A Bird In The Hand

After weeks of wearying north-easterly winds, there has finally been a shift to south-westerlies, bringing with them some much needed rain. One night this week there was a storm with wild gale-force gusts battering the meadows for several hours.

On two of the calmer mornings, the bird ringers swung into action. They were particularly targeting Yellowhammer and they caught seven of them. It is such a privilege to be able to see these birds up close when in the hand:

Male Yellowhammer
Female Yellowhammer
Male Linnet
Female Linnet
Female Starling. She has a brown iris whereas a male’s eye would be all black. Also, at this time of year, the base of her beak is buffish and a male’s would be pale blue
A very smart male House Sparrow
A male Whitethroat. At this point, the only way they knew he was male was because he sang as he was released back into the hedgerow

Over the long Covid winter, we watched a lot of natural history Zoom talks, including two given by the Kent Bat Group. Although we still don’t know much about Bats, we did learn that they sometimes use log piles to roost in during the summer – yet another user of log piles that we hadn’t previously considered. There is a ready supply of logs from the wood and so, whenever there is space in the car, some are brought back to enhance the meadow habitat. One of our sons visited recently and he was put to work helping to build a log feature right at the end of the second meadow.

As well as being good habitat and shelter, I think this is also a thing of beauty.

The trolley that is being used to carry the logs is new and is already proving itself indispensable – the dog hurt her leg and it was converted into a temporary invalid carriage for our pampered princess.

There are two projects underway at the moment for our summer visitors. Across the country, Swifts are now returning and it is time to once again turn on the loud Swift calls. Our other son built us a sound system which plays the calls up into the sky to bring in passing Swifts so that they notice the nest box that we have on the side of the house. Over the last two summers this has been very successful in attracting in Swifts to the box but they have not yet nested here and we are hoping that this will be the year.

The good news is that we could still remember how to rig up the sound system and that it is working. But the bad news is that we failed to get round to putting polystyrene bungs into the nest box entrances to stop other birds nesting in it before the Swifts return. This has turned out to be a significant error because we noticed that House Sparrows are already nesting in both sides of the box.

The male House Sparrow of the pair that are nesting in the right hand side of the Swift box. Another pair is nesting in the left hand side as well. House Sparrows are red listed birds and we are pleased to have them nesting in the meadows but we really wanted Swifts in this box. We do have Sparrow nesting boxes elsewhere for them, in which, of course, they are showing no interest.

We decided that rather than giving up on the Swift project for this year, we would take decisive action and buy two more Swift boxes with express delivery and get them up as fast as possible to try to retrieve the situation.

Two new Swift boxes arrived and waiting to go up

The second project for summer visitors is the scattering of supplementary seed onto the rotavated strip of meadow in an attempt to attract and support Turtle Doves. By spreading the seed thinly and widely, Wood Pigeon and Stock Doves are now spending a lot of the day pecking over the area and it is these birds that will hopefully interest the Turtle Dove enough to come down and see what all the fuss is about.

The pair of Grey Partridge and many other birds are also enjoying the seed:

We have now seen Swallows and House Martins, and a visiting daughter spotted a single Swift fly over the meadows. So we went down to our local chalk cliffs this week to see if the House Martins that nest on the cliffs there had arrived. But they were still not to be seen and actually neither were the Kestrels in evidence, although presumably they are quietly sitting on eggs tucked away in holes in the rock. We were very pleased to spot this female Wheatear though:

This image is digiscoped and is much sharper than the ones I managed with my camera

And the Fulmars were noisily carrying on as normal:

The Herring Gull pair in the meadows have now started collecting nesting material. I wonder where they are nesting? I am not aware of any Herring Gull nests in the area:

Blackbirds are still building their nests as well:

And the Crows are also nest building. A couple of the houses down on the seafront are having building works at the moment and it looks like the Crows are purloining their roof insulation. I have had a lot of similar Crow-with-roof-insulation photos this week:

I would also love to know where the Tawny Owls are nesting…

Enviable neck flexibility

…and if the pair of Kestrels we see here are the ones nesting in the nearby white cliffs:

Male

This looks like Stock Dove courtship to me, but it seems that he is failing to impress:

Other photos this week from the meadows:

You can just make out that this Sparrowhawk is holding prey in its right talon
Sparrowhawks like to hunt from this gate
Willow Warbler passing through to places further north and west to breed.
The Old Gentleman is in heavy moult and is looking even more of a wreck than normal
I get the chance to have a very good look at him most evenings
These two vixen look very comfortable with each other. I recognise them both – the one-eyed vixen with her blind left eye is on the left and the other Fox with the starey eyes is the one that I recently treated for mange.
The one-eyed vixen
The starey-eyed vixen
The same two Foxes at peanut time with a Badger
The handsome male Fox, distinguishable by the downturn of the end of his tail
Badgers and Foxes are never at ease with each other. I could feel the tension in this video
We have found another place where a Song Thrush has been bashing snails open on stones.
The caterpillar of the Yellow-Tail Moth on Alder Buckthorn. This species spends the winter as a caterpillar, but tucked within a silken refuge until April. It can then afford to feed out in the open because of those irritant hairs.
We saw a Painted Lady in the meadows this morning. All the Painted Ladies that are still in the UK at the onset of winter do not survive and so, every year, the country is repopulated by migrants flying in across the Channel
Woodlouse shedding its exoskeleton. It moults in two stages. First the back half is shed and then, a day or two later, the front half falls off as is happening here
Euleia heraclei, a picture-winged fly
Mating Craneflies, Tipula vernalis. The more fleshy female is above and she will go on the lay her eggs in the soil which will grow into leather jackets, beloved of Starlings and many other birds
We are having a particularly stupendous year for apple blossom in the orchard this year

In the wood, I do now think that Green Woodpeckers are nesting again this year in the cherry tree hole:

The female with a black moustachial stripe
The male with red in his moustache

At the moment we have a roving camera in the wood. On every visit, we move it on to a different nest box to see what birds are nesting in it. We are hoping for Marsh Tits, but so far are almost exclusively getting Great tits.

This box is in the new section of the wood:

Great Tit taking moss into the box
There were many photos taken of Great Tits going in and out of the box
But also several visits by a pair of Blue Tits over the few days that the camera was on this box. I suppose the Blue Tits are still prospecting for nest sites and seeing if this one was available. We shall have to put more boxes up for next spring.

This is a different box but it also had Great Tits nesting in it:

Having determined that there was no adult around, we peeked inside the box and found nine lovely warm eggs:

There are Marsh Tits in the wood and they do apparently use nest boxes and so we will continue to move the camera around all of the eighteen small boxes just in case.

As the meadows roll through the year, waves of different plants come to prominence and then fade back as another one has its day. This all kicks off with the Buttercups and these are starting to build to their beautiful crescendo right now:

At the same time there is another unstated yellow plant flowering, Black Medick. It might be small and easily overlooked next to the showy Buttercups but it is a heavy-weight for the insects.

Green Hairstreak on Black Medick

Our trips round the meadows are starting to take so long, surrounded as we now are with all this wonderful blossoming nature at long last. Today, we didn’t even need our coats!

A Murder Most Foul

There are many suggestions as to why the collective noun for Crows is a murder but, after the events of this week, we have our own ideas.

There has been a sustained, vigorous and noisy turf war amongst Crows being fought in the skies above us for several weeks now. Some days ago, I intervened to break up a lynching where three Crows had a fourth pinned to the ground as they set about attacking it. This has now culminated in finding a dead Crow lying on the grass, having almost certainly been pecked to death by a mob of its own kind. Surely a murder of Crows.

We put a camera on the dead bird and saw that other Crows kept visiting the carcass over the next couple of hours to further jab at it and pull it around.

Eventually, as dusk started the draw in, a Fox took the bird away. Things have been very much quieter since then and so perhaps that was the last battle in the long war and the matter is now irrevocably settled.

