The Weald of Kent

Kent is a big county. The Weald in the west with its sandstone and clay has completely different geology to our dry chalk downland in the east, and what an impact that has on the landscape. The clay makes the Weald much wetter and muddier, heavily wooded with lots of with streams and ponds. We decided to stay there for a few days and explore what it had to offer.

Our home for four nights – a medieval cottage in the middle of a wood and beside a small stream. Tawny Owls called around the house until just before dawn which was completely atmospheric and wonderful

There are a lot of grand houses and gardens to visit in the area but most of them were closed for the winter. Some were still open, however, and we started the trip with a visit to Chartwell, Sir Winston Churchill’s beloved home and now a National Trust property.

The house wasn’t open but the gardens and grounds were

Churchill famously used to paint in order to escape from his worries and stress but he also had a lifelong interest in wildlife – particularly butterflies. This building below had originally been a meat larder but, when the Churchills bought the house in 1922, they removed a wall and it became first a summer house and then a butterfly house where Winston stored the larvae of British butterflies to release into the garden.

Churchill’s butterfly house

Alongside his wife Clementine, they created a beautiful garden to relax in but also one that was a haven for wildlife, particularly his beloved butterflies.

Photo from an information board in the butterfly house, although possibly he was out catching dragonflies here?

On the next day of the trip, we visited Bedgebury Pinetum – the largest pinetum in the world and a centre for international conifer tree conservation. Winter was a great time to visit because we more or less had the place to ourselves and these evergreen trees, of course, still had all their leaves.

We spent a happy couple of hours wandering around admiring the trees.

Monkey Puzzle trees – named by the Victorians who felt that even a monkey would be puzzled about how to climb up with all those spines on its trunk

We have come away from Bedgebury with the names of several beautiful trees that we would like to try to grow ourselves.

On the way back to the cottage that day we visited Eridge Rocks near Tunbridge Wells, where a bit of that soft Wealden sandstone pokes its head above ground.

It is a popular place for rock climbing – so much so that, during Covid times, this has had to be temporarily prohibited – the precious ecosystem of mosses and lichens on the rock was becoming damaged.

The rocks are just over the county border into Sussex

Our cottage was close to the Ashdown Forest and on the third day we went for a walk at Old Lodge nature reserve. I was surprised to discover that Ashdown Forest is actually mainly heathland:

Sussex Wildlife Trust’s Old Lodge nature reserve
Some magnificent Beech trees at Old Lodge

A A Milne lived at Cotchford Farm, just north of the Ashdown Forest and Winnie the Pooh’s Hundred Acre Wood was based on this area. We walked down to Pooh Sticks Bridge where the author reputedly played the game with his son Christopher.

This is the location of A A Milne’s bridge although the bridge was rebuilt in 1999

The highlight of our stay was probably the visit we made to Wakehurst Place the following day. Left to the National Trust in the 1960s, they have leased it to The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew since then and it is now home to the Millennium Seed Bank.

The exhibition at the seed bank was so interesting

As well as the seed bank, there is a grand house (now used as offices for Kew staff and for school visits) and the most wonderful garden and estate, housing several national collections.

We were very taken with these Wollemi Pines.

The Wollemi Pines’ closest living relative is the Monkey Puzzle Tree

These trees had been found in the fossil record and were thought to be extinct until a small population of less than a hundred trees was found in 1994 in their native Australia, hanging on in a remote gorge, the exact location of which is kept secret to protect them:

Specialist fire-fighters had to be deployed to save these trees from a bush fire in January 2020

Kew has found a way to propagate these trees and now sells them to the public as another way to protect the wild population.

Wakehurst Place
Moon rising above an outbuilding
Dogwood used to great effect in the winter gardens
As you approached this bed, you were hit with the fragrance from these Daphne shrubs in amongst the winter-flowering heather in the winter garden

An exciting project underway at Wakehurst is to research and create six acres of the endangered American prairie habitat:

The grounds at Wakehurst are so extensive and we didn’t get round everything by any means. We would love to revisit in the summer to see the full glory of the gardens and especially to get a feel for how that prairie is coming along.

Our cottage did not have an enclosed garden and so in the mornings I took the dog on her lead up to this beautiful meadow and took its photo at about the same time on several different days. What an inspiring start to any day:

On the final day we called in at Sissinghurst Castle on the way home. This famous garden is only an hour from the meadows and yet we had never visited before.

Sissinghurst Castle was once a large Elizabethan manor house, now largely demolished. The famous tower remains and it was thought that the ladies would ascend to the top to view the hunt in the grounds of the estate

Vita Sackville-West and her husband Harold Nicholson were very keen amateur gardeners and bought the place in 1930. They then spent the next thirty years creating a world-famous garden, now in the hands of the National Trust.
Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicholson from a photo in an exhibition at Sissinghurst

There was not a whole lot to be seen of this garden in January, however:

View from the top of the tower

We had not expected much of our short break in the bog-end of January, encumbered as we were with the dog and scarcely leaving our home county. But it turned out to be inspiring and interesting and we learnt a lot about natural history. We definitely want to revisit every one of these places in the summer.

I will leave you with this strange assortment of suggestions from the Millennium Seed Bank of things that we could personally do to make a difference. It is the last one that feels most important.

2021 in the Meadows Part 2

In Part 1, earlier this week, we went on a whistle stop tour of the meadows through the first part of 2021. Now you will need to hold on to your hats as we are off again, this time looking at the highlights of the second half of the year.

Fledgling birds

2020 had been so dry, and the ground so hard, that there was much concern in the press that birds such as Blackbirds were not able to get at worms to feed their chicks. 2021 was altogether a much wetter year and this, at least, was one thing that no one had to worry about.

I have so many heart-warming photos of Blackbirds with their beaks stuffed full of worms to take back to their nests
I wonder how it went when this Blackbird tried to stuff a large dragonfly down one of his chick’s throat

After all the photos of Blackbird chicks being well provisioned, it was lovely when they started to fledge and appear on the cameras:

Yellowhammers also bred successfully here:

Two fledgling Yellowhammers in the water (and a Dunnock)

Unusually, there were no speckled, young Green Woodpeckers this year. There was a juvenile Great Spotted but these birds are not around here very often and the nest was probably not that local.

Magpies and Crows also successfully raised families in the meadows. These young Magpies were being brought food by a parent as they waited on the gate and they’ve been given a dead bird here, possibly a Blue Tit:

When we cleared out the nest boxes in the autumn, we were dismayed to discover that only three of the seventeen boxes contained nests, suggesting that Great Tits and Blue Tits had had a really poor breeding year. A spell of very cold weather in the spring must have impacted these early nesters.

Bird Ringing

It is always exciting when the Bird Ringers set their nets up in the meadows. In 2020, 1059 birds were ringed here, this number boosted by the exceptional autumn migration that year. In 2021, for one reason or another, only 253 birds were ringed but this did include 26 species.

