Chilli Tulips

Last winter I was engaged in an intense battle of wits with a rat who hoped to carry off all my tulip bulbs. I had planted over a hundred tulips in November but, by early December, I noticed that nearly every bulb had been very precisely dug up and removed:

A row of neat holes where previously there had been planted bulbs. The rodent must be able to locate them very accurately by smell

I put a trail camera in the allotment and caught the perpetrator red-handed, walking away with one of the few remaining bulbs:

A rat making off with a bulb

Although by then it was late in the season, I did manage to buy forty more bulbs. After they were replanted, wire netting was pegged down over the bed:

I rather smugly supposed this would be the end of the matter but the rat had other ideas. It dug down at the edge of the wire by the rosemary bush and tunnelled up to each of this second batch of bulbs from below:

The access hole, leading to a network of underground tunnels. I was surprised that a tulip bulb was worth expending so much effort for
Another bulb has disappeared even though it is completely covered in wire from above
The rat emerging from the hole by the rosemary with yet another tulip in its mouth.

Although I was rather impressed with the rat and greatly admired its ingenuity, I also really like growing unusual varieties of tulip to cut and bring into the house in the spring.

This April we visited Pashley Manor’s tulip festival and a bulb supplier, Bloms Bulbs, had a marquee there to showcase their wares:

The Bloms Bulbs marquee at the Pashley Manor tulip festival in Sussex this April

I asked if they had any suggestions for dealing with my rat conundrum. I was expecting them to recommend poisoning or trapping the rat but, instead, I was pleasantly surprised when they suggested rolling the bulbs in chilli before planting.

This November, full of optimism for the new chilli weapon in my armoury, I have again bought a hundred tulip bulbs:

I also purchased a kilogram of chilli powder:

As an additional measure, we decided to plant the bulbs in a raised bed which would be easier to net and would offer more protection to tunnelling in from the side:

The raised bed, prepared and ready to go

Wearing rubber gloves, I dipped each bulb in water and then plopped it into the chilli bag before planting:

Bright red chilli tulips before I raked over the soil

So, this year’s battle has now commenced and I await the rat’s next move with interest.

This autumn has been wet and stormy and the trail cameras have kept needing to come in to be dried out on the Aga. But they have managed to get some photos of all the five species of birds of prey that have been hunting in the meadows this season:

The ringed kestrel has been regularly seen
She’s a beautiful bird
There have been several different sparrowhawks out and about
I am not sure if this bird was sunbathing or if she was shrouding prey on the perch
The feeding cages and all the birds that visit them are a big attraction for the sparrowhawks
Sparrowhawks often adopt this insouciant resting stance
The buzzard has also been around
Placing the camera up on the hay pile
It has been hunting from the top of the hay pile, although the camera I have got up there has got a slight crack in the lens cover and is very affected by the rain..
..but it has shown us that a fox curls up and rests there most nights..
..and I think this is a tawny owl that has been using the camera itself as a lofty perch
A barn owl is appearing on the cameras most nights this autumn
It’s good to see that the meadows are providing it with food

Winter-visiting birds have been arriving and appearing on the cameras:

A woodcock in the meadows. This bird has probably just arrived from Russia or Finland and will soon move on to woodland further inland. Our own wood near Canterbury has many over-wintering woodcock every year – maybe this bird will end up there
Goldcrests arrive here from the colder parts of Europe in the late autumn.. do the rarer firecrests with those black stripes around the eye
There has been a lovely influx of blackbirds and thrushes as well

A long term resident of the meadows is a handsome fox who was the mate of the One-eyed Vixen and over the years the pair have raised many cubs in the meadows.