A Crow has found a honey sandwich that had been overlooked by the Foxes and is dunking it in water to soften it

Every day the pair of Herring Gull are waiting for us as we arrive and we are charmed by the companionable chuckling noise they make to each other. One morning we arrived unexpectedly early before the gulls were there, but the male soon spotted us and flew in from wherever he had been hanging out.

The cages are all askew because they have been rearranged by Badgers overnight

Once landed, he threw back his head and made that loud, characteristic ha-ha-ha-ha cry that Herring Gulls make. This was clearly to let his mate know that we had arrived and were about to dispense seed, because very quickly she joined him from the other side of the hedgerow. It was so heart-warming to see how they look out for each other like that.

The females is colour-ringed

My friend the Old Gentleman Fox isn’t much around at the moment but there are generally three other Foxes now waiting for the peanuts and sandwiches each evening, all probably having to provision cubs at this time of year.

The Fox on the left is the one that I have recently treated for mange. The One Eyed Vixen is in the foreground and I see that she has mange again now, for goodness sake. The Fox at the back is a very handsome fellow

The handsome Fox has a bit of a lion’s mane and lovely black paws:

An atmospheric Fox photo early one morning
A nice Fox stretch

Here are some other photos from the meadows taken over the course of this week:

Still no Badger cubs in the meadows, or actually the woods either, but we are seeing adults out and about in daylight much more as the days get longer
Four Slow Worms of assorted ages, heating up under a reptile sampling square
I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times we have seen a Hedgehog in the six years we have been here
Adult and young Rat that appear to be living down the Badger tunnel which feels like a stupid decision but seems to be working for them
Mating Crane flies
A Wren taking wool for its nest
Another Blackbird nest is under construction in the meadows. The females build the nest alone
Tawny Owl flying the meadows at night
The pair of Grey Partridge are still going strong and its lovely to see them
Mating Woodpigeon
Song Thrush preparing to bash this snail against the flint stones to break it open

May is prime orchid time and we hope to get out and about this month to visit some of the fantastic orchid sites of East Kent. In the meantime, an Early Spider Orchid has appeared on our lawn to whet our appetites:

Cowslips are at their very best in the meadows at the moment:

And the Apple trees are blossoming in the orchard, showing all those exquisite shades of pink:

Spear Thistles form enormous rosettes in the grass

The only orchids we have ever found in the wood is a little group of Twayblades but this colony seems to be thriving:

Our wood is fantastic for Primroses but less so for Bluebells and it is not carpeted in them as some woods are. It does have a few, however:

My brother, who lives in North Somerset, sent me a photo of a Purple Gromwell that he saw there in his local woods and I include it here because it is such a rare and special plant and one that used to grow in Kent. But it no longer does and it is now only to be found on the limestone of the Mendips, South Devon and parts of Wales:

Back in our wood, both Great Spotted and Green Woodpeckers seem to be inspecting the hole in a cherry tree, although I don’t think either are visiting often enough to be actually nesting there. I thought that Great Spotted Woodpeckers never used the same hole twice and so I am surprised at their interest in it:

The male Great Spotted Woodpecker is in the hole looking out, while the female approaches
Green Woodpeckers were looking in this hole on several occasions this week
The camera also just caught a confrontation between the Green Woodpecker and a Squirrel further down the tree

Great Tit and Blue Tit having a fight:

And another Blackbird nest is being built in the wood:

What a glorious time of year it is in the allotment, full of promise and with the rhubarb starting to poke up above the ground. This is perfect timing just as we are reaching the last bag of last year’s roasted rhubarb in the freezer.

Historically, juggling freezer space has always been stressful as the gluts of fruits and vegetables are harvested over the course of the year. But we hope that this problem has now been solved by installing an additional freezer in the hide, and we are looking forward to it being packed to capacity with home grown goodness. It is difficult to beat a gooseberry crumble in January, lighting up those short, dark days with memories of a sun-soaked summer.

The Summer To Come

For the first time in a long while, both of us were away from the meadows one night this week meaning that no peanuts and sandwiches were put out at dusk. It twangs my heart strings to see on the cameras that, as we were happily drinking wine in our son’s Berkshire garden at dusk, there was a little gathering of Foxes back in Kent waiting for their sandwiches which never arrived. I wonder how long they were lingering and hoping before they gave up?

But, by the next night, I was back on duty and normal service had resumed.

Five minutes after I had scattered the peanuts and retreated. Surely that Magpie is not thinking of coming down to the ground amongst five Foxes?

There is a long-ago but just remembered way of living where it was possible to go away on holiday and such fabled days are rumoured to be returning soon. These animals have become rather indulged over lockdown and I need to ready them so that I can leave the meadows this summer with a clearer conscience.

We have had yet another week of cold north-easterly winds blowing in off the sea that continues to slow down the onward march of spring, although we have seen Green Hairstreak and Small Copper Butterflies newly out this week. Two mornings were foggy, with the Dover foghorn atmospherically sounding through the mist up from the south.

The Herring Gull pair in the fog

But what fun we have been having with a wool dispenser that we put out in the meadows with a camera on it. Crows and Blue Tits are still pulling out nesting material:

And now Great Tits have started as well. The wool is a mixture of different colours and I was interested to see that the Great Tits were selecting the darker hues:

The summer visitors will be arriving and starting to build nests soon and maybe they too will use this dispenser.

A House Sparrow with a feather suggests that they are also busy finishing off a nest somewhere:

And Magpies have been building nests for weeks:

Song Thrushes appear on the cameras every day:

But this week we found a Song Thrush’s anvil – a stone used by the bird to smash open snail shells:

Then, this morning, we have found a second anvil, still wet with snail juice. The bird had used a stone that was securing a camera’s tripod legs to stop it blowing over:

When I looked at the pictures taken by that particular camera, it had captured the moment the Thrush found the snail:

I subscribe to Birdguide alert emails which tell me that a few Turtle Doves have started arriving in Kent. Bags of special Turtle Dove seed have been delivered from the RSPB and Operation Turtle Dove to be put out on the rotavated strip for eight weeks from the beginning of May. The hope is that the seed will attract in Pigeons and Doves as an advertisement to a passing Turtle Dove that this is a great place to be. Should they decide to come down and take a closer look, the supplementary seed will then help them feed up and get back into breeding condition quickly after their migration.

Turtle Dove seed arrives for our fourth year of Operation Turtle Dove. One additional bag still expected
A group of Stock Dove. Now that Turtle Doves have started arriving, I’m going to have to take better care to check out all of the Doves as I go through the trail camera footage.
Collared Dove

This photo gave me a bit of a shock when I downloaded it off the camera. Perhaps the prey she has got is a partly plucked Blackbird?

Sparrowhawk with prey
Bedraggled Jay after a bath
One of the Crows here with a very distinctive domed head. Crow wars are still continuing unabated.
The dome-headed Crow and his mate
Sweet Rats drinking
I was pleased to find such a beautifully marked small fly. It is one of the picture-winged flies, Tephritis neesii
A gorgeous female Tawny Mining Bee. We have identified several of their nests around the meadows now.
There are ten species of Pond Skater in the UK, some of which are difficult to tell apart. These are possibly the long-winged form of the Common Pond Skater, Gerris lacustris
Green Hairstreak on Alexander seen for the first time this year
Walking amongst a forest of Alexanders. We have operated a zero tolerance policy on Ragwort for several years and last year we also started controlling Wild Parsnip with its irritant sap that was spreading alarmingly. This spring we have additionally been hitting Alexanders hard because it is a worryingly successful plant at propagating itself. Its flowers are very popular with insects though and so the ideal time to remove the plants is after the flowers fade but before the seeds set.

It was also foggy in the wood this week. On three different occasions the Buzzard was perching in this exact spot at the top of this photo. This is near the feeders and so I wonder if it is waiting for Pheasants and Squirrels?

