Farmland Birds in Winter

Our son’s partner recently visited Hope Farm in Cambridgeshire as part of her environmental MSc. The RSPB are running the farm to show that it is possible to successfully produce food and make a profit whilst still being a valuable place for wildlife. Additionally, as they work out how best to do this, they are developing new farming practices to share with other farmers. Since they took over the farm in 2000, they have recorded a 226% increase in breeding birds and also have many times more wintering farmland birds.

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One of the things that they are doing is ensuring that there are seed-rich crop areas to support birds through the winter and their approach certainly seems to be working –  in January 2001, Hope Farm counted 534 birds of 30 species. In January 2016, they counted 2,933 birds of 48 species. That’s a really heartening improvement.

I have been reading up about Hope Farm to see if there are things that we could be doing here in the meadows to help our birds through the lean times of winter. We are not growing crops for them but are continuing to put a seed mix down on the strip throughout the whole year.  However,  I am not sure that we are reaching our target audience:

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Magpies, Woodpigeon and Pheasant
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Crows and Pheasant

Most of the food is being quickly hoovered up by Magpies, Crows, Woodpigeons and Stock Doves and, once it gets dark, the Foxes move in to finish off anything remaining. The smaller birds do not get much of a look in and the large flocks of Linnets that were here through the summer have now gone elsewhere to find food, as they have disappeared every previous winter as well.

The Farmland Bird Indicator monitors the populations of nineteen farmland bird species and, from 1970 to 2007, there was an overall 48% decline. This 48% can be broken down by species in this interesting list below:

Tree Sparrow -94%
Corn Bunting -90%
Turtle Dove -89%
Grey Partridge -87%
Yellow Wagtail -73%
Starling -68%
Linnet -58%
Lapwing -58%
Yellowhammer -54%
Skylark -51%
Kestrel -35%
Reed Bunting -27%
Whitethroat +5%
Greenfinch +23%
Rook +41%
Stock Dove +55%
Gold Finch +64%
Woodpigeon +125%
Jackdaw +136%

Although this list is now somewhat out-of-date, we want to be supporting birds towards the top of this list with the seed that we are putting down in the meadows.

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With this in mind, a few days ago, we put this cage on the strip to preserve some of the seed from being eaten by the more dominant larger birds and give smaller birds the chance to get at it.

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Looking promising – Crows peering in at the uneaten seed
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A Badger trundles up but cannot get at the seed
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The cage is supplied with short pegs to go into the ground. This Fox pushed the cage aside, pulling the pegs from the ground, and ate the seed.

Well, it is early days for this experiment. We have longer pegs or even screw-in pegs – I am sure that we will be able to stop the Foxes getting to the seed. However, of more concern is that we are yet to see a small bird go into the cage and I worry that they are finding the mesh size too small – there was an option to go for a larger mesh although I decided against it. But, should birds learn to go into the cage, my plan is to get a few of them and then be able to more effectively deliver seed to small farmland birds through the winter.

Another way to support birds over the winter is to provide bird boxes as sheltered places  in which to roost.

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We had a large number of boxes up around the meadows, some of which have been unused for several years. The lack of bird droppings in them suggests that, as well as not being used for nesting, they also are not being used as winter roosts.

Therefore, we have now transferred these boxes across to the wood to see how they get on there:

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We have also increased the variety of bird food that we are putting out in the wood:

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Niger Seed and two ‘Squirrel Buster’ feeders: sunflower heart and peanut. The weight of a Squirrel on the feeder brings an outer sheath down to close off the dispenser holes.
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Squirrel proof suet ball feeder

We have had fantastic news about the farm that surrounds the wood and that you can see in the background of the photo above. It has recently changed hands and the new owner is taking it out of agriculture and managing it for wildlife, planning to plant thousands of trees and creating a lot of new hedgerow. It is going to be so interesting to see how this project progresses over the next few years and how it impacts on the wood.

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The wood, looking so very lovely at this time of year

At any one time, we have a lot of trail cameras in operation, all of varying ages and states of repair. Sometimes it feels like we are running a trail camera hospital here dealing with many patients with various ailments that need nursing along. Recently we decided to consign several of the worst cases into final retirement and buy some more.

