Agapanthus in August

It’s August and the agapanthus has once more burst into flower at the entrance to the meadows:

But this was the the sight that would have met you in August last year. How different every year can be:

Photo from 2022. Agapanthus is a native of southern Africa and is well adapted to water shortage

New to the meadows this year is the butterfly bank, created back in February from chalky soil dug out for the foundations of our new garage:

Photo from February

Native seed was sown onto it and our latest habitat feature is looking pretty good at the moment. We often stop to admire it and can already see holes drilled into its slopes by invertebrates.

A very cheering sight
Cornflowers, corncockle, corn chamomile and corn marigolds – I spot a bit of a theme

This floral buffet on the bank is the only place in the meadows where these agricultural weed annuals are growing and the butterflies are loving it:

Female large white on wild mustard
Gatekeeper on corn marigold
Male common blue

Although we normally see brown argus butterflies here in May, we are yet to see one this year. So I was excited to see this butterfly on a cornflower, looking for all the world like a brown argus at long last:

However, after looking at a photo of her underwings, she turns out to be the brown form of a female common blue instead:

A female common blue. So the brown argus remains elusive for us this year

We really want to get on with cutting two large areas of wild parsnip before there is any chance of them seeding, but we have been beset with tractor problems.

The tractor has stalled once more whilst surrounded by a sea of wild parsnip

A mechanic has come out to look at it and diagnosed a blockage in the fuel line and the tractor has now gone back to the workshop with its tail between its wheels to have its pipes flushed through with hot water.

Apparently bioethanol is now routinely added to diesel fuel as a climate protection measure. The problem with this is that it encourages the growth of microbial colonies within the engine which can cause clogging

Once the tractor returns, we will then finally be able to complete the parsnip job.

As the tractor was being tested out in the meadows to try to reproduce the fault, an enormous cricket was displaced from the long grasses. When I say enormous – it was all of 7cm long. How can something as large as that be living in the very meadows that we observe so closely and yet we didn’t know?

It is the great green bush cricket, this one missing a back leg:

These crickets are carnivorous, eating flies, caterpillars and other larvae and, although they can fly, they prefer to jump around.

The ovipositor at the end of the abdomen tells us that this is a female:

The bumblebees of the meadows have probably been quite sodden for most of the week. This red-tailed bumblebee was soaked and sluggish one morning after a wet night:

That burnt umber of her tail is such an intense hue against her black fur, but I now notice that she has flashes of that same colour around her feet. How beautifully coordinated she is.

This is another beautiful insect although its name is less so. It’s the flesh fly, unusual in the fact that its eggs hatch within the body of the female fly and she then lays live larvae into manure or flesh.

These mating predatory flies are probably kite-tailed robberflies, although there are several similar species:

A chunky hoverfly, Myathropa florea:

I only got a fleeting glimpse of this parasitic wasp, but what a long ovipositor she has. Its one and a half times the length of her body:

This is a very sweet little thing, its a nymph of the green shield bug:

Green shield bug 3rd instar nymph

Spotting and identifying invertebrates and learning how they fit into the ecosystem is one of my favourite things to do these days – I think I should have been an entomologist rather than an accountant.

As we approach late summer, goldfinch start gathering in small flocks in the meadows to feed off the thistle, knapweed and wild carrot seed heads:

If you look carefully at this next photo and you can see that the crow has exposed its preen gland which produces oil. The bird rubs this gland with its beak and head and then preens its feathers, transferring the oil over them and making them waterproof.

Another unusual view of a crow:

One afternoon we heard a hullabaloo and looked up to see a magnificent buzzard flying low over the meadows:

Unfortunately squadrons of crows and herring gulls had launched to chase it out of their airspace. We despair of ever properly getting to see birds of prey here.