The magnificent bird then visited one of the shallow baths but found it dried up:

But it did find water in this deeper pond and twice came to bathe this week:

There have been more amusing Jay bathing photos in the wood as well. They don’t seem very waterproof:

This Chiffchaff is probably a newly arrived summer visitor…..

…but all of the winter visitors are yet to leave. The Woodcock have gone but this Redwing is still here, although perhaps it is waiting for its northern breeding grounds to warm up a bit more before it starts on its way.

For more or less the whole of April I have been on tenterhooks awaiting the arrival of this year’s baby Badgers above ground. Yet here we now are at the 24th and still they have not been glimpsed. In previous years we have had clues as to their existence – some years the mother carries her young above ground to a different burrow and in every previous year I have caught sight of the mother’s undercarriage at some point and seen signs of lactation. This year there has been nothing and I am now wondering if perhaps there are no young. After all, the family had four youngsters last year and maybe they need a rest.

But then again, they could be waiting until this cold wind finally stops blowing. In the meantime, I am really enjoying the allotment. The Tulips grown as cut flowers are ready to bring into the house, and also to give to visitors to spread the joy.

Our daughter’s wedding, postponed from last June, is now going ahead on a very much smaller scale this summer with the reception hopefully being held here in an open sided marquee. This is a big incentive to keep on top of everything to try to get the meadows, allotment and garden looking at their absolute best for then. My big worry is not so much rain as the wind, but we will have to wait and see.

Broken Tiles and Blossoming Spring

Our house has Kent peg tiles hanging on parts of its outside walls. These are getting old and every so often, rather depressingly, one crumbles and drops off. It is happening on the roof too – at some point in the future we shall have to take action.

A couple of missing tiles on the walls

However, the loss of a tile might be a heart sink for us but good news for a bat or a bird looking for somewhere to roost.

The loss of this tile has created a sheltered dark nook within the wall

We spotted one place in particular that looks like it’s been used as a roost over the winter:

All that guano is reminiscent of the teapot nest box in the garden in which a Wren has been roosting on cold nights throughout this past winter. When letting the dog out last thing at night, we could flick the torch over the box and see the bird snuggled cosily within.

The box is wrapped in a bubble of chicken wire as protection against Magpies should a Wren or Robin ever decide to nest properly in there. Such an open nest is asking for trouble in these parts.
The Wren leaving the teapot at dawn back in February

Other news from the roof is that a male House Sparrow is starting to perch on it and cheep very loudly and insistently. He has chosen to do this in exactly the same spot as last year, close to the House Martin nest, and he is now hoping to attract a female’s attention and interest her in nesting in it with him. Sparrows have nested in there for the last couple of years and it looks like they might be doing so again this year.

While we were in the garden, our noses led us to a dead Fox lying at the back of a border. Although Foxes in captivity can live for fourteen years, the life expectancy in the wild is a meagre one to three years. So there will have been many deaths in the six years we have been here, nearly all of which we are blissfully unaware of.

Moving the dead Fox somewhere more out of the way to lie in peace
The pretty Fox that I have just finished treating for the mange on her tail. Hopefully fur will be growing back before too long and she’ll have several more years ahead of her
I can’t make out what prey item this Fox is carrying but I do hope that it isn’t one of the Grey Partridge
Digging is thirsty work
Still no baby Badgers above ground but a lot of adult Badger activity

We are so enjoying getting to know the pair of Herring Gulls that have adopted the meadows as their own. They have earned themselves the nickname of The Chuckle Brothers because of the noise that they make as they wait up near the feeding cages each morning.

The Chuckle Brothers in a dramatic pose

This week their courtship and mating was caught on camera:

This photo confirms that the colour-ringed gull GR94467 is indeed a female

I read that Herring Gull nest building begins in early May – I wonder where that will be? I do so hope that it is not on the roof of our house.

The meadows are a site of a Crow civil war at the moment. Vigorous cawing and vicious aerial skirmishes are occuring from early dawn to deep dusk. At one point there was a murderous lynching down on the grass and I ran at the birds full pelt to break it up, not being able to just stand and observe such a thing. We do not completely understand what is going on but there still is at least one pair building a nest and they continue to visit the wool dispenser that we set up for them:

Crow taking wool
Blue Tits are also regularly visiting to collect wool for their nests

This photo of a Starling with a feather in its beak is evidence that they too are nesting:

There is a little band of six of them in the meadows at the moment

We found this beautiful Blackbird egg lying in the grass up on the strip. It was undamaged but cold and we presume we must have interrupted a nest predation. We suspect Magpies, especially since we subsequently found the broken shell under their nest.

But, down by the Badger sett, a female Blackbird is busy building another nest which hopefully the Magpies will not find:

Still no evidence of Yellowhammer breeding yet, despite positioning cameras in key locations.

Yellowhammer telling off a House Sparrow

It’s lovely to think of Tawny Owls flying around the meadows at night. We often hear but rarely see them, although this one landed briefly on the ant paddock perch. I would love to know where they are breeding.

We went down to the local cliffs to see if the House Martins had arrived yet – this is one of the rare places in Britain that House Martins use natural nest sites.

The local white cliffs with a disused Marines firing range built onto reclaimed land below

The House Martins had still not arrived there. But I am sure that this cold north-easterly wind that has been blowing for so many days now must not be helping – any birds coming up from Africa would have to fly against it

A frost one morning this week

Last summer I was following the fortunes of two magnificent Wasp Spiders who had built their webs close to each other out in the meadows.

At the end of the summer, the ladies disappeared off their webs to build egg cocoons nearby and during the winter we found several of these cocoons in the uncut areas of the meadows. They were surprisingly large with a diameter of 3-4cm:

We rediscovered one again this week. It was looking decidedly worse for wear by this point and actually at first we thought it was empty:

But, on closer inspection, there were hundreds of little spiderlings gathered within a web towards the apex. I didn’t want to prise the web apart to get a better picture because this would then leave them vulnerable but hopefully you can make them out. They were all slowly moving around.

I will check again on them in a week to see how they are getting on and I might be able to get a better photo as they get bigger.

This is the first time that we have ever seen a Treecreeper at the wood:

Treecreepers are common but elusive woodland birds who work their way up the trunks of trees, looking for spiders and insects tucked away in the bark.

Internet photo of a Treecreeper. It has stiffened tail feathers, a curved beak and adapted toes and claws to facilitate climbing up tree trunks and prising invertebrates from bark crevices. The bird can’t go downwards again very well so, once it gets to the top of a tree, it flies down to the bottom to start again.

It seems odd that we have never seen Treecreepers at the ponds in the woods before, even at the height of the summer droughts. It is really only when is it so dry that we have seen Tawny Owls coming in for a drink and a bath, but surprisingly here was one this week:

Also in the wood this week:

This Squirrel is all shoulder blades and hips
I love the way that Jays put their crests up when they bathe
Sparrowhawks always look so fierce
Green Woodpeckers are still occasionally visiting the hole in the Cherry tree but not often enough to be nesting

April is an all-round lovely month and the Blackthorn is flowering in the meadows.

We went for the full blossom experience this week when we had a picnic under the cherry trees at Brogdale, the home of the National Collection of temperate fruit trees, nearby at Faversham.

Socially distanced picnic squares under the mature cherry trees. We had the place to ourselves, however.

Gorgeous snowy-white blossom, but shame about the bitter north-easterly wind.

Pairing and Nesting

This week I went to visit my father in Berkshire and took the opportunity to go birding at Little Marlow Gravel Pit with a friend and fellow nature enthusiast. Before this pandemic, we used to get ourselves along there reasonably often but this was only the second time we had managed it since Covid forcefully rampaged its way into all of our lives over a year ago. To our absolute delight, the lake was covered with several hundred swooping Sand Martins, Swallows and a few House Martins. They had arrived!

