rather than building their own nests from scratch?

Both our neighbour and I are now nearing the end of our training to qualify for a dormouse disturbance licence. Over the last two years we have been accompanied on all our monitoring trips by a dormouse expert who has given up one of her precious days off every month to come and train us on a voluntary basis. It is an amazing and generous thing to do and we will definitely honour her commitment by ensuring that the dormice in our wood remain part of the monitoring programme for many years to come.

Once I have my disturbance licence I will be able to monitor dormice on my own. Here I am practicing the techniques necessary if multiple dormice are found in a box and you have no one to assist you. Once the dormice have been inspected and weighed, they are kept in their weighing bags and pegged onto a line strung between branches to await their safe return to the nest box

We spotted what we think must be a wild dormouse nest. It was three metres off the ground and was a complete and perfect sphere of about ten centimetres diameter, held in position by a tangle of black bryony:

The only concern is that moss has been used in its construction which is unexpected for dormice. However, I have checked with John and John, the bird ringers, and they confirm that this is not a birds nest – wrens would not build a nest out in the open like this and it is not long-tailed tits. Our best explanation, therefore, is that it was perhaps originally a cup-shaped mossy bird nest that has been adapted into a globe by dormice:

Box 10 had a family of dormice nesting in it earlier in the summer. This month, however, there was a pygmy shrew living in the box:

Pygmy shrews are very sensitive to disturbance and are easily scared to death and so we took a couple of quick photos and returned the box rapidly to the tree. There would be no dormice in there anyway with a shrew in the box.
It was a tiny little thing and, having only ever seen common shrews before, I thought this must be a baby. However, it is apparently a fully formed adult pygmy shrew

Box 28 had been badly chewed by squirrels and was sitting with its lid off. In fact many of the boxes in our wood have been damaged by squirrels and will need replacing over the winter when the dormice are hibernating down at ground level:

Poor old box 28

There is one more tour round the boxes in November but after that all the dormice should be tucked up for the winter down at ground level and we will begin again next spring.

In the past week a lot of rain has fallen as Storm Babet raged her way up the North Sea alongside the meadows. She was unusual in that it was several days before she blew herself out and, once she finally had, over 50mm of rain had fallen.

The ponds are refilled after Babet

All this precipitation has softened the soil and finally allowed the worms to come up towards the surface and make casts:

This is very good news for the badgers, who will be trying to put on weight to get through the winter, and 70% of their diet is made up of worms.

This autumn two new raptor species are hunting in the meadows. A barn owl has been seen on this perch on three different nights now:

Here it is this week:

Barn owls can’t hunt in the wind and the rain because they cannot hear their prey over the noise of the weather and this week must have been really tough for them.

Before this autumn, buzzards were only ever occasionally seen flying over here, and always being mobbed by our resident corvids. But in the last few weeks a buzzard has arrived in the meadows to try its luck. We have been seeing it perched up and looking for prey:

Photo from September

One evening we disturbed it from its lookout point at the very top of our big pile of hay:

The pile of hay, cut from the meadows this autumn

The buzzard then flew up into the trees along the cliff edge:

Buzzards are generalists and are prepared to eat a variety of prey – rodents, worms and other invertebrates, roadkill and also rabbits. Catching a live rabbit must be a challenge, but there are certainly many more rabbits than usual in the meadows this year.

As well as the buzzard, we have seen kestrels using the hay pile as a lookout and so we decided to get a camera up there:

It looks like Dave is planting a flag at the top of Mount Everest
The hay pile at dusk from the new camera position. Only magpies have been seen on it so far but I’m feeling optimistic..

