A few racing pigeons drop by the meadows every year on their way back from the continent. One this week was particularly tame and surprisingly came into the conservatory and had a walk around inside whilst we were having a Pilates lesson in there. I fed it some seed and a broken up suet ball and it spent a long time feeding up before continuing its journey home.
Pigeons have been raced across the Channel for 125 years, the birds being released from points in France and Spain and completing the up to 500 mile trip in a few hours, mostly returning home on the same day that they are released. But it seems that the world of international pigeon racing might be about to become collateral damage of Brexit. Post-Brexit animal health regulations, due to have come into effect in April, require the birds to have a certificate signed by a vet and also to be in the EU at least 21 days before release. The birds would not be exercised during these three weeks and would lose a lot of condition. The implementation of these regulations has now been postponed until October but at the moment the future of cross-channel pigeon racing is looking bleak.
The weather has been hot and sunny although mainly with a delicious sea breeze here which has taken the edge off the heat. You always know that summer is in full swing when the Darters arrive.
Sandwich Bay Bird Observatory, just up the coast from here, recently raised a lot of funds to double the size of its scrape and to build a second hide. This project was finished just as the country went into lockdown last year and has only recently opened to visitors. We were excited to see it at long last and went there this week.
Sitting in a hide is immensely relaxing, putting everything else on hold for a while while you spend some quiet minutes observing nature. I am so pleased that we can once again get ourselves along there to see what’s about.
Back in Berkshire again this week, we walked the dog up into Ashley Hill Woods. I first remember this Forestry Commission wood from when I went on an infant school trip there, not so very long after it had been clear-felled in the early 1960s. Thankfully, since then it has been more sensitively managed and is now a beautiful place – probably my all time favourite wood and one that I have done a lot of dog-walking in over the years.
We have been watching this Red Kite nest on Ashley Hill for several years now. It is much larger than it was when we last saw it a few months ago, so hopefully this means it has been active this year. Red Kites are famous for weaving plastic and other bits of human detritus into their nests.
Hiding under a shady roof of Bracken, we found a thriving colony of Common Spotted Orchids:
Another old haunt of ours in Berkshire is Carpenters Wood and we also visited there this week. It is nearly the seventy-seventh anniversary of when a Halifax bomber, with seven men on board and loaded with bombs destined for France, crashed into these woods. There is still the disquieting sight of a large crater at the crash site:
A plaque at the site says: ‘Tread softly because this is hallowed ground’ and that exactly describes how it feels.
Back in our own wood in Kent, the wet summer so far has meant that the undergrowth is distinctly more rampant than normal and we are slashing and hacking back nettles and bramble to remake our woodland paths. A battery powered hedge cutter seems to be working best for this.
The new part of the wood is densely planted and badly needs thinning and so, in the autumn, our first job is going to be some selective clearing. We are going to prioritise English Oaks and clear space around them so that they have a better chance to become sturdy, beautiful trees.
But because we are not confident that we can recognise these young Oaks once they no longer have leaves, this week I have started to identify suitable trees and tying red rope around them. It’s a shame that it wasn’t yellow, but I was singing the song to myself anyway.
Fresh bark on the ground below a birch, alerted us to look up and notice that Grey Squirrels have been up to their old tricks again and are stripping bark:
I am so looking forward to the successful end of the trials that are currently underway to test a contraceptive that can be delivered to Grey Squirrels via hazelnut spread in a specially designed box. UK Squirrel Accord is a partnership of environmental, wildlife and forestry organisations working towards making this happen and it is definitely something that we would be very interested in for our wood as soon as it becomes available. It seems a humane and perfect answer to a big problem.
Back in the meadows, a young Blackbird appears on the gate…
…and then the ringed female comes to feed it. This female was photographed here carrying nesting material for so many weeks, it is wonderful to discover that it all that work led to a satisfactory conclusion:
I think this is a different Blackbird family down by the wild pond:
Although we often catch glimpses of Wrens poking around in the vegetation, it is rare that the trail cameras get photos of them. What a long beak they have:
The camera taking videos along the cliff edge captured these two fledgling Jays with fluffy white bottoms:
We spotted a large and rather extraordinary fly feeding on Wild Carrot that we had never seen before – Nowickia ferox. Its larvae grow within the caterpillars of the Dark Arches moth:
It had a strange white face:
This is another large fly, Myathropa florea. This hoverfly is irresistibly drawn to the revolting-smelling buckets of Comfrey fertiliser that are brewing away. She is looking to lay her eggs in there, from which rat-tailed maggots will develop. These maggots get their oxygen by sticking their tails above the water surface and so have no need of clean water. However, this has reminded me that I must sort out some lids for the buckets.