Meadow Pipit
The extraordinary hind claw of the Meadow Pipit, thought to help them spring off from the ground away from predators
A young Redstart on its way south
Song Thrush
Long-tailed Tit with yellow eyelids. The colour of their eyelids can vary from yellow to deep red, possibly depending on their mood, and amazingly the change can happen in a few minutes
The Bird Ringers participate in a BTO Blackcap colour-ringing scheme. This female was caught and colour-ringed here in December – if you see her, please do let us know…
One of the more unusual catches in the net – a Short-tailed Field Vole

Kestrels and Other Birds of Prey

For the last few years we have been following the fortunes of a Kestrel nest in a hole in the white cliffs, a short walk away. In 2021 there were four chicks in the nest:

Some of the Kestrels that we see in the meadows surely come from this nest

It is only when the meadows were cut in the autumn, and voles had fewer places to hide, that these birds started hunting here in earnest.

Kestrel holding vole prey
This bird is holding a Bumblebee in her left claw. I didn’t know that they ate bees
The Kestrel was in constant attendance as the tractor was cutting the meadows, hoping to spot fleeing rodents. This photo was taken from the seat of the tractor
Stopping for a drink. What beautiful birds they are

Our residents Crows are annoyingly quick to escort any visiting bird of prey off property:

Seeing off a Buzzard

But Kestrels and Sparrowhawks are usually tolerated. One day, however, we enjoyed watching a Crow make four attempts to get a Kestrel to move on but she wasn’t to be intimidated and stayed put.

I was most impressed to see how far round a Sparrowhawk can rotate its neck..

..and also at the length of that leg:

Given all the eggs and young birds we have seen in a Magpie’s beak over the course of the year, it is sort of nice to see a Magpie on the back foot for once, as it became aware that it had caught the eye of a Sparrowhawk:

Foxes

It’s difficult to know how many foxes live in and around the meadows because I do not recognise them all. But some, such as this handsome fellow with the tip of his tail dipped down, I see on the cameras a lot and have got to know:

He seems to be a successful hunter and here he is with what we believe to be a Tawny Owl, for goodness sake…..

…and another unidentified but interesting-looking bird

Two small litters of fox cubs were born here in 2021. The male with the tail dip was the father of a single cub. His mate was a vixen with distinctively starey eyes:

We put a camera close to their den and it captured the most wonderful sequence of photos of the little cub being taken on its first trip out into the big wide world. To begin with, the vixen looked out to check that the coast was clear:

Then both parents came out with the cub, the father watching over it so tenderly that my heart melts every time I see it:

The mother of the second litter of cubs was our old friend the One-eyed Vixen:

A heavily pregnant One-eyed Vixen in mid-March
The One-eyed Vixen, with her blue left eye, and her two cubs
Her pair of gorgeous cubs
Wet from some summer rain

Both of the vixens with cubs are relaxed in each other’s company and perhaps are themselves related:

The One-eyed and Starey-eyed Vixens

These two vixens had mange on their tails in the summer but I successfully treated them with medicine-laced honey sandwiches. This did not work for the Old Gentleman but I’m so pleased that it did for these mothers with cubs to care for.

There have been a lot of photos of foxes carrying fish this year. I am not entirely sure how they are getting hold of them but guess that they are opportunistically hanging around night fishermen down on the beach:

The Starey-eyed Vixen with fish.
Fox with rabbit

The final thing that I want to say about foxes is to mention their love of pears. As the fruits ripened on the tree towards the end of September, the foxes got to work to take off as many as they could, although this year we did not see them climbing into the tree as they had the year before.

At the same time, apples lay on the ground untouched. All very interesting.

Invertebrates

Every year we take a little step forward in our understanding and appreciation of the invertebrates that we share the meadows with. Here are some of the invertebrate highlights of 2021:

A just-emerged Broad-bodied Chaser Dragonfly with its still shiny wings and the now-empty larval case
An emerging Emperor Dragonfly. I never tire of watching this transformation
A female Emperor laying eggs into the pond
Mating Marbled Whites. The females are generally a bit larger than the males but the size difference here is extreme
A male Wall Butterfly. We have two separate small colonies of Walls at either end of the meadows
This amazing thing is an Acorn Weevil (or one of several very similar species)
Different instar stages of a Box Bug nymph
With light shining through, it is possible to see the alimentary canal of this snail. Also, its eye at the tip of its antenna
A spider web in the fog
These are lovely blue darkling beetles, Helops caeruleus, a speciality of the east of the country

I had never considered that Woodlice would need to shed their exoskeleton in order to grow. They do this in two parts – the back half is lost first followed, two or three days later, by the front half as here.

Other Interesting Photos from the Second Half of 2021

This Spotted Flycatcher, stopping here on its way south, caught our eye because of its short circular feeding flights out from the hedgerow
Love to see Goldfinch eating seeds in the meadows in autumn
The Holm Oaks were stripped of their acorns by Jays in November. These birds can apparently carry up to nine acorns in their gullet at a time and it does looks like this bird has several in there
The first time we have evidence of Magpies eating rodents
This Crow is anting. It has rested itself down on an anthill and is allowing the ants to crawl over its feathers. Not yet fully understood, it is thought that the ants secrete a liquid that repels insects and mites or has a bactericide or fungicide effect
We saw this several times and think that one adult bird is feeding crop milk to its mate that is sitting on eggs
We don’t often see toads here but this little one turned up this year
This is a very green Viviperous Lizard
A lovely bundle of Slow Worms
Slow Worm shedding her skin
Broomrape, parasitic on clover, always does well in the meadows
We hadn’t seen Sainfoin growing in the meadows before. The bees absolutely loved it.

2021 was another year in which the world was beset by problems and concerns and it was easy to be overwhelmed. But here in this little corner of East Kent, we have managed to find a certain amount of solace and escape for a while into the wonders of nature. I would say that we are definitely feeling positive about this new year just beginning and there is much to look forward to as we roll on towards spring.

A happy new year to all and let us hope that this one is a good one.

2021 in the Meadows Part 1

Over the course of this year I have accumulated so many photos that I wanted to include in a round up of the meadows’ best bits. But I’ve had to be firm with myself and edit them down to make things more manageable. Here is the result – my favourites from the first part of 2021. 

The Old Gentleman

The Old Gentleman Fox first arrived here in the autumn of 2020 and quickly became an enthusiastic consumer of the nightly peanuts. To begin with, he waited unseen on the cliff path but soon ventured closer.

So much so that, as the months rolled on, I started to wear wellies to deliver the peanuts because otherwise he had a tendency to nibble the bottom of my trousers which was very disconcerting.

But he was beset by problems – firstly carrying a hind paw, then a forepaw, he had bad eyes, a cough and, finally, a devastating attack of mange.

Carrying a front paw and losing the fur on his legs
Starting to get very frail. By this point he had begun waiting for me up by the house at dusk which wound the dog up a treat. In fact, in desperation, I was also giving him some of the dog’s meat along with the peanuts to try to keep him going while the mange treatment had a chance to work
One evening he was waiting at the back door and came in when I opened it

I repeatedly consulted the Fox Project charity for advice and did my best for him, giving him worm and mange treatments and whatever else they suggested. But ultimately it was not enough and we lost him.

The lovely Old Gentleman. RIP July 2021

Chuckles the Herring Gull

Another prominent personality from this year is thankfully still going strong. Chuckles is the male half of a pair of Herring Gulls that we got to know as we put seed down at the feeding cages every day. Watching them through the year has taught us that there is much to appreciate about these characterful birds.

