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.

Stirrings of Spring

Over the course of a year hundreds of moth species turn up in my moth trap. Most of these, and the twenty-three species of butterfly that we have here, will be going through their complete lifecycle in the meadows, yet rarely are any of these caterpillars seen. Since caterpillars make such a nutritious snack for all sorts of things, many are well adapted to not being easily found. Some will be hidden within plant stems, others only come out to feed at night or are well camouflaged to blend with their background, and a few will even be tucked up within ant nests being tended to by the ants.

Therefore, it was surprising to find this Oak Eggar Moth caterpillar out in the open, sunning itself on a reptile sampling square this week.

This caterpillar is deploying an alternative strategy for not being eaten – covering itself in hairs that have an irritant effect so that they are avoided by birds.

I find this all very interesting and have set myself the challenge to find five new species of caterpillar in the meadows this year. The Oak Eggar is the first of my five but I am expecting the other four not to be quite so easy.

There has been some work going on around the Badger sett over several nights this week.

The dog’s ball accidentally rolled into another Badger tunnel this week:

But she was prepared to go in and get it:

A colour ringed Herring Gull has been seen up at the feeding cages. The bird has a normal metal ring on its right foot and a colour ring on its left, the idea being that the bird can now be identified through binoculars without being recaught. Unfortunately, although I have quite a few different photos of this bird, I can’t quite get all the numbers and letters on that ring. There have been numerous gull colour-ringing schemes over the years and gulls are long-lived birds and so the scheme could actually have been a while ago. The last big project was finished recently because the land fill site in Essex was closed down.

Hopefully we will see this bird again and I can piece the code together and report my sighting of it to the British Trust for Ornithology

The rattle of Magpies has seemed to be everywhere this past week. A pair are making a nest at the very top of this pine tree and have been busy carrying in sticks:

Another pair are building a nest at the top of one of the Holm Oaks.

We assembled some sticks and got a camera onto them. As we had hoped, the Magpies couldn’t resist this and came and collected some:

Here a pair are collecting mud and grass which I presume are used to bind the sticks together. Or perhaps there is a softer mud lining to the nest?

In March we would expect to see some large groups of Starlings gathering here waiting for good conditions to get back across the North Sea to their breeding grounds in Continental Europe. These are our winter visitor Starlings that have been murmurating in fantastic displays over reed beds throughout the winter, but are now returning to their summer home.

However, a lone pair of Starlings have arrived this week in the meadows ahead of them and I hope that these birds are British residents who will now be stopping to breed. 2020 was a very successful year for Starlings here with a lot of young being fledged and I am hoping for this again – these British resident Starlings are red-listed birds of high conservation concern because their population fell 70% in the twenty-five years to 2014.

Another red-listed bird that did very well here last year is the Yellowhammer. The Bird Ringer caught several juvenile birds last summer that will have fledged from our hedgerows. But this year is looking even more promising with a small flock now being seen feeding in the cages. There are seven Yellowhammer here:

And nine here:

The Bird Ringer came this week to set his nets up in the meadows to try to catch these Yellowhammer. Bird Ringing has been allowed to continue through this lockdown because of the vital scientific data that is collected, but we just haven’t had the weather and this was the first time he had been here for many months.

Some of the frogspawn laid last week is in really shallow water. With no rain for a while now it was already starting to dry out. Once the tadpoles hatch it would be difficult to rescue them all, so we decided to move the spawn from the shallows and reposition it somewhere deeper.

We will keep an eye on that – it may shortly be necessary to move some more as well.

Elsewhere in the meadows:

Two years ago Great Spotted Woodpeckers drilled out a cavity in a cherry tree in the wood and raised a brood of young within. These Woodpeckers never use the same nest hole twice, but Green Woodpeckers do sometimes use the abandoned holes of Great Spotted rather than making their own, and this is exactly what happened last year. So what is going to happen this year? I don’t know if Green Woodpeckers reuse a nest a second time but I am hoping to find out. We strapped a camera to a pole to look at the hole and got this photo this week, which looks promising:

Hopefully this camera will get some good photos this spring.

This is the first time we have seen Scarlet Elf Cup in the wood. However, it does look likes the Slugs have been at it:

The Bird Ringer spent some time in the wood this week and sent me these photos:

There are a large number of Pheasants in the wood. Apparently 57 million Pheasant and Red-legged Partridge were released into the wild in Britain last year for shooting purposes and the sheer scale of that number is difficult to comprehend. However, for comparison, I can tell you that the total number of all native British birds in 2020 from Goldcrests to Golden Eagles and everything inbetween was only 83 million pairs. Before these released game birds get shot, they hoover up resources in the countryside that should be supporting our proper wildlife. Wild Justice, an organisation that is very close to my heart, is not afraid to stand up and challenge many of these anachronistic practices that make no sense in a 21st century world, if ever they did.