If House Martins were already inland at a gravel pit in the Home Counties, then perhaps they had also arrived at our chalk cliffs here on the coast in East Kent. Once I had returned home, we sallied forth from the meadows to take a look.

But I can report that the House Martins have not arrived here yet. However, we spent a contented hour watching the Fulmars and Jackdaws that are already nesting in the holes in the rock. We set the birding scope up under this particular fissure which had two Fulmar nests and four Jackdaw nests along its length and watched the birds come and go.

Fulmars are tubenosed seabirds related to Albatrosses and feel like very special birds indeed
What fantastic eyes Jackdaws have

The Jackdaws were busy going in and out of their nest holes with mud.

There has been nesting activity going on in the meadows as well:

Crows still collecting wool
Dunnock with a stick
Chaffinch with nesting material in her beak

I am seeing Yellowhammers now on various cameras around the meadow but have yet to see concrete evidence of nesting. Actually, we have gone a bit over-the-top in this regard and have three cameras positioned along a particular hedge that we thought a pair of Yellowhammer nested in last year, hoping to see some signs.

Yellowhammer in the ant paddock, next to the hedgerow that we have under close observation.

Meanwhile, up on the strip:

Yellowhammer, Linnets and House Sparrows. All red-listed birds being of the utmost conservation concern
We do now have some Starlings that seem to be here to breed – another red listed bird
What an amazing head angle

Tensions have been running high amongst male birds. We saw two Robins locked in mortal combat and these two male Blackbirds were captured on a video having a pitch battle:

Chaffinch were also fighting in the wood:

The Blackthorn is out in its full glory in the meadows:

Chiffchaff amongst the Blackthorn
The Herring Gull is another red listed bird and this pair have become very used to our routine and await our arrival every morning up at the feeding cages. They have different head shapes and are slightly different sizes and characters and I can now easily tell them apart without having to look for the colour ring on the female’s leg.
There is also a pair of delicate Collared Dove that are now regulars up at the feeding site
I thought that this blurry image in the middle of the night is the only photo I have to show you of a Tawny Owl in the meadows in recent weeks…
…but then I noticed this on one of the videos
This Magpie looks self-conscious about the state it has got itself into
Two of the three Crows that have made the meadows their territory
We are also definitely in the territory of this male Sparrowhawk
I am still seeing Redwings on the camera in both in the meadows and here in the wood
I haven’t really forgiven the Grey Squirrels in the wood for the damage they did to so many beautiful Beech trees last summer and I have mixed emotions when I see this photo
We hear a lot about Beavers being ecosystem engineers but Badgers, too, play their part – their digging activity creates opportunities for many other species of both plants and animals. Here is a group of House Sparrows dust bathing in the spoil of the new tunnel coming up into the meadows
I have now finished the week’s course of medicated honey sandwiches to treat this Fox for the mange she probably has on her tail. It is now a question of waiting to see if we can see fur growing back in due course.
Here she is having a bit of an altercation with a Badger
No baby Badgers have been seen yet this year but lots of activity amongst the adults
The moth-eaten Old Gentleman , demonstrating how he has earned his name
And on to another disreputable canine. The dog still goes over the gates that we are keeping resolutely closed to stop her going into the second meadow without us
We have always struggled with blanket weed in the hide pond. Since it was finished a few years ago, only rainwater has ever gone into it. But the problem was that it was initially filled with tap water which contains too many nutrients, beloved of blanket weed. This is a depressing photo – the blanket weed dies back over the winter, but here it is again, starting to grow in the left hand side of the pond which is the side that gets more sun. Soon it will have advanced to cover the entire pond. However, this pond does still heave with life, seemingly unaffected by the weed.

I found one of my favourite bees, a female Tawny Mining Bee. She’s a beauty with her fox-red thorax and marmalade abdomen.

She digs a vertical shaft nest down into the earth, 20-30cm deep with several brood chambers branching off it. She then fills these chambers with a mixture of nectar and pollen and lays a single egg into each. The egg hatches and the larva eats the food that she has provided for it until it pupates for the winter. The new adult bees will emerge next spring.

I think this small volcano in the ground could well be the nest of a Tawny Mining Bee.

However, it has been cold and overcast ever since we found it and so the bee has been inactive.

Yet again back to full winter gear with a cold north-easterly wind and rain

The late arriving news this morning is that, hurray, the sun has come out and, up at the bee tunnel, the bee could just be seen at the entrance:

It was then a question of sitting quietly until she emerged:

I can now confirm that it is indeed a Tawny Mining Bee nest

We can glimpse Walmer Castle from the meadows and this weekend they are flying their flag at half mast. We too have ours at half mast as a mark of respect for the husband of our Queen who so very nearly reached his hundredth birthday.

Easter in the Meadows

We have been spending some of this Easter weekend sheltering in a gazebo in the garden to reacquaint ourselves with our children. The weather has been cold and windy but it has been lovely to see some of them in person again after what feels like a very long haul.

As we walked down under our local chalk cliffs this week, we saw that Kestrels have started nesting in their accustomed cavern in the rock:

There was a second Kestrel nest as well last year, but it looks like this might have Stock Doves now:

Our meadows are not far away and we frequently see a pair of Kestrels here. I would love to know if these are the same birds that are nesting at the cliff. We sometimes meet a nature photographer who photographs the birds of the cliff and I have now asked him to keep an eye out for our female since she is ringed and distinctive.

The male Kestrel in the meadows this week

We also see Sparrowhawks in the meadows but have no idea where they nest either:

Male Sparrowhawk this week

In fact, we haven’t ever found a raptor nest in the vicinity of the meadows. Or in the woods either, although there was a Buzzard nest there the summer before we arrived that hasn’t subsequently been reused.

I am envious of my sister who lives in Berkshire and has a pair of Red Kites nesting next door. She is enjoying seeing them flying around her garden and has dusted off her camera to send me this photo:

The iconic Red Kite silhouette

Although we occasionally see Red Kites here in East Kent, they haven’t started nesting yet although hopefully it is just a matter of time.

Perhaps we don’t have raptor nests here but we definitely have nesting corvids nearby. Ever alert to interesting or entertaining new camera positions, we stuffed a wire cage with the some wool packaging and put a camera on it to see if any birds would take some as nesting material:

Crows taking the wool

We also have Magpies nesting in a Holm Oak. I feel that Magpies are doing just too well around here and try not to encourage them if I can help it. Seeing this group of seven of them this week only serves to increase my feeling of unease about them:

I try to put the sandwiches and peanuts out for the Foxes and Badgers at a heavy dusk when birds might be expected to have roosted for the night. I was a bit too early here, though, because I was feeling sorry for how long the Old Gentleman had been waiting for me:

The Old Gentleman Fox

Magpies can and do fly in extremely low light. I am always really cross when I see them get a sandwich.

On Good Friday, I decided to start putting medicated honey sandwiches out to treat this pretty vixen who probably has mange on her tail. My thinking is that I will act fast before she has a chance to infect other of our resident foxes who might be more tricky to get sandwiches into.

When I last treated the foxes here a year ago, The Fox Project charity recommended that I tried a week’s course of Psorinum 30c pills – just one pill, dissolved in a little bit of water and then that water sprinkled onto the sandwiches. This is a medicine made from natural ingredients and it doesn’t matter if a non-infected fox or any other animal takes it, or if the fox is lactating – it will not do any harm. Last year it worked like a dream and so I am hoping that it will do so again.

We have been seeing some summer visitors arriving here after their long journey up from Africa:

Several Blackcaps have been seen

Chiffchaff

It is lovely to have them back in the country, although they are will probably not be stopping with us for long here at the coast.

The pair of Herring Gull are waiting for us every morning up by the feeding cages. One of the birds is colour-ringed so they are easy to recognise:

The colour-ringed gull, GR94467, in flight and displaying her rings

It is fantastic to hear so many Yellowhammer singing along the hedgerows this spring:

Not all of these birds in this photo below are Yellowhammer, but most of them are:

We found this specialist Woodlouse-eating spider, Dysdera crocata, in a damp, dark nook.