The heart-warming photo of the One Eyed Vixen on the right grooming her mate back in 2020. Foxes pair for life and this couple were together here for several years

This year, however, he has had an annus horribilis – we have lost the One-eyed Vixen and he is now a widower. But, as well as that, he has had mange all year. I tried to treat this twice earlier in the year but was unsuccessful. This autumn I have treated him again and am pleased to report that this time it has worked:

I haven’t posted photos of this fox this summer because I found it all too upsetting. But here he is now as he starts to recover. The bare black skin on his face is where he had open sores a couple of months ago
This widower fox loves pears and has been hanging around the orchard all autumn

I am dedicating this blog post to my special father-in-law who died this week. Joining the RAF as a young man during the war and remaining with them for most of his career, he had a long and rich life, full of adventure. He was good company, a dispenser of amazing stories and very interested in the lives of other people. He was also a kind and lovely man.

RIP Steve 1928-2023

Cranes in Champagne

November can be a difficult month so this year we decided that, rather than simply enduring it, we would celebrate it instead by going to France to witness a wildlife spectacle that happens there at this time of year. Lac du Der is in the Champagne region of France and, in November, thousands of common cranes gather at the lake before continuing their migration onwards towards Spain.

Ferries manoeuvring in the Port of Dover as we left for France, the day after Storm Ciaran had raged through

The weather forecast for the week was pretty awful so we packed all our waterproofs and warm clothes and got onto a ferry heading across The Channel. We were joining a Naturetrek holiday and the cranes were to be the grand finale of the week. The first part of the holiday was spent exploring the area around the Forêt d’Orient.

The Forêt D’Orient is situated just to the east of Troyes and Lac du Der is at the top right of the map. This southern section of the Champagne region is roughly a four hour drive south of Calais

We arrived a day before the rest of the group and spent time exploring the region, including visiting Colombey-les-Deux-Eglises, where Charles de Gaulle lived and is buried. There is now a fantastic museum and a memorial to him there.

Next to the museum, the Cross of Lorraine, a symbol of Free France during the Second World War, proudly stands over the Champagne countryside. Charles de Gaulle escaped to Britain in 1940 and broadcast the Appeal of 18th June from London which was a call to arms for the French Resistance and remains one of the most important speeches in French history
A contemplative bench with a beautiful view in the Charles de Gaulle museum

This sign propped up by the side of the road reminded us that hunting (la chasse) in France starts in September and goes on until the end of February and that we needed to take great care when walking in woodland.

Over the course of the week we did see several men wandering about the countryside dressed in camouflage and carrying rifles or shotguns

A striking feature of this part of France is the amount of mistletoe growing on the trees:

Mistletoe is a hemiparasite – although its evergreen leaves do photosynthesise, its specialised roots grow through the bark of the tree to plunder nutrients and water as well
Its white berries are sticky and are eaten by mistle thrushes and blackcaps especially. Some of the seeds get stuck to their beaks and are then transferred across to other trees

Once we had joined up with the Naturetrek group, who had travelled to Paris on Eurostar and then been picked up in minibuses, the fifteen of us spent several days exploring the woodlands and lakes of the Forêt D’Orient along with our two guides.

By the end of the week, the group had seen around a hundred species of birds, some of them absolute corkers. Sadly, though, we did not see or hear the enormous black woodpecker although we did have several sightings of a middle-spotted woodpecker, a new species for us.

We also saw a lot of water pipit, another first:

Water pipits are rare winter visitors to the UK but seemed fairly common in Champagne

It is always a delight to see little owls and a pair were spotted on a walk around one of the villages:

We saw three white-tailed sea eagles, although all at a great distance. This juvenile bird is next to a corvid to give it scale:

It takes seven years for the eagle to reach adulthood and only then does it get its white tail:

An adult white-tailed sea eagle

There were a very large number of great white egrets and grey herons living in and around the lakes:

There were also cattle egrets:

I found this next scene quite frankly amazing and stood mesmerised by it for ages:

Great white egrets standing on the edge, cormorants in the water and seagulls hovering above. So many birds in one place

The lakes are actually man-made reservoirs supplying water to Paris and are at their lowest levels at this time of year. I assume that a shoal of fish had become stranded in this little inlet causing this bird mayhem.