And finally, some shipping! One evening this week two ships dropped anchor alongside us, both blue and white with yellow funnels. The THV Patricia feels like an old friend. She is operated by Trinity House and comes here to look after the buoys and lightships guarding the notorious Goodwin Sands that lie just offshore.
The second ship’s funnel was a very different yellow:
Cefas Endeavour is a fisheries research vessel, owned by the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science (CEFAS), and she supports their activities such as monitoring fish stocks. She was designed to minimise underwater noise to reduce fish disturbance.
A little further up the coast in Sandwich, The Open Golf is being held at Royal St Georges golf club this weekend, postponed from last year due to Covid. Over thirty thousand people a day are flocking to the area for what is expected to be a very hot and sunny weekend. We shall be keeping our heads down, enjoying the weather and looking at nature, with the odd peek at the television to see who’s winning.
This week we revisited the National Trust land by the South Foreland Lighthouse, high up on the chalk cliffs north of Dover. In 2017, the Trust raised a million pounds to buy the 178 acres of land which had been intensively farmed since the Second World War. They are now restoring it to natural grasslands and wildflower meadows and in some areas they are planting a ‘bumblebird’ seed mix to provide seed for the birds through the winter and nectar for pollinators in the summer.
The Trust are still farming the purple section at the top of the photo above but are leaving a very wide conservation strip at the edges of the agricultural field:
The Old Gentleman Fox has started to come up very close to the house at dusk. One evening when I went out to take some photos of him, he was waiting by the back door and came in when it opened.
This is all wrong and I know that the dog would violently object which would not end well for the fox because he is such a frail little thing. From now on, I will exit the house at dusk from a different, see-through door so that I can be sure that he is not around and trying to come in when I go out to put the food down by the wild pond.
He is continuing to lose fur at an alarming rate, even though I am approaching the end of a three week mange treatment using Arsenicum sulphur on honey sandwiches. He also sounds like he has catarrh on his chest and a bit of a cough.
I have once again approached the Fox Project charity to ask for their advice and guidance. It seems the cough will be either ringworm or lungworm and I should buy some Panacur granules to add to the sandwiches. They have also advised that I add some fox ‘infection stop’ medicine to deter secondary infections getting a hold in the sores on his skin. Other than that, it is a question of giving it a bit longer to see if the mange treatment starts to work. If it doesn’t, the final resort is to see if we can catch him in a cage and get him into a wildlife hospital for treatment. Let us hope it doesn’t come to that.
As I was going through the images from the camera at the hide pond, my attention was drawn to several photos where a pair of House Sparrows were repeatedly hanging around a clump of water reed:
But when I saw this next photo, I realised what they were up to – hunting emerging dragonflies that were clinging to the reeds while their wings hardened up
I expect that the dragonfly prey was taken to the nest in the Swift box from whence the family of House Sparrows is cheeping noisily and both female and male adult bird are working hard to get food in to their chicks:
There is a very generous amount of space in that box for them. Elsewhere in the meadows we do have a sparrow terrace with three boxes in a row since sparrows like to nest communally. The central nest has its hole facing the front and there is a hole at each end for the side boxes. However, sparrows have never shown the slightest interest in it, even though we have tried several different locations:
It is, however, being used this year for the first time, although not by sparrows:
We found the nest of a Nursery Web Spider:
The female carries the white egg sac around with her until it’s nearly time for the eggs to hatch, at which point she stops and builds the nursery web around the sac to protect the young as they emerge.
I had intended to continue to watch this nest as it developed but, in the middle of the week, there was a day of gale force winds. The nursery web, strung as it is between bits of foliage, was badly buffeted and pulled apart by the winds and is sadly no more.
Male Blackbirds, so dapper in their shiny black breeding plumage earlier in the year, are now looking distinctly worse for wear and are starting to moult
Bringing up a nestful of chicks through to fledging is really hard work and takes its toll on the parents – but here the young birds now are, successfully launched into the big wide world:
This Sparrowhawk looks like she has got her head on the wrong way round. What impressive rotation:
She has been on this perch a lot this week:
A juvenile Great Spotted Woodpecker – so unusual to see these birds in the meadows:
A male Kestrel:
An Essex Skipper Butterfly:
A male Ringlet Butterfly:
You might wonder why that Butterfly is called a Ringlet, until you see the underside of its wings:
There were an lot of these hoverflies around and, when I looked them up, I learned that they are the Marmalade Hoverfly (Episyrphus balteatus), and that they are Britain’s commonest hoverfly:
The background colour of this hoverfly is highly influenced by the temperature that the larvae develop in, those developing in the hotter summer are much oranger than the darker flies in the spring. This aids temperature regulation because a basking hoverfly with more dark pigment will absorb sunshine better and warm up quicker. The larvae of these hoverflies eat a wide variety of aphid species and, as such, they are the gardener’s friend.