Chuckles the Herring Gull in his full glory

The female of the pair was colour-ringed and so we were able to discover that she was ringed at Pitsea landfill site in Essex in January 2015 when she was around four years old. This means that she is now eleven or twelve years old.

These two gulls formed a very tight pair bond although Chuckles was much the braver and more vocal and often making his chuckling call.

Chuckles and wife

The dog objected to him strutting around the feeding cages as though he owned the place and she would sometimes chase and bark at him. This was very entertaining because he retaliated by dive bombing her:

Dog about to be dive bombed from above by Chuckles

The birds were good enough to mate in front of the camera which helped us to be certain that Chuckles was the male:

The colour-ringed female then started to gather nesting material and shortly afterwards more or less disappeared – presumably because she was on eggs. Chuckles, however, still waited for us every morning as usual.

The female gathering nesting material

Towards the end of the summer, we were delighted to meet Chuckles’ offspring when they both started arriving each morning:

Chuckles and his chick

Chuckles is now in his winter plumage with greyish speckled neck feathers:

Ever since she disappeared to go and sit on eggs, the female has made only occasional visits and always on her own. But I hope that she will return properly next spring and once again join up with Chuckles.

I love this atmospheric photo in the fog

February Snow

In mid February there was a bitter spell of weather and snow lay on the ground for several days.

Badger out in the snow

We became aware that the exceptional weather had brought different birds to the meadows and were interested to observe them:

Sitting on the deer stalking seat to try to photograph the unusual birds in the second meadow. There was a hot water bottle shoved up his coat to keep him warm
A flock of Meadow Pipit were pecking around the tussocks of grass sticking out from the snow in the rougher reptile area
Several Snipe stayed for up to a week
A few Woodcock were also here along with a Lapwing (sadly no photo of this bird)

The Snipe and the Lapwing were new species for the meadow bird list. The other four new species this year were Common Gull, Sand Martin, Reed Bunting and Curlew, bringing the total to ninety-one.

On particularly cold nights throughout the winter, a Wren roosted up in a teapot nest box in the garden. Here the Wren is, leaving just before dawn one morning:

Frog Spawning

It feels like the spectacle of the annual frog spawning in February is the inaugural event in our natural history year.

A male frog in position, awaiting the arrival of a female
The distinctive white throats of the males. Many of them will have overwintered at the bottom of the pond, so that they can be in position and ready for when the females, their bellies already swollen with spawn, arrive at the pond
This female, with her enormous tummy, has been flipped over onto her back by two over-enthusiastic males. But now she is in trouble because they won’t let go and she is stuck like this
A male, still waiting, but now on top of a mass of lovely fertilised spawn

Now that we have sorted out the Heron problem with the tactical placement of our scarecrow, the frogs seemed to have a good year with a lot of spawn laid and then successfully hatched into tadpoles.

Nesting Birds

In March, winter-visiting Starlings always gather in the meadows, readying themselves for the flight across the North Sea back to mainland Europe to breed.

For the first time this year we noticed all the beak holes in the ground where they probe for soil invertebrates.

But for the last two years, several pairs of British resident Starling have chosen the meadows to raise their families. We are delighted with this, hoping it is a sign of improving habitat.

Gathering a feather for her nest
A few weeks later and juvenile Starling are appearing on the cameras

Crow Wars broke out in the skies above the meadows at the start of the breeding season. Every day there were noisy confrontations as encroaching Crows tried to muscle in on the territory of our resident pair. At one point I dashed out to rescue a bird that was pinned to the ground and surrounded. But I couldn’t be around all of the time and, before too long, we found a dead Crow on the ground.

We put a camera on the dead Crow and saw that other Crows revisited the scene of the crime several times

This death seemed to have resolved the matter irrevocably and the victorious pair went on to build their nest on the top of a tall tree.

Gathering nesting material from a cage that we stuffed full of wool

A number of species made use of the wool dispenser including this little Wren:

Three or four years of putting seed down daily on the strip and we are pleased to report that quite a flock of Yellowhammer has built up with several pairs nesting here this year:

The Bird Ringers ringed nine Yellowhammer in the meadows in 2020 and another eight in 2021
Not all of these birds are Yellowhammer but most of them are. The largest number photographed at one time this year was seventeen

A pair of Grey Partridge were in the meadows until about July although we haven’t seen them since. I do hope that they made a nest in a local hedgerow but sadly I have no evidence of that. Maybe we will see them again next spring.

Magpies successfully nested at the top of one of the pine trees.

Taking wet mud for the nest

They were also observed robbing other birds’ nests of eggs and chicks.

Magpie with bird egg

Blackbirds were very conspicuous nesters this year. The females have sole responsibility for making the nest and I had so very many great photos of them doing this.

We also saw a Song Thrush collecting wet mud from the pond for her nest:

Another species that we were happy to get evidence of nesting this year was Linnet:

Linnet gathering feathers following a Sparrowhawk kill

This year we forgot to put bungs into the Swift box holes. By the time the Swifts were due to arrive back in the country, we found that every Swift box already had House Sparrows nesting within:

House Sparrow peering out of a Swift box

We decided to rapidly put two new boxes up because we were really hoping that 2021 would be our lucky year and Swifts would surely nest. In the event, however, poor weather dramatically delayed the Swifts’ arrival and, by the time they did finally get here, the new boxes also had House Sparrows nests.

Swifts flying by the boxes

As in previous years, the Swift calls that we were playing brought the birds into the vicinity of the boxes very successfully. But we didn’t see one stop to look in a box and there was certainly no nesting. Maybe next year….

Other Interesting Photos From The First Half Of The Year

At the end of February we saw this lizard warming up on a sampling square. We were amazed how it had flattened its body to expose the largest possible amount of skin to the sun
Always a rare treat to see a Tawny Owl in the meadows
A Siskin in March
The Turtle Dove strip being rotavated in March for our fourth year of Operation Turtle Dove. We spread RSPB-supplied seed for eight weeks from the beginning of May in an attempt to encourage Turtle Doves to stop and breed here. Unfortunately we are still yet to see one of these birds in the meadows.
The resident badgers had a very quiet year and no cubs appeared above ground in April. However, they did dig two new tunnel entrances that opened up directly into the meadows rather than onto the cliff. This has made it much easier for us to watch their comings and goings
Tawny Mining Bees are the most lovely of bees and in April we found several of their nests in the ground. We have got our eye in now and will be watching out for them next year
Sparrowhawk with fully plucked bird prey. All a bit scary
In April there were lots of signs of Song Thrushes using stone anvils to break open snail shells and get at the meat inside
We often see rats on the trail cameras but the population always seems to stay in control. In this photo, the rodent’s eyes look like drops of liquid
Fox with rat. This might be one of the reasons rat numbers stay low
In autumn 2020 we found a Wasp Spider egg cocoon in the long grass. We kept an eye on it over the winter and, by the end of May, it was filled with Wasp Spiderlings
In May there was a single Early Spider Orchid growing in the garden lawn

May is such a wonderful month in the meadows. I finish today with this carpet of May buttercups that we look forward to every year.

In a few days, I will continue the review of the year with a final post covering the second six months of 2021.