The Woodlouse Spider

It has disproportionately large mouthparts for grappling with its Woodlouse prey. Last year I got this photo of one:

There are forty species of Woodlouse living out in the wild in the UK (twenty more species only found in heated greenhouses). Having attended a couple of recent Zoom talks on Woodlice, I now realise that there are several different species here in the meadow and I am starting to try to work out what they all are – but this is a subject to look forward to in a later post!

It was a murky day on Good Friday but we were treated to a sighting of the biggest ship in the world, the Pioneering Spirit, sailing by. Owned by Allseas, it is the biggest ship in terms of gross tonnage, water displacement and also its width which is an amazing 124 meters. It is a twin-hulled, oil rig lifting ship, slotting the rig into the space between the two hulls so that it can lift it without tipping sideways.

The Pioneering Spirit sailing by on Good Friday

Here is a photo from its Wikipedia page, showing an oil rig in position between the hulls:

By BsnarF1 – Pioneering Spirit – Biggest ship of the world – Port of Rotterdam, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=50524379

The ship was finished in 2016 and was originally going to be called the Pieter Schelte, after the father of the owner of Allseas. However, this caused controversy because of Pieter’s service in the Waffen-SS during the war so the name was changed to Pioneering Spirit. However, the ghost of the previous name can still be seen on the hull.

By kees torn – Pioneering Spirit & KRVE 71, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=67558419

I see from the weather forecast that we are to expect an Arctic blast at the beginning of next week. Last year, it was just about this exact point in spring that we had several days of strong and bitter north-easterly winds that raced in off the sea. They hit the 300m of hedgerow at the top of the meadows, burning the tender new foliage to a crisp. This meant that the Hawthorn didn’t flower last year and consequently had no berries in the autumn to provide winter food for the birds.

The hedgerows are now in exactly that same stage as they were last year – the Blackthorn is in flower and the tender young leaves of the Hawthorn have just come out.

Blackthorn in the foreground always flowers before the leaves emerge. The Hawthorn at the back gets its leaves before it flowers

We are really worried that we will have a repeat of last year. But it looks like the winds are expected to be much less strong, and northerly rather than north easterly which would make a big difference – we have our fingers crossed but there is not a lot more we can do than that.

The reptiles have already emerged but they will have to keep their heads down as this Arctic blast passes through.

Slow worms. The adult female is curled around a juvenile.
Viviperous lizard

The insects will also have to find a sheltered spot to see out the cold snap::

Peacock Butterfly on Blackthorn

In our garden we have this south facing bank. Last year we decided not to cut the grass on the bank, leaving it to merrily flower away for pollinators. Although it looks very grassy at the moment, in a few weeks it will be covered in flowers. In the spring, this southern aspect of the bank hosts a large colony of mining bees and is alive with their constant activity.

The bees rarely rest up and consequently are really difficult to photograph but here is one of them – a male Yellow-legged Mining Bee (Andrena flavipes).

This is a common mining bee in southern England but what I find exciting is that the Painted Cuckoo Bee (Nomada fucata) is a parasite specifically on this species and I would really like to find one of these hanging around the colony. Once the Arctic blast has gone, I too will be hanging around the colony trying to find one of these cuckoo bees.

Internet photo of the Painted Cuckoo Bee

The wood is putting on a fantastic Easter display of Primroses in its regenerating areas:

Magpies have been gathering in the wood, too:

Last year we had twelve small nest boxes up in the wood and all were used.

We now have eighteen up. We looked in one and it already had a soft mossy nest within:

So, there you are. That is about it for the nature round up this Easter other than wishing everyone a happy, long and chocolate-filled weekend.

Bees, Bugs and Birds

British Summer Time is here at last, the hour has sprung forward and a whole extra section of the day becomes available to us for outside activities. The glorious prospect of summer evening dog walks and nature exploration lies ahead.

We are about to embark on our fourth year of being Red Mason Bee Guardians.

Each March we receive bee cocoons and cardboard nesting tubes from the guardianship scheme. We put these out into the meadows and the bees hatch and forage for pollen and then build their nests in cardboard tubes that we provide nearby. In September, once the bee larvae in the nests have transformed into hard cocoons to overwinter in, we send the tubes back to the Guardian scheme HQ for the cocoons to be extracted, cleaned of parasites and stored safely over winter.

In 2018, we sent back 45 used nest tubes, which contained a pleasing total of 342 healthy cocoons. This was an average of 7.6 cocoons per tube and a fantastic increase on the 25 cocoons we started with. In 2019, we proudly sent back 53 tubes, but only 184 viable cocoons were found within which is a disappointing 3.5 per tube. However, much, much worse was to come in 2020. Last year we managed a miserly 18 tubes which only contained 31 healthy cocoons – that’s a mere 1.7 cocoons per tube.

We don’t know what went wrong and why so few of the tubes were used and also why there were hardly any healthy cocoons within each tube. Perhaps parasites are building up in the area, attracted by all these bee nests and so we have decided to change the release site from the orchard to down by the wild pond and see how we get on in this new location. There are still plenty of pollen-rich flowers around there.

Twenty-five bee cocoons in the release box
The release box and the nesting tubes on a pole in the new position by the wild pond

The mason bees need damp soil to build the walls between the nest cells and last year we discovered some bees taking their soil from deep in the badger tunnels. This new release site is much closer to the badger sett meaning that the bees won’t leave their nests unattended for so long when they collect the soil, giving less chance for parasites to attack.

A photo from last May. A female returning to her nest carrying pollen on her abdomen. She is also being pursued by a hopeful male
Also from last year, a female carrying a ball of mud in her mouth to build a wall in her nest. This time she has no pollen on her abdomen

It is so wonderful to have invertebrates around again and these days I am increasingly fascinated by them. I know not everyone is, although hopefully you will humour me if I include a couple here. We were lying in the grass looking closely at a patch of Sweet Violets that were surprisingly pale-coloured – all the others here are a deep purple:

While we were down there, close to the soil, we noticed this tiny little chap that looks straight out of a Disney cartoon to me:

This is a nymph of a Leafhopper (in the sub-family Deltocephalinae – possibly Euscelis incisus).

This next small bug, that I found sunbathing on a leaf, has a lovely white heart on its back. It is a Mirid bug, possibly Lygus pratensis, but there are many that look similar. It will be sucking sap from plants.

I was very pleased to get this photo of a Whirligig (Gyrinus sp). These tiny beetles gyrate madly in circles on the surface of the ponds and represent a real photographic challenge. The breakthrough came when I realised that they slowed down, and sometimes even actually stopped, when I wasn’t looming over them. So it was simply a question of pretending I had gone away, whilst still lurking close by.

These beetles carry a water bubble at the tip of their abdomen to help with buoyancy. They also have two pairs of eyes – the lower set looks under the water and the upper set above. They eat dead insects found floating on the surface.

We have seen another Peacock that has suffered from the ravages of time. This one has most of a forewing gone:

Good to see that the Slow Worms are starting to appear under the reptile sampling squares:

A month after the frogspawn was laid in the wild pond, an additional blob has appeared in ludicrously shallow water. We have moved it somewhere a bit deeper and less likely to dry up before the tadpoles are grown.

The Badgers have been taking bedding down the hole that opens directly into the meadows, suggesting that the baby Badgers are down there:

The sett entrance on the cliff

A few years ago we went to Costa Rica and were astounded to see the Resplendent Quetzel:

Internet photo

Sometimes, when the light hits the tail of a Magpie at just the right angle, it brings a little bit of Costa Rica to the meadows:

Magpies are still nest building. I have so many photos of them taking beakfuls of wet earth from next to the little pond on the strip, where the soil is kept damp by the splashing of bathing birds :

Slightly out of focus, but great to see a pair of Green Finch:

Why this is so great is because they are having an absolutely terrible time at the moment, the population being devastated by a parasite of the oesophagus, Trichomonosis. Transmission is most likely through contaminated food and water – a major incentive to keep feeders regularly washed. This disease was first noticed in Greenfinch in late summer 2006 and, although birds’ current conservation status is green, being of least concern, this will surely now change when this is next reviewed.