One morning we found this dead Leopard Moth on a windowsill. A large and striking-looking moth:
In the wood, these Male Ferns are absolutely magnificent:
We have found our third orchid species in the wood with the discovery of this Pyramidal Orchid:
The pair of Bullfinch are daily users of the pond and I am assuming that they are nesting nearby:
We put a camera on this Tawny Owl box to see if it was being used and incidentally caught this Buzzard perching up:
It turns out that the box is indeed being used, but unfortunately by squirrels rather than owls.
I finish today with the sunflowers in the allotment – I haven’t grown sunflowers since the children were small. Back then, the object was to try to grow the tallest sunflower in the class but these days my priorities have changed and the ultimate goal is to see birds feeding on the seeds once they ripen later in the summer. However, in the meantime, they are bringing us a lot of pleasure:
This week we joined a small group on a Kent Wildlife Trust walk around West Blean Woods, near Canterbury. These woods are only about twenty miles from the meadows but are on acidic clay rather than our calcareous chalk and that makes a big difference to the plants and animals to be found there. The Trust are going to be introducing European Bison into West Blean next year as part of a wilding scheme and also to help them manage the wood.
They hope that the Bison will provide a nature-based solution to the problem of properly managing such a large area of woodland. These big and heavy animals are ecosystem engineers – they will knock some trees over, creating fallen deadwood and, because they eat bark in the winter, this will kill trees resulting in standing deadwood, both of which are really important for biodiversity. Their browsing will also keep the vegetation open and naturally coppiced.
Thousands of years ago, Britain would have had Steppe Bison roaming the land – a species that is now extinct. European Bison are similar, although they themselves were hunted to extinction in the wild in 1919. A small number, however, remained in captivity which included only two males and it is from these two bulls that the whole of the current global population of 6,000 has grown. Bison are highly susceptible to problems caused by inbreeding and so great care has had to be taken to avoid this.
So, six Bison are arriving at Blean woods next year from populations in Continental Europe, including one bull and one mature female. Five very large paddocks are being created for this small herd which the Trust hopes will slowly grow in number over several years. Iron Age Pigs, Highland Cattle and Konik Horses will also be managing the wood although only the pigs will be in with the Bison.
It is a very exciting and ground breaking experiment and is about to kick off in earnest in the next few months. I am so pleased that we got the opportunity to have a look round first before it all starts.
The Blean is home to a thriving population of one of Britain’s rarest butterflies, the Heath Fritillary. We were there on a sunny, hot day and we saw so many of them:
Down at our local white cliffs on Monday, it looked like the family of Kestrels were ready to fledge. There were four young in there:
When we got back from the Blean on Thursday, there was an adult and two juvenile Kestrels soaring and calling over the meadows and so it looks like they have now fledged:
This summer could not be more different to the previous one and we are certainly enjoying not having to water the pots and allotment.
A slow meander around the meadows noticing the minutiae always turns up something of interest:
I was back in Berkshire this week to visit my father and, as usual, parked near the church at Little Marlow to go birding at Spade Oak Nature Reserve. I love this little church – it feels so quintessentially English
We always walk round the churchyard first to see what birds are about but this time all our attention was riveted on this newly built insect hotel:
This is a thing of beauty as well as being a fantastic sanctuary for wildlife. I have an extreme case of Insect Hotel Envy.
There was a very concerning weather forecast for our daughter’s wedding last weekend but in the event we were lucky. The reception was in a marquee on our lawn but there was a magical little bar set up in the meadows that worked so well towards the end of the evening. With only thirty of us, it was a small but perfectly formed and joyous celebration to launch them on their married lives together.
But as a result of all this celebrating, we have once again missed this year’s Green Woodpecker fledging in the wood and this photo is the best that I can offer you:
We actually did quickly nip to the wood the night before the wedding but found the birds had already left the nest, although we could still hear them nearby. We did, however, find this dead Mole:
I didn’t know much about Moles and so I have read up about them. They have a system of permanent deep burrows forming a network that is hundreds of metres long with tunnels at different depths, the deeper ones being used during droughts and when it is cold. Many generations of mole will use these permanent tunnels to find their earthworm prey, which they store alive but immobilised in chambers.
