Bats in the Wood

There has been some bat excitement this week and it all started with this photograph:

Intriguing night shot from a trail camera looking at a woodpecker hole. The hole is just below the thin branch near the top

There are four bats around the tree, including the one perched at the entrance to the hole. The ears suggest that these are Brown Long-eared Bats, which tend to live in light woodland and typically roost in trees. They do indeed have the most fantastic ears.

Image from Wikimedia Commons. Ernst Haeckel – Detail of the 67th plate from Ernst Haeckel’s Kunstformen der Natur (1904). Brown Long-eared Bat

The ecologist helping us with the Dormouse monitoring is also a bat expert and she told us that bat tree roosts are very transitory at this time of year, when they have recently awoken from hibernation and before they have properly settled down. We met her at the wood that same evening just before dark to try to catch them emerging from the hole.

She arrived with a lot of high tech and expensive equipment. These bat detectors were very good, showing the frequency of calls of any passing bat and also saving the data so that it can be reviewed and properly analysed later.

Two infrared floodlights and a sophisticated IR camera were trained on the hole. Even when it got completely dark, that camera had a remarkable view as if it were still daytime:

We then waited for it to get dark. The Pipistrelles are the first bats to emerge at dusk and soon we had a Soprano Pipistrelle feeding along the track behind us. It was light enough to still see it by eye and, for the first time, not only could I watch a bat but I also knew exactly which species it was, which greatly increased my appreciation of it. Before long there were several Soprano and Common Pipistrelles flying around us.

Barracuda1983. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons. Common Pipistrelle

But we were waiting for the Brown Long-eared Bats and they don’t come out until it is properly dark – around 45 minutes after sunset. And then, on cue, there were five Long-eared Bats above our heads – seen by the bat expert but but we beginners could see nothing. The bat detectors, however, recognised their quiet, lower frequency calls. Bats make their echo-locating calls in order to hear the reflected sound back, and Long-eared bats with their enormous ears don’t need the sound to be very loud to still be able to hear it.

But we hadn’t seen these amazing bats emerging from the hole in the tree that we were monitoring and, in fact, subsequent review of the camera footage showed that they did not come out of there. The manner in which they were flying, though, apparently suggested that they had just emerged very close by – perhaps even from another of the several holes in that same tree.

I wonder if the bats had looked in the woodpecker hole and decided not to go in because there was a woodpecker in there? The birds are definitely still interested in the tree:

Two Green Woodpeckers at the tree

It was really enjoyable evening although a shame, of course, that we didn’t get photos of the bats emerging. There are now plans to try to spend another evening in the wood with bat detectors once the monitoring season is properly underway from May.

In the meantime, we are now inspired to install our three new Kent bat boxes in the wood. With open bottoms, these wooden boxes with recycled plastic coverings are self cleaning and, once up, can be left alone for many years.

Elsewhere in the wood, we have a camera looking at a fox den. It seems that I was wrong last week when I said that one of the foxes using the den was heavily pregnant – even though she is definitely stout, I now see that she is lactating:

Lactating vixen

And her tiny cubs have already been born:

The cub is so dark at this age
A tender moment between a parent and cub
Two of them at least

The camera on the owl box has captured some more visits of a Tawny Owl to the box but not as many as might be expected if a bird was sitting on eggs in there. I have had a thought – perhaps the nest itself is located elsewhere and this box is being used as an occasional roost for the bird that is not busy incubating the eggs?

Other interesting photos from the wood this week:

Redwing remain with us for now. It is probably still quite wintery in the far north where they breed, so they shouldn’t arrive there too early
Woodcock, however, have gone. This one, though, was seen this week and has possibly stopped off briefly on migration
A male pheasant displaying to a female by pulling his wing down and trying to look huge. I think she actually does look a little impressed
Sometimes Buzzards just look like they are wearing a pair of brown trousers
One of the bird ringers spent a busy morning ringing on his own in the wood. He ringed over forty birds, including a Great Spotted Woodpecker, a Coal Tit and, thrillingly, two Nuthatch which are rare in our part of Kent. He also saw 8-10 Crossbill fly over which is a new species for the wood

Over in the meadows, the baby badgers have once again been moved, and in the same direction as the last two times. My latest theory is that, underground, these mischievous little cubs are crawling away from their nursery and the mother is having to repeatedly return them, doing so overground where there is more space to carry them. Here is the first cub:

Nine minutes later, a second one is carried across:

Foxes and badgers live in close proximity here and yet they largely manage to completely avoid each other. On a recent wild night, however, the roar of the wind meant they couldn’t hear much else as both a badger and a fox tried to use the hole under the fence at the same time. The badger initially jumped back in surprise:

The fox was also shocked and its knee jerk reaction was to hiss:

But then the badger, having taken stock and remembered she was the top dog, charged at the fox who strategically withdrew backwards:

What fun. I love to observe the interactions between these two species as they are forced to rub along together.

An altogether more peaceful badger scene:

The One-eyed Vixen has once more caught mange and I have just finished giving her, and our other foxes here, a course of medicine delivered in nightly honey sandwiches which they love:

The One-eyed Vixen in the foreground with fur missing from her back

Now we wait with our fingers crossed to see if the hair loss continues or if the treatment has worked and her fur starts to regrow.

On this same camera this week, there was a Tawny Owl on the ground. It is unusual to see a Tawny Owl in the meadows:

I suppose owls do need to go down onto the ground to catch their rodent prey but I can’t help but worry for them after we got this photo in November 2021 of a fox carrying an owl:

Other photos from the meadows this week:

One of my favourites – the Tawny Mining Bee female. The rich colours of this bee are always a showstopper for me
Magpie with a snail
A Woodpigeon collecting sticks to build a nest
The crows are further advanced in their nest building and are now lining theirs with soft wool from the wool dispenser
We have only ever once before seen a Red-legged Partridge in the meadows. We do regularly see the native Grey Partridge here but unusually haven’t seen one this year yet
The two-year old Herring Gull with something to say for itself
X9LT, the female of our pair of Herring Gulls here
Our lovely pair of Herring Gulls enjoying a moment of tranquility together

In our daughter and her fiancé’s garden in the North Downs, the hedgehogs have awakened:

I wonder if they will get hoglets this year? I do hope they do.

I finish today with a photo of our dog with one of the cowslips which, like little yellow chandeliers, are lighting up the meadows this April.

Spring Matters

There are two trail cameras in the vicinity of the badger sett in the meadows and every spring we are treated to fleeting glimpses of cubs as they are moved between burrows. We think that, in all likelihood, the different tunnels do connect under the ground, but that it is just easier to move the young if they are brought up above. It certainly then means that we are treated to early, tantalising cameo appearances of the little cubs that will soon be joyfully romping around the meadows.