Review of the Year – The Wood

Its been three years now since our dream of owning a little piece of woodland became a reality. We may not have had the wood for long, but already it has taught us so much and has become a quiet and precious haven both for us and the wildlife that lives amongst its lovely trees.

Woodcock fly across from Finland and Russia to spend the winter in the wood. They rest up during the day on the ground amongst the brambly undergrowth but come out at night to probe the soft ground with their long breaks, searching for soil invertebrates to eat.

Redwing are also to be found here in the winter before returning to Iceland and Scandinavia to breed.

This year there was a cold snap in February and snow settled onto the woodland floor:

Woodcock’s beak covered in snow

A rare sighting of deer in the wood:

Fox in the snow:

And Fox stalking a Magpie:

As spring finally arrived, parts of the wood became covered in a blanket of primroses and violets, visited by Bumblebees and Bee-Flies…

…and birds started to make their nests.

Blackbird gathering wet mud

Seventeen of the eighteen small bird boxes that we have put up in the wood were used by Great Tits and Blue Tits this year.

Great Tit taking in a wad of moss

In our first spring here, a hole in a mature cherry tree was dug out and used by a pair of Great Spotted Woodpeckers. Then, last year and again this year, Green Woodpeckers have reared their young in this same hole:

Each spring, a pair of Bullfinch has arrived and raised a family here:

Male and female Bullfinch in amongst the Bugle

There is small colony of Twayblades, a type of orchid, that comes up every year:

This year we also found a single White Helleborine, another orchid:

As the weeks advanced, young animals began to appear on the cameras:

A family of Jays
A juvenile Green Woodpecker
A pair of young Bullfinch
A fox cub tagging along behind its father

The adult foxes needed to work extra hard to find food for their cubs as well as for themselves:

Fox with rabbit

Badger cubs were also seen in the wood this year but I particularly enjoyed this photo of three adults sprawled out relaxing together. Badgers really know how to lounge:

Unfortunately there are large numbers of Grey Squirrels here in the wood. They have killed so many beautiful Beech and Oak trees by stripping bark in the early summer and are also notable predators of bird nests.

A family of Squirrels

A Roe Deer in the wood in June:

Molehills pock-mark the boundary between the wood and the adjoining field but this is the first time that we have actually seen a mole and I was surprised to see that it had a tail:

In the summer, one of the clearings in the wood becomes carpeted in Marjoram which attracts a wonderful variety of insects such as these Scorpion Flies..

The males have scorpion-like tails

.. and Silver Washed Fritillary Butterflies, gliding serenely amongst the Marjoram flowers on sunny days. It was a particularly good year for these butterflies:

As the heat of the summer started to build, birds of prey came down to the ponds to drink and bathe. Tawny Owls….

Buzzards….

.. and Sparrowhawks

In the autumn, with the breeding season long over, we went round clearing the old bird nests out of the boxes. It was surprising to find that five of the boxes had Dormice nesting on top of the bird nest.

A Dormouse in a bird box

But now it is winter once more. The Woodcock and Redwing have returned and we have again begun our winter work of coppicing the Hazel and creating dead hedge habitat along the boundaries with the cut wood.

On the brink of 2022, it has been lovely to reflect on the year that is finishing as I put together this post. I now look forward to what further natural history discoveries and delights the new year will bring.

The Lull Before Christmas

On a strangely warm and calm morning this week, the Bird Ringers put their nets up in the meadows for what is probably their last session of the year.

A Continental Blackbird – although the beak is largely yellow, the weight of this bird, and longer length of his wings, means that he is almost certainly a bird from the colder parts of Europe, flown across to spend the winter here with us.

For a few years now, the Ringers have been participating in a Blackcap colour-ringing scheme organised by the British Trust for Ornithology. They caught a Blackcap here this week and she is now wearing coloured bracelets that will allow her to be identified without having to be recaught. A lot of additional measurements needed to be taken under this scheme, such as beak length, width and depth.

Our preparations for Christmas are now mostly complete and there is now a bit of a lull as we hold our breath and wait to see if plans for having the family to stay can come to fruition. Covid cases are soaring and the dispiriting weather has predominantly been foggy, grey and damp.

Looking back towards the nearby historic town of Deal from the end of the pier on a chilly, dull December day

There was so much moisture in the air that the furry leaves of the sage bush in the allotment looked like they had been studded with rhinestones:

There is a trail camera pointing onto the badger sett in the cliff. However, it isn’t actually taking very good pictures of the badgers because the infrared isn’t strong enough to reach down there. The badgers do still trigger the shot, but the camera then takes a photo of the gnarled Hawthorn tree in the foreground. But, in this way, it has accidentally been providing me with images of slugs going up and down the tree every night.

Tree slugs were thrust into the limelight in May 2018 when they were featured on the country’s best-loved nature television programme, Springwatch. It included this memorable quote from an ardent slug admirer and scientist: ‘Because, until you’ve seen a tree slug, you haven’t lived’. Tree slugs (Lehmannia marginata) climb trees, even right up into the canopy, to graze on the lichens and algae that they find there. This specialised diet of theirs means that these are not the slugs that you would find eating your lettuces and courgettes. They are a woodland species and indeed the cliff here is densely vegetated with stunted trees, albeit also heavily overgrown with rampant Ivy and Old Man’s Beard

On another night, a slug coming back down from the tree towards dawn.

I love that there are Tree Slugs trundling around the trees at night. Presumably they need to come back down to the ground each day to find a nice, damp place to rest up until it gets dark again.

This large bag of prickly bramble cuttings has been hanging around the meadows for a while and it is a bit of an eyesore:

When we eventually got round to moving it, there was a collection of Stinking Iris berries stored beneath it. Presumably this is the work of a little Wood Mouse:

We were pleased to see that at least something values these berries because there are a lot of them around:

Our native Iris, Iris foetidissima, or Stinking Iris. Lots of bright berries but nothing much eats them
We protected the store of berries under these tiles so that the mouse can still access the berries and move them somewhere else if it wants to
A tiny Smooth Newt was under a sampling square one day this week. This little one would have hatched this year and has now dispersed out of the pond
There have been no recent Grey Heron visits. However, I did get the opportunity to see one up close when visiting my father in Berkshire this week, and I have to admire those black eyebrows
The Herring Gulls have a very distinctive drinking posture at this mini pond, probably because they are having to reach into the tray to get to the water
Sparrowhawk on the look out at the perch above the feeding cages…
…his interest probably having been piqued by all these House Sparrows that are visiting at the moment
This feels very theatrical. The One-eyed Vixen by the wild pond whilst another fox eats peanuts in the infrared spotlight behind
Resting up by the baking tray pond
Yet another fish in the mouth of a fox this week
Oh dear. I can’t identify this dark bird but it looks like perhaps it has webbed or wader-like feet
A Dandelion clock

Mahonia in the garden, now out in full flower and great for late-flying pollinators

Hoverfly comes in to the Mahonia this afternoon, in the first bit of sunshine that we have had all week.