In the wood, the Moles will be predated by Tawny Owls, Buzzards and Stoats and the young ones are particularly vulnerable as they disperse away from their mother’s range above ground during the summer. I wonder if this dead Mole is a dispersing youngster, although that doesn’t explain why it hasn’t been eaten.
Other photos from the wood:
Crows have fledged in the meadows as well:
There is a flock of about forty young Starlings now working the meadows:
And a young Stock Dove on the left:
After all the recent rain, the ponds continue to look really full and healthy – unprecedented for late June.
We found a Sparrowhawk kill up on the strip. There was still much meat on the bones and so we put a camera on it in case the Sparrowhawk came back.
But it was the Crows and Magpies that arrived to peck over the carcass
But, unexpectedly, a House Sparrow also came to gather up some of the feathers.
Yellow Rattle is parasitic on grass and helps knock it back, giving meadow flowers more of a chance to thrive. Three or four autumns ago we sowed a test area with Yellow Rattle seed as a bit of an experiment. It is far too densely planted but there is no disputing that the grass has been disadvantaged and the area can now function as a seed bank for the rest of the meadows.
We got the tractor out to cut a section of the first meadow to become a car park for the wedding weekend:
The tractor shaves off the tops of any anthills, creating bare earth patches into which new plants can get a hold. Now that the Yellow Rattle has finished flowering in the test area, we collected some of the seed to spread over this newly cut section.
Although we have planned to collect and spread this seed for several years, this is the first time we have got round to actually doing it and it feels good.
Last autumn I planted Sweet William in the allotment to use as cut flowers. These are old fashioned plants but they have been fantastic and I have been cutting them for months now to put into jam jars to bring in to the house.
One afternoon this week I was picking some strawberries in the allotment and saw a Hummingbird Hawk-moth on the Sweet William. I ran for my camera but this is the best that I could achieve before it flew away:
I had already decided to plant more Sweet William this autumn but now that I know that Hummingbird Hawk-moths like it, I shall certainly be growing some every year.
A gathering with the correct two metre distancing at peanut time:
Here are the two vixens that have had cubs this year. They seem very comfortable together and are presumably part of a family group:
Some other photos from the meadows:
This photo of a Kestrel with a mouse in his large yellow feet reminded us that we had taken our eye off the ball down at our local white cliffs:
We went down this week to take a look:
Perhaps the Kestrel hunting in the meadows is the father of these chicks?
A bit further along, there were two adult Peregrines perched near their nest high on the cliffs:
We stopped to watch a recently fledged family of Whitethroat:
I finish today with mating Hedgehogs on our son’s lawn in Berkshire. Previously unaware that he even had Hedgehogs, he now hopes to raise awareness amongst his neighbours and perhaps they might even be persuaded to set up a Hedgehog highway network within the gardens so that the Hedgehogs can get in to forage. These animals are in such desperate trouble that they need any help they can get.
Now that the country stutters forward in its return to normality, I have resumed my fortnightly trips back to Berkshire to visit my father. Whilst there I always try to go birding with a friend to the Spade Oak nature reserve near Marlow – a flooded gravel pit, next to a sewage works but always with something of interest.
This time our visit was a little bit more interesting than we had hoped for when we spotted a Greylag Goose entangled in fishing line under a low hanging Willow, but too far out in the water for us to reach.
We phoned Tiggywinkles Wildlife Hospital and, within the hour, a volunteer had arrived to assess the extent of the problem:
Within three hours, permissions had been sought and received and a rescue team arrived and launched a boat onto the lake although by then we had left. It was all a success and the bird was taken back to the hospital for treatment.
How absolutely wonderful it is that there are organisations to call on like that for wildlife emergencies – they are one of my favourite charitable causes.
Back again in East Kent, the Swifts continue to bombard the nest boxes but, so far as we can tell, they are not going in:
I have managed to establish that there are three Fox cubs in the meadows this year. The one-eyed vixen has twins:
And the other vixen has a single cub:
The camera up by this second vixen’s den has been catching her bringing in prey. Often it’s not possible to see what the prey is but there was no mistaking this Rabbit:
Look at the Old Gentleman now. He is just starting to be able to put some weight on his bad front paw but all the fur has gone from his tail. I have treated him for mange twice this spring and am hoping that this fur loss relates to before these treatments. If I see the fur loss area spreading, I will have to contact the Fox Project charity again and see what they suggest. He’s such a worry.