The new camera in the Beech Grove in the wood is a Victure and only cost about £30. Although it may be of some use to keep an eye on what is generally about, its daytime picture quality isn’t terribly good and we wouldn’t buy another of these:

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Fox hunting rodents – the night time quality is not bad

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Squirrel carrying a sweet chestnut kernel

Another of the new cameras is a Bushnell Core Cam with No Glow infra-red. This camera was expensive at about £200 and would be good to use for animals such as Deer that are sensitive to the low red glow that most of the cameras give out when taking an infra red picture in the dark. However, the downside is that the quality of the night time photo is not so good with a No Glow camera:

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Foxes taken with a Bushnell Core No Glow infra red camera
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As a comparison, Foxes taken with one of our normal Crenova cameras

Having now tried several other makes and types of camera, we have returned once again to the opinion that we are best off with the Crenova trail cameras that cost around £70.  These cameras are reasonably cheap, reasonably reliable, of reasonable quality and we are very familiar with them, having got through many of them over the years.

The female Pheasant is still in the meadows and becoming quite a familiar figure:

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She doesn’t have the worry of being shot here and she is too large to have to be concerned about Sparrowhawks, but she does need to be very careful of Foxes:

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It seems that she has had another lucky escape because she reappears half an hour later:

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The Heron continues to turn up here far too often for our liking:

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We have now strung a grid of string over the pond as a Heron deterrent to save our Frogs and Newts:

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The Heron will always land on the grass and walk into the pond. This string grid will not allow it to wade into the centre of the pond. We hope that it will be restricted to only one square of the grid and the amphibians in the other squares will be protected from it. At the same time, the Foxes and Badgers will still be able to use the pond for drinking.

Is this going to be good enough? We are not sure but we have put some cameras on it to see how the Heron copes with it the net time it visits.

This morning, however, we see that practically every string has been chewed and cut. The cameras didn’t catch anything red-handed but we have our suspicions:

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Obviously we are going to have to have a small rethink.

Here is a Fox going over the gate at one o’clock in the morning:

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and here is one eating some peanuts that I put on the new stone pile:

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Finally today, there is this large Gull. I am not an expert by any means on Gulls and got the bird book out to try to properly ID this bird:

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My conclusion is that this is surely a second winter juvenile Herring Gull. These large Gulls don’t reach maturity until their fourth year and their feathers pass through many stages on the way there and this can be used to age them. Actually all very interesting and I must make more of an effort to spot and learn the differences between them.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

East Kent Birds

We have just returned from a trip to Mid Wales, specifically to try to see Salmon leaping up waterfalls to reach their spawning grounds, which is an early November wildlife spectacle. Sadly, 2019 has been the worst year ever for Salmon in the local rivers and we were unlucky this time. Only 350 Salmon were caught in the region this summer (hopefully they were then put back in alive). In the Salmon heyday, 20,000 were being caught each year. Whilst we were there, we also visited Gigrin Farm Red Kite Feeding Centre.

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500 wild Red Kites fly in at 2pm each day

In the winter, around 500 wild Red Kites descend on this farm at 2pm because food is put out at that time every day (3pm in the summer – Kites don’t understand British Summer Time).

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Red Kite
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A leucistic white Red Kite
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A Red Kite that has lost its tail feathers but seemed to be doing alright
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Some Buzzards also come in  – they are easier to photograph because they land and stay still.
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Two Buzzards

It was lovely to see these birds because here, on the East Kent coast, we have only very, very occasionally seen Red Kites and Buzzards. Red Kites have just not made it to East Kent yet. Buzzards have, however, and you can see them if you go a mere half mile inland. Perhaps they don’t come out to the coast because we don’t have the trees they need.

The Nuthatch is another bird that we don’t get in coastal East Kent and, again, this is probably because of the lack of trees.

The wood is nine miles inland as the Crow flies and, for the first time for a while, we put a camera on the feeder in the wood and were delighted to discover Nuthatches:

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Nuthatch on the feeder in the wood

This is a new species for the wood and is a bird that wasn’t coming to the feeder when we last had a camera on it back in the spring.

Unfortunately the feeder is too close to the camera to be in focus, but here are some of the other visitors:

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Marsh Tit on the right
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Male Great Spotted Woodpecker
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Female Great Spotted Woodpecker
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Always amazed to see the olive green colour on the back of a Chaffinch

 

We have had some wet and wild weather here recently. Here is the banana boat moored very close inshore to wait out the storm before attempting to get into Dover harbour. Dover is an important port for bananas:

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But in a window of calm, this beautiful female Bullfinch was ringed in the meadows last week:

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We were sitting out having a cup of tea in our coats and gloves and we saw a Kestrel being mobbed by a Crow:

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Kestrel on the left, Crow on the right

But then we realised that there were two Kestrels:

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Two Kestrels above the meadows

They then appeared to pass something between them:

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We don’t know what was going on but it was an exciting cup of tea.