We have a camera looking at a new, small pond that we have built in the wood. Much like the tree slugs that are being incidentally photographed at the badger sett, it is the background of this photo that is much more interesting than the Blue Tit who triggered the photo:

Two Great Spotted Woodpeckers working their way up opposite sides of a tree

On another day, yet again there was a Great Spotted Woodpecker in the background of the shot, and on the same tree:

The tree that the woodpeckers are visiting is a Field Maple which has deeply textured bark with lots of lovely crevices into which insects can go to hide themselves away:

The interesting bark of a Field Maple tree

A Tawny Owl has perched on this branch on a couple of nights. Could it be looking with interest at that nest box?

A Tawny has also been seen elsewhere in the wood:

I was very pleased to see this Marsh Tit. We haven’t been seeing much of them in the wood this year:

A Woodcock taking a bath:

One night there was an extraordinary sight shining in the darkness out to sea. Anchored alongside us was Matador 3, a heavy-lifting, floating crane:

In the morning, there was a chance to get a better look at her. The crane barge isn’t self-propelled and needs a tug to move her around but, together, they have worked on offshore wind farm projects throughout Europe.

Tow line now reattached and ready to move off

Our son and his girlfriend, off round the world for a year, have sent us this atmospheric photo of the Guatemalan rainforest at Christmas time:

They had a wonderful time in Guatemala and have now flown down to Costa Rica where they plan to stay a while.

Today is the winter solstice and Christmas approaches fast on its heels. Whatever your plans, I wish you an enjoyable but also restful Christmas and hopefully there will be an opportunity to get out and about and immerse yourself in the restorative power of nature.

Tales from Deep Midwinter

The beautiful start to a December day:

And here is the sky at dawn yesterday. There are some beautiful sunrises to be had at the beginning of these short, frail midwinter days.

Another big storm has run amok across the country this week. Heavy rain was forecast and so I decided to bring in most of the trail cameras from the meadows to avoid them getting overly wet. If water worms its way into the lens casing, the camera becomes fogged with condensation for days afterwards.

Mollycoddling the fleet of trail cameras. I am incredibly fond of chickens and kept them in my back garden for many years, although these days there are only these ornaments to care for

I am not sure that the cameras have repaid me for my consideration towards them by coming up with anything particularly spectacular this week, but then it is a very slow time of year. There was this large and unwelcome visitor though, accompanied by members of the neighbourhood watch committee:

After putting down seed each morning, we like to stop for a moment to see which birds had been watching and waiting for us and are then quickly on the scene. Chuckles, the male Herring Gull, is nearly always the leader and is still sometimes accompanied by his offspring. It’s nice to see a pair of Collared Doves, as well, at the moment. They are quite a rare sight here.

The delicate Collared Dove

There is also a large flock of House Sparrow visiting the seed:

I apologise for the sloping sea – the trail camera was wonky

There are three Crows that call this land their territory. They staunchly defend it against other Crows and swiftly escort any passing bird of prey off the premises.

The triumvirate of Crows at the top of a pine, waiting for us to put the seed down

But the Crows usually make an exception for Kestrels, allowing them to use the meadows unhindered. However, one morning we saw this wonderful interaction. A Kestrel was purveying the meadow from the top of a pine tree and a Crow landed alongside her:

The Crow then launched itself on four separate hovers above the Kestrel in an attempt to get her to move off, but she would not be intimidated. Between each hover, the Crow perched back down alongside her for a while, seemingly companionably.

Eventually the Crow gave up and flew off – the Kestrel had won.

This Fox looks like it has a pantomime black moustache…

..but when viewed from another angle it becomes clear that it is carrying a fish:

A lovely study of a Badger:

Badgers play-fighting:

The weird and wonderful White Saddle fungus lives in association with the roots of one of the Holm Oaks and, at this time of year, puts up these strange, contorted fruiting bodies at points along a circumference around the tree.

For the last two or three years, we have been managing one area of the second meadow specifically for reptiles and it has its own cutting regime – only a third gets cut each year on a rotational basis. As a result, the vegetation is getting decidedly rougher, now with sturdy grass tussocks and log piles providing the reptiles with protection from predators.

The part of the meadow being managed for reptiles

We have also noticed the impressive Yellow Meadow Ant nests that are forming in this area:

I think we are going to have to consider cutting this bit by hand, avoiding these ant nests so that they can continue to thrive.

There is a lot of available timber in the wood as we commence this year’s coppicing, so we brought a car-load back to the meadows..

..and built a log pile by the wild pond. The hope is that amphibians and invertebrates can find safe refuge amongst the logs, while beetle larvae and many other things get going to slowly break the wood down.

A small flock of Cormorants flying over the meadows this week
Buff-tailed Bumblebees have a third, winter generation in this part of the country utilising what flowers are still going

There are reports in the news that the country is in the grips of our worst ever outbreak of Avian Flu and half a million captive birds have had to be culled in recent months. Had I still been keeping my pet chickens, I would have been required to keep them under cover since the the disease really took hold at the end of November. I have to say that another pandemic feels overwhelming to cope with on top of the last two long years of Covid, but there you are. The disease has been brought across from mainland Europe by wild migrating birds, arriving here for the winter, and it can pass into our populations of resident wild birds and captive poultry.

We have noticed two Blackbirds lying dead but untouched in the meadows. This seems strange and suspicious – why have they not been carried off by a Fox? Of course these birds could have died for any number of reasons but we, too, have decided to leave them where they lie.

After this week’s storm, we went for a walk up to Sandwich Bay and called in at the bird hide at Restharrow Scrape. It was wonderfully packed with healthy wintering ducks and Lapwing which was lovely to see. The male Gadwall is a very handsome bird:

There were also several beautifully marked Snipe:

Of the eighteen small nest boxes up in the wood, seventeen contained bird nests when we went round to clear them out last month. This is very gratifying and there certainly seems to be capacity for more. We have bought three of these weird-looking ones:

The idea is that the three holes let in lots of light so that the bird can afford to build its nest low and at the back of the box, keeping the developing young safer from predators. I am not sure how convinced I am by this but we thought we would give them a go anyway. These three boxes are now installed in the wood, bringing the total number of small boxes there to twenty-one.

I’m always delighted when a magnificent Buzzard is seen in the wood:

At this time of year, as we walk round the woodland paths to check the cameras, we invariably disturb several Woodcock, resting up for the day on the ground in amongst the low-lying, brambly cover.

There used to be a winter shoot in these woods before our time and I think the population of Pheasants here is a vestige of that time, when game birds were released into the countryside in order to be shot. I do not know whether the number of birds we have now will be self-sustaining or if it will gradually wane over time as no more are released – we shall have to wait and see.

Our son, currently in Guatemala, has sent us a photo of a Keel-billed Toucan that he saw this week and what a bird it is, bringing some Central American warmth and colour to this blog post:

We have started going into Deal on a Saturday morning to potter around and visit the lovely market:

The dog biscuit stall in Deal market. Our dog is very fond of these

At this time of year, the plant stall has gone all festive:

I have made my own wreath this year, attending a Christmas workshop:

But next year I will reuse the willow base and forage what I can from the meadows and the wood to make the wreath for the door. Its good to have some appealing activities and projects planned to get us through this rock-bottom part of the year.