This dense black slick in the water was discovered to be hundreds and hundreds of coots and they stayed all together like this for the entire time we were watching them. This was very odd and I have no idea what was going on:

November is a great time to see fungal fruiting bodies and there were many of these to be seen in the forest. I wasn’t sure quite what I was seeing when I found a small group of scarlet octopuses amongst the leaf litter:

This is the Devil’s fingers fungus, or octopus stinkhorn. Originally from the Southern Hemisphere, this startling fungus is also occasionally found in Britain
The magpie inkcap is another distinctive fungus. This is found in southern Britain too, although is not common

One area of the forest is known for fire salamanders. The larval stage of these salamanders lives in water but the adults are to be found under logs by day, emerging at night to hunt for their invertebrate prey. We walked around the woodland, carefully turned over logs to see if we could find one of these salamanders:

At first we only found frogs under the logs. Although these look very much like our British common frogs, they are in fact a different species – they are agile frogs. These frogs can jump up to two metres in a single leap when escaping from predators

Jersey is the only place in the British Isles where agile frogs are native

Eventually we got lucky and found a small fire salamander under a log:

This salamander will have hatched this year but adult fire salamanders can grow to twenty-five centimetres and are in fact Europe’s largest salamanders. The yellow and black patterning is variable between individuals

Over the course of the week, we saw several Asian hornets flying around. We also spotted an abandoned Asian hornet nest five metres up a tree:

The week’s weather was very much better than had been forecast and we managed to spend a series of long days out in the field. Our picnic lunches were prepared by our two fantastic guides, Jason and Emilie Mitchell:

Lunch prepared in a village square with our two minibuses and our two guides. Note that lunch always included wine!

One afternoon we were shown round the medieval centre of Troyes by a city guide.

The building below was used as a local headquarters by the German army when they occupied the city during the war:

When the American Army arrived to liberate the city in 1944, the building was heavily machine-gunned and, spine chillingly, still bears those scars today:

On another afternoon, we had a tour of the cellars and bottling plant of the Drappier champagne house:

Drappier champagne is available in many sizes….

…including their largest bottle of all – a thirty litre melchisedech bottle. This bottle costs around six thousand euros and is very difficult to lift and pour but they do still sell several a year:

Jason and a melchisedech. We didn’t stretch to one of these but we did buy a magnum to take back for Christmas

The tour ended with a champagne tasting. The champagne was very enjoyable – including the ‘nature’ type, where they add no sugar so that the champagne taste is pure and not masked by the extra sweetness. We bought a bottle of that as well. But the whole experience was made all the more memorable because we were joined by old Monsieur Drappier himself – now ninety-seven, he was the person who first started making champagne rather then red wine there back in 1947. He has now safely seen in seventy-seven harvests.

Monsieur Drappier and our guide Emilie

But now to finish with the cranes. Lac du Der is also a reservoir supplying Paris and the water levels are really low in November, exposing many islands and promontories for the cranes to safely roost on.

Three villages were drowned when the valley was dammed in 1974:

Common cranes breed in Russia and surrounding countries and then migrate along a straight line south-west to spend the winter in Spain. Lac du Der has become an important stop-over point along this route where they roost in the lake basin by night and fuel up on missed potatoes lying in the nearby fields by day. The number of cranes here is variable but on 3rd November 2019 there were a record 268,120 of them there. The global population of common crane is now 700,000 birds – this is gradually increasing as a result of changes in farming practices which now supplies them with an abundance of food during the winter and along their migration routes. I do so love a good news story.