Our wood offers sanctuary for these birds, but there are an uncomfortable number of them.

I have just bought a new book that I am looking forward to reading:

As Sir David Attenborough says in the introduction, the book should enable us to take account of vulnerable habitat features so important to invertebrates, without necessarily knowing what species are present. So the book sounds exactly what we need and I can’t wait to get going on it.

Frogs and Lizards

The extreme wintry weather of last week is already feeling like a distant memory. This week has been so much milder and there has even been a little bit of sunshine. The smell of cut grass in the garden and laundry flapping on the line has always brought me so much pleasure.

Green corrugated sheets aren’t the most beautiful of adornments for a pond but they provide great shelter for amphibians:

Once the pond water had melted, we looked under one of them to see how the Frogs were getting on. This sight was certainly unexpected:

The female Frog, bulbous with her tummy full of spawn, has unfortunately been flipped over by two over-arduous males and she is stranded helpless on her back as they cling tightly to her:

The couple under the second corrugated sheet had got things much more sensibly organised. The clamping on of a male is thought to trigger the female to lay her spawn and, when she does, he is in prime position to sprinkle his sperm over to fertilise the eggs.

There was a Smooth Newt out of the water as well:

The next morning, a single dollop of spawn had been laid in unfeasibly shallow water at one end of the pond:

I put a trail camera onto it, hoping to capture any further action the next night. The camera got this photo of the spawn towards the end of the day:

The next morning, a whole lot more spawn had been laid, but the camera had failed to take another photo until it took this one:

I wondered if perhaps the camera was not working as well as it once did and so I brought in some more. They look like paparazzi crowding around a celebrity – surely one of these would get the killer shot for the morning papers?

But no, not one of them took a single shot. Obviously something the size of a Frog moving in the dark is not enough to trigger their sensors. For the following night, I put the cameras into time lapse mode which deactivates their sensors and they just take a photo at set time intervals. This worked, but the results are far from outstanding:

Luckily, we had also crept down there ourselves with torches and cameras to try to capture this wildlife spectacle.

There was a lovely loud churring noise coming from the wild pond:

It hasn’t all been about amphibians. On three days this week we have found this Viviperous Lizard basking on the top of a reptile sampling square. It has flattened its abdomen to offer the largest possible surface area to the sun. We had never seen this behaviour before – how amazing:

In the freezing weather of last week, we discovered a Wren roosting overnight in our teapot nest box. One night, there were actually two Wrens in the box – one is already in the box and another is coming in through the chicken wire:

The camera also caught one of the birds leaving at 06.47 in the morning, just as it was getting light.

Now that the nights are warmer, Wrens are still using the box although not necessarily every night.

The Snipe, Lapwing and Black Headed Gull, that arrived in the meadows in the extreme weather, have now left. The Woodcock, however, remains with us:

Some other bird photos from around the meadows this week:

I am going to finish today with the old gentleman Fox who is so much more obvious than any other Fox on the cameras at the moment. Here he is sniffing down a Badger tunnel. Actually, even we can detect a smell of warm, damp earth coming up from there.

He is willing to tolerate me so long as I continue to bring him honey sandwiches and peanuts:

I consider it to be an enormous honour to be allowed to be so close to a wild animal and peanut time has now become one of my favourite times of day.

Rediscovering Love for Hot Water Bottles

I obviously pushed fate a bit too far by calling my previous post ‘A Few Small Signs of Spring’. Snow fell on Sunday and has stayed on the ground the whole week, with temperatures hardly getting above freezing. The weather has felt, quite literally, perishing for anything trying to survive out there. Even for us, living in a centrally heated house, we have had to retrieve the hot water bottles from under the stairs and keep them tucked under blankets to stay warm.

There was another fall of snow on Wednesday which finished just after dark, creating a lovely blank canvas for the footprints of the creatures of the night.

The nights have been very cold, some of them getting down to -5°C, and often accompanied by strong and bitter north-easterly winds.

We have this teapot nest box. It’s an open fronted box, of the sort favoured by birds such as Robins and Wrens:

A few years ago, a Wren made a nest in it. A male Wren will make five or six nests and the female then inspects each one and decides which one she wants to use. Clearly the teapot nest got the thumbs down because it was never used and so we left the nesting material in it. Subsequently, chicken wire has gone around the box to provide protection against Magpies, although I notice that there is actually now quite a large hole in the wiring that needs attention – a Magpie could easily stick its head through that.

This box may never have been used to raise young, but a Wren has been roosting in there overnight during this freezing weather.

I put a camera on the box and even went so far as to set it to the correct time. Unfortunately, it didn’t perform brilliantly, but it is possible to make out the bird going into the box at dusk, at eight minutes past five.

Isn’t it pretty amazing that, on the next evening, it was also eight minutes past five that it entered the box?