Tipping Points

This toadstool, with its covering of frost, perfectly captures the essence of the season – the last gasps of autumn just tipping over into winter:

We have had to reacquaint ourselves with all our warm clothes

There has been a significant storm that brought snow to large parts of the country and thousands of people had no power for a week. No snow here, although inevitably we did have strong winds. So much so that this old Magpie nest was blown out of the top of a tall pine:

This photo of a Magpie has three Blackbirds working the hedgerow behind – there are so many here at the moment:

They are busy hoovering up what berries are left:

There are also more Song Thrushes than usual

A Sparrowhawk came in for a bath. We saw him last week as well:

We put seed down every morning throughout the year and this is being keenly anticipated as the cold weather starts to bite:

Stock Doves and House Sparrows

This Fox has a fish. Perhaps he has been foraging on the foreshore or opportunistically lurking around night fishermen down on the beach:

The Badgers have been taking yet more bedding underground into their sett this week:

Back in the summer, a deep vertical aeration shaft appeared in the second meadow, about five metres in from the cliff. Now, the Badgers have begun digging it out into a proper tunnel entrance and it will be easy for us to get a camera on this to observe the comings and goings:

We toured the meadows trying to remember where the bird boxes were so that we could empty them of this year’s nests:

One of the boxes hanging in a Wild Cherry tree

Seventeen boxes were discovered but, shockingly, only three had bird nests within:

In previous years we have collected a whole wheelbarrow full of old nests and we were very dispirited that there were so few. It is surely an indication of a very poor breeding season for Blue Tits and Great Tits this year because of the cold spring weather that we had.

But this nest was very lovely. Fur from one of the dog’s pink balls was woven into the top:

When viewed from the side, you can see how much Badger fur has been collected to make a thick, soft top layer above the moss. What a comfortable nursery that must have been and all the babies successfully fledged:

This next nest was a Blue Tit nest back in the spring but subsequently the box has been well used as an overnight roost:

Many of the other boxes, although not containing nests, did have droppings inside as evidence that they were now being used as sheltered roosts. Last winter, a Wren regularly spent the night cuddled up in this teapot nest box that we have in the garden. We put a trail camera on the box and discovered that the bird went in at very heavy dusk and, here it is, leaving just before dawn:

This week we put up a selection of interesting-looking roosting boxes in the garden to see if these could be of use to the birds over the forthcoming cold winter nights:

I dressed the wreath rooster up with foliage from the garden. What bird is going to be able to resist roosting in this?

Before dressing:

After:

In the wood, this winter’s coppicing has commenced. It is hard work and we find that three coppices a session is really all that we want to do and so progress is slow. These two Hazel coppices to the right of the Goat Willow were cut this week:

The chain saw helps immensely, although all this cut timber then needs to be dragged off to make a dead hedge at the boundary of the wood:

A completed stool

While we were sitting having a cup of tea, two Great Spotted Woodpeckers came in together to the feeders:

There was also a nice photo of one of these birds on the trail cameras:

This particular camera is looking at a Tawny Owl nest box. We have put all sorts of boxes up in both the meadows and the wood, many especially designed with a particular species in mind. But it has become a bit of an inevitability that it is always a different species that takes up residence. However, this is surely ridiculous, even by our standards:

There were several Blue Tit visits to this box this week.

Other woodland photos:

It has been very cold
Woodcock stretching its wings
Woodcock unusually out and about in daylight
This Fox’s facial features all seem to have been outlined in black

Our son and his girlfriend, travelling the world for a year, have reached Guatemala having spent the last fortnight or so in Belize.

Collared Aracari, a smaller member of the Toucan family. How do they eat tiny fruits with that unwieldy bill? Do they pluck the fruit off with the point of the beak and then toss it up into the air to swallow it? It looks like they may.

December now and the eagerly-awaited winter solstice is just over a fortnight away. This always feels to us like a momentous tipping point after which, tiny step by tiny step, the days start to get longer and spring gets that little bit nearer. As I draw the curtains at 4pm with darkness descending, six hours earlier than it does in June, this can’t come soon enough for me.

The Narrow Straits of Dover

The village of St Margarets lies just to the south of here, where the English Channel is at its narrowest and the chalk cliffs rise dizzyingly high.

The Dover Patrol Memorial standing proud on the cliffs north of St Margarets Bay. It was built to commemorate the two thousand men of the Dover Patrol who lost their lives in the Channel during World War I
The South Foreland Lighthouse is just south of St Margarets. Surprisingly, there is a newly planted vineyard up here now in what is surely a very exposed position

This area was called ‘Hellfire Corner’ in World War II and still bristles with the remains of fortifications from back then.

Photo of an information board up on the cliffs. The guns Winnie, Pooh, Clem and Jane were all situated in the South Foreland area and were removed after the war, although evidence of them remains

We stumbled upon two fortifications that we had never seen before when we took the dog for a walk up there this week:

This was the Fortress Plotting Room for all the gun batteries north of Dover, although it has now been partly filled in and grilled for safety. These days it is a winter bat roost and I know that Kent Bat Group gets round all the roosts that they are aware of every winter to check on number and species of the hibernating bats. Perhaps they have no access to this one though. In January this year, the group hit the national headlines when they found a Greater Horseshoe Bat roosting in the bowels of Dover Castle, the first such sighting for a hundred years.

Nearby was a second structure, built as a deep shelter:

This shelter had one hundred and twenty five steps down to a space that would be safe even in the worst of attacks. Apparently civilians were welcome to use this shelter as well, although it is a fair old walk up from the village. I suspect that most of St Margarets was evacuated of civilians anyway during the war.

Eighty years on now and the narrowness of the Straits of Dover once again mean that this part of the country is on the forefront of another crisis. More than 24,700 desperate migrants have risked their lives packed onto flimsy boats and crossed the Channel so far this year, already three times more than last year. We witnessed a boat arriving this week:

The overloaded migrant boat is on the left. A Border Force rib is on the right and the BF Hurricane is speeding in. I hadn’t seen this boat before but she seems to be specialised for these situations

The BF Hurricane had presumably already just rescued people from another boat because she was towing an empty rib on her port side. The people from that previous boat were now on an RNLI boat, making its way back to Dover:

An RNLI boat, full of migrants at its bow, sprinting back to Dover
The BF Hurricane now comes alongside this second migrant inflatable dinghy
Offloading the people from the dinghy. I see that there is a portaloo on the stern for them – probably much needed too after all that time at sea

A few days after we watched this boat being safely intercepted, there has been a terrible tragedy and one of these woefully inadequate vessels has sunk off Calais, heavily overloaded with its precious human cargo. At least twenty-seven lives have been lost, every one of them someone’s son or daughter. Hopefully now Britain and France will work positively together to come up with a solution to this heartbreaking problem.