Here is our first sighting of this year’s baby badger, tiny and hairless, at ten days old on February 21st:

We then had to wait until the cub was thirty-five days old before we saw it again, now much grown, on 18th March:

This week, on 28th March, it has been moved again. Now forty-five days old, the mother badger was struggling to stop the cub from dragging on the ground:

There were two surprising things about this. The first was that the cub was being moved in the same direction as last time. But the second, bigger surprise was that, this time, there was a second cub that was moved fifteen minutes later. This second one was carried facing its mother which worked better without the cub’s legs sticking out forwards – but that did mean that we didn’t get such a good view:

Two days later, on 30th March, the plot thickened further. Now, a single cub was carried in the same direction that the other two had been a couple of nights earlier.

This baby badger seems smaller and easier to carry. Perhaps the answer is that there are two different litters, one with one cub and the other with two?

I have looked in my records for the dates that the young badgers have been officially allowed above ground in previous years: 7th April 2017, 17th April 2018, 16th April 2019 and 23rd of April 2020. Last year there were no cubs. So we have a little while to wait yet before we get to see them properly and solve the mystery of what on earth is going on.

All across the meadows are shallow little pits where badgers have pawed the ground to get at the earthworms that make up 70% of their diet. On a damp and misty morning this week, we realised that every single one of these holes that we looked at had a spiderweb strung across it as a sort of pitfall trap. There must surely be several thousand of them.

The web highlighted by water droplets in the mist

But what are the spiders hoping to catch in these webs? Possibly ants, ground beetles and other invertebrates bumbling along the ground and falling by accident into the hole and thus into the clutches of the spider?

Depressingly, the One-eyed Vixen seems to have got mange again and has now lost a patch of fur on her back:

This will be the third year in succession that I have had to treat her for mange. In the past, I have sought advice from The Fox Project charity and, as previously suggested by them, have started a week’s course of medicine-laced honey sandwiches that go out at dusk with the peanuts. She is an easy fox to treat since she is always ready waiting for the peanuts and so fingers crossed this will once more be successful.

The One-eyed Vixen’s handsome mate at the badger hole.

Another year of being Red Mason Bee guardians is commencing. The bee cocoons have arrived in the post and are now out in the release box, ready to hatch:

The cardboard tubes that we hope they will nest in are in position above the release box:

All we need now is some warmth to get things going.

Bird nesting season is always an interesting time in the wood and this year particularly so. There has been another photo of a Tawny Owl in the nest box:

It is now impossible for me to not be excited about this. Typically Tawnies lay their first egg around the third week of March, with chicks hatching thirty days later and fledging around the end of May. I feel like I should whisper this question: Could there already be eggs in this box?

The buzzard has also been sitting on the horizontal branch where we see it a lot. In the summer before we bought the wood, buzzards nested at the top of one of the tall silver birches here. However, this nest has long ago been blown away by the winds and the birds have made no further attempts to nest in our wood. There is a lot of buzzard activity here, though, and I feel sure that they are nesting in woods nearby.

The camera looking at this box is old and slightly temperamental so we decided to replace it with a newer, hopefully higher resolution one, and set it to take videos.

The new camera going up into position

We have another camera on a pole looking at a cherry tree where Green Woodpeckers have nested for the last two years. It seems that something intriguing is going on here as well.

As we approached the tree, there was a scurrying noise such that the claws of a squirrel might make as it scrabbled up a tree. The dog heard it too:

On reviewing the camera footage, we saw that a squirrel had been carrying nesting material up the tree:

The woodpecker nest hole is just below that skinny branch coming off the trunk

Because this tree currently has no leaves, we could clearly see that there isn’t a squirrel drey being constructed up in the branches. There are, however, many old woodpecker nest holes in this tree and one entrance is really quite large. Could the squirrels be nesting in here? If so, they would be very close neighbours of the woodpeckers:

We attached another camera to a pole and trained it on the possible squirrel nest.

The cherry tree and its two paparazzi cameras looking at different holes

On returning to review the cameras, we can now confirm that squirrels are indeed nesting in the large, higher hole:

Nesting material going in
There was a lot of squirrel activity in and out of the hole

The Green Woodpeckers also came to look in this squirrel hole from time to time, possibly to check out the neighbours…

…as well as only occasionally looking into the hole they traditionally nest in. Perhaps they won’t now nest here this year – after all, squirrels are major predators of young birds in nests.

As we step around the wood, the dog always carries out an in depth investigation of every one of the numerous rabbit holes that we pass. But one burrow in particular called for extended scrutiny this time and it was difficult to get her away. Once we did, though, we noticed that there were pheasant feathers at the entrance – the dog had possibly found us a fox den:

A very active-looking hole with a wodge of feathers at the entrance

Having established that squirrels were definitely nesting in the cherry tree, we have now moved that camera onto a shorter stick and trained it onto this potential fox den to see what we got.

This morning we visited the wood again. I went to check the camera and how about this for the first shot?

A fox sticks its head out of the burrow at dusk

One of the foxes using the den looks to be pregnant:

We will leave this camera here for now to see if we can see cubs emerge this spring

In the meadows, there have been an alarming number of rabbits seen in the mouths of foxes recently, but this has only ever been seen once on the cameras in the wood. The wood does have both foxes and rabbits:

However, there are less foxes and more rabbits than in the meadows, and these rabbits have so very many burrows to escape down if being pursued. The woodland also has good numbers of pheasant and squirrels as alternative prey for the foxes. All these factors must lead to there being a very different ecological balance in the wood which is probably good news for the rabbits.

Another rabbit lost in the meadows this week

Since birds are currently busy building their nests, we have set them up a wool dispenser in the wood. The dog’s food arrives frozen, insulated by wool blankets, and it is this packaging wool that we have teased apart and stuffed into the wire box to be reused by the birds. This dispenser is proving very popular with the Great Tits and Blue Tits and it is nice to think that their babies will be sitting cosily on the dog food wool in due course.

We have set a wool cage up in the meadows as well:

A Horse Chestnut tree unfurling new leaves in its own inimitable fashion

One of our sons, travelling the world for a year with his girlfriend, has spent the last two weeks on the Galapagos Islands but has now reached Peru. He sent us a photo of this enormous blue wasp:

It is difficult to judge the scale of the photograph but these blue-black Tarantula Hawk Spider Wasps are around 5cm long – one of the largest parasitic wasps in the world. They use their sting to paralyse Tarantula spiders and then drag them off to their nest. A single egg is then laid on the unfortunate spider, which then hatches and the wasp larva feeds on the still living prey. Luckily these insects rarely sting humans without provocation but, when they do, their sting is among the most painful of all insects. One researcher has described this pain as ‘immediate, excruciating, unrelenting pain that simply shuts down one’s ability to do anything, except scream’. 

I am enjoying being sent selected natural wonders from Central and South America without having to leave my comfortable armchair. Soon they will be moving to Bolivia, and then on to Florida en route to Africa. More wildlife wonders no doubt await….