I think that many of the nest boxes here are used as night time roosts over the winter, judging by the amount of droppings we find in them.

This spell of unusually cold weather has meant that we have been seeing a few different birds. The Woodcock that we first saw on Sunday, has stayed with us in the meadows all week, and we have been flushing it up from the hedgerow margins every day as we walk round.

Intriguingly, there is another wader that we have been flushing several times a day but it is gone in a flash and we only ever get the briefest of views. The most we can really say is that it is smaller than the Woodcock with a white front and long bill. If only it would wander in front of a camera as the Woodcock did.

Yesterday we realised that there are now actually three of these unknown waders working the meadows by day. I have tried to increase the chances of getting the birds on a camera by redeploying six cameras from duties elsewhere and placing them to look at spots where we have previously set the bird up. Nothing so far, although I will keep trying. This approach did get the Woodcock again though:

Wrapping up really warm and putting a hot water bottle in under our coats, we have also been up on the Deer stalking seat, looking out over the second meadow:

In this way, we found the 86th species for the meadow bird list – a Snipe. Not dissimilar to the Woodcock really, but a pale tummy and three yellow stripes front to back on the top of its head clinched it for us.

Could our mystery waders actually be Snipe? Maybe, but we don’t think so and will continue investigating.

While all this was going on, our 87th species touched down briefly in the second meadow – a Lapwing.

There has been a group of around a dozen Meadow Pipit, an unusual bird here, working their way around the grass tussocks that are standing proud of the snow.

A small flock of Starlings is the first that we had seen here for ages:

Some Redwing and Fieldfare have been working the leaf litter at the hedgerow edges:

Large flights of Cormorants are to be seen every winter, flying low over the sea below us. This week, however, they flew over the meadows instead:

Lurking in the hedgerows as we were, trying to photograph the Pipits earlier this week, we started watching Gulls wheeling overhead. Herring Gulls are a very familiar bird here, but there were Black-headed Gulls too, distinguishable by a very obvious white stripe down the leading edge of their wing. In their winter plumage, they have the dark mark behind the eye but, in the summer, their heads will be chocolate brown.

There was a third type of Gull as well – Common Gull. These Gulls, with a small yellow/green bill, have almost completely white wing tips, or certainly they appear so from afar.

Common Gull has now been entered onto our meadow bird list at number 88. It’s not that they have never been here before, but rather this is the first time we got our act together and properly identified them.

This week, for the first time ever, a Black Headed Gull has been coming to feed on the strip. What a pretty Gull it is:

It must have been a very challenging week for Green Woodpeckers, needing to probe the frozen ground for ants:

I suspect that it has also been tough for birds hunting small mammals such as this Kestrel. The Voles are probably still going about their business but now under the snow layer making them so much more difficult to catch.

The winter feed that we put down is clearly being appreciated by seed eaters:

Badgers have continued to make some daytime cameo appearances:

A couple of wintery scenes from the meadows:

The one-eyed vixen has been keeping a low profile recently but good to see that she is still around and looking healthy:

The Foxes in the wood have always been quite elusive but they have certainly been seen on the cameras during this snowy weather:

The wood looked completely wonderful in the snow:

The new pond had all but disappeared:

I see that male Pheasants have an issue with their long tail feathers in this weather:

And Woodcock have problems with those beaks of theirs:

There has been a rare visit from a Red Deer. I wonder what they are finding to eat in the snow:

I had ordered some Snowdrops ‘in the green’ to plant under a tree in the garden. They arrived this week but the ground has been frozen hard.

The weather forecast for this coming week suggests that milder times are on their way. I can look forward to getting out and doing some gardening to plant out the Snowdrops, putting the hot water bottles back under the stairs and definitely starting to look again for a few small signs of spring.

A Few Small Signs of Spring

As February begins to unfurl, a few tantalising glimpses of spring are there to be seen by those who long to hustle this winter out of the door:

The more I learn about the perils of Butterfly hibernation, the more I appreciate the miracle of seeing one emerge intact in the spring.

The Freshwater Habitats Trust are once again running a spawn survey where they request sightings of spawn and publish them on a weekly map. As usual, the sightings commence in Devon and Cornwall, where it is usually milder and wetter, and then gradually spread across the country from there. As of Friday 5th February, the situation was as below:

Is this the year that we shall see some Toad spawn here? Our ponds are relatively new and Toads are slow colonisers of new places and so maybe not yet, but I will look for it nonetheless.

For the last week, the male Badger, Scarface, has seemed very testosterone-fuelled and has been making a wickering noise on every video that he appears in. Badgers mate as soon as the cubs are born in early February and he knows that his time is coming.

Seeing him out in the daylight is also suggestive of interesting happenings going on underground:

There are also signs that fresh bedding is being brought into the sett, perhaps in preparation for the birth. But it has been so very wet that all vegetation above ground is saturated and hardly ideal as bedding – but what choice do they have?