Some of our group watching the cranes fly back to the lake basin at sunset

The bird count a few days before we arrived at Lac du Der was 23,000 which was well short of the record, but there were still just so many cranes coming in to roost before dusk:

Cranes coming in

They are loud and vocal birds as they fly and the soundscape was all encompassing. We stood and watched in awe as group after group arrived and landed:

Starting to gather by the lake
One of the adults is colour-ringed here and I was able to report this sighting to iCora, the body administrating the crane ringing scheme

The juveniles, with brown rather than black, white and red heads, travel with their parents to be shown the way:

A skirmish between juveniles
The welcome sight of a group of cranes out and about in the fields during the day

Although we had thought it a good idea when we booked this holiday months ago, as the time drew near and the weather and forecast were terrible, we were not looking forward to it at all. But in fact we had a wonderful week, surrounded by Frenchness, in a lovely group of people and seeing lots of things that we had never experienced before.

Now we need to have a think about what to do next November..

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.

A Wet Week in the Lakes

You definitely have to be prepared to take the rough with the smooth when you holiday in the Lake District. Perhaps the wet and windy times only serve to make those magical good days all the more precious, but that’s something that is difficult to keep in mind when you are subjected to day after day of rain.

A walk in the Duddon Valley

We certainly had a lot of tempestuous weather last week when we returned to Sunny Bank Chapel on the western shore of Coniston Water. Instead of the walking and canoeing that we had planned, we visited historic houses and museums instead – and there are thankfully quite a few of these in the Lake District. It was still an interesting and enjoyable holiday – just not the one that we had anticipated.

Sunny Bank Chapel was our home for the week. Situated on the quiet western shores of Coniston Water, it has its own land stretching down to the lake.
The chapel’s baptismal pool had much more water in it than it did last year

The week’s weather was so awful that we only managed two proper walks. The first was in the remote Duddon Valley which took us past the romantic ruins of Frith Hall:

Frith Hall was built as a hunting lodge in the early 17th century. Later, it became an inn used by travellers on the pack horse trail to Millom and was somewhere that runaway couples came to in order to get married – in 1730 seventeen marriages were recorded there
Frith Hall ruins and the more modern barn built behind it, set in its Duddon Valley landscape
The River Duddon at Ulpha
We saw a lot of small coppers on this walk

Our second proper walk took us up into the beautiful mountains behind Coniston:

Autumnal colours everywhere
The gigantic pudding stone in front of the Old Man of Coniston
Our lunch stop at Levers Water

As we climbed, we noticed several sizeable areas on the flanks of the mountain where many sticks had been planted into the ground. More sticks were being taken down by quad bike to a group of people at work:

Stacks of thousands of sticks were still awaiting placement:

The quad bike driver told us that each stick marks where a tree is to be planted this autumn. In a few years time this part of the mountain should look very different – and with a much enhanced biodiversity and water-retaining capability as a result.

The Coniston mountains bear the scars of hundreds of years of copper mining, although all this industry ceased in the early 20th century.

This discarded rock scattered around a mine entrance was incredibly dense and heavy. We were tired after just getting ourselves up to this point and it is difficult to imagine how the miners in the 19th century did that and then spent a full day toiling down the mines
Looking down into Coppermine Valley
This building was built in 1830 in Coppermine Valley as the mine manager’s house. It was then acquired by the YHA in 1931 and became a youth hostel. I stayed there once myself as a teenager in the 70s. Although it still remains a YHA building, it is now only available to hire for exclusive use

One day we were able to make the most of a dry weather window and visit Humphrey Head, a limestone finger of land that sticks out into Morecambe Bay and is famed for its rare calcareous-loving plant life.

The information board at the entrance to Humphrey Head

It is said that this is where the last wolf in England was killed in 1390. The wolf came down from the Coniston fells just to the north where it had been killing the sheep, and attacked a child in nearby Cark. The country folk chased it to the very end of Humphrey Head where it was killed with pikes as it hid amongst the rocks. I have such a clear picture of this whole event in my head that I feel emotional about it even though it was seven hundred years ago.