Crows and herring gulls buzzing the buzzard which is at the bottom of the picture

A tawny owl visits the meadows again this week:

The wood gets a bit wild and overgrown at this time of year and it is impossible to drive a car in without its sides rubbing against trees and brambles and its tummy being tickled by plants growing high in the middle of the track. Sadly no car of ours ever remains pristine for long. One day I was relocking the gate on leaving the wood when I spotted a beetle that had been transferred onto the side of the car from the trees:

What an amazing beetle

It’s a black-clouded long horn beetle. I had seen these in my insects books and had hoped to spot one some day because they are fairly common.

Those ridiculous antennae must make moving around quite difficult

The pond we dug in the wood last winter is settling in and proving very popular. The water doesn’t look very appealing though:

This hasn’t deterred pond skaters from flying in and taking up residence, utilising surface tension so that the water becomes a floor. The pond is now their amphitheatre in which they await hapless invertebrates to make a fatal error and fall in. As the drowning invertebrate struggles, the pond skater senses the vibrations through its feet and quickly moves in to take advantage of its plight.

One pond skater has bagged itself a fly, as another looks on in case there is an opportunity to steal the prize

An area we coppiced two winters ago has now got such dense ground cover that it is difficult to walk around. There is a patch of two metre high thistles there and, one sunny afternoon as we fought our way in, these were being monopolised by a group of large bumblebees. I generally find bumblebees difficult to identify, but I could tell that these were different to the bumblebees that we see working hard collecting pollen in the meadows:

Very large bees with darkened wings and boxy-shaped heads

They also had long white tails:

These are cuckoo bees, possibly the southern cuckoo bee, Bombus vestalis. Cuckoo bees are parasitic on other bees and the female cuckoo will enter the nest of its host and sting the queen to death. It then lays its own eggs in the nest and the resulting larvae will be nurtured by the host worker bees. Because of their lifestyle, there are only male and female cuckoo bees and there is no need for queens and workers. Six of the UK’s twenty-four species of bumblebee are cuckoos, each often mimicking the appearance of their host bee species – it’s all very interesting and I am now on the look out for some of the other species.

Fox cubs at a pond
A tawny owl takes a night-time bath

I finish today with another photo looking out over the meadows this morning. The grasses have grown very tall this year and in another three or four weeks we will be thinking about getting this cut and taken off the land, although as always we will leave about a third of it uncut on a rotational basis.

It’s going to be an especially big job this year and that tractor will need to be in tiptop working order by then. It is essential to get these meadows cut once a year to keep them as grassland and continue to remove nutrients from the soil to favour flowering plants rather than grass. But this is always at a cost to the wildlife in the short term and I hope that by then the great green bush crickets and all the other invertebrates currently making merry amongst the tall waving grasses will have finished their life cycles and be safely tucked away for the winter.

Kites and Cockroaches

My sister celebrated her birthday this week and I went up to visit her in Berkshire. I took the birding scope with me because red kites have been nesting high in a pine tree at the bottom of her garden this summer. One of the young kites had already fledged but the second was still at the nest.

The remaining chick at the nest. These birds are famous for incorporating plastic into their nests giving them a very shambolic appearance
The young bird is yet to develop its grey head and blue eye
One of the adults was observing proceedings from a nearby oak

These are lovely birds but we don’t often see them in our part of East Kent. Between 1989 and 1994, birds from Spain were successfully reintroduced into the Chilterns and the population has spread from there although not yet as far as us.They are mainly sedentary, although juvenile birds do range widely during their first winter, sometimes across to continental Europe, but returning by the spring to the area they fledged from. I think the red kites that we occasionally see over the meadows are these juvenile wanderers but perhaps one day they might decide to stay – perhaps the extensive Blean Woods surrounding Canterbury, where bison were reintroduced last year, would be very attractive to them.

Back at home, I saw a small insect that I didn’t recognise on the draining board one morning and rushed off to get my macro lens:

The whole structure of this insect was one that I was unfamiliar with. In particular I noticed the two short cerci sticking up at the end of the abdomen

I had thought it was going to be simple to identify this little thing with that white stripe, but this didn’t prove to be the case. Having failed to find it in any of my invertebrate books or internet searches, I put the photos onto a wildlife identification site and the experts there told me it was a cockroach nymph. This was alarming news since I had found the animal in my kitchen.