In the meadows, it has been cold with bitter northerly winds and abrupt showers:

Preparations for winter are well under way at the Badger sett. A large volume of pond reed has been taken off underground as bedding:

In the garden, all these leaves came off one tree over the course of a few hours. So, there’s a job for us:

We usually make leaf mould with the fallen leaves by bundling them up and putting them into crates in the meadows. A couple of years of inattention, however, and the whole structure has practically disappeared behind a vicious bramble patch. So, that’s another job:

A lovely Yew grows in the garden, covered in berries at this time of year that are much loved by Blackbirds and Thrushes:

As Blackbirds start to gather around the tree, I think the fun is just about to begin. This is made all the more enjoyable for us because we can view it all from the comfort of our kitchen:

This photo is from this time last year when the Yew was stripped of its berries in no time at all once the birds got going. They only start on these Yew berries once the Hawthorn berries are all gone from the meadows

Growing in the lawn are a few beautiful Amethyst Deceiver toadstools. I can’t help but notice that there is not actually much grass in our lawn:

Green Woodpeckers have been keeping a low profile in the meadows recently and this was the first summer that I have not seen any speckled juveniles around. Good to see this female then:

Things have been generally very quiet on the trail cameras but one morning a male Sparrowhawk came in for a bath:

In the wood, we still have a camera strapped to a pole and looking along a horizontal branch. Over the months that it has been there, we have got some great shots from it:

Buzzard in the wood this week

Now that the Woodcock are back, I am always excited to see what this pond camera has to offer, because we often see them here:

Pheasants can apparently be very variable and this is a surprisingly dark female:

Grey Squirrels do so much damage in the wood but I cannot deny that they are also rather sweet:

One of our daughters moved to the lovely village of Wye in the North Downs this year. They were delighted to discover a healthy population of hedgehogs in their garden and have provided a safe place for them to hibernate in, should they so desire. The box has an internal wall to create a room within that is inaccessible to reaching paws. This week, prospective viewings have been taking place…

…but there was also a reminder of the perils these little creatures face every day:

What a fabulous trail camera photo

This Christmas Cactus always gets it wrong and flowers in November:

I now see this flowering as a herald of the start of the Christmas season. It’s getting wintry out there and, as my thoughts are turning to the upcoming festivities, I do so hope that all the wildlife is getting itself tucked up snugly until spring.

The Evergreen Oak

There are several majestic, evergreen Holm Oaks in the meadows, providing a windbreak from strong coastal winds for us and year-round shelter for birds and other animals.

These trees are native to the Mediterranean region but they do very well here in this exposed and often unforgiving coastal location, where many of our native species struggle. Only one of these trees has had a heavy crop of acorns this year but it has now been ransacked of this bounty by the Jays. We have seen three birds at one time so there is at least that number at work. Most of the acorns will, by now, be buried in the meadows, forming a stash of food to keep the birds provisioned throughout the ordeal of the winter to come:

Empty acorn cups

Jays apparently have a remarkable memory for where they have buried their acorns so that they can return. But there are always some that have not been eaten by spring that will then start to germinate. It may be that they were not needed or have been overlooked, but there is also new evidence to suggest that the Jays might actually be farming these seedlings.

Photo from October 2020. A Jay must have buried three Holm Oak acorns in this bag of topsoil the previous autumn and presumably forgotten about them

By the time they are sprouting upwards in the spring, a tap root will have formed underground to bring in food, and the tiny trees will no longer need the carbohydrates stored in the cotyledons of the acorn. Jays have been observed to half pull some of these seedlings up – far enough to get at these cotyledons that are now no longer required, but not enough to kill the fledgling tree. They then give these energy-packed cotyledons to their young. The Oaks feed the Jays and the Jays plant the trees’ seeds – I find this mutually beneficial relationship between the tree and the bird absolutely fascinating.

Perhaps a few acorns are still left on the trees – but not for much longer:

Jay with an acorn tucked between its feet
A year on and one of these small Holm Oaks, originally planted by Jays in the bag of topsoil, has now been replanted in the meadows. Here it will have the space to grow into an enormous tree for future generations of both Jays and humans to enjoy
A Holm Oak in our garden. We had this pollarded a few years ago which felt quite drastic at the time but it has now grown back to be this absolutely beautiful tree, which puts me in mind of an Olive tree. No acorns on it this year though

Six years ago we built a beetle stack by digging these logs deep into the ground, where they would slowly rot and provide habitat for beetle larvae:

By now, many of these logs are very soft and close to collapsing but the whole thing can be declared a complete success. Just from our occasional strolls past, we have noticed adult beetles emerging, a Wren spends a lot of time hunting for insects within the structure and this summer there was a bumblebee nest at the base. At the moment, there is quite a covering of Dead Man’s fingers:

The fungus Xylaria polymorpha, or Dead Man’s Fingers, growing in the soil around the rotting wood

We had hoped to encourage Stag Beetles with these log stacks, but have never seen one, or its smaller relative, the Lesser Stag Beetle, in the meadows.

The distribution of the majestic Stag Beetle in 2017 is shown in purple above and sadly I see that it no longer stretches to coastal East Kent. Stag Beetles lay their eggs in rotting wood under the ground. Image taken from the People’s Trust for Endangered Species website

Lesser Stag Beetles are similar but smaller and, unlike their Stag Beetles cousins, they lay their eggs into wood and tree stumps above ground. They are more common and have a wider range than the Stag Beetle but unfortunately are still not seen in the east coast of Kent:

So it looks like the three log stacks we have built in the meadows are unlikely to be benefiting either type of Stag Beetle anytime soon, but there are surely so many other invertebrates that have been happily using them instead. We are planning to build a few more of these structures this winter using timber that we will cut from the wood this coming coppicing season.

The other two, more recently constructed, beetle stacks in the shade of a Wild Cherry in the meadows

I was very pleased this week when the colour-ringed female Herring Gull X9LT made a fleeting appearance. She hasn’t been around for quite a while and I was getting worried:

She was ringed in January 2015 at Pitsea landfill site in Essex and, at that point, was assessed to be four years old or older but still with some juvenile plumage. This makes her approximately eleven years old now and I see that the average lifespan is twelve years although Herring Gulls have been known to live to thirty-two.

At this time of year, every sighting of a butterfly is precious because you don’t know if it is going to be the last one until next spring. Here is a glamorous Red Admiral this week – will this be the 2021 grand butterfly finale?

We have waded back in the wild pond and now most of the reeds have been pulled out, although leaving some as shelter for amphibians. It is pleasing to have finally got this job done:

This is a highly unusual sight for the meadows:

This sight, however, is not. This lovely little dog of ours has just had her eighth birthday but still remains very active, chasing helicopters and micro-lighters out of her airspace. Thankfully she has no interest whatsoever in killing the wildlife that she shares the meadows with, but she definitely loves to chase it given half a chance:

We had a large cargo ship, the Ocean Giant, at anchor alongside the meadows for perhaps as long as a week and it was beginning to feel like a new friend:

I wonder how the crew onboard amused themselves during all those days with nothing much going on. Did they learn to tie knots and scrub away at the decks, or am I in the wrong century?

We took the dog north along the coast for a walk at Sandwich Bay this week, and enjoyed the view back towards the town of Deal with the Ocean Giant still at anchor.

Stonechat at Sandwich Bay

While we were there, we called in at The Sandwich Bay Observatory Trust’s Restharrow scrape. This new scrape was finished in early 2020 just as Covid struck and so it didn’t actually open to visitors until the middle of this year and this was only our second ever visit. We were very pleased to see a group of nine Snipe there:

Three of the Snipe amongst some Teal

The Ocean Giant was on a voyage from Poland to Canada. Eventually, on Monday night, she raised her anchor in the dark and slipped silently away back into the shipping lane, heading west to Canada, and we are left none the wiser as to why she spent this week-long pause in her journey with us.