We once again have a Heron problem:

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It has been coming here a lot. Moreover, it is a full moon at the moment and it takes advantage of that to also fish through the night. Here is is at 1am this morning:

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And Frogs are being caught:

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It is such a relentless and successful hunter that we are going to have to implement our plans to deter the Heron and save some of our amphibians. Actually, the plans are currently a bit vague but are going to involve making a grid over the pond with string, making it difficult for the Heron to wade around from one area of the pond to another. We will get going with that over the next few days.

There is another large bird that has made the meadows her home for now:

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She has turned up on practically every camera around the meadows. The dog spotted her this morning and ran at her, trapping her in a corner. Thankfully the dog is only interested in chasing things, not killing things, so all ended well and the bird was unharmed. However, Foxes cannot afford to be so forgiving and there are a lot of them around here and so I hope she takes care.

Here are a few other lovely East Kent birds:

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Robin
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Mistle Thrush
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Ringed Blackbird
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Beautiful little Wren

And I finish today with some East Kent Badgers and Foxes:

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Out With The Old

The cutting of the meadows is thankfully nearly complete and we have moved on to the next autumnal job – the grand annual clearing out of the nest boxes.

Actually, a lot of the boxes were found to be empty this year but there were some Great Tit and Blue Tit nests:

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And also some rodent nests , stuffed with leaves as well as moss:

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As usual, fluff from the dog’s fluorescent giant tennis balls was liberally incorporated into many of the nests:

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One dead Blue tit, many chewed nuts from rodent usage and a lot of dog ball fluff
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Another dead Blue Tit and some more ball fluff

One of the boxes was empty except for this recently-dead Great Tit:

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Although it is sad to find these dead birds, these nests will have successfully launched a large number of fledglings this year. It’s just the few that didn’t make it that are left for us to see.

We have removed some of the boxes that have stood empty for a couple of years and will now have a rethink about where they should go – some of them may well be transferred across to the wood where all six of the small bird boxes we put up were used this year.

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A lot of Blackbirds have arrived into the country recently. This male is very probably a continental bird – our resident male Blackbirds will have started to get yellow beaks and eye rings by now and their feathers would be more shiny:

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The brown primary feathers on the leading edge of the wings indicate that this is a young bird, born this year.

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Below is one of our resident males with the yellow beak:

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I can’t tell you much about this next Blackbird, other than it is enjoying itself:

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Some other photos from a ringing session this week:

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Firecrest
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Blue Tit. Looks like she has her ballgown on.
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Chiffchaff

Below is an Ichneumid Wasp, Ophion obscuratus, which still flies throughout winter. There are several similar species but I think that the pale stripes on the thorax are diagnostic.

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Ophion obscuratus

These wasps lay their eggs into caterpillars and the developing larvae live off the caterpillar, only killing it right at the end to ensure the food remains fresh. Charles Darwin saw the lifecycle of these parasitic wasps as being incompatible with a benign creator. He wrote: ‘I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of Caterpillars’.  Back in the 19th Century, they didn’t have climate change and many of the other problems that we are grappling with today, but there were certainly some other fundamental issues for them to be wrestling with.

This parasitic Wasp is a large thing – four centimetres from the antennae to the end of the abdomen. Here it is in side view:

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Why on earth has it got such a precariously slender waist?

Here is another large insect that is still around at this time of the year:

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This is the Western Conifer Seed Bug (Leptoglossus occidentalis). This bug is a native of the USA but arrived in Britain in 2007 and is now spreading rapidly. It feeds on the sap of developing pine cones, causing the seeds within the cones to become malformed.  I cannot find reports of it becoming a pest in the UK, although it has become one in conifer plantations of its native Western USA.

Stock Doves are so often overlooked but see how absolutely beautiful they are: soft grey with blush-pink overtones, the friendly black eye and the surprising iridescence on their neck.

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Those black eyes of the Stock Dove are really lovely – compare it to the eye of a Wood Pigeon:

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Bathing in the same tray the other day is this young female Kestrel:

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She looks like a Nightjar in this photo

 

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She does show us her right leg this time and we can see that she is indeed the bird that managed to take a chunk out of the bird ringer’s hand whilst he was ringing her here a few weeks ago.

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Here is another bird displaying a ring:

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I sent this photo to the bird ringer because I was not aware of him ever having ringed a Jay in the meadows. It turns out that he hasn’t – although he ringed an adult female in his garden nearby in April 2018 and so maybe this is she.