A Day for Mothers

It is Mothers’ Day here in the UK and a time to celebrate the unconditional love that mothers have for their children and acknowledge the sacrifices that they inevitably have had to make for them. We know of two mothers in the meadows so far this year. In this photo from last week, a badger moves her cub between burrows:

The other mother is the One-eyed Vixen, with her blind left eye, who has returned to her former svelte self – there will now be a litter of cubs safely tucked away somewhere. Foxes often utilise unused badger setts and there are certainly plenty of those on the cliffs:

Her mate is a very fine fellow indeed with a distinctive dip at the end of his tail:

Here he is bringing another rabbit in to feed his family this week..

…and one more as well:

This is him yet again, out and about during the day, with a pair of magpies keeping him under close observation:

It is perhaps a case of keeping your friends close, but your enemies closer. The fox is in the magpies’ personal space and they are watching his every move.

Here, the magpies are with him again, but this time they are hoping for an opportunity to get at the nightly peanuts. I deliberately wait until it is heavy dusk before putting these out so that I do not feed magpies, but even so it looks like I was too early ..

..although if I go later, I keep the foxes hanging about and they have better things that they should be doing:

Every evening I attempt to get the balance right.

There is a camera looking at a new badger hole in the meadows. We have noticed before that rats often utilise badger tunnels and this week they have been seen in and around the entrance of this new one:

The camera has also been taking photos of Peacock butterflies basking on the bare soil of the diggings which will be at a much higher temperature than the surrounding vegetated ground:

In fact, we decided to measure this temperature difference with an infrared thermometer:

The result was really quite amazing – the grass was 16° C but the bare soil was 28° C.

Under a reptile sampling square it was even hotter at 31° C. This week lizards have emerged from hibernation and are to be found warming up in this heat:

Slow worms hibernate in holes under the ground and the entrance to one of these tunnels is very obvious here:

So fond have we become of Herring Gulls these days that we now find ourselves admiring other gulls when we are out and about. This pair, with the larger male in the background, was down on the beach and they both look so very similar to Chuckles and the colour-ringed X9LT that we see in the meadows. If it wasn’t for the lack of that orange ring, I’d have thought it was them.

This next gull is being seen in the meadows at the moment. Herring Gulls are long-lived birds and take four years to fully develop their adult plumage and start to breed. I think this must be a bird born in 2020, the grey in its wings now starting to replace the mottled brown feathers of a juvenile gull:

Before the storms of a month or so ago, there was quite a flock of Yellowhammer building up. Sadly, numbers now seem to have dropped but it is lovely to hear them belting out their distinctive song from the hedgerows these days.

Four is the maximum number seen on the cameras at the moment

This bird looks so much like a racing pigeon, that I was sure I was going to see rings round its ankles. There aren’t any though, so it must be an odd-looking feral pigeon passing through.

Until last autumn, we would always see several racing pigeon each year, stopping for a quick rest during a race back from France or Spain. I believe that international pigeon racing was going to have to stop in the UK last October due to European regulations concerning movements of livestock – but I haven’t been able to find out if that actually happened or if a last minute exemption for racing pigeons was negotiated. We shall have to see if any of these birds turn up this summer.

It is rare to see a Wren taking a bath here:

The charismatic Bee-flies are now hanging around the meadows, on the look out for mining bee nests to parasitise. This is a Dotted Bee-fly with black spots on its wings:

It has been beautifully sunny all week, although the keen north-easterly breeze blowing in off the sea is a constant reminder that it is still only March. Nevertheless, we been working in the garden and catching up on jobs in the meadows.

One of these outstanding jobs was to build an insect hotel in the paddock using wood from the winter coppicing work and other assorted things that were lying around. We under estimated how many logs it would need, though, and didn’t have enough to quite get to the top:

But there are plenty more logs available in the wood to finish this masterpiece off in due course. I do love an insect hotel.

In the wood, there is a camera on a pole looking at this Tawny Owl box:

The Beech grove owl box in the wood

There has been some recent and exciting owl activity around this box and I’m pleased to say that I have another image of an owl going into the box to show you:

There have also been many photos of a buzzard sitting on the horizontal branch in front of the box:

It is always the same bird. Elsewhere in the wood, a different camera has also often been seeing this bird, perched up in a hazel coppice:

We do have a second camera on a pole – this one is looking at the cherry tree that woodpeckers have nested in for the last three years. It is not taking many photos but here is a Green Woodpecker at the hole:

I’m not sure what is going on with that Squirrel but I view it with suspicion.

A female Blackbird has been collecting wet leaves from this mini pond for about a fortnight so far. I suppose that wet leaves stay where they are put more and are easier to weave into her nest:

Moschatel, or Townhall Clock, grows well in a damp patch of the wood:

For the last photos today, I am taking you off to the lovely village of Wye in the North Downs, where one of our daughters lives and where we went today for Mothers Day lunch. We accompanied them down to the nearby River Stour where they test monthly water samples for phosphates and nitrates as volunteers for Kent Wildlife Trust:

It is really good to know that a group of volunteers set aside time in their busy lives to keep an eye on water quality at set points along the river like this.

I look forward to hearing more about what all these results will reveal about the health of this lovely river.

The Helpful House

Each morning, at first light, a pair of Crows like to sit on their thrones on the roof of the house to survey their kingdom:

They call loudly and energetically from here, proclaiming that this is their land and anyone brave enough to question that fact can expect a fight.

However, Chuckles the Herring Gull is not prepared to accept any such nonsense from a Crow:

X9LT, the colour-ringed female gull

But it is not just as a lofty Crow perch that our house makes itself useful to wildlife. In places, it has Kent hanging peg-tiles on its walls and, getting old as they are, more seem to have fallen to the ground every time we look. We are going to have to do something about this eventually but, in the meantime, House Sparrows are enjoying the cavities that the lost tiles create.

This hole looks occupied and from inside the house I could hear that something was in there:

I loitered outside for a while and saw this female House Sparrow come out:

Should we ever get round to replacing the tiles, we will consider putting up some nest boxes on this side of the house to compensate the Sparrows for their loss.

Another aspect of the house has a jolly assortment of Swift and House Martin boxes up:

All of these boxes are nested in by Sparrows rather than the birds they are intended for, but a new nesting season is just beginning, so who knows?

Although badger cubs don’t officially come above ground until April, in mid February we saw a ten day old cub being moved from one burrow to another in its mother’s mouth:

This week, the cub was moved again. It is now thirty-five days old and much bigger than the last glimpse we had of it:

There seems to be just one cub this year and we are looking forward to getting to know it better when it is allowed properly above ground in about three weeks time.

Rabbit haemorrhagic disease has caused a catastrophic crash in rabbit numbers across Europe in recent years and we do not often see rabbits in the meadows. But there is a small community of them in a neighbouring field and sometimes they do venture under the fence to us.