BTO graph

If I hadn’t already managed to read the ring code of the colour-ringed Herring Gull, GR94467, I definitely would have done so by now:

I am working under the assumption that she is a female and, together with her mate, they have become regulars up on the strip. They are magnificent-looking birds and I am now very fond of them both:

The armpit of a juvenile Herring Gull

There continue to be a number of Yellowhammer here – I think it could even be described as a small flock. I count nine in this photo, along with a House Sparrow.

A few Linnet about:

And a Starling or two:

Blackbirds have started nest building in the same vicinity as last year. It is the female who does all the work:

Although the male has found a caterpillar:

Sparrowhawk:

Moving inland to the wood now, the Tawny Owl has been worming again in the usual spot.

We haven’t seen it successfully catch a worm this winter, but we got this photo last year:

Blackbirds are building nests in the wood as well:

We don’t see Bullfinch in the wood during the winter but a pair have bred both summers we have been here. So its great to see them back:

Female in the front, male behind (Blue Tit in the middle)

Some other photos from the wood:

Redwing still remain
Red-legged Partridge
Lovely healthy Rabbit
Wren
An unusual view of a male Great Spotted Woodpecker looking rather like a Mondrian painting

Finally, back in the meadows, I’m keeping my eye very firmly on this beautiful and delicate vixen:

I am very suspicious of what’s going on with her tail and suspect the beginnings of mange. Watching the foxes here over the years has taught me how quickly this spreads once it gets a hold and I want to act fast if necessary. Here is her tail from a different angle and there is a definite bald patch halfway along:

If I need to start dispensing the medicine-laced honey sandwiches again, I think she would be an easy target because I see her at the peanuts most nights. However, the issue will be how to stop the old gentleman fox from eating them all before she arrives. Here he is, needing to have a stretch after waiting for an hour for me to arrive. He is always first on the scene.

But that is a problem for the future. Although I do not yet have a photo, I have seen that the one-eyed vixen is now looking slim again – she has had her cubs. I am so looking forward to seeing the badger cubs and then the fox cubs on the cameras in the next few weeks.

The Gentle Purr of the Turtle Dove

Three years ago we visited Yockletts Bank, an East Kent nature reserve famed for its orchids. We had timed it just right and the orchids were in their full glory, although what we really remember of that visit was the Turtle Dove purring in a tree above us. It was the first and only time we have heard one in Britain.

The number of Turtle Doves in the UK has fallen by 98% between 1967 and 2016 and this will be our fourth year of participating with Operation Turtle Dove to try to persuade Britain’s fastest declining bird to come and breed in the meadows.

We visited the captive Turtle Dove breeding programme at Pensthorpe in Norfolk in January last year. One day I hope to be able to post a photo of a wild Turtle Dove in the meadows, but it hasn’t happened yet.

On paper we have everything they want. We have freshwater and thorny, dense hedgerow of the right height for them to build their nests. We will be putting down supplementary Turtle Dove food provided by the RSPB during May and June so that they can rapidly feed up after their long migration from Africa and get into breeding condition as soon as possible.

In addition, we rotavate a strip of land each spring so that, over the course of the summer, it gets weedy whilst still retaining about 30% bare earth. This is the sort of habitat found at the edges of agricultural fields which is where Turtle Doves like to be.

Here is the strip that gets rotavated each spring. By this point of the year, it was mostly covered in vegetation and difficult to distinguish from the rest of the meadow.

Rotavator at the ready

This time the rotavation took less than two hours – apparently it gets easier every year as the soil becomes used to being turned over, although we are yet to attempt the job ourselves.

For the rest of the day, the ploughed-up soil attracted in the Gulls – Herring Gulls on the left, Black-headed by the water and Common Gull flying on the right. The Black-headed Gull at the front now has the chocolate brown mask of its summer plumage while the one behind it is still in its winter clothes.

I include this next photo because I like the composition:

Last week we attended a virtual talk given by Kent Wildlife Trust on their Wilder Blean project. Lack of woodland management in the UK is one of the biggest factors causing species loss and the Wilder Blean project is going to introduce European Bison and carefully selected species of pigs, cows and horses to naturally manage Blean Woods, a large area of woodland around Canterbury. This year they are doing base-line surveys to measure future progress against, and building some infrastructure necessary for managing the Bison that are due to arrive next year. How fantastic to have such an exciting project on our doorstep and looking forward to hearing how the wood gradually recovers and species build over the years.

Ideally we would bring in grazing animals here to do our own smaller-scale rewilding of these meadows but we have never wanted the responsibility of livestock. However, although we are two kilometres away from the nearest cow, these Yellow Dung flies (Scathophaga stercoraria) have been seen all over the meadows this week, on the budding flowerheads of Alexanders.

This male is a lovely-looking fly with its yellow furry legs and abdomen although admittedly his love of cow pats could count against him for some. The males live in and around the dung, awaiting the arrival of females for mating and the eggs are then laid into the pat. Although they do visit flowers for nectar, they are mainly predators of other flies.

Here is a female, looking similar but without the yellow fur. She’s got pollen all over her chops, I see.

Between her thorax and abdomen, it is possible to see one of her yellow, club-shaped halteres. Other flying insects, such as bees and dragonflies, have two sets of wings but the second set in flies has been modified into these halteres – they function as gyroscopes providing the fly with good in-flight information and so allowing it to have great manoeuvrability.

Zoomed in a bit more to show the yellow haltere.

Here is a mating pair of Yellow Dung flies, although with no nearby dung into which to lay the eggs:

I don’t understand why we have so many dung flies here, so far from the dung of grazing animals. There are surely plenty of flowers available closer to the horse fields and the cattle farm – why are they coming all the way over here?

We saw these furry flies here last year as well and this photo was taken on 1st March 2020. But see how open those Blackthorn flowers were right at the beginning of March last year:

Photo from 1st March 2020

Here is this same Blackthorn bush on 21st March this year and only now on the brink of coming into flower – that is three or four weeks behind 2020. What an amazing difference from year to year.

For a couple of days this week, we had a group of around two hundred Starlings, gathering here at the coast before making the crossing across the North Sea back to Continental Europe to breed.

They were captured by only one of the trail cameras, probing the ground for soil invertebrates and perching in the hedgerows:

Perhaps it is a bit difficult to see in the photograph below, but some areas of the meadows were covered in the holes made by their beaks. We have never noticed this before:

All Starlings have departed now, including the birds that had arrived earlier and that I was hoping were summer residents coming here to breed. It seems that they too were winter visitors, simply slightly ahead of the main pack.

Three years ago we planted six large English Oaks in the second meadow. We now know it was a mistake to plant such big trees in these dry chalky soils – smaller trees would have demanded less of the roots whilst they are getting over the shock of planting and establishing themselves in their new position. We watered them like mad but, nonetheless, I think we have lost three of them. The ones that survive have a lot of of these marble galls caused by the gall wasp Andricus kollari. This wasp is not a native, but one that was introduced early in the 19th century when these galls were in demand as a source of tannin for dyeing and ink making.

The wasp emergence hole from the marble gall

For the first time, we have seen a different type of gall on these Oaks this year:

This is the ram’s-horn gall caused by the gall wasp Andricus aries which was first discovered in Berkshire in 1997 but now occurs all over the southern half of Britain. Neither of these galls harm the tree.