This photo below was a bit of a surprise:

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We haven’t seen a Pheasant in the meadows for ages – certainly none this year. I have never noticed the white patch below their eye before. She is still here, actually. She was feeding on the strip at 7am this morning:

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The appearance of a Heron, however,  is not a surprise these days:

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The cameras on the meadow ponds have captured some other interesting sights:

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An unusual view of a Woodpigeon
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Starling
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A Green Woodpecker hunting for Ants
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Close up of a Crow
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Song Thrush

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Here are two Badgers scent marking by anal rubbing – Badgers do this a lot:

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A fine looking Fox:

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I always love photos showing interactions between Foxes and Badgers:

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I am going to finish today with Woodcock. Yesterday, while walking round the meadows, we put up three separate Woodcock that were resting up in the hedgerows. They migrate at night and the meadows will be the first land they come to after a long flight over water. They stop, probably exhausted, and spend the day quietly in the hedges while they recover, moving further inland once it gets dark again. However, they will need to feed up first before they go. We have two Bushnell trail cameras that we use in the meadows. These have a ‘Field Scan’ setting where they will take a photo at a fixed interval regardless of whether anything has triggered it. They can cover a much greater distance doing this because the trigger distance is quite limited.

We have never used the cameras on this setting before but we decided to give it a go to see if we could catch them feeding on the strip where there are many bare soil areas that they could easily probe for insects with their long beaks. It was getting dark by the time we got the cameras into position:

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It was a wet and wild night:

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I have gone through the results this morning and, sadly, no Woodcock to be seen. Along with Foxes and Badgers there was this but my best guess is that it is a Bat:

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However we will be still running this experiment over the next few nights as the Woodcock continue to arrive into the country, so you never know.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As The Clocks Go Back

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And so we begin the final day before the clocks go back and we fully lose our evenings to the dark.

The autumn migration is still going on all around. Today it seems that it is Black Redstarts that are on the move and are being reported on my Birdguides alert emails all over this part of the coast.

Below is a Robin, one of four ringed here a couple of days ago. Last weekend’s easterly winds brought in thousands of birds of all sorts of species from Europe and there is a good chance that this Robin is a continental bird. At Sandwich Bay Bird Observatory, seventeen Robins had been ringed the day before and in the past some of these have been previously ringed in Russia and Denmark – you don’t necessarily expect your garden Robin to have travelled so far.

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The patches of brown amongst the black of this male Blackcap tell the tale that this is a very young bird:

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We now know that the Chiffchaff that was caught here earlier in the month and found to be already ringed, was ringed at Farnborough Airport in Hampshire almost exactly 24 hours previously. This is a distance of 150kms (or 93 miles) as the Crow or Chiffchaff flies.

As I closed my last post, I was off up to the mobile hide to see if the migrating Ring Ouzel was going to visit the meadows for the third day running. Needless to say, it was a no-show but I enjoyed myself anyway photographing the other birds that had bothered to turn up:

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Yesterday morning, the sun was shining and the meadows were a hive of bird activity. There were a pair of these Wagtails:

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I believe that these are White Wagtails because of the slate-grey on their backs. White Wagtails are the European subspecies ‘alba’ of the Pied Wagtail which are only seen in Britain on passage. The subspecies that breeds in Britain is ‘yarrellii’ which is a very black-and-white bird.

Great Tits and Blue Tits were checking out nest boxes, including two Blue Tits who appeared out of the Swift box – we don’t want them in there, we are really hoping for Swifts next year. I remember now that we are meant to have the holes of this box blocked up while the Swifts are out of the country. House Sparrows were back at the House Martin nest box:

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There has been so much rain that all the trail cameras have become soggy and their lenses covered with condensation. But we can still just about see this female Kestrel, although she again doesn’t show her right leg to tell us if she is the bird that was ringed here a few weeks ago:

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I recently went on a guided nature walk  in the grounds of Waltham Place near Maidenhead in Berkshire. This a biodynamic and organic estate where there is a completely inspiring passion for wildlife and I have come away with several ideas for things that I would like to do here. They have a large area of Comfrey and one of the gardeners rummaged around the base of these plants and brought out a caterpillar of the Scarlet Tiger Moth. Comfrey is the larval food plant for this moth and apparently they are always to be found there at this time of year, along with several other moth species too.

We have our own patch of Comfrey in the allotment area of the meadows:

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I had never thought to investigate the soil underneath these plants before and I found it to be absolutely alive with Woodlice and other invertebrates. A Frog and Smooth Newt as well had been attracted in by the dense, damp cover and all those insects to eat.

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We have put another small load of hay near the Badger sett for the Badgers to use as bedding:

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Chiffchaff and the new load of hay

For several nights now, there have been many photos of this:

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We changed this camera to video as it got dark and found that the Fox was just using its lofty perch on top of the hay pile as a viewing gallery to watch the Badgers as they went backwards and forwards from the cliff path to the peanuts.