When I was in my 20s, I worked for a while in a hospital where there were cockroaches in the kitchen of the ward. These were enormous and their scuttling about was horrifying but this was a long time ago and I haven’t seen one since. There are four species of invasive cockroaches in the UK. These find the British weather too harsh for them so they live inside our buildings as pests. The large hospital cockroaches of my youth would probably have been oriental cockroaches although I wasn’t interested in attempting an id back then.

An oriental cockroach. I see that the body of these animals is about an inch long but they had lived on in my memory as much bigger than that. This animal also has those two cerci sticking up at the end of the abdomen. Photo by Dimitar Boevski from Wiki commons under CC share alike 4.0

Yet Britain has three of its own native cockroach species – the tawny cockroach, the dusky cockroach and the lesser cockroach. These are all adapted to living outside in our country and are not interested in being household pests. They are active by day and feed on plant material as well as scavenging dead animals – they are not a nuisance to us in any way.

The cockroach I found on the draining board, however, was not one of those four invasive house-dwelling species or one of these three known British native species. It was a nymph of the variable cockroach, Planuncus tingitanus:

An adult variable cockroach. It is very pleasing to learn that these cockroaches do not live in human houses. Photo from Wiki Commons in the public domain

This species is newly arrived into the UK but is extremely under reported with little currently understood of its abundance and distribution. There is now a study underway to find out more of what they are up to. Having previously known next to nothing about cockroaches, I now know perhaps a little bit more but have to admit that even our native species do still make my skin creep – and I so hope that there are no longer cockroaches in hospital kitchens.

Rabbits are lovely though. A mother has been bringing her sweet babies out in front one of my cameras:

There are three young rabbits and their mother, in the centre here, remains ever alert to danger whilst they hop around and explore:

One even tries to snuggle up to her:

I also like this photo. A badger hoovers up the remaining nightly peanuts while the One-eyed Vixen and her mate, a long-standing couple for many years now, look on from the sidelines:

A similar scene from another evening, although this time it is the One-eyed Vixen and one of her daughters from a previous year who wait patiently for the badger to polish off the peanuts and to leave:

This is the first time a tawny owl has appeared on the meadow cameras this year:

There is a new sparrowhawk on the block and he has been appearing on the cameras a lot recently, as well as being responsible for several sorry piles of feathers around the meadows. Here he is, nonchalantly dangling his long limbs on the perch:

And on another day, he has fanned his tail out into a skirt:

I am enjoying watching our solitary blackbird chick this year, still always out and about with its father:

There are so few dragonflies here this year but I did see this migrant hawker resting in a hedgerow:

Most of the ragwort has now been pulled from the meadows, although we keep thinking we’ve got it all but then spot some more:

A heap of ragwort

Now it’s time to turn our attention to the dreaded wild parsnip. The latex from this plant causes light-sensitive burns on human skin and we therefore treat it with the utmost respect, but it is worryingly good at reproducing itself and grows like a thug on our calcareous soils. There are two really quite large areas where it is still growing densely, despite us not letting any seed set for three years now. The plant is theoretically a biennial but I think we have perennialised it by stopping it seeding.

The wild parsnip area in the first meadow
The parsnip grows densely and dominates all the other vegetation where it is growing

Our approach to controlling this plant is to mow it now when it is about to flower but long before it sets seed. We then mow once or perhaps twice more as the summer progresses to whip away any flower regrowth. So, our 2023 Battle of the Parsnip began on Sunday but didn’t get very far when the tractor stalled on the way up to the parsnip patch and wouldn’t restart. Frustratingly it is just back from its service so that will have to be sorted out before hostilities can once more commence.