The tip of Humphrey Head where it is said that the last wolf in England was killed in 1390
Limestone is a very obvious feature of Humphrey Head
We think it is very windy at home, but our trees don’t look like this
There were a few migrating wheatears there

It wasn’t the right time of year to see the rare plants for which Humphrey Head is famed in botanical circles. We did, however, see this plant that we had never seen before:

The amazing dropwort, a plant of dry limestone pasture
The dropwort in its context amongst the anthills

It was not until our last morning that it was dry and calm enough to go out on a canoe adventure:

Going down to the canoe through Sunny Bank’s fields

We were a bit shocked to see that the lake was about a metre higher than it had been when we arrived at the beginning of the week. How much rain had fallen to raise the level of such a large lake by a metre?

The bench is now in the water

We had a very enjoyable paddle to Peel Island, over towards the far side of the lake.

Hauled out on Peel Island

On the way back there was a beautiful rainbow over the Coniston mountains…

…and it had begun to rain once more as we returned to the Sunny Bank boat house:

Returning to the chapel for coffee and some dry clothes

On a day that was forecast to have heavy rain throughout, we visited Levens Hall. This is an Elizabethan house built around a 13th Century Pele Tower, but what interested me was that it has the oldest topiary gardens in the world dating back to the 1690s.

The topiary gardens at Levens Hall. The first recorded ha-ha in Britain is also here

On another day we had a walk around the gardens and estate of Sizergh Castle, now owned by the National Trust.

I love a vegetable garden:

The National Collections of four different types of fern are held at Sizergh:

The ferns were a dominant feature in the gardens:

I had no idea that there were so many different varieties of hart’s tongue fern:

As we walked around the estate, we saw this ram with a harness strapped to him that holds a coloured crayon. The ewes will be marked by the crayon as he mates with them so that the farmer knows which ones are yet to be done:

I see that it was Marrow Day yesterday at Underbarrow Village near Sizergh. I hope everyone enjoyed themselves and that it stayed dry:

It’s heart-warming to see that Cumbria Wildlife Trust is valuing the potential of churchyards with its Wildlife in Sacred Places project:

In the lobby of the Sizergh estate church

To fill another poor weather day we visited Townend in Troutbeck. This farm was owned by the Browne family for four hundred years before it passed to the National Trust in 1948.

We came across several of these traditional bank barns in the Lake District. Built on a slope, a ramp leads up to the first floor on one side. On the other side of the barn, where the land is lower, animals have access into the ground floor.

The Townend bank barn showing its ramp up to the first floor

Townend was incredibly atmospheric, especially on such a dark, wet day. The smell of woodsmoke and the lighting kept low as if the house were still candlelit helped the imagination conjure up how life must have been.

All the furniture at Townend is as it was when the Trust acquired the house. This is the quirky kitchen. The glass vase was filled with water to magnify the light of a candle when doing detailed work such as embroidery

One evening we had hired the badger-watching hide at RSPB Naddle Farm at Haweswater and we decided to get ourselves over the Kirkstone Pass and spend the day in the Penrith area, within easy reach of Haweswater for our scheduled 7pm arrival at the hide.

There had been a tremendous storm the day before and water was dramatically tumbling off the mountains:

Water gushing into Ullswater at Glenridding

We stopped at Brougham Castle, a 13th century castle built by the English to guard the old border with Scotland and now owned by English Heritage.

The River Eamont was in spate after the storm
The keep at Brougham (pronounced Broom) Castle.

We also visited the impressive Mayburgh Henge but I’m afraid my photos just don’t do it justice. It is like an amphitheatre with a diameter of a hundred metres and with walls up to five metres high, built from millions of boulders from the nearby river. Thought to be about 4,500 years old, its significance to prehistoric people is not properly understood but, even today when it is slap bang next to the M6 motorway, it has a very special feel to it.

There used to be four standing stones in the centre but now there is just one
Using the dramatic filter on my camera seems to help with archaeological sites

Long Meg and her daughters is another prehistoric wonder near Penrith and is the third widest stone circle in England with a diameter of 100 metres. Long Meg herself stands outside the circle and is made of local red sandstone whereas her daughters are granitic.