Meanwhile, the Badgers are working away at getting this hay pile underground:

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Going into the difficult days of winter, our resident foxes are looking good and long may that last:

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In my previous post I was talking about the coppicing course that we went on and I now realise that I was misspelling the subdivisions of a coppiced wood as ‘coup’ instead of ‘coupe’. Yesterday we made a start coppicing our own wood:

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If we do have Dormice living on the wood, then they like to hibernate in the centres of these hazel coppice stools and so we tried to be careful of this.

We had chosen to start on a particularly large and overgrown stool and it took us ages. However, once it was done, a patch of sky could be seen above us and now light will be hitting the wood floor:

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There is a lot more to be done to complete the section of the wood that we have in mind to be coppiced this winter but we have until the end of February until the birds start to nest.

In the regeneration area of the wood there are several Spindle trees that are loaded with berries this year. These berries are eaten by birds and other wildlife but are poisonous to humans:

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The Mustelid box in the wood has been visited by all sorts of things – this time it was bird – maybe a Dunnock?-  that hopped in. No Mustelids yet though.

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The Bushnell trail camera trained on the deeper pond in the wood is giving us clear photos with lovely intense colours. It was three or four times the cost of our other cameras but I think it was probably worth the outlay:

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Male Sparrowhawk
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Male Sparrowhawk flying away

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We had the opportunity last weekend to visit the enormous new scrape that is being dug by the Sandwich Bay Bird Observatory.  A new hide is also to built shortly. This year Slow Worms were transferred to the meadows here from nearby land that is to be developed and the developer made a sizeable donation to this project as part of our agreement to rehome these reptiles.

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The RSPB is also creating a new reserve close to this scrape and so this whole area will become a large and fantastic sanctuary for birds. It will be so interesting to see how this all develops over the next few years.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Coppicing for Beginners

We have just returned from a coppicing course in the beautiful Malvern Hills. In 1884 an Act of Parliament was passed to protect the area from ‘Encroachment’ and the west side of the hills in particular, with its sweeping views out towards Wales, is still absolutely lovely.  The woodsman who was running the coppicing course has been granted a nine year lease to manage one of the woods on this western flank of the hills. It is divided into eight sections – or coups – each roughly half an acre of Hazel coppice with Oak standards. One coup gets cut down each year on a rotational basis.

Here is the coup he cut last year and so the small Hazel coppice stools are currently only one year old:

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But we were going to be starting the cutting of the eight year old coup:

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This is some of the equipment we were using:

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The poles with the hooks at the end were the ‘Slashers’ used to clear the undergrowth around the coppice. Loppers were then wielded to continue the clearing of the ground. Once we could get at the coppices, they were cut with bow saws, although I personally much preferred using a pruning saw.

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A Japanese pruning saw that we bought off him
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Demonstrating different styles of bill hooks – he uses these mainly for cleaning up the cut coppice poles to turn them into saleable products such as hedge-laying stakes, bean poles and pea sticks.

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Cutting just a few stools of the coppice very quickly created a large clearing in the coup. Managing the coups on a rotational basis like this ensures that there is always one part of the wood which is in the right phase of development to be used by the great variety of species that thrive in coppiced woodland.

I had intended to take many more photos but unfortunately it rained for most of the day and I had to keep my camera out of the wet.

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There is something very calming and good for one’s mental health about spending an entire day working outside in the wood. We had no shelter from the elements – the lease prohibits any tarpaulin to be erected – but somehow that didn’t matter when you are either working hard or warming up by a ‘comfort fire’ with a hot cup of tea.

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This fire stand was made by a blacksmith to the woodsman’s design

 

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Tea making in the wood

In just one day we have learnt a lot and now return to Kent with new-found confidence to tackle the overgrown Hazel coppice in our own wood. We are also bringing some other ideas back with us such as this large heap of rotting coppice poles. Apparently a fantastic numbers of Beetles have been seen emerging from this:

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We have always had a thing for Ring Ouzels. In fact, twice we have gone out with a nature guide onto Dartmoor specifically to see them, driven on by the knowledge that a few pairs nested in remote valleys on the moor each summer. However, on both occasions, we were unsuccessful and we have since learnt from our guide that, sadly, Ring Ouzels now no longer nest on Dartmoor. They do still breed in upland areas further north in the UK but they are in steep decline and are in a whole lot of trouble.

We did eventually see one very briefly on Dartmoor two years ago – a beautiful male as he migrated through – but that is the only glimpse we have ever had.