Peering through the hedgerow to photograph a rabbit eating grass in the next field. There is a small warren in amongst that dense bramble behind

This week we saw a sweet baby rabbit and its parent in our meadows:

But seeing rabbits here makes me worry for them since the densely vegetated cliffs allow for a thriving population of foxes and other would-be rabbit predators. As if to nicely illustrate the point, there was this photo one evening:

Twenty minutes later, the fox returned with just the hind legs and tail of the rabbit:

In the last post I mentioned a distinctive Magpie, with feathers lost on his face, that has been building a nest here:

It could be a mite infection that has caused this feather loss

The Bird Ringers set their nets up in the meadows this week and caught and ringed two Magpies, one of which was this very bird:

Great to get an opportunity to see him up close. You can just make out the ear hole behind the eye

They also caught a very smart Chaffinch, born last year. He had long wings, suggesting that he is an over-wintering continental bird, now about to leave the UK to return to his breeding grounds:

A Brambling was seen this week that is also on his way back:

As are these Starlings too:

Every day there continue to be more photos on the trail cameras of Magpies carrying sticks and mud:

We first saw a Magpie with a stick in its beak here on 24th January. One of the Bird Ringers can see a Magpie nest being built from his back garden in Folkestone and tells us that his birds started before Christmas.

This bird is now wearing a silver ring

Other photos from the meadows this week:

A Peacock on Blackthorn
A Comma feeding on Wild Plum blossom
A Blackbird with an ivy berry
The Phoenix, a two-masted brig, went past the meadows this week. Built in 1929 in Frederickshavn, Denmark, she began her life as an evangelical mission ship. She is now available to hire for events or to be used in films
A view over Dover Port this morning. Three P&O ferries, The Spirit of Britain, The Pride of Kent and The Pride of Canterbury are laid up on the cruise ship berth following the dramatic and depressing events of this week. All three of those ship names seem very ironic right now
The collateral chaos on the M20 resulting from the P&O ships being out of action

One morning this week, we walked the dog under our local white cliffs and enjoyed watching the Kestrels there. As a bird flies, the meadows would only be two minutes away from these cliffs and so surely these must be the same birds?

There is quite a lot of Goat Willow growing in the wood and it is not a tree that we had ever properly appreciated before. But when we visited this week, the catkins on the male trees had turned yellow with pollen and were alive with visiting bees. There were so many bees at work that their drone could be heard from some distance away – it was wonderful.

In the mature part of the wood, the catkins had only been produced right at the top of the tall trees, but on the smaller trees in the regeneration areas, they were lower and we could get a better look. The bees appeared to be mostly Honey Bees.

Clearly Goat Willow is a fantastic resource at this time of year and, from now on, we will give these trees their proper respect.

It was a really nice day with the sun shining strongly onto the newly coppiced area that we finished working on at the end of February:

Finishing off the last bit of coppicing at the end of February

It was extremely pleasing indeed to discover butterflies basking in the heat of this new clearing:

Brimstone in the newly cleared area
A pair of Comma were also appreciating the warmth, although they often broke off from their basking to fight each other, spiralling together high into the sky

We return to the meadows for the last photo today. 2022 is the year of The Queen’s Platinum Jubilee and The Queen’s Green Canopy initiative has been running since October to encourage the planting of thousands of trees across the land to mark this auspicious anniversary. It runs until the finish of the tree planting season at the end of March and then restarts in October until the end of the year.

This week we planted a Beech tree in the meadows to commemorate Elizabeth II’s 70 years on the throne:

Planting a tree always feels momentous and I can’t help but imagine what this tree, and indeed the meadows themselves, will look like in 70 years time.

The Progress of Spring

A few fresh, spring sprigs brought into the house, guaranteed to lift the spirits

Our son and his girlfriend, continuing their travels around the world, have now reached Ecuador and spent some days in the Amazon jungle. Here are some of the wildlife wonders that they have seen:

A pair of extraordinary Crested Owls. These birds are nocturnal and mainly eat insects but not much more is known about them, it seems. They have chosen a great place to roost here
A magnificent Scarlet Macaw
These parrots are licking the clay from the cliffs – called geophagy, eating the clay neutralises the quinidine and other toxins contained in the seeds and nuts of their daily diet, making them easier to digest
A clearwing butterfly

The UK has around 59 species of butterfly but Ecuador has 4,000 and that thought makes me want to jolly well pack my bags, get on a plane and go and see some of them. But – wait – there has been some warm spring sunshine here this week and our insects are tentatively starting to emerge. Perhaps there is no need for me to go anywhere – we have been delighted to welcome back a few early butterflies, some bees and hoverflies to the meadows.
The first mining bee of the season – a Yellow-legged Mining Bee male, I think
The hoverfly Eupeodes luniger on a daisy flower. There are several similar species but E. luniger is likely to be the one that is out and about this early in the season

We had been watching for the reawakening of the reptiles and it was yesterday, 12th March, that Slow Worms came up from their underground burrows. We haven’t seen any lizards yet.

The grand magpie nest building project is continuing apace:

I have realised, however, that there is now a second magpie nest being constructed. One of the birds that has recently been seen carrying sticks is very distinctive, with feathers lost from his face, and he is not one of the pair that has been building since January:

This idiosyncratic magpie has recently started building a nest

A magpie breeding territory is apparently twelve acres, and is held throughout the year. Perhaps the meadows, at only six acres, contain the junction of two separate territories both with a nest? We don’t know where either of these two nests are, but continue to try to work out what is going on.

Crows also build new nests every year but the pair here are yet to start. This is perhaps a crust of bread below that is being dunked into the water to soften it – we see these intelligent animals doing this sort of thing a lot:

A group of around twenty Stock Dove have been with us all winter. They are such lovely birds and we here in the UK are custodians of 60% of the global population, so we need to make sure we take care of them:

A Stock Dove courtship bow, but the female seems far from impressed:

A flock of House Sparrows has also been with us throughout the winter and remain here still. Hopefully they will be staying for the summer to breed:

A soggy House Sparrow flies away after his bath

A pair of Collared Dove are daily visitors. I was surprised to see how black and white, almost magpie-like, the underside of the tail of these birds is:

We don’t get Starlings here in the winter at all. But, every March, groups of Starling arrive from across the country, awaiting favourable conditions to fly back to their breeding grounds in the more northerly parts of Europe. Some years we have seen very large numbers indeed, but this is the most that have appeared on the trail cameras so far this March:

A rare sighting of a Tawny Owl in the meadows last night. Is it carrying something?

Our male Herring Gull, Chuckles, continues to have problems with an interloper on his patch. Chuckles always trumpets with his neck outstretched, while the new gull bends its neck down to call:

In this photo from last week, the two adult birds are adopting these same postures:

Over in the wood, we have been getting the rest of the Dormice nest boxes up so that they are ready to be discovered by the animals when they emerge from hibernation shortly:

Box 15 – halfway through the job

Sadly there has been no further action at the owl nest box. However, a Tawny did come down and drink at this pond on four nights this week:

Buzzard by the owl box
Sparrowhawk in the pond

The Bird Ringers visited the wood with some students who they are training. The students are teenagers which is great because it feels so important to inspire a love of nature in the younger generation. The group caught and ringed forty-four birds over the course of the morning, including a Great-spotted Woodpecker and two Marsh Tits:

The last photos for today are of the view out to sea on this spring Sunday morning. Two bulk carriers, Alda and Aspri, both of which have been here for several days waiting to get into Dover port, atmospherically flank the Dover lifeboat:

The Dover lifeboat, The City of London II, is presumably out on a training exercise. It is impossible not to have great respect for those brave volunteers who put themselves in danger and freely give up so much of their time to rescue others.