There are two just-fledged Magpies being very demanding in the meadows:
The ringed female Blackbird is still building her nest, of course. It has been weeks now. The nest must be very close to this gate because I have so many photos like this:
And the pair have been mating, so are laying eggs:
Other photos from the meadows this week:
Over in the wood, I went to collect the camera that is trained on the Green Woodpecker hole and could hear the young softly churring within. They have hatched! We hope to go and digiscope the nest in the next few days to see if we can get get some better quality images now that the adults will be going backwards and forwards with food for their chicks.
Meanwhile, Great Spotted Woodpecker chicks have already fledged. One of the young has a Cormorant-like technique to dry off after visiting the bath. It was pictured doing this several times so perhaps the water is too deep for it and it is getting over-wet.
The courtship display of the male Pheasant involves spreading out his tail and pulling down his wing towards the female:
We visited our local chalk cliffs again this week. Our suspicions that Peregrine Falcons are nesting there this year were confirmed when we saw one coming back with prey, its calls echoing around the cliffs:
Its arrival back at the nest was greeted with the excited noises of its chicks so the eggs have hatched.
Another adult was sitting close by:
The cliff-nesting House Martins were also busy taking food to their young:
We think this is a recently fledged Rock Pipit – it had all the feel of being parked somewhere by its parent:
No Mow May has now finished when the country was being encouraged to leave its lawns uncut for the benefit of pollinators and other invertebrates. I have to say that I like the look of a wilder, more flowery, lawn especially if it is set off by a neatly cut edge or path.
Some friends have gone a stage further by removing an area of their turf from their lawn last autumn and sowing a mixture of annual and perennial meadow flower seeds.
It looks spectacular and is busy with visiting bees.
We are about to have a marquee up on our own lawn for our daughter’s wedding next weekend, postponed from last September and now with only a fifth of the number of guests. I will have to wrench my attention from wildlife matters for a while and focus on the matter in hand…
Our local Swifts arrived back on Bank Holiday Monday, 31st May, just as I had given up all hope. Since then they have been frequently and vigorously dive-bombing the boxes much to the concern of the nesting House Sparrows within. All four Swift boxes are currently occupied by House Sparrows but I read that Swifts will eject the Sparrows if they decide that they want to nest there so we will just have to see what happens.
It is so completely joyous to hear their screams, look up, and see a squadron of them shooting through the meadows and around the house. They also spread out and feed high in the skies above. These birds have had a battle with the weather to get here this spring, so let’s hope from now on things improve for them.
Another special experience is to sit by the pond at dusk at the end of a warm calm day, surrounded by the gentle sounds of the meadows winding down for the night, while at the same time something truly astonishing is happening in front of your eyes.
The late spring bank holiday is around the time each year that the largest dragonflies in Britain, the Emperors, emerge from the depths of the pond and undergo a remarkable transformation. It all begins when a larva climbs out of the water and clings on to a reed:
Emperors are known as colonisers of recently dug ponds and, when the ponds here were new, we had over a hundred of these Emperor emergences at the end of May every year. Now we only get a handful, but they continue to be a highlight of the wildlife year for us.
Broad-bodied Chasers generally emerge before the Emperors and so are already now busy mating and egg laying.
After all the dragonfly admiration I had been doing, I was a bit shocked to see one in a Blackbird’s beak:
Surely this bird wasn’t going to try to get that dragonfly down the throat of a chick? This time last year, it had been hot and sunny for weeks and the ground was baked hard. There was much concern about how birds such as Blackbirds were managing to get worms out of the ground to feed to their young. Now it couldn’t be more different and every day I am seeing a selection of glorious photos on the cameras such as the one below. This is one thing I don’t have to worry about this year – baby Blackbirds are getting enough food.
I have lost count of how many weeks I have been posting photos of this ringed female Blackbird collecting nesting material. What on earth is going on? Is she building several nests?