So, how jolly exciting is this then?:

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The feathers look more like scales on its tummy
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The classic Ouzel white bib is only partly formed on this juvenile bird

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This is a first-winter juvenile Ring Ouzel on its way out of the country on migration but we presumed it stopped in for a drink with us just as it was getting dark the day before yesterday

But then it was back yesterday as well, same place, same approaching-dusk sort of time. Hopefully it spent the day  fuelling up on all the berries that are dripping off the hedgerows at the moment:

Trail camera

Trail camera

We all know that it won’t be back a third time, but I have set up my mobile hide and will spend a couple of hours in there with my camera this evening just in case.

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Poor weather has stopped the bird ringer spending as much time in the meadows as he might otherwise have done but he has now caught and ringed two Firecrests. Much rarer than Goldcrests, these little birds have a black eye stripe and a more intensely-coloured crest. The Firecrest below was already ringed:

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When the bird ringer subsequently went through his records, he discovered that it was he who in fact ringed it on 27th October 2017 here in the meadows. Two years later, here it is again in the very same place.

Getting on towards the end of October and there are still bands of Swallows swooping over the meadows. They have got a long way to go and it is getting late in the year- they surely need to get a move on:

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We have been seeing a lot of the Green Woodpeckers recently. Perhaps they are more active now that the soil is softer and they can more easily probe it for ants.

Trail camera

Trail camera

The softer soil also makes it more easy for Badgers to dig for worms, of course:

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I think the photo below has wonderful composition and would make a good painting, if only I had any skill in that area:

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I have finally got  a photo of the faces of all three of the female and young Badgers to confirm that none of them are the adult male, Scarface, who has a heftier skull. Therefore, I can now confirm with reasonable confidence that the sett currently contains four Badgers once you add in Scarface.

Trail camera

Last summer I harvested seed from the Kidney Vetch that was growing in the meadows. Kidney Vetch is the larval food plant of the Small Blue – a rare Butterfly that we have a little colony of here. Kidney Vetch is a short-lived perennial and has a tendency to have some very poor years which then lead to subsequent crashes in Small Blue numbers. It all seems very precarious and I have an on-going project to greatly increase the bank of Kidney Vetch growing here so that every year there will be lots available for the Small Blue caterpillars to eat.

I germinated the harvested seed and, throughout this summer, have been growing the plants on. Now they are ready to be planted out into the meadows:

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The plants have gone in by the wild pond which seems to be a bit of a focus for our Small Blue colony. Fingers crossed that next year will be a good year for these lovely, tiny Butterflies.

We have recently acquired a small load of York stone from a local garden centre that was closing down:

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This stone has now been made into a Reptile refuge in the Ant paddock where we have always seen a lot of Lizards:

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It is very charming to see mossy tree stumps in the regeneration area of the wood being used as comfortable perching posts by the Squirrels who must be carrying these spiky Sweet Chestnuts quite a distance because there aren’t any of these trees in this area:

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Pretty much every mossy stump had a Sweet Chestnut husk on it – I must put trail cameras on a couple next autumn to try to catch them at it. It is a time of great plenty for Squirrels in the wood at the moment and here is one with a Hazelnut:

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All this rain has meant that this autumn has become a fantastic year for fungus around here. I am busy photographing it to try to work out what it is but am finding it difficult. One of the reasons for this is that it often looks very different when it first comes above ground to when it has been up for a while. Here is a clump from a week ago that has come up near the entrance to the wood

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Now, a week later, this same clump looks like this:

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So, even though I don’t necessarily know what these Toadstools are, they are lovely things and I will finish today with some more that have recently appeared in the wood:

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The Annual Cut Commences

The annual cut of the meadows has now begun in earnest, although we are having to choreograph the work to fit into pauses in the rain.

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The much smaller first meadow is now completed and work on the second meadow has started. Several bits have been left long and one area has been cut really hard to leave patches of bare soil because we want to sow wildflower seed there.

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The triangle to be sown
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This area is cut really low, exposing soil in places.

We bought the seed from Emorsgate:

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I love looking at their website – it is even possible to buy a seed mix taken from the Prince of Wales’ famous wildflower meadows at Highgrove. Although that would not be appropriate for our soil conditions here – we have bought EM6F which is a seed mix of native perennials for chalky soil.

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Emorsgate EM6F wildflower seed – perennials for chalky soil

We have also added in some additional Yellow Rattle seed, a plant that is parasitic on grass and so knocks it back, allowing the flowers more space to flourish. Cutting the meadows and taking away the arisings year-on-year also reduces nutrient levels and discourages grasses but Yellow Rattle is another tool in the flower meadow toolbox:

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Yellow Rattle seed

All the cut grass was piled up near the gate into the meadow and over the next few months we will work at getting that away through a combination of taking loads down to the recycling centre and bagging it up and putting it out for the fortnightly green waste collection. We did deposit some down by the Badger sett to see if they would want to use it for bedding. We suspected they would.