The Badgers are so busy at the moment. There has been more digging pretty much every night:

A new vertical shaft has been opened up this week, some distance from the other workings. It is coming up in the middle of the reptile area and goes down an awfully long way:

Here we are looking at this new hole. It is quite a long way into the meadow from the main sett entrance that must be on the cliff. Peering over the fence at this point, we can see that there is a lot of recently dug spoil there as well. What a network of Badger tunnels there surely is under this area of the meadows.

We are going to need to mark this hole now so that we don’t fall down it by mistake.

Last autumn we had six Badgers but by now some might be expected to have dispersed and I am no longer sure how many there are. The most I have seen together in recent times is four:

This weekend is the spring equinox – yes, we are now finally officially there and what a cause for celebration that feels like. Here are some of the other things that have been going on this week.

This is our first Bee-fly of the season – a Dark-edged Bee-fly. It is a sweet-looking little thing but appearances can be deceptive because it is parasitic on mining bees, flicking its eggs into their nests and its larvae then feed on the bee grubs.

I am so pleased that the Grey Partridge are back. We are putting them up again from the uncut sections of the second meadow as we walk round but this grainy, dark photo is the only time they have wandered in front of a camera:

Yellowhammer in flight, beautifully demonstrating those white tail feathers:

The colour-ringed Gull, GR94467, is a beautiful bird. I rechecked the North Thames Gull Group ringing record for it and this time spotted that, when the bird was ringed on Pitsea landfill site in Essex six years ago, it was recorded as being four years or older but with some immature plumage. This makes it at least ten years old now.

The bird very much seems to be one of a pair and that is why I was looking again at the ringing record to check if they had sexed it – they hadn’t. A quick look at the internet tells me that adult female Herring Gulls are smaller birds than the males and less fierce-looking. GR94467 is on the left in this picture and my guess on this basis is that she is female.

The first frogspawn was laid in the wild pond on 28th February this year. Now, nearly three weeks later, some has finally arrived in the hide pond on 18th March. Frogs just don’t like this pond as much:

I put the moth trap out one night this week. Just one moth turned up – an Early Grey. It’s a beauty though. A moth that is very much associated with Honeysuckle, both wild and garden varieties.

A wonderful clump of Primrose in the wood:

Yesterday we were surprised and slightly alarmed to see six warships on the horizon. We have subsequently discovered that is was a flotilla of four Russian warships that left the Baltic a few days ago and are now moving west through the Straits of Dover, their progress being monitored by two Royal Navy warships. This all feels uncomfortably Cold War-ish.

One of the four Russian Warships on the right

A couple of times this week, we walked the dog down under our local chalk cliffs. Last spring we followed the fortunes of the Kestrels, Fulmars, House Martins, Jackdaws and other birds that nest here.

The Fulmars are here again already, defending their nest sites, with their calls atmospherically bouncing around the arena of the cliffs.

We got talking to a fellow nature enthusiast there who told us that he had seen a pair of Kestrels mating by their usual nest hole a few days previously and we also saw Jackdaws disappearing into holes in the cliffs carrying sticks. It’s all kicking off once more and that is wonderful news. With all holidays still having big question marks dangling over them, there will be lots of time to visit these cliffs regularly once again this year and that is something I am very much looking forward to.

Mining

Last year the Badgers surprised us by opening up a vertical shaft of a tunnel that emerged out into the meadows. Since all previous holes had been on the steep cliff, we can now better observe life in and around the sett. Recently, they have begun modifying this burrow and digging operations have been continuing throughout the week to make the gradient out of the hole shallower:

The fresh diggings

During the day, birds are keen to pick over the resultant spoil. Song Thrush and Blackbird in particular..

..but also Redwing:

The dog tells us that very interesting smells indeed are wafting out of this hole:

There will be a strong aroma of Badger, of course, but I think that Rats are also nesting down there. The bird feeders are not far from here and Rats are so often photographed going in and out of the tunnel.

A Rabbit was also at this hole one night – a rare visitor to the meadows, because surely there are just too many Foxes around here for it to be safe for them.

The black cat that prowls the meadows at night is also drawn in to investigate the smell

And what is this animal at the hole entrance? If only we had a better view of his face:

Last summer, we saw a Polecat-Ferret Hybrid in the wood:

This Polecat-Ferret Hybrid was also seen at night in the wood and, in the infrared light, it looks very similar to the animal seen in the meadows this week:

The facial markings are not very noticeable under the infrared light

My current best guess is that it was also a Polecat-Ferret Hybrid in the meadows. These animals mainly eat Rabbits in the summer, but have a more varied diet, including Rats, in the winter. The distribution maps do not show them being this far east and so I hope that we will get an opportunity to see him again and properly identify him.

But now a different type of mining. At this time of year, the evergreen Holm Oaks are looking brown rather than green:

The reflection of a very brown Holm Oak in the pond

This is because their leaves are covered in the leaf mines of the moth Ectoedemia heringella. It is ridiculous that we have never seen the adult moth because there are simply millions of these caterpillars safely overwintering within the leaves of the Holm Oaks here.

We put one of the leaves under the microscope. There are three caterpillars just in this tiny section of leaf:

The scale here shows that they are about 3mm long. But they must be very flat to fit between the two surfaces of a leaf.

The adult moths will be emerging in June or July and I will definitely be going out with a torch at night to try to see them this year. The tree should be covered in these moths if I get the timing right. I suppose another way to see the adult would be to put some of the leaves into a glass container and wait until they hatch out, but I will try the torch method first.

Internet photo of the adult Ectoedemia heringella

The moth is a native of Mediterranean regions – as are the Holm Oaks, in fact – and it is a recent arrival in the country. It was first caught in London in 1996 and seems now to be spreading outwards from there. The Holm Oaks are largely unharmed by this large scale attack and they will anyway be shedding all of these affected leaves in the early summer and growing some new green ones.

One evening this week, a second Fox arrived at peanut time whilst it was still light. My friend in the foreground here, the Old Gentleman Fox, was initially not too pleased with this competition for the sandwiches:

But he decided to ignore her and get on with eating..

Two Foxes with two Magpies watching closely for their opportunity

..because once it gets dark, others will turn up and he loses the advantage that being bold enough to come out in the light gives him.

The Old Gentleman back left. The One-eyed Vixen back right.

The One-eyed Vixen looks like she is carrying cubs.

A very stout One-eyed Vixen

For comparison, here she was last summer:

Sparrowhawks must surely be catching birds in the meadows every day.

Yet we rarely see them with prey. But this image was down by the Badger sett on the cliff – the bird on the ground is very black and white – not sure what it is, actually.

A little group of Linnets have returned to the meadows and have been feeding up on the strip. There was also this Siskin:

Some more Starlings arrived in the meadows:

Five Starlings are now flying around in a tight group. Hopefully these are summer residents and are stopping to breed

This morning, however, a group of about two hundred have arrived. These are winter visiting Starlings that are gathering here at the coast, prior to departing back over the North Sea to their breeding ground in Continental Europe.

The male Kestrel:

A nice photo of a Jay:

GR94467 and friend taking a drink
There have been gales here for most of the week, but also some bouts of heavy rain and hail

The pair of Grey Partridge have not been seen again this week unfortunately. I have been reading about the conservation work that is being done at the 14,000 acre Englefield Estate in my home county of Berkshire. Grey Partridges have declined by 94% across Europe since 1980 and, when Englefield’s Grey Partridge Project was launched in 2009, there were just two pairs on the estate. But there are now 70 pairs. They have achieved this heart-warming increase by planting new hedgerows and 10,000 metres of ‘beetle banks’ which are raised banks of earth criss-crossing the fields and sown with tussock grass to attract many different insect species. Wide strips of wildflowers have been left at the edges of the arable fields and they are putting out supplementary feed during the winter and well as leaving some cereal crop unharvested. All this is not just helping the Partridge but many farmland birds – for instance, Corn Bunting is now being seen there for the first time in twenty-five years.