Up on the Downs

My mother grew up in a small, close knit community in South Wales and only started speaking English when she went to senior school.

1st March was St David’s day, which is a good opportunity to celebrate Welsh heritage and proudly fly the red dragon

It must have been quite a culture shock for her when she chose to come to England to do her teacher training in Eastbourne in Sussex, and it was the little primary school in Alfriston nearby where she was sent to get her first work experience.

Alfriston primary school where my mother taught seventy years ago, although it looks like it might have been significantly extended since her day. She met my father around this time and never again returned to Wales to live, although her heart remained in the country of her birth for the rest of her life

This week we stayed for a few nights in the lovely village of Alfriston where she first taught, which is nestled underneath the South Downs.

The Star in Alfriston – our most comfortable home for three nights this week – began life in the 14th century as a hostel for pilgrims, travelling between Battle Abbey and Chichester Cathedral
The hotel was beautifully decorated with spring bulbs

To the south of Alfriston, Seaford Head has an iconic view of the Seven Sisters, although I personally find the white cliffs around Dover to be more majestic and breathtaking:

The Seven Sisters with coastguard cottages in the foreground.
An information board at Seaford Head identifying each of the seven sisters

The Long Man of Wilmington was cut into the chalk of the South Downs possibly at the beginning of the 18th century. At 72 metres high, he is Europe’s largest portrayal of the human form.

One day we parked in the little village of Firle, where nearly all of the houses are still owned by the Firle Estate and it feels very much like you have stepped into the past.

Firle Place, the heart of the 7,500 acre estate and owned by the Gage family since the 15th century. One of our daughters is getting married here this summer and it was good to familiarise ourselves with the area in advance

We did a circular walk from Firle up onto the Downs and taking in Firle Beacon:

The camera has a high drama setting which nicely accentuates the abundant sheep paths:

On another day, we really enjoyed a visit to the 780 acre Scotney Castle estate, now owned by the National Trust:

The old Castle, built on an island of the River Bewl
In the 19th century, the family decided to build a new house up on the hill behind. They then deliberately dismantled parts of the old castle to create picturesque ruins
The new house and the sandstone quarry from whence they obtained the building stone
The contents of the house are more or less as they were when the family lived there. Although the estate was left to the Trust in 1970, the house has only been open to the public since 2007 after Mrs Hussey died aged 99
Several kilometres of hedgerow have been planted by the Trust on the estate in the last few years. Once established, these hedges have been ‘laid’ in the southern style. The stems are partially severed and laid over, allowing them to continue to grow, whilst also providing a thick barrier beneficial for wildlife and livestock control. Additional stakes and binders, coppiced from local woodland, are then added which give the hedge extra height and strength
There are lots of veteran trees on the estate, many being allowed to gracefully decline – standing deadwood is extremely valuable for wildlife. But there have also been new trees planted to succeed them in due course.
A spring near the old castle trickles forth bright orange, iron-rich water. Two ancient conifers nearby make it feel like this has been a special place for centuries. Mrs Hussey used to drink the waters from this spring every day which she thought helped her live to such a great old age
We also visited the 300 acre Bateman’s estate, the home of Rudyard Kipling and his family for many years before they donated it to the National Trust, none of their three children having produced any heirs

Back home again, I have been trying not to get excited about a Tawny Owl, who was spending time sitting near a Tawny nest box in the wood. But this week any such self-control has proved impossible, once I had seen these next two photos.

This may be blurry, but we have never before seen two owls together:

This is the photo that got me dancing round the room:

A Tawny Owl roosting in the box

A Buzzard also likes to sit on the same branch:

A Sparrowhawk comes down to a wood pond to take a bath:

By this point of the year, the Fieldfare seem to have gone but they have been replaced by Redwing. I remember this same pattern last winter as well. Two Redwing here:

We have now finished coppicing for the season and it will be interesting to see how this newly-cleared area develops over the next few years:

The next job is to get the rest of the Dormouse nest boxes up before the animals emerge from hibernation.

Across in the meadows, I first got a photo of a Magpie with a stick in his mouth on 24th January. That is six weeks ago, yet still they are at it:

X9LT, the female of our pair of Herring Gulls, poses up on the strip:

It is really nice that the male, Chuckles, continues to be seen with his chick from last year:

When a new Herring Gull has the audacity to try to come in, Chuckles with his chick on the left, is seriously displeased:

A Kestrel on a perch:

A fox sits and looks across the meadow at night:

My last photo for today is of the tadpoles that have already started to hatch in the pond:

It is estimated that it is only one in fifty of the eggs laid make it out of the pond as froglets and so I wish them the best of luck.

Calm After the Storms

Dudley, Eunice and Franklin – three named storms in quick succession – have left us longing that the weather would go away and leave us in peace.

The Kestrel hunting at dusk in the brief lull between Eunice and Franklin. How on earth was she managing to find her vole prey and feed herself during those long days of strong winds?
Yet, several days after the storms, she is happily still going strong, stretching her wings in the sunshine

As Franklin finally threw in his cards and roared off across the North Sea, the hunkered-down animals could venture out and once more get on with their normal lives.

A fox out enjoying the warmth of the sun:

This fox was not one of our regulars and was no doubt a winter-dispersing male. He had a distinctive mangey tip to his tail:

That night he was seen going over one of the gates between the meadows, unfamiliar as he was with the holes under the fence that are used by our resident animals:

That same night, there was a second mangey visitor to the meadows:

I always find this so upsetting, yet there is nothing I can do to help these animals that are passing through.

The frogs quickly resumed their amorous activities and now it was calm enough for us to hear their distinctive churring coming from the garden pond as we readied ourselves for bed. The heron, who is unfortunately not scared of scarecrows, continued to return to the wild pond to stand over the frogspawn awaiting a meal:

A quick preen whilst waiting for frogs

Badgers are pretty resilient to bad weather, but it was only after Franklin had departed that the mother badger moved her cubs from one burrow to another and we got our first thrilling view of this year’s young:

Born around 11th February, this tiny, hairless cub in her mouth was ten days old at this point. I believe that there were one or two more babies moved as well, but the trail camera did not quite catch these. It is surely not normal behaviour for cubs to be carried above ground like this – but our badgers here do it every year, affording us tantalising glimpses of the young animals before they are officially allowed up out of the burrow.

After a spot of tidying up, we left a pile of long, dry grasses by the badger sett:

This is like catnip for badgers and the next morning it had all gone off underground to start a new life as soft bedding for the cubs:

The grasses being dragged off into the sett

The location of this year’s magpie nest is still unknown to us but, nevertheless, work continues on its construction:

Sticks being flown along the hedgerow
Gathering soft lining

The birds have now started collecting soil from around the mini pond on the strip – soil that has been transformed into mud with water sprayed by bathing birds:

This week we made a trip up the coast to Sandwich Bay Bird Observatory where we saw saw a group of twenty Curlew at Restharrow Scrape. The burbling song of a Curlew is one of the most glorious and atmospheric sounds of the British countryside, but these large waders are red listed and have suffered horrible declines in recent years. Thankfully work is now being done to understand what the problems are to try to halt and reverse their losses.