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The pile of freshly cut hay near the Badger sett

The next morning there was a grassy trail leading from the pile to the the hole under the fence, beyond which the Badger sett lies:

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The trail then led along the cliff path towards the sett:

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In fact here they are, the beauties, caught red-footed:

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Harvesting from the pile….
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…under the fence and onto the cliff path….

 

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…and down to the sett

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A couple of days later and the hay pile had all disappeared underground:

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I love the thought of them now sleeping on freshly cut, sweet-smelling hay.

In a previous post I mentioned an experiment we were planning to see if Yellow Rattle has the same negative effect on Tor Grass as it does on other meadow grasses. We have Tor Grass along the northern boundary of the meadows and it is starting to spread slightly which concerns us because it can be a bit of a thug. We also have a few isolated clumps of it and we selected one of these on which to conduct our experiment:

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A clump of Tor Grass
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Closer up, showing what a coarse, vigorous grass it is.
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Starting to cut into the clump

At this point of the proceedings, a Lizard was spotted just in front of the tractor and so a rescue mission was successfully carried out:

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The meadows are generally cut quite high meaning that small mammals, amphibians and reptiles like this Lizard that live amongst the grass would normally be expected to survive. But in this instance we were going to be cutting the grass really short to sow seed onto it and so we were happy to have spotted and rescued this little thing first.

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The grass cut low..
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..and then even lower to expose the soil.
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Yellow Rattle seed was sown
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The experiment completed for now.

We have marked where the patch of Tor Grass is and we will monitor it next year to see how it gets on.

One area of the second meadow has quite a lot of Creeping Thistle which is another plant that we would like get under control. Therefore, we are also going to sow Yellow Rattle there to see what happens. I know we can’t expect Yellow Rattle to be our knight-in-shining-armour for all our problems but there seems nothing to lose from having a go.

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The area with a lot of Thistles is cut very low prior to sowing Yellow Rattle.

This is quite interesting. In the photo below, the grass on the left hand side was cut last autumn. However, the grass on the right hand side has been left two years since it was cut. The right side is much browner because of all the anthills that have had an additional year to develop and grow.

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The bird ringer has been back and was busy ringing mainly Goldcrests and Chiffchaffs. He also got a Robin control – a bird that had been previously ringed elsewhere. He has now had three controls in the past two visits and we await information on where and when they had been ringed before.

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Goldcrest

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There are a lot of berries of various sorts now adorning the hedgerows ready as an autumnal feast for birds. This Mistle Thrush rather fancied these Rowan Berries:

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This beautiful Kestrel came down for a bath:

Trail camera

Trail camera

Trail camera

Trail camera

At no point in the sequence of photos do we see her right leg to tell if she is the bird that was ringed here a couple of weeks ago.

Green Woodpeckers are regular users of the bathing facilities:

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Trail camera

Trail camera

Magpies are very enthusiastic bathers – no wonder these little ponds need topping up with water so very often.

Trail camera

Trail camera

Below is another keen user of the ponds, although an altogether less welcome one having seen it eat hundreds of frogs and newts here earlier this year. So, here it is back again but we have formulated a plan to stop the same wholesale slaughter happening again next frog-mating season and so we are not unduly worried:

Trail camera

The Badgers here are pretty much strictly nocturnal and it is only in the very short nights around June that we stand a chance of seeing them in the light. But here is a Badger out of her sett in the middle of the afternoon:

Trail camera

I find this slightly alarming because surely something was wrong for her to have done that.  But all seems well again now and so the reason for this most unexpected appearance remains a mystery.

The owner of our local, friendly garden centre is retiring after many decades of running his plant sales and landscaping business. They have done a lot of work in these meadows over the years including digging both of the large ponds and it feels like the end of an era. However, on the plus side, he is now clearing his land and we have relieved him of these assorted bits and pieces of York stone which we will use to build some sort of wildlife structure as a project over the winter:

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Included amongst the stone is this one:

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It has been suggested that this stone is from some sort of Roman water system but I don’t think there is necessarily any sound basis for this speculation. From time to time an archeologist visits these meadows and we will see what he thinks when he is next here.

The wood is looking completely glorious at this time of year.

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There are now so many Toadstools. I have tried to identify them but I’m afraid don’t have a lot of confidence in my IDs – it’s difficult!

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Coprinus silvaticus
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Not at all sure
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Brick Tuft? (Hypholoma lateritium)
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We have a lot of Silver Birch Trees and so were expecting to see these Fly Agarics – nearly always associated with Silver Birch.