A possible reason might be that her nests keep getting predated, perhaps? If so, here is one of the top suspects:
A lot of bird seed gets put down here and we definitely do see Rats:
But rodent populations here always seem to stay in a healthy balance and perhaps we have the foxes to thank for that:
Towards the end of the week, we have seen two cubs together. The One-eyed Vixen also had cubs this year and I wonder of this is our first sighting of her young:
Only one Magpie chick has appeared in the meadows so far this year:
The female Sparrowhawk came down to the pond to bathe and this Magpie probably got a bit of a shock. No bird would ever want the gaze of a Sparrowhawk on it like this:
Other interesting photos from the meadows this week:
One day this week we organised a dog sitter and took ourselves out. Our first stop was Orlestone Forest in Kent where we hoped to see the Grizzled Skipper butterfly. Unfortunately we didn’t spot one but we saw plenty of these Speckled Yellows – a day-flying moth that we had never seen before:
We also saw this Green Tiger Beetle, another new species for us:
For our second destination, we crossed over the county border and visited Rye Harbour, a Sussex Wildlife Trust nature reserve. We were hoping to see Little Terns nesting on the beach but once again we failed. We saw plenty of Avocets though:
We were very charmed to see a Ringed Plover trying to impress a female with his courtship moves:
A Turnstone was very unimpressed with all this disturbance and gave the courting Plovers a piece of its mind:
One of our daughters has recently moved to East Kent and now is volunteering for Kent Wildlife Trust as a guardian of the River Stour. This weekend a group of the volunteers went out in Canadian canoes to collect litter from the river.
Beavers now live in the River Stour and I finish today with our daughter’s wonderful photo of a Beaver lodge that they paddled past whilst collecting litter. Who would have thought we had wild Beavers in East Kent.
On a visit down to our nearby chalk cliffs this week, we discovered with joy that the small colony of cliff-nesting House Martins have at last arrived and are building their nests. This same overhang of the rock had a nest last year, although it was then washed off by the weather over the winter. Now it has been rebuilt using around one thousand beakfuls of mud:
This puddle is replenished by waves breaking over the sea wall at high tide and beak marks can be seen in the wet mud as the birds gather it up to build their nests.
The same puddle from last year, taken by the the Bird Ringer:
We didn’t see Kestrels this time but talked to a birder who had seen the male coming in with a vole shortly before we arrived. The female Kestrel emerged from the nest to eat the vole and so is presumably still on eggs or with very young chicks. Excitingly, we also think we saw a Peregrine fly into a cavern in the cliff. It all happened so fast and we hadn’t quite gathered our wits but we will be watching for this now.
It is the time of year when Fox cubs start emerging from the protection of the overgrown hedgerows and cliff where they have their dens. In anticipation of this, we put cameras close to places where historically there have been dens to see if we could see the cubs as they emerge. Up at the top of the second meadow, at 7pm one evening, the female comes out to see if the coast is clear:
Then the male and their single cub emerge:
The male is attentive of every step of the cub’s inaugural trip out onto the big wide world:
Here is the same cub bouncing along behind its mother a couple of days later:
This morning we came across a freshly-eaten fish skeleton in the grass:
When I went through the videos taken overnight near the Badger sett, I saw the mother fox carrying a Dogfish at 1am..
..and a probable Whiting at 2am and it was the skeleton of this second fish that we had found. There was possibly a naive or inattentive fisherman down on the beach last night.
The Old Gentleman Fox seems forever in the wars and now he has hurt his front paw. How can he catch prey when he is hopping along on three legs?
This next photo is from the depths of winter in mid December. The Mahonia was flowering enthusiastically at this time of year and was being visited by a stream of Buff-tailed Bumblebees. These bees often attempt a winter generation here in the south of the country, fuelled by such winter-flowering garden plants.
This same Mahonia is now covered in berries that birds find delicious. I put a camera on it to catch them at it:
There were many visits to the plant by Blackbirds. However, eating the berries does have a distinctive side effect for them:
By providing insects with food through the winter and then supplying birds with delicious berries in May, surely Mahonia is worth considering for any wildlife-friendly garden?
We saw some Goldfinch probing open old Dandelion heads with their beaks to get at the seeds:
Song Thrush are well known for eating snails:
But here is also one with a mouth full of worms, hopefully to feed to young:
Other photos from around the meadows this week:
We rarely see Deer in the wood but a Roe Deer has visited this week:
This is the first time we have seen a Roe Deer here and he is very different to the Red Deer we saw a few times last summer:
Another family of Fox cubs have started exploring in the new part of the wood:
And finally a wary Rabbit in the wood – potential prey for both the Fox and the Buzzard!
We had been hoping for some marvellous May weather this week but the reality was that we mostly got cloud and rain topped off with some very strong winds on Friday. Where has spring gone? We would like it back please.