Scandinavian Curlews fly here to spend the winter and they can be seen in groups at the coast at this time of year:

What amazing and beautiful birds they are:

The wood was not too badly affected by the storms and we have managed to fit a couple more coppicing sessions in before the start of the bird nesting season at the beginning of March.

This horizontal branch of a venerable Beech is a favourite perching post for birds of prey. This week we have seen a Sparrowhawk by day:

And a Tawny Owl likes to view the woodland floor from here at night:

It even flew up and sat on the nest box:

Tawnies are faithful to their existing nest site and so it is unlikely that the pair of birds whose territory this is will need this box – but we remain hopeful that one day it will be occupied by something other than squirrels.

This is an unusual sight. It has been light for some time because the sun is up and shining on the birch trunks, yet here is a badger above ground and some distance from the sett. What is going on?

Fox in the wood
Our winter-visiting Woodcock are still here but they will have left by the end of March, flying back to more northerly parts of Europe to breed.

Now that the storms have abated, we too have ventured out, filled with a fresh enthusiasm to get the garden ready for spring. It is always exciting when it is time to bring the supports back out for the peony bed and, at this stage of the year, difficult to imagine that these cages will be filled with flowers by May:

Monitoring Dormice

Hazel Dormice are slow breeders and poor dispersers and unfortunately their numbers and range are both in long term decline, badly affected by fragmentation and reduced management of woodland. The National Dormouse Monitoring Programme was started in 1990 to get detailed information on the situation in order to work out how best to reverse the declines. Across the country there are hundreds of monitoring sites, each with fifty or more nest boxes and all these boxes are regularly checked by Dormouse Disturbance Licence holders.

Nest box number 1 on a hazel coppice at the edge of the wood

This year, our wood and a neighbouring wood – making up a total of twenty acres – are enrolling as a Dormouse monitoring site on the programme.

Dormice live in low densities, are nocturnal and spend most of the summer up in the tree tops so it can be tricky to discover if they are present in a woodland. But we have found them as we cleared bird nest boxes in the autumn:

September 2020
September 2020. Dormouse on the roof

The typical population density is only 2.2 animals per hectare in the spring, although rising to 3-5 per hectare in optimal habitat such as our wood. However, there will be more than this in the autumn with numbers boosted by that year’s young. They are eaten by owls and squirrels and also taken by badgers when they are hibernating at ground level, but the biggest threat to an individual Dormouse is survival through the winter weather.

October 2021. They are ridiculously sweet

Not holding Dormouse licences ourselves, we are very lucky that a licensed handler will be working with us to check our Dormouse boxes from May to September each year. This week she visited us in the wood to start getting the boxes up.

Thirty boxes are going up in a grid formation in our eleven acres of woodland and twenty boxes in our neighbours’ wood. The grid formation does mean that some boxes are sited away from the prime hazel coppice habitat, such as this one in amongst the cherry trees. Dormice do eat cherry stones as well as hazelnuts, though, so it will be interesting to see if this box gets used:

The hole in the box faces into the tree trunk in an attempt to deter Blue Tits from nesting

We also have ten of these cheaper but less long-lasting nest tubes that we will put up in the wood in addition to the thirty wooden boxes:

Hopefully, after two years of covid-related delays, I will begin my own training this year to qualify for a Dormouse Disturbance Licence. It will take two to three years but will eventually mean that I can monitor our boxes myself.

Majestic Buzzard in the wood

I have only recently learned about the terrible trouble rabbits are in – their population has fallen by 43% countrywide in the decade to 2018 with no sign of this decline slowing. Although rabbits are not native to the UK, they have been here for a very long time, probably having been introduced by the Romans. They are ecosystem engineers since their burrowing creates mini mosaic habitats of warm, bare earth which help seeds germinate as well as being very beneficial for many invertebrates and reptiles. They are also selective grazers, keeping grasses at bay which benefits wildflowers.

Rabbit in the wood. They are food for the Buzzards, Foxes and Polecat-Ferrets that we have seen there

Myxomatosis, introduced in the 1950s, reduced our rabbit population by 99% and this also led to the extinction of many invertebrate species that required warm, close-cropped grassland such as the Large Blue Butterfly (happily now reintroduced). Since then, rabbit numbers have risen again as resistance developed to the disease. But now they are facing a new threat – rabbit haemorrhagic disease virus type 2 – which emerged from commercial rabbit farms in northern France in 2010 and has now devastated populations throughout the UK. In fact, in Scotland, numbers have dropped by 83% between 1996 and 2018 because of this virus.

We only occasionally see rabbits in the meadows, but there does seem to be a good population in the wood, although until now I have paid them scant attention. I will definitely be appreciating them much more from now on.

The February frog-spawning spectacle in the meadows always feels like the inaugural event of the wildlife year:

Until abruptly stopped by the high winds, the waters of the ponds have been churning this week as groups of hormonal males clamber over each other to claim pole positions to meet and greet the females as they arrive at the pond.

Frogs in the water don’t seem to trigger the trail cameras and so I put this camera onto time-lapse mode, where its sensors were disabled and instead it took a photo every ten minutes through the night. Very satisfying that this approach worked
Hopeful males

Lots of lovely spawn has now been laid:

Mackenzie, our scarecrow and the mainstay of our anti-heron initiative, is on duty in his ‘staying alive’ pose overlooking the spawn at the edge of the pond:

For the last three Februarys, his presence has meant that not a single heron has gone near the pond, despite the extreme provocation of large gatherings of frogs. But unfortunately, yesterday, a heron was not fooled by him and paid two visits to hunt over the spawn:

The dog is extremely interested in the new badger hole that has recently been dug in the meadows and she is unable to walk past it without a detailed inspection:

I now have a camera on the hole to view the comings and goings:

Badger emerging from the hole

This tunnel entrance is some distance from the other sett entrances that we are aware of – perhaps the sett is more extensive than we imagined, or is this hole part of a different system of tunnels? I will keep the camera on the hole and see if we can work out what’s going on.

Magpie nest building has now entered its fourth week….

…although there was evidence in the last couple of days that the building work might be entering the soft furnishing stage:

A Sparrowhawk jumps into the pond:

And a Kestrel cleans her talons:

It has been quite a week of tempestuous weather. Storm Eunice dramatically smashed her way across the country on Friday, carrying with her a rare red weather warning for much of the south of England.

When ferocious south-westerly winds blow here, ferries shelter alongside the meadows. On Friday, we had three of them:

I had a shock when I first saw an Irish Ferry moored up in Dover port last year – they have recently started a service on the Dover Calais route
The other two ferries on a wild sea

Down in the village, at one end of the scale, a beach hut got blown some way off its foundations….