It is thought that there would originally have been 70 daughters, although there are now 59, only 27 of which are still standing
Long Meg standing to one side, watching over her daughters

We had spent a very entertaining day exploring historic wonders around Penrith but we got a call from the RSPB telling us that access to the badger-watching hide was impossible after the storm of the night before. This was disappointing but we will try again and hope that for our next Lake District holiday we are a bit luckier with the weather.

Another earlier post about the Lake District – in a much drier September:

Meadows Amongst The Trees

A few weeks ago we walked around our wood with Dan Tuson, Conservation Advisor for Natural England in East Kent. He works with farmers to restore biodiversity to their land and is now meeting up with wood owners as well to advise on woodland management that can enhance that work. We have also recently attended an interesting ‘Pollinators in Woodland’ zoom talk given by the Bumblebee Conservation Trust.

The result of both of these is that we are now starting to establish some mini flower meadows in clearings within our wood.

We do already have one of these clearings. In the regenerating section of the wood there is a large glade where marjoram grows densely and which is filled with butterflies, bees, flies and bugs each summer.

Peacocks were particulary abundant in the marjoram glade this year. Their larval food plant is the nettle and these grow lavishly in another area of the wood where pheasants were once fed and phosphate levels are high
But the headline act of the marjoram glade is the silver-washed fritillary, a large woodland butterfly that glides in and takes your breath away

Now into September, the marjoram flowers are going over. Once the seed fully ripens and goes black, we will be harvesting it to spread onto the ground in other areas of the wood.

Marjoram now setting seed

Last winter we cleared this area below, which is quite close to the marjoram glade:

Breaking up the surface of the soil with a rake prior to seeding

The sun is now hitting the woodland floor there but the understorey is yet to develop, so we raked the soil surface and scattered an Emorsgate native wild flower seed mix:

Emorsgate ‘Wild Flowers for Woodland’ contains the seeds of thirteen different woodland plant species

There is a third area that was coppiced two years ago and the undergrowth has now started to grow back. But some patches do still remain clear and we scattered foxglove and kidney vetch seed in these unvegetated sections:

The idea is to create insect-rich pockets within the trees, each an oasis for pollinators and boosting the biodiversity of the wood.

The easiest way to get a glade of sufficient size so that the sun hits the floor and flowers can grow is to widen an existing ride, thus incorporating the space that is already cleared. There are several such tracks winding through the wood that we could use. This is the track that leads down to where we park the car

We are going to be working on some more coppicing this winter and will then again sow flower seed in the newly opened-up areas. I am really interested to see what this will all look like next year.

The wood definitely has an end-of-season air about it now. It was exciting to see a weasel on the cameras this week:

The long body of a weasel approaching the pond
Buzzard having a drink
Squirrel with a hazelnut in its mouth
A beautiful tawny owl with its large black eyes
Juvenile bullfinch are still being seen around the wood

Across in the meadows, the bird ringers have once more put their nets up high in an attempt to catch linnets:

The mist nets up high for linnets. Thankfully the dog has never yet been caught in the nets

One of the ringers had caught a grasshopper warbler in the area a few days previously and so a grasshopper warbler net was also set up – a low one mostly hidden amongst the high grasses and with the distinctive song of the grasshopper warbler playing at one end. These birds sound very much like grasshoppers.

The low grasshopper warbler net

No linnet or grasshopper warbler was caught that morning, but they did get a large number of house sparrows. Sparrows are usually very good at avoiding the nets and they have never caught such numbers of them before:

A flock of sparrows is once more visiting the seed on the strip

Most of the sparrows were young birds and I was given a tutorial on post-juvenile feather moult. The moulting of the wing feathers begins at the point where the primaries meet the secondaries and works out from there in both directions. This bird below had five smart new primary wing feathers but the secondaries were still the old ones:

A lot of the sparrows had ticks on their heads:

John’s hand is showing the telltale sign that these birds have been eating blackberries

I did some research on bird ticks and discovered that they are most likely to be engorged nymphs of the castor bean tick (Ixodes ricinus).