The Englefield Estate is a large arable farm with attached woodland – but perhaps lessons can be learned from their success and applied here in our flower meadows.

Possibly the most important lesson is to strive to improve insect biodiversity and also their general abundance. We planted this native Scots Pine three or four years ago.

We were delighted to find six Pine Ladybirds on it this morning – a ladybird that particularly loves Scots Pines. This tree has increased our insect biodiversity! We also planted some Corsican Pines at the same time, a non-native species but one that is noted for doing very well in these exposed coastal conditions. But sadly we could not find any Pine Ladybirds on the Corsican Pines.

Exochomus quadripustulatus, the Pine Ladybird. Sighted for the first time in the meadows this morning.
Buff-tailed Bumblebee queens nectaring up on the winter-flowering Heather in the garden
Pollen Beetles already in Dandelion flowers this week
Small Tortoiseshell. This butterfly hibernates as an adult and so can be very early out and about in the spring – however, it has lost one of its hind wings somewhere along the line.

In the wood, the Woodpecker hole in the Cherry tree does look like it has been recently enlarged:

And Green Woodpeckers are still investigating it, so hopefully they will decide to nest here:

Redwings continue in the wood for now:

Last year we bought an additional section of wood, adjacent to our existing one, and this new bit of the wood had been clear-felled and replanted ten to fifteen years ago. The vulnerable small trees were protected with plastic sleeves but now this plastic is littering the wood. Some of the sleeves are still round the trees although much is just lying on the woodland floor. I wonder if these days a more biodegradable alternative is used? I do hope so.

It is an outstanding job to collect all this plastic up. On the 23rd March last year, on the very brink of the country going into lockdown, we visited the wood and picked up two bin bags full of this horrible, brittle plastic.

Two bags of collected plastic. 23rd March 2020

It was a strange and surreal visit – we had a good idea of what might be about to be announced that very evening, and that it would be our last visit to the wood for some time. Looking back now, that day feels rather dreamlike.

In the event, it was indeed many weeks before we returned to the wood and I’m afraid that we have failed to do any more plastic clearing since then. Until this week, that is, when we picked up another two bags worth and recreated the photo, one year on and definitely now in a more optimistic place.

There is so much more to clear up. Hopefully we can interest the family in a work day at the wood once we are allowed to meet up again.

Back at the meadows, the Frog spawn is just starting to hatch:

A single tadpole in amongst the spawn

Our scarecrow Mackenzie’s work is done for another year. There has not been a single Heron visit on his watch and, because of him, a new generation of tadpoles will soon be swimming en masse in the pond.

But the adult Frogs are now dispersing and it is time for him to go off duty for the summer. He will rest up in the field shed until his time to shine comes again next winter….

Gull GR94467

It has been an eventful week. A big birthday came and went, unwelcome in some ways but it did mean that my age became wonderfully aligned with the NHS vaccination programme and yesterday was a red letter day when we had our Covid jabs.

The wildlife in the meadows has been noticeably busier as well. We have been hearing the Tawnies at night but this is the first time we have seen one for many months.

The colour-ringed Herring Gull has returned, and this time I could read the ring – X9LT. So, let me now introduce you to Gull GR94467, a bird that was ringed by the North Thames Gull Group on 24th January 2015 at the Pitsea Landfill site in Essex:

The North Thames Gull Group study the gulls of the Essex Landfill sites and Pitsea in Essex was the second largest landfill in the UK, receiving 800,000 tonnes of solid waste a year, mainly from London. It has now closed, or is about to do so, and the RSPB are planning to turn it into a nature reserve. The Gull Group worked there for 34 years, ringing an amazing 46,224 new birds and they have also had 24,105 retraps and subsequent sightings.

The birds are caught on the landfills using cannon nets. The waste contractor lays a load of the waste onto the ground in the catch area, attracting in the gulls. The net is arranged in a long line and four cannons, set into old tyres to cushion the recoil, fire the net into the air which then settles back down onto the gulls, several hundred of which will hopefully be caught with each firing.

Gull GR94467 was ringed at Pitsea at the beginning of 2015 and was next sighted in 2017 and then 2018 at Bexley Pit, another landfill a bit further in towards London along the Thames Estuary. But now it has left the rubbish heaps behind and flown to the more fragrant East Kent coast. It was sighted at the local beach here in April 2020 and again in November and I have now also reported my sighting of it in the meadows in March 2021. Herring Gulls can live for 30 years or more and so we are looking forward to seeing GR94467 for many years to come.

We have decided to keep the gates closed between the two meadows, meaning that the dog now only goes into the second meadow when she is with us. Perhaps this will reduce disturbance for ground nesting birds this spring although it won’t keep the Foxes and Badgers out, all of whom use holes under the fences. It actually doesn’t necessarily keep the dog out either when there is extreme provocation such as a tractor working in the field alongside that clearly needs chasing.

The tractor was harrowing and planting and this didn’t go unnoticed by the local Gulls:

Every year Skylarks nest in the grass of the second meadow and they are sensitive to disturbance – last year we believe that we had two pairs and they each raised more than one brood. Now they have returned for the breeding season again and are to be heard singing high in the sky. There is nothing quite like that for raising the spirits after a long, cold, Covid-filled winter.

Grey Partridge nest low in hedgerows and the adults are out foraging amongst the grass during the day and they too are easily disturbed. A pair have recently arrived back in the second meadow and we have been putting them up as we walk round. This week they came up to the seed at the strip for the first time and so we got a chance to have a proper look at them. The female is on the right with the stripe over her eye.

Grey Partridge is one of the most strongly declining species across Europe and they are red listed as being of great conservation concern across most of their range. So we will obviously be delighted if they choose to stay and raise young here again this summer.

The two Starling are still with us and are very much a pair:

The Magpies, who are building a nest at the top of one of the Holm Oaks, continue to bring in sticks. This stick is really very long:

And pleased to see that the Woodcock still remains here for now. Woodcock do breed in the UK but on heathland rather than flowery meadow and so this bird will no doubt be leaving before too long.

We have never located a Sparrowhawk nest here but presumably they do breed in the vicinity since the meadows seem very much within their territory:

In my quest to try to find caterpillars this year and learn more about the life cycles of the moths and butterflies that live here, I have found another caterpillar hibernating under one of these stones by the hide pond:

This robust caterpillar is the larval stage of the Square-spot Rustic – a moth that I haven’t yet caught in the trap in the summer, although I will now be looking out it.

There has been more digging at the Badger hole that emerges into the meadows:

My suspicion is that they are creating a shallower slope up out of the hole because they are planning to bring the wobbly cubs out this way in a few weeks time. In previous years, the cubs have always first emerged onto the cliff. There is a terrace in front of the cliff burrow but the gradient is very steep and dangerous and the mother has to watch them like a hawk initially.

The date that the first Blackthorn flower opens in the meadows is one that we try to notice and record. This year it was 1st March, although last year it was 2nd February:

In the wood, Tawny Owls have been keeping a very low profile this winter. However, one was back again this week searching for worms on the woodland floor:

A different species of Partridge has been seen at the wood:

This is the Reg-legged Partridge, a most attractive bird but one that is non-native and has probably been released into the British countryside purely to be shot. Unlike the Pheasants, though, there don’t seem to be many Red-legged Partridges around the area, since this is only the second time we have seen one.

I am still not yet sure that Green Woodpeckers are going to be nesting again in last year’s hole in a cherry tree, but they do certainly seem to be investigating it. Here are both of them, the male up near the hole with red in his moustachial stripe.

The same camera also captured this Redwing

We have returned to cold north-easterlies these last few days and yet again we are wrapping up warm with double coats and gloves. However, with so many leaves unfurling and blossoms opening, and now newly vaccinated, we cannot help but feel optimistic for the coming spring.

I am dedicating this blog post to my daughter who is 30 today and whose interest in Seals, Deer, Birds and other wildlife gives me so much pleasure.