…and at the other end of the scale, a pigeon egg flew off a nest and smashed onto the ground:

There were a few trees that had fallen down in the wood but it could have been so much worse:

Can I once again mention how much I am looking forward to spring?

An early primrose flowering in the wood

Creatively Retreating

Setting aside space in your week to be creative is said to nourish the mind, body and soul. For much of my adult life I have paid this no heed, but now I understand and regret all that wasted time. Last weekend we went on a creative retreat at a country house hotel in the Brecon Beacons in lovely mid Wales. The hotel sits in thirty-three acres of its own arboretum on the banks of the River Usk.

Looking back up to the hotel from the River Usk
The River Usk looking docile. But then there was rain overnight on Saturday and the river became a furious brown and raging torrent
Photo from two years ago when the same thing happened
Snow on the distant tops of the Brecon Beacons this year
Dipper on the river
In the nineteenth century, many special trees were planted here and they have grown into the magnificent specimens which grace the hotel grounds today. The current owners continue to plant trees for future generations and are big supporters of Stump Up For Trees – a charity hoping to plant a million trees across the Brecon Beacons over the next few years
We always admire this majestic Cedar of Lebanon when we stay here
There were a lot of Treecreepers climbing the tree trunks and pecking around the bark
The large Camellia bushes were out in flower already
A captive-bred male Goshawk joined us on the retreat for a while, brought by an author who arrived to give an after-dinner talk
This is a Sparrowhawk in the meadows last summer. I worry that, should a Goshawk ever chance to land in front of a trail camera in the meadows, I would mistake it for a Sparrowhawk. However, I can see that Sparrowhawks are much leggier than Goshawks. They are smaller too, of course, but this can be difficult to assess when there is just one bird
Over three days, we attended lots of workshops for different crafts, including making these willow baskets
I attempted to make a felt picture of the Old Gentleman Fox
Chunky knitting workshop about to begin

Back again in Kent, the Yellowhammers are being seen on a lot of different cameras in the meadows:

Throughout the winter, it has predominantly been House Sparrows, along with other larger birds, that have been enjoying the seed on the strip.

But there is more variety now. Nine Yellowhammer here, as well as a Linnet and a Chaffinch:

This Kestrel spends more time sitting on the camera rather than the perch these days. It is a little bit higher and perhaps affords a better view:

Chuckles and his mate, the colour-ringed Gull X9LT, are once again arriving together at the seed. They have lost the grey speckling that they had around their necks over the winter and are resplendent in their summer finery once more:

X9LT, the female Herring Gull
Chuckles is still sometimes seen with his chick from last year. I have actually never seen this young bird with its mother

Magpies are busy nest building:

In a series of photos, this Magpie pulled a stick out of the hedgerow but then got tangled up. Eventually the bird gave up trying to grapple with it and flew off, leaving the stick behind:

Here is a badger entering the meadows from the cliff:

A couple of hours deeper into the night and another one is in the same place although I have probably never seen one quite as muddy as this:

Badgers mate as soon as the females give birth, and I can confirm that this year’s cubs have now been born. Here is the male, unusually above ground in the daylight, outside the burrow where the cubs are born every year. He is not allowed anywhere near the cubs but is anxious to get at their mother.

Then, that night, the badgers mated. Initially a third badger was around:

That third badger rubbed against them, as badgers do, and left:

Mating then continued for forty-five minutes. The male always takes a firm hold of the the females neck with his teeth:

There is delayed implantation in badgers and any eggs that have now been fertilised will not actually implant in the female’s uterus until the autumn.

Male frogs have started to gather in the ponds to await the arrival of females. Their bright, white chins and their big, broad smiles automatically make me want to smile right back at them.

Those specially adapted thumbs help them clasp a female tightly should they chance across one:

Although this year’s party is not yet in full swing, we did find one female, her belly swollen with spawn. She had already been claimed by a suitor:

There is no spawn laid yet but it surely won’t be long.

This increased activity has not escaped the notice of the Heron, of course.

Our scarecrow, Mackenzie, has been awakened from his slumbers in the shed and put on duty by the pond to protect the amphibians:

Meanwhile, along the sheltered path behind the paddock, the Hawthorns are starting to come out into leaf:

In the wood, Primroses and Lords and Ladies are pushing their heads above ground and there is a sense of the woodland getting itself out of bed to begin the day.

Although I knew that a male Great Spotted Woodpecker could be distinguished by the red patch on the back of his neck, by comparing these two photos I now notice for the first time that he also has two white triangles below that red nape.

There is a large cherry in the wood with several woodpecker holes drilled into it and one hole in particular has had woodpeckers (Great Spotted and then Green) nesting in it for the last three years. Last summer we noticed that, interestingly, the tree had reacted to the woodpecker damage by secreting globules of resin around the hole. Trees use resin to seal over wounds so that insects and pathogens can’t get in.

Photo from last summer

But the tree was never going to be able to plug a hole of this size. The resin has now turned black and looks like dried up seaweed hanging forlornly from the trunk

Sparrowhawk in the wood
Blackbird action shot
Woodcock

The curtain is about to come down on another coppicing season and, yet again, we haven’t achieved quite as much as we had hoped. But we may still be able to fit a couple more sessions in before we have to stop when the birds start to nest:

The new clearing created this winter. We build dead hedges at the woodland edges with the cut timber which form great invertebrate habitat and safe highways for Dormice

This might all look a bit drastic but this new glade will now allow sunshine to hit the woodland floor here, enabling a different set of plants and animals to thrive and increasing diversity in the wood. Once the stumps start to regrow over the next few years, they will be younger and more vigorous than the trees around them, carrying heavier crops of hazelnuts to support the Dormice.

It is hard but important work and we will see how much more we can achieve before the end of February.

I finish today with a view over the meadows as winter starts to wind down and the magpies, frogs, badgers and us humans keenly anticipate the coming spring.

It has been a mild and dry winter here to date and I do so hope that it doesn’t prove to have a sting in its tail.

The Hedgerow Haircut

Managing our hedgerows here is one of the most important things to get right and we are happy with how wild and untamed they have become. They have even been admired by visiting naturalists!

The western boundary hedgerow

Tall hedgerows with wide bases provide food and shelter for all sorts of wildlife as well as being essential corridors linking habitats. Hedges support up to 80% of our woodland birds, 50% of our mammals and 30% of our butterflies as well as much other invertebrate life.

The hedgerow dividing the two meadows

But in order to stay as a hedge rather than growing up into trees, the occasional cut is required. Hawthorn and Blackthorn only flower on old wood, so the best practice is to cut a third of the hedgerow each year and it will be just this third that will not flower and produce fruit the next season.

It has been a while since we have done anything to our hedgerows, though, because we couldn’t find anyone to do the work. However, we have now been recommended a local agricultural contractor with a flailing arm on his tractor and he came to the meadows this week:

By January there is no fruit left on these hedgerows

We have 400m of hedgerow that is actively managed and the same again that has not been touched for decades, much of it now overgrown and heavy with ivy. We made the decision to get the tops trimmed from most of the actively-managed hedgerow, since it is at least a couple of years since any work has been done. However, the sides were mainly not cut and should still bear plenty of fruit to feed the birds next winter.