A third of the second meadow has been left uncut and one of the reasons for this is to retain some seed heads to provide autumn and early winter food for the birds:

Wild carrot seed heads still remaining in the meadows

It has been lovely to see small flocks of goldfinch rising and falling over the meadow this week as they feed on the remaining wild carrot, knapweed and creeping thistle seeds. They also quite like the new feeders:

An owl has landed on the perch newly placed in the middle of the meadow but unfortunately the photo has been burnt out by too much infra red. I do think this is a tawny owl but it is difficult to be completely sure:

The camera doesn’t have very sophisticated infra red controls so I have instead covered some of it with gaffer tape as a low-tech solution to see if that works any better. Now we just need the owl back to test it:

Most invertebrates have disappeared from the meadows by this point of the year, but we do still have plenty of rosemary beetles in the allotment! The rosemary beetle, Chrysolina americana, is native to the Mediterranean region but arrived in the UK on imported herbs in 1963. They are now widespread, with both the larvae and the adults feeding on aromatic herbs such as lavender and rosemary in the UK’s gardens. They are things of great beauty:

They were named Chrysolina americana by Carl Linnaeus in the 18th century but it is thought that he was mistaken because they are not found in America

I was pleased to see that even the Royal Horticultural Society agrees that these beetles do not eat enough to harm healthy plants and that they can be accepted as part of the biodiversity of a garden.

A photo from a different angle of the mating pair of beetles on our rosemary shows that the male beetle is carrying what I think must be mites on his undercarriage:

I finish today with some other interesting photos from the meadows this week:
What on earth does this fox have in its mouth?
All sorts of birds like to spend time on our roof
Green woodpeckers have been very active in the meadows this autumn. I love her unexpectedly blue eye
The ringed female kestrel continues to hunt around the hedgerows

It’s been a very tempestuous week and the weather forecast foretells of a string of wet days to come. On top of that, British Summertime rather depressingly ends this weekend and the clocks go back. It’s time to pack away the T shirts and sandals and sort out the cold weather gear because winter is well on its way. But before it arrives, there are still a lot of autumn jobs left to do in the meadows – should it ever stop raining long enough for us to do them.

Motoring Up The River

This week we once again launched ourselves onto the River Stour – this time in an underpowered electric boat in the company of an ecologist and ten other would-be beaver watchers. The boat left the Grove Ferry Inn as the sun was about to set:

Stodmarsh National Nature Reserve, containing the largest reed bed in the South East of England, is alongside the river here and 140 beavers are now thought to be living in the river and the reserve. This population of beavers doesn’t build dams because the only moving water is the River Stour itself and they would struggle to dam that. But they do build lodges and, as we gently putt-putted up the river into the setting sun, we went past a few of these:

A beaver lodge. The lodge also stretches up the bank to a height of about two metres above the water

But when the beaver family is only small, their home will be a simple tunnel in the river bank, leading to a dry cavern within the earth:

We saw several of these beaver tunnel entrances

As the family expands, the beavers then start constructing a full lodge around the tunnel entrance as an extension to their living quarters.

We had gone on a similar beaver-watching jaunt last year and saw about eight beavers. This time, however, not a single one was seen, which was a particular disappointment for the couple who had come down from London especially for the trip and were staying the night in the Grove Ferry Inn. We did see lots of other things from the boat and the river is beautiful but I expect this was small compensation for them.

I’m still trying to get my head round quite how many beavers are now living along this stretch of the river. Here are a couple of photos we took on last year’s trip in the heavy dusk:

The Stour may have a lot of beavers these days, but sightings of otter there remain only very occasional. England nearly lost its otters in the 1960s and 70s as a result of hunting and pollution but thankfully they are now once more to be found in nearly every river system – but not really in the Stour yet and I wonder why this is? It is presumably not because of competition with the beavers who are vegetarian whereas otters eat fish. The river and reserve do have good numbers of water voles though and apparently mink are now trapped in the area to protect that population.

Autumn is a time of mellow fruitfulness and it is the luscious red berries of the hawthorn in particular that birds love to eat here in the meadows. This year has been an exceptional year for the hawthorn and the hedgerow trees are heavy with fruit:

I’m not sure I’ver ever seen the whitebeam trees looking like this either:

These berries are also very popular with the larger birds

Yet there have been no elderberries at all this year and only very sparse spindle fruit so this strange year of weather hasn’t suited everything.

The pear tree in the orchard also has a lot of fruit. Foxes are partial to pears and I have got a camera on the tree to catch them red-handed:

Plucking pears from the tree
They absolutely love pears
And they are not alone – badgers have been taking the pears hanging close to the ground as well

Back in 2020 we got these extraordinary photos of the foxes climbing into the tree to get at the pears:

September 2020
September 2020
September 2020

Maybe one year this will happen again.