The two ticks on the left are the larvae of the caster bean tick (the lower one is engorged with a blood feed). The next two are the nymphs and the three on the right are the adults (male, female and engorged). The adult ticks are almost never found on birds but feed on larger mammals. Photo from Wiki Commons.

This is most probably a house sparrow in the beak of the magpie:

Most evenings we have been hearing tawny owls calling from a pine tree close to the house soon after dark – both a male and a female. They have also been appearing on this perch:

One night an owl sat on the perch for an hour and a half and did a lot of personal grooming:

Sparrowhawks are often being seen on the same perch:

A sparrowhawk choirboy

I have cropped these next two photographs by exactly the same amount to give a true sense of the difference in scale. One morning a sparrowhawk was sitting on the perch:

But thirty seconds later it had been replaced by a much, much bigger bird:

We have seen buzzards flying above the meadows before but never before has one appeared on the trail cameras. I have put the two photos next to each other to compare the size:

Slide the line left and right to compare the sizes!

There has been a marked increase in rabbit numbers here this year and I wonder if this has attracted the buzzard’s interest:

Our front lawn is once more covered in autumn ladies tresses, small and delicate orchids with tiny white flowers spiralling up the stem:

The builders have instructions not to tread on the lawn! They have been making progress on our new garage and utility room and the ‘shoulders down’ team have now returned to begin work on the landscaping around the new structures:

The ‘shoulders down’ team at work

Back in February they built us a butterfly bank using the chalky soil dug out for the foundations of the new garage:

The butterfly bank in July

This week they have built us two more banks using more excess chalky soil as they start to clear up their builders compound prior to the completion of the project:

Another chalky butterfly bank under construction

One of the new banks has broken roof tiles, another by-product of the build, as a core. The hope is that reptiles will burrow into the bank and hibernate amongst the crevices of the tiles:

The tiles that are about to be buried by soil
The other new bank, with the original bank in the background

Both of these new banks will be liberally spread with both native annual and perennial flower seed this autumn and should look fabulous next year as well as being a great asset for pollinators – we did spot the rare black mining bee visiting flowers on the original bank this summer. The curved slopes of the banks will also present a wide range of different aspects to the sun and will hopefully be used by a variety of invertebrates and other animals to dig burrows to nest and hibernate.

We have had visitors this week and we all went canoeing on the River Stour between Fordwich and Grove Ferry – a stretch of water where 140 beaver are now thought to live:

A Canoe Wild map at the launch point at Fordwich. Can there really now be so many beavers living in this five mile section of river?

It is a beautiful and tranquil stretch of river, teeming with fish.

We didn’t see any beaver out during the day but we did see lots of signs of their activity.

A trip on the Stour is an absolute must should you ever find yourself in East Kent.

Looking Up

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

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

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

Linnets on the wing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I have never seen two sparrowhawks together before:

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

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

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

There are also Roesels Bush-crickets here:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

28th August 2020

British Bank Holiday weekends often fail to deliver!

Nuthatch Delight

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Walmer Castle gardens this week

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

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

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

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

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

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

Coming in to land
Ringed on her right leg

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

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

The male wood pigeon doing a courtship bow

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jersey tiger

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

Common blue on cornflower

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

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

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

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

A few photos taken at the woodland ponds this week:

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

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

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

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

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

Making Green Hay While the Sun Shines

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pond skaters are mating at the pond as well.. are gatekeeper butterflies in the hedgerows:

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

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

Photo from last week

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

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

A kite-tailed robberfly has caught itself a fly:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A nice photo of a pair of our resident foxes:

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

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

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

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

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