It can be so very windy here. This swinging bench has fine sea views but it makes the meadows look like a garden rather than a wild space and we want to move it but, because of its weight, this would be a several-person job. Despite it being so heavy, it was blown over three times this last winter, such are the winds coming in off the sea.
The Badgers, with no young this year, seem to be keeping a low profile. However, the Foxes are very much in evidence as they work hard to find food for themselves and for their cubs.
The new camera position up near a Fox den, has been giving us some lovely photos of a pair of Foxes, both of which I recognise as my regulars. No cubs have been seen up there yet though:
This same vixen was also down by the Badger sett carrying prey. Wood Pigeon perhaps?
There has been an occasional glimpse of a cub down by the Badger sett but it is very elusive at the moment.
Last week we put two additional Swift nest boxes up because we had House Sparrows nesting in the original box and we wanted vacant homes to attract Swifts in. But within a day, one of the newly arrived boxes was occupied by a male House Sparrow, cheeping loudly to attract a female to come and nest in it with him:
It seems that he has been successful because this week there was this:
We have seen a few Swifts soaring high overhead, but none have been observed flying close to these boxes, having been brought in by the calls that we are broadcasting up into the skies.
These next two photos show that, unlike species such as Blackbirds, both male and female House Sparrows are involved in building the nest.
A view of the meadows out across the hide pond. This pond doesn’t get much attention but it is packed full of newts, and dragonflies love all that open water:
Although it is only 100m from the wild pond, it is very different and does seem to support a noticeably distinct ecosystem.
Here is the second of this year’s young birds. It always seems a cause for celebration when birds with vulnerable, open-fronted nests like Robins manage to avoid the attentions of the Magpies and successfully fledge young.
We are learning a lot about Herring Gulls by watching the pair that have adopted the meadows as their own. Although the male is around every day still, the colour-ringed female hadn’t been seen for about a fortnight – presumably because she is sitting on eggs. I read that the clutch of 2-4 eggs is actually incubated by both parents for around 30 days and vegetation is added to the nest throughout that time. The female did turn up one day this week and she continues to collect nesting material:
I am hoping that they will bring their young here in due course and I’m looking forward to seeing them.
Here is a selection of the invertebrates we have seen this week in the meadows:
In the wood, there are two Fox cubs and they are such different colours.
The same camera caught these three lounging Badgers one night. I love it.
In this next photo, the female Green Woodpecker is looking out of the nest hole as the male approaches. Initially I wondered why he was looking all agitated but then I noticed the Squirrel right at the top
Lords and Ladies (Arum maculatum) is a plant that grows so freely in the wood that we no longer pay it much notice. But it does have a really interesting pollination mechanism that I wanted to try to photograph. But when I wandered around the wood looking at these plants, I failed to find a single flower that had not been nibbled by rodents – apparently they really like them.
The flower of the Lords and Ladies puts up a purple poker which gives off a smell that is irresistible to flies:
Arriving at the flower, the flies crawl down into the bulb at the bottom and are trapped there by downward-pointing hairs.
The male and female parts of the flower are in the bulb and the imprisoned flies will get covered in pollen from the male parts. But those hairs that were trapping the flies then wither away, allowing the flies to escape. They will subsequently visit another flower and once again get stuck within its bulb, this time transferring the pollen they are carrying onto the female part of the flower and fertilising it.
This pollination method clearly works very well because Lords and Ladies is a very abundant plant in the wood, with so many stalks of luscious red berries in the late summer. Birds eat these berries, thus dispersing the seed.
This morning there seemed to be the possibility of some better weather and we took the opportunity to visit another iconic orchid site in East Kent, Bonsai Bank. Here we saw a Lords and Ladies purple poker that put those in our wood to absolute shame:
We had been hoping to see the Duke of Burgundy butterfly. We had seen him here before and he flies in May but the sun was scarcely out and we didn’t see a single butterfly of any species, let alone the rare and exciting Duke.
Bonsai Bank is in an area of Kent that used to be famed for its hop growing and there are still many signs of that today with the tall, thin hedges around fields which provided shelter for the hops. But English hop farming declined in the 20th century when beer brewers started using hops in pellet form from China and the USA. Also, lager became popular which uses far fewer hops in in its manufacture. One of the loveliest features of Kent’s hop-growing past that can still be seen are the oast houses, once used as kilns to dry the hops, but now mainly converted into homes:
It looks like spring might be returning next week – I do hope so. Only one more week of May left and there is so much we want to do.