The amount of rain that fell this summer meant that the meadow grasses grew long and rank and the annual cut was quite a challenge for our small tractor. However this job is now completed:

We always leave a proportion of the meadows uncut each year on a rotational basis to protect our invertebrate populations:

An Irish Ferries vessel sheltering out in The Downs in the blustery winds of Friday. There has been little rain this autumn but 25mm has now fallen since Thursday, thank goodness

An enormous pile of cut grasses has been generated and we will now work at getting this away. A large proportion of it will slowly go out with the fortnightly Dover County Council green waste collections over the next year.

With the grasses now short, small rodents are more visible and birds of prey have been visiting to hunt them. We have put up a new perch with 360° vision of the cut meadow:

Within half an hour the kestrel was on the perch:

Magpies have also been using it. I know that Jays love the acorns of the holm oaks but I didn’t know that magpies ate them as well:

We don’t get squirrels in the meadows and so it was therefore surprising to see one on the old perch up by the feeding cages:

The barn owl has returned there for a second visit:

And there it goes, off into the night:

I have become familiar with tawny owls from the wood, but I don’t know very much about barn owls. We did get a chance to get up close to a captive-bred one when we went on a bird of prey photographic session last year:

This barn owl is a particularly pale one. If you wanted to have your wedding rings flown up the aisle by an owl, this bird could do that for you.
In fact we got very up close to the owl when it landed on Dave’s head

This is a more normally-coloured barn owl:

A barn owl. Photo by Alun Williams333 from Wiki Commons under CC 4.0

I really hope that we continue to see barn owls here. They like a mixed farming habitat with agricultural fields along with copses of trees, rough grassland areas, ditches and well-managed field margins – the meadows and our immediate neighbours can provide all that for them.

Now that our building works are finally nearing completion, the builders have removed all their equipment from their compound that was in one corner of the first meadow. They had laid a membrane down there and put stones on it to provide hard standing but, now that this has all gone, we need to reseed.

An area of 225 m2 that is going to be seeded with a mixture of calcareous wildflowers and grass seeds

There was much excitement amongst the bird ringers recently when a juvenile nuthatch was caught and ringed in the meadows – nuthatches aren’t seen this far east in Kent because English oaks don’t grow well on our thin chalky soils.

A young nuthatch going through post juvenile moult

Was this young bird just passing through or is there a small, previously undiscovered population of nuthatches nearby – such as in Walmer Castle grounds where there are a few English oaks growing? I have now put up a peanut feeder that is visible from the kitchen window just in case I ever see a nuthatch on it – I am forever optimistic.

We use Squirrel Buster feeders not because we have squirrels but in an attempt to deter magpies who do too well here all on their own without any further help from us

The wood, further west towards Canterbury and on different soil, does have oaks and nuthatches:

Back in the spring, green woodpeckers drilled a nest hole into a cherry tree in the wood:

Photo from May

Now the tree has produced resin in an attempt to seal and heal the wound and the hole looks very different. I find it pretty amazing that the tree responds like this:

Two badgers in the wood

I finish today with a weird and wonderful caterpillar photographed by my daughter at Battle in East Sussex:

This is the caterpillar of the pale tussock moth and what a most peculiar thing it is. It was wandering around on the ground because it was looking for somewhere to pupate and tuck itself away for the coming winter. With the weather having turned much colder this weekend, I can well empathise with that!

Perching Up

Several years ago we were attempting to get turtle doves to breed in the meadows. Supplementary seed was going down and a perch was banged in close to the feeding area in the hope that the doves would land there. Sadly a turtle dove is yet to be seen, but hundreds of birds do now alight on this perch every day. Admittedly these are often woodpigeon, magpies and house sparrows that don’t get the heart racing, but sometimes something rather wonderful happens. This is what has been seen on the perch over the last couple of weeks:

A tawny owl hunting in the depths of the night. We have seen and heard a lot of the tawnies this autumn.
On Thursday night a new bird species for the meadows landed on the perch – a barn owl. So exciting that, after nearly a decade here, a barn owl has finally put in an appearance. Short-eared owls have also been seen in the meadows, usually as they arrive in the UK for the winter
A female kestrel, ringed in the meadows in September 2019, has been spending a lot of time on the perch this autumn
She was ringed as a young bird four years ago
A lot of voles have been caught and it is great to see that the meadows are providing her with food
She has also been catching crickets – I’ve seen her with two and so presume this isn’t just an opportunistic thing and that grasshoppers and crickets do form part of her autumn diet. Last year she was on the perch with her claws wrapped around a bumblebee which was also a surprise
The second cricket was in her other claw suggesting that she is ambidextrous
She’s a magnificent animal
We suppose she is nesting in the white cliffs just a bit to the south of the meadows
A much bigger buzzard has also been seen on the perch this autumn
The feeding cages are nearby and sparrowhawks like to sit on the perch and view the birds coming down to the seed. Here, the female is on the perch with the male in the air
Sparrowhawks do sometimes land with their prey. This photo with an unfortunate blackbird is from last year
But the perch’s all time greatest triumph was probably this juvenile cuckoo in July last year, on its way south to Africa

We have a camera on a hedgerow gate as well and this has had its own successes. As well as acting as a perch for birds, the top of the gate forms a motorway for small mammals moving along the hedgerow. This week there was a magpie who had caught a rodent:

This is a favourite pose for the sparrowhawks here – I’ve seen them doing it a lot

But my most memorable sighting on the gate was a weasel last year, tracking the footsteps of its rodent prey:

A pair of substantial English oak logs sit out in the meadows, remnants of a beautiful old oak tree that was blown over in a storm when we lived back in Berkshire. It has been interesting to watch these logs as they have slowly started to break down over the years. This autumn, one of these logs has had lots on holes drilled into it, each with a fine tilth of discarded wood below:

Small black flying insects were coming and going from the holes, although it was tricky to get a good enough photograph to get an ID:

Trying to get a decent photograph of the elusive small flying insects. Our dog’s lovely smile has changed recently after she went to the vets to have her teeth descaled and ended up having eighteen of them removed. She’s alright though – it is surprising what little difference this enormous loss of teeth has made to her

I did finally get some photographs of the insects from various angles – not very good but sufficient to tell that this is a colony of digger wasps, probably from the Crossocerus family, but there are many similar species that would need to go under a microscope to properly identify:

The female wasp will be digging a tunnel into the wood that will ultimately branch at its end. An egg is then laid into each branch and the tunnel packed with paralysed insect prey that she has caught and stung. The eggs hatch and the larvae feed on the prey before pupating. The wasps will finally leave the tunnel once they are adults.

We found two juvenile dormice on the September tour around the thirty dormouse boxes in the wood.

A juvenile male
A juvenile female with a lovely white tip to her tail. The juveniles are browner and not so heavy as the adults, as well as having a less bushy tail

We did also find some dormouse nests but these were empty. There will no doubt be dormouse litters being raised in the wood but that I think these will be in the woodcrete bird boxes that we didn’t check this time – unfortunately dormice seem to prefer these to the wooden dormouse boxes that we put up in order to monitor them.

A classic dormouse nest – with green hazel leaves surrounding a tightly woven core of stripped honeysuckle bark

Although we do have two barn owl nest boxes up in the wood, we have never seen a barn owl there. We have been seeing a lot of the tawnies though.There has been so little rain recently that they are coming to the ponds every night:

They have also been visiting the tawny nest box that they reared chicks in last year:

One day a tawny roosted in its entrance, much to the consternation of this jay:

Some other woodland animals that have been coming to the ponds:

I finish today with the sad news that the One-eyed Vixen has not been seen in the meadows for several weeks, and we presume she is now dead:

The One-eyed Vixen back in 2019

She and her mate have reigned as the Fox King and Queen of the meadows for several years and have together raised many cubs here.

The One-eyed Vixen grooming her mate in a tender moment last year. Her partner is still here, although will probably now remain forever a widower since foxes pair for life

It feels so odd that she is no longer waiting for me as I take the peanuts down at dusk. She was one of the meadows’ great characters and I shall miss her.