The tractor heading off into the second meadow

The aim was for the hedges to have a trim rather than a scalping and the contractor did such a great job. The flailing arm munches what it cuts off and this then falls back into the hedge and disappears meaning that there is not a big clearing up job to do afterwards.

In the seven years we have been here, the paddock hedges had not previously been cut and had become billowy and ferociously thorny. But this new, tidy look will take some getting used to
Kestrel with a backdrop of the freshly-neatened hedge

It is going to be some years before we will need to ask him to cut the 85m of new hedgerow that was planted in January 2020. This hedge still seems to be in the stage of establishing its root system rather than doing any growing above ground:

Regrettably, in places, the heavy tractor has made quite a mess of the soft January ground:

Now that we have discovered this reliable agricultural contractor, we hope to get our hedgerow management back on track and have the recommended third of it cut every January. Unfortunately, of course, it is a bit of a balancing act because we do need to give him enough work to justify his trip over here but we shall have to take each year at a time.

The average life expectancy for a Magpie is only three years but the oldest recorded individual is more than twenty-one years old. They mate for life and both birds build the nest together, although it is the male who gathers most of the sticks and constructs the walls and roof. The female will concentrate on the interior decoration, lining it with mud. The nests take up to forty days to build, usually high up in a tall tree, and they are unusual in having a domed roof of sticks with one or two side entrances.

Photo: Bengt Nyman under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

This week I have been getting photos of a Magpie carrying sticks on this gate:

But are they building a new nest this year or repairing last years?

On searching the internet for the answer to this, I came across an academic paper on this very subject (Antonov and Atanosova in Acta Ornithologica, Vol 38, 2003, no. 1) 􏰀􏰁􏰂􏰁􏰄􏰀􏰄􏰅􏰂􏰃􏰄and it seems that the situation is not straightforward. Magpie nests are robust and often survive until the following season, yet most of the time the birds invest the effort into building a new nest. They found that nests were only reused 17% of the time in the urban areas of Sofia in Bulgaria, and 36% of the time in Manchester in the UK, but much less often than that in rural settings such as in our meadows.

The two year study investigated if the building of new nests each year was to evade parasites, avoid predation or was affected by the unavailability of good nest sites. However, it found no evidence to confirm any of these hypotheses and fledging success was the same with both new and reused nests.

Crows are probably the most likely birds to predate a Magpie nest here

But it did find that birds reusing their nests laid eggs a week earlier than birds building from new, giving them more time to start again if the nest fails. This suggests that it would be an advantage to reuse a nest, yet mostly this isn’t what they do. Clearly there are other factors at work that we don’t yet understand.

The 2021 Magpie nest at the top of a tall Holm Oak in the meadows

We think that the Magpies nesting here build a new nest every year and last year’s nest was high up in a Holm Oak. This is an evergreen tree and so, annoyingly, even now in the depths of winter, we are unable to see it properly.

The 2020 nest was towards the top of a Corsican Pine and again it was impossible to see clearly. In fact we only got a good look when the remains of the nest fell onto the grass in high winds just before Christmas:

Over the next few weeks we hope to be able to work out what is going on and see if they are building a new nest or have decided this time to renovate the old one.

A pair of Magpies making a Kestrel feel uncomfortable during her daily ablutions

The flock of around a hundred House Sparrow continue to be very busy up on the strip:

But I am delighted to report that the Yellowhammers are definitely now back to join them. The highest count last year was seventeen birds and there are are currently only five here so far, but it is early days:

A lovely group of Stock Dove also visits:

The two birds on the right in the foreground are Woodpigeon, though, slightly larger with white edges to their primary flight feathers

And of course all this bird activity is always of interest to the Sparrowhawks:

We are seeing a bit more of the colour-ringed female Herring Gull X9LT, ringed at Pitsea Landfill Site in Essex on 24th January 2015, just over seven years ago now:

A bedtime snack of a Short-tailed Field Vole for this Kestrel before calling it a day:

On both of the past two years I have successfully treated the One-eyed Vixen for mange. But it is with a sinking heart that, once more, I notice her tail is starting to show a few telltale signs. Am I going to have to serve her up medicated honey sandwiches yet again?

Maybe I am worrying unnecessarily but her tail was definitely pretty uniform until recently

The time is fast approaching when badgers give birth in their warm burrows underground. But, in the meantime, there is certainly time available for some lounging around and a spot of tummy scratching:

This week’s highlights from the wood include what I think might be a Tawny Owl investigating a nest box. There is a series of three photos and, in the first, the owl is sitting on the branch. In the second, it flies up to the box:

In the third photo of the sequence, taken thirty seconds later, it has returned to the branch:

This is definitely no basis to get our hopes up that an owl will soon be nesting here, but these photos are at least evidence that the bird knows the box is there if ever it should need it.

The group of Fieldfare are still coming at dusk every day to bath. Six birds here:

The Woodcock over-wintering in the wood are seen every night on the cameras and we also regularly put them up from the undergrowth as we walk round the wood during the day:

The camera on the small, new pond has been triggered by a Great Tit but it is the background that is more interesting. Once again, there are two Great Spotted Woodpeckers working their way up the trees looking for insects:

This was the weekend of the 2022 Big Garden Birdwatch, the world’s largest citizen science survey which has now been running for forty-three years. Last year more than a million people took part, counting seventeen million birds, which is really rather amazing and uplifting. We always look forward to the excuse to spend an hour quietly observing what is going on here.

In preparation for the count, the hide was set up two days beforehand to give the birds a chance to become accustomed to it

In the event we had a very exciting birdwatch this year. Perhaps it helped that it was a sparkling, calm and warm day with deep blue skies. We divided the hour between time in the hide overlooking the feeders and watching the birds visiting the seed up on the strip. Our final tally was twenty species and ninety-nine birds.

This trail camera was taking photos of the strip during the hour. There are six Yellowhammer here but actually we spotted nine of them at one time
A Skylark was up doing glorious song flights – the first time we have heard him this year
The Kestrel was hunting at various locations throughout the hour. She kept being moved on by Magpies
The grand finale was the arrival of the Sparrowhawk who came in high and landed on the feeding cages
Unfortunately I disturbed him and he took off across the meadow

Our final tally, that we have now reported in to the RSPB, was: Crow 3, Magpie 4, Herring Gull 2, Stock Dove 1, Collared Dove 1, House Sparrow 42, Dunnock 4, Linnet 1, Blackbird 4, Chaffinch 5, Yellowhammer 9, Woodpigeon 10, Kestrel 1, Blue Tit 3, Great Tit 3, Robin 2, Green Woodpecker 1, Greenfinch 1, Skylark 1, Sparrowhawk 1.

Let us hope that once again a million people or more have taken part this year and lots of useful information will be gleaned on the current state of British birds as a result.