Yockletts Bank is twenty-three hectares of beautiful ancient woodland on a valley side in the North Downs. It is now a Kent Wildlife Trust reserve, famous for its orchids, and we visited it on an overcast and cold afternoon this week.
Our route to Yockletts Bank took us through Dover. The cruise ship Disney Magic is now a very familiar sight, having been moored up there since the start of the Covid crisis, and apparently her schedule is still cancelled until August.
There isn’t any parking at the reserve but there was a really uplifting bank of spring flowers where we managed to pull the car off the road.
The Lady Orchids at Yockletts Bank are numerous and magnificent but they are terribly scarce plants and this part of Kent is absolutely their stronghold in the UK. They are woodland plants, liking to grow on fairly steep slopes, often close to Yew.
The Lady Orchids were the main attraction of the afternoon but there were more orchids and other interesting plants too:
Although the reason for our visit was the orchids, the highlight of the afternoon was actually hearing a Turtle Dove purring nearby. We have only heard Turtle Doves sing twice in the UK and both times it has been at Yockletts Bank. This reserve is somewhere to go to truly experience the magic of May.
Buttercup season has arrived, bringing its own magic to the meadows:
Fox cubs are starting to explore away from their dens on the cliff and are now turning up on the cameras:
The tummy of the one-eyed vixen tells the story that she is feeding cubs:
The starey-eyed vixen stretches and yawns. Love the way that tongue curls up at the end.
The Old Gentleman’s fur is falling out in such vast amounts that surely all can’t be well. I have decided to start another week of mange treatment for our resident foxes here and this old boy will be so easy to get medicine down.
We have redeployed a couple of cameras to places we know are close to fox dens to see if we can see the cubs as they venture further afield. It was interesting to see the starey-eyed vixen coming and going into the hedgerow right at the end of the second meadow which is 200m from where we usually see her.
On one warm evening this week, we went out after dark with torches to look for the caterpillars that feed at night to avoid being eaten by birds and other daytime predators.
Many caterpillar species adopt this strategy – but of course we failed to find any. We did, however, see these odd things below, gathered together in the shallow water in the wild pond:
They were quite big – about 5cm in length – and they were sticking their breathing siphons up to the water surface to get air.
We thought that they were leeches but its turns out that they are Soldier Fly larvae of the genus Stratiomys. I don’t know anything about Soldier Flies but I will research them because it would be now be satisfying to also spot the adult flies.
One morning, seven Broad-Bodied Chaser Dragonflies hatched out from the hide pond – hooray, Dragonfly season has begun.
This week, we have spotted several species of Butterfly for the first time this year:
And a Burnet Companion, a day-flying moth
We found two distinctly blue beetles in a compost heap and they turn out to be quite exciting – they are the Blue Helops Beetle (Helops caeruleus), a species that develops in decaying Oak and is very local to this part of the country.
From the beginning of May, we have been scattering seed onto a rotavated strip of ground as part of Operation Turtle Dove. The seed attracts many Wood Pigeon and Stock Dove and this crowd of birds will hopefully interest passing Turtle Doves. The strategy has clearly worked for this Homing Pigeon who has been with us for most of the week and is still here, although surely someone somewhere is expecting it back home by now:
Yockletts Bank might have Turtle Dove but sadly none have been seen here yet.
After discovering that both sides of the original Swift box were occupied by nesting House Sparrows, two new boxes have been hurriedly purchased and put up so that they are available for any Swift to nest in should they wish. This does make the house look slightly eccentric but we are hoping that it will all be worth it. However, despite playing loud calls into the sky all week, no further Swifts have been sighted.
The day after the new boxes went up, we were rather exasperated to see this:
A male House Sparrow was clearly delighted to see that a new home has been put up and is cheeping loudly in there to see if he can interest a female to come and nest in it with him.
This is the third blog post in a row that I have included photos of a ringed female Blackbird collecting nesting material. Just how large is this nest? She has been showing up on several cameras:
And a Song Thrush is also collecting lovely wet mud from the pond for her nest:
Other photos from the past few days:
There may not have been any baby Badgers in the meadows this year, but here is one in the wood, already looking quite grown up:
I am so pleased that the Green Woodpeckers are nesting once again in this Cherry tree and we plan to see if we can digiscope the comings and goings once the chicks have hatched to get some lovely crisp images:
I have called this post The Magic of May, but I see that the month is already halfway through – can it not slow down? There are two spring-flying butterflies we want to make trips out to see this month as well as some more orchid sites. So I am hoping for some sunny days over the next couple of weeks so that we can fit all of this wonderful nature exploration in.