Over in the wood, we have had another session of clearing Dogwood from the area where we saw the Silver-washed Fritillary butterflies this year:

In the summer, this part of the wood is a fantastic carpet of Marjoram, but it was becoming very overgrown and shaded out by Dogwood. We have had fun clearing this quite large area and are now filled with eager anticipation to see how this will look next year

The Woodcock are arriving back in the wood for the winter:

I have seen this Fox on the cameras in the wood a couple of times now and feel instant affection for it because it looks so very much like the Old Gentleman from the meadows:

In winter, the wood is a good place to see the wonderfully named Dog Sick Slime Mould:

On a dull, mid-November day, what we need to buck us up is a little bit of colour. The best that the meadows can offer at this time of year are the berries of the native Stinking Iris, Iris foetidissima:

They are very colourful and might do the trick but perhaps these American Flamingos will do better? Our son and his girlfriend have launched themselves on a year-long world trip starting in Mexico and this week they visited the CelestĂșn Biosphere Reserve in the Yucatan region of Mexico.

The collective noun for Flamingos is a flamboyance which feels very appropriate.

I finish today with the moon. The moon shining on the sea forms an atmospheric background for this photo of our old friend the One-eyed Vixen:

As the moon rose this afternoon, I tried my best to capture something of its magic:

The full moon in November is called the Beaver Moon and we will look out for it tomorrow night.

Crossing Borders

Mid November and Swallows continue to be buffeted by strong winds over the meadows as they battle their way south to warmer climes. At the same time, fast, tight squadrons of Starlings shoot in off the sea at regular intervals. They do not linger but speed straight on through, drawn onwards to their destinations further inland – these seasonal visitors will join our resident Starlings and together they will murmurate in their thousands at dusk over our reedbeds throughout the winter.

We have tried, mostly unsuccessfully, to see the winter spectacle of the Starling murmurations many times. This was the best one seen to date – Otmoor RSPB reserve in Oxfordshire in December 2019

Also arriving into the country from the coniferous forests around the Baltic are these tiny little birds, a few of which were caught and ringed here this week. This is a female Goldcrest and if you gently blow on the feathers of her crest, you can see that they are all gold:

These petite little birds only weigh around 5g

This next bird is a male:

At first sight, he looks very similar but, when you blow on his crest feathers, you can see vibrant flame-orange feathers that lie mostly hidden within the crest:

The Bird Ringers also caught a female Firecrest, with a black stripe through her eye and the white stripe above:

Similar to the female Goldcrest, her crest is all yellow:

This is probably a Continental Blackbird, bigger and heavier that our resident birds and with a dark beak:

It is now known that the Blackcaps that are in the UK during the summer migrate south in the autumn, although they are replaced by other Blackcaps that arrive from colder parts of Europe to spend the winter here. Therefore, the Blackcap that was caught and ringed here this week could have been either leaving or arriving:

Meadow Pipits stay in this country all year:

The amazingly long hind claws on a Meadow Pipit, thought to help it to spring up quickly from the ground away from predators

Long-tailed Tits are also resident and a group of six flew in to the net this week:

Interestingly, eyelid colour in Long Tailed Tit can range from pale yellow, as here, to deep red. There is some scientific evidence that the colour can be a reflection of their mood:

The Bird Ringers use their ears as well as their eyes to tell them what birds are around, in a way that we are only very slowly learning to do. They told us that there were Fieldfare and Linnets in the hedgerow, Meadow Pipits in the field behind and a small flock of Siskin flying over. They also saw a Reed Bunting in the ant paddock which is a new species for the meadow list – number ninety.

The Jays have been busy all week stripping the Holm Oaks of their acorns:

Jay with acorn

The acorn is stripped down to the cotyledons and this one was eaten rather than buried:

Apparently a Jay can carry up to nine acorns at a time in its gullet but normally they carry two or three with one also in its bill:

A Jay carrying at least two acorns, captured by a trail camera. I am slightly confused why these acorns seem to be stripped of their outer casings – maybe it is just the light

It has been estimated that a single Jay will hoard as many as 3,000 acorns over the course of an autumn as a store of food for it through the winter.

Blackbirds eating the Whitebeam berries
Lovely little House Sparrow in the hedgerow
In early autumn there were very few House Sparrows around, but a big flock has returned now
Kestrel at the top of a pine tree

And watching for voles in the second meadow
There has been another Heron visit this week but I saw it come down and went out to shoo it off. If you are surprised by how dogmatically anti-Heron we are, could I explain that it is a result of bitter experience – a couple of years ago the pond became a scene of mass slaughter when a Heron fished literally hundreds of frogs and newts out, leaving it bare of amphibians. Herons are not seen here at all during the summer and I believe this to be a newly-arrived migrant bird

When the sun is shining, there are still plenty of late-flying insects taking advantage of what the flowering Ivy has on offer

Common Wasp, Vespula vulgaris. I hadn’t realised how furry they are
Eristalis sp hoverfly, possibly Eristalis pertinax but I really needed to get a better view of its legs to say for sure
The complicated underside of a Red Admiral, probing the Ivy with its proboscis
And from above
While the Bird Ringers were here, we spotted our first Clouded Yellow of the year. This is a migratory species that flies here from northern Africa or southern Europe
A spider has built a web across this camera lens creating this surreal effect

In the last post, I mentioned how wonderful it was to hear Owls hooting around the house at night. This next photo is a screenshot from a video this week. I have looked long and hard at the video and I regret to say that this looks ever so much like a Tawny Owl that this fox is carrying in his mouth. Certainly we have not heard an Owl since this video was taken:

This fox, with the end of his tail dipped down, is a regular at the nightly peanuts

On winter nights in the wood, we have seen Tawny Owls on the ground hunting for worms and I suppose they are vulnerable to pouncing foxes when they do this.

One of my all-time favourite trail camera shots of a Tawny catching a worm back in 2019

Swallows, Starlings, Goldcrests, Firecrests, Blackbirds, Blackcaps, Herons and Clouded Yellows – there is a lot of crossing of borders at this time of year. One of our sons has crossed continents and embarked on a grand adventure – a year travelling the world with his girlfriend. They will probably have to be flexible with their itinerary but they have started in Mexico. I asked them to send me photos of interesting wildlife that they see along the way, and this week we have this colourful photo of a Mexican butterfly:

An unidentified Mexican butterfly

Mexico famously provides a safe haven for millions of the migratory Monarch Butterflies from October to March, but they do also have 2,044 other species of butterfly in the country. In contrast, the UK has a meagre 59 species.

Mexico also has 19 species of Iguana. I found a website showing images of them all and think that this one that they saw is probably the Green Iguana (Iguana iguana). I see that the adult size of this one is a rather monstrous 4-5.5 feet:

I envy them the experiences of new cultures, landscapes and wildlife that are to come and it seems an awfully long time since we ourselves have stepped a foot off British soil. On clear days we can see another country from the meadows:

The white cliffs of France across the Channel

Ferries are plying back and forth from Dover just down the coast and maybe it won’t be too long now before we have the confidence to get over there, even if only for a day trip.

As Remembrance Day approaches, I finish today with this moving installation by Mark Humphreys on Dover seafront to commemorate the dead of the First World War. Every few minutes a motor starts up and the space is filled with fluttering poppies:

Lest We Forget.