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I love this photo of wood Badgers:

Trail camera

I finish today with a series of photos that I just want to entitle ‘Unexpected Item in the Bagging Area’ We have moved the Mustelid box to the wood where we thought we would be more likely to get a Stoat or Weasel. So far we have had Mice, Voles, Shrews and once a Squirrel came in. It is positioned in dense undergrowth but not that far from a small warren:

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So, after that introduction, here are the photos:

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For the last couple of days this adorable young Rabbit has been spending an awful lot of time in the box and even sleeping in there. So what will happen now if a Stoat or Weasel did now decide to take a look in? This sweet young Rabbit would be a sitting duck, that’s what. Always so much to worry about.

Wild Beekeeping Special

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All through last winter, one shelf of our fridge was taken up with Red Mason Bee cocoons. They were being stored at the right temperature and humidity to keep them safe and healthy ready for their triumphant emergence in the spring.

In late March we put mixed-sex batches (the male cocoons are smaller) out into the release box and waited for them to hatch and fly away:

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Although I have photographed this release box on the ground, it was positioned on a post about five feet off the ground, facing south.

The idea of the several small batches is that not all your eggs are then in one basket should an unexpected patch of bad weather blow up and kill all the newly hatched Bees. However, in the event, the cocoons remained for ages in the release box without hatching and so I did end up putting them out altogether because I started worrying that I was going to run out of springtime.

But most of the cocoons did eventually hatch – the whole thing was a success and we are now filled with a bit more confidence to do it all again.

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The Red Mason Bee observation boxes also went back up in late March, ready for the Bees to make their nests within.

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These boxes had been thoroughly cleaned from last year. Then boiling water was poured over them followed by a drying out in front of the Aga and they even then went into the freezer for a month. So I was pretty confident that these boxes were clean! The outer casing was painted with a non-toxic varnish although the inner wooden blocks were not touched:

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This is a tiny pot and it was very expensive (about £25 I think). There has to be a cheaper alternative.

They also had an insect barrier grease spread on the gaps and cracks to minimise the chance of parasites squeezing their way in via the back.

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The Red Mason Bees mated (the smaller male, with the white fur, on top)

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Although this turned into a bit of a mass bundle with other males trying to be involved as well:

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Once mated, the females started building their nests in the observation boxes. Eggs were laid on piles of pollen and wet mud used to wall each egg off into a separate cell.

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This is from a different observation box but I have included it here because it does show the nest structure well. We no longer use this box because we think that, if entirely encased in glass, moisture cannot dissipate and the nest fails.
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The observation box with the side panel temporarily removed

Meanwhile, the parasites gathered in the vicinity looking for a chance to get their eggs onto the piles of pollen instead. Some of the parasites were really beautiful such as this Ruby-tailed Wasp:

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The Bee eggs hatched into larvae that ate the pollen and grew:

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Once the Bees stopped flying at about the beginning of June we took the boxes inside, wrapped them in tights so that predators couldn’t gain access and kept them under the stairs in the cool and the dark to see out the rest of the summer.

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This year, we also had some different Summer observation boxes which went out once the Red Mason Bee boxes came in. These boxes have tunnels of different sizes for summer-flying Bee species.

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These summer boxes also went in tights under the stairs as the summer came to an end.

Now that it is October, it is time to harvest the cocoons and clean them up. The two Summer Bee boxes are on the left in the photo below. These species spend the winter as soft larvae rather than hard cocoons and so we can’t remove parasites without damaging the Bees. We will have to leave these boxes as they are and just bring them out next spring so that the Bees can hatch out.

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However, the earlier-flying Red Mason Bees have now formed hard, dark-coloured cocoons that can be safely handled.

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As well as the cocoons, there is the mud used to build the walls, some unused pollen and a lot of parasitic shenanigans, despite all of those precautions we took.

We used narrow wooden coffee stirrers to push the cocoons out of the wooden blocks:

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and put them in batches into a bucket of tepid water. The cocoons float and everything else sinks:

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Once they were scooped out of the water, we sand-cleaned them by shaking them in sand vigorously for a few minutes:

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We gave them one last dunk to wash off the sand:

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and then they were rested on some kitchen roll before going into the cocoon fridge storage box:

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Actually, I have ordered a second one of these Humidibee boxes so that the cocoons won’t be so densely packed once it arrives:

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And here is their home for the winter, our fridge:

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My feeling is that we had fewer healthy Bee cocoons and more parasites this year but I am sure that it varies greatly from year to year and is dependant on all sorts of factors.

But good to have got that all done for another year and already looking forward to seeing them hatch out next spring.