In our garden we have several areas of Crocosmia growing – it must be a plant that likes dry, chalky conditions. The foliage is now all flopped over and withered but we haven’t cleared it away in order to provide winter shelter for invertebrates. That’s our excuse anyway.

Winter is still far from over and now is not a wildlife-friendly moment to tidy this Crocosmia up, but I did do a light comb-through with my fingers to pull away some of the leaves so that I could dry them and put them out for the Badgers. I want to think of the new cubs lying on cosy bedding deep down in their sett.

I spread the leaves out on the tiled floor of the greenhouse to dry off.

This reminded me that, a few years ago now, we visited the Highland Park Whisky Distillery on Orkney which is one of the few distilleries to still dry the barley the traditional way on a heated malting floor.

We are so overdue a return trip to Orkney – it was lovely there.

The weather forecast was foretelling that one night this week was going to be entirely dry and not too cold – a rare occurrence of late. The leaves drying in the greenhouse weren’t quite ready by this point so I finished them off in front of the Aga during the afternoon, turning them frequently just as they do with the barley at the Highland Park Distillery…

…and put them down by the sett at dusk:

There is a camera trained on this hole but it let me down and failed to capture anything other than this photo of a Badger contemplating the pile:

By the morning, however, the Crocosmia leaves had largely disappeared underground, as I had hoped.

I believe that, as I write now, there are already cubs lying on those Crocosmia leaves – yes, I think that cubs have now been born. We have observed over the years that the adult female Badgers are extremely protective of their cubs and will not let the male Badger anywhere near them for quite some considerable time. So it is very telling that, in several of the videos over the last couple of days, I have seen the females launching attacks on poor old Scarface.

This young Badger was bumbling along and didn’t notice the resting old gentleman Fox until it was almost on top of him:

I wonder if he has finally successfully found himself a mate:

The female Kestrel has been using the new perch by the Reptile area again this week. In this photo she is showing her ring:

She is almost certainly the bird that was ringed here in September 2019 as a youngster:

We have a black triumvirate – a family of three Carrion Crows who live here and can be found together in a group almost all of the time. A bit of research on the internet reveals that these Crows will probably be gathering to roost overnight with lots of other Crows during the winter, somewhere in dense woodland that has traditionally been used for generations. Crows are often the last birds to go to roost at night, usually well after dusk, and the earliest to leave in the mornings, being very keen to return to defend their territories against potential intruders.

These three are always to be seen here during daylight hours and presumably they will soon be nesting close by.

The Crows are tolerant of the Kestrels and probably can’t keep track of what the Sparrowhawks are getting up to. But, should any other Bird of Prey dare to fly into the airspace above the meadows, like a war time RAF station, they scramble to get themselves up into the air to see off the enemy planes. This is most annoying for us humans who would like to get good views of the visiting raptor but often only see it rapidly departing with the triumvirate in hot pursuit.

We took the dog for a walk on the high, high chalk cliffs at St Margarets this week, a village just to the south of the meadows. At the highest point, there is the Dover Patrol Memorial, a granite obelisk built to commemorate the two thousand people from the Royal Navy’s Dover Patrol who lost their lives during the First World War. There is a matching second such obelisk at Cap Blanc-Nez directly across the Channel in France and a third one in New York City.

A decommissioned Coast Guard Station is next to the memorial that, until a few years ago, was the Bluebird Tearoom. Such a shame that this is now a private residence – much missed as a welcome stop off during walks along the cliffs.

As we neared the Dover Patrol Memorial, we spotted a Peregrine Falcon perched at the top of the cliffs. Not a great photo but it is the closest we managed to get.

As I write now, with Storm Darcy raging its way across the land, all thoughts of spring are put on hold:

This Woodcock, pictured in the wood this week, has travelled to Britain to spend the winter here. It might be completely unpleasant out there today, but it’s nothing compared to the Scandinavian and Russian winters from which it is escaping.

As we walked the dog around the meadows this morning, wrapped up warm against the strong north-easterly winds and horizontal driving snow, we put a Woodcock up from the scrubby hedgerow edge here in the meadows. Has this bird been newly blown in from Scandinavia ahead of these winds? We only see Woodcock in the meadows at times of extreme weather.

But I return to a note of calm to finish today. Earlier on in the week, when I was still contemplating the joys of spring, we were treated to a glorious yellow dawn:

The smaller vessel is the Ocean Marlin who has been here for several weeks now, seconded onto fishery protection duties. These duties seem to involve a lot of time at anchor alongside us but maybe that’s a good sign. The other ship is a banana boat – one of the refrigerated reefers that sail the ocean between South America and the Port of Dover loaded with cargoes of exotic fruits. All seemed tranquil on this lovely morning but I expect that it is a very different picture indeed out at sea today.