Trying to restart the tractor. But all that did was to drain the battery

Last July I found a large and hairy pupa behind a trail camera that was resting against the bark of an old apple tree. I attempted to ID it but was unsuccessful:

Photo of the back of a trail camera from July 2022

This week I remembered that pupa from last year and looked behind the camera again. This time I found an extremely large caterpillar and piles of what I presume are its droppings. The caterpillar was all of 5cm long and did move around a bit although it was probably preparing to pupate:

It is the caterpillar of the gypsy moth. This moth was common in the East Anglian fenlands in the 19th century but had become extinct by 1900. It accidentally got reintroduced into London around 1995 and DEFRA tried unsuccessfully to eradicate it because the caterpillars can do a lot of damage to deciduous trees and is a pest in areas of continental Europe. But it is now firmly established as resident in colonies around southern England and it appears that we have it here in the meadows although I am not aware of it doing any damage.

A most impressive beast, but those hairs could cause an allergic skin reaction in humans and caution is required

I now think the pupa I found last year must have been that of the gypsy moth and if I look behind the camera again in a while I will surely find another.

A large skipper has finally been seen in the meadows. They are normally on the wing from mid June and I had thought that I wasn’t going to see one at all this year:

I love this photo of a fox cub in the wood:

The marjoram is now out in flower and the clearing is alive with butterflies – particularly peacocks but I counted nine different species when I was there one sunny morning:

The peacocks were all in absolute mint condition as though they had just hatched:

I couldn’t stop photographing them:

There were also richly orange commas:

And second brood brimstone:

But I return to the meadows for today’s last photo. On Saturday afternoon, in persistent light drizzle, we witnessed an enormous movement of swifts above our heads, silently flying south along the coast. They were spread out but formed a constant stream which kept on coming for hours until we could no longer see them in the dark. By that time many hundreds if not thousands had gone by. Swifts are late to arrive in this country in the spring and then they stay only long enough to breed. Their migration south again to Africa in late July or August is believed to be triggered by a lack of insects high in the air.
Swifts are not with us very long each summer and here three of them are beginning their journey back to Africa on 22nd July

But what of the pair of swifts nesting here in the meadows this year? Have their young fledged and the little family joined Saturday’s large movement of birds south? The truth is that we don’t really know what went on in that box this summer – we so rarely saw them coming and going, although both birds were seen entering the box as recently ago as Thursday. However, there has been no sign of them since Saturday and I think the joyous sight of screaming parties of swifts circling around the house and over the summer meadows might already be over for another year.

Diving Into Dung

Red-billed choughs became extinct in Kent more than two hundred years ago because of changes in farming practices and persecution. Now, following several years of preparation and hard work, these charming birds are about to be released onto the cliffs around Dover once more.

Red-billed chough on Herefordshire Beacon. Photo by gailhampshire on Wiki Commons cc-by-2.0

On the back of this imminent reintroduction, a flurry of ‘Diving Into Dung’ workshops are being held in our area to increase awareness and appreciation of dung beetles which will form an important element of the newly-released birds’ diet. But, having attended one of these workshops this week, we now realise that these beetles are also of vital importance to farmers and in fact to us all.

The workshop was held at a farm overlooking Dover and the classroom was very atmospherically located in the barn. There were a mix of people attending – some were land managers like ourselves but others were vets and farmers.

Our makeshift lecture theatre in the barn at Broadlees Farm near Dover.

Sally-Ann Spence has spent the last thirty years studying dung beetles and it was impossible not to be drawn in by her enthusiasm and compelling talk about dung beetle biology and ecology and what they require to thrive and do their crucial work. As well as that, she farms livestock herself, using her farm to further research dung beetle-friendly farming practices whilst proving that it is possible to make a farming profit at the same time as cherishing these animals.

Sally-Ann’s box of pinned British dung beetle specimens and identification charts. A microscope is generally needed to get down to species level

In other areas of the world, competition for herbivore dung is so intense that some dung beetles are ‘rollers’ – making a dung ball and rolling it away it away to keep it for themselves. We do not have that level of competition for dung here and there are no British ‘roller’ species. Our species are either ‘dwellers’ or ‘tunnellers’.

A single cow produces 9 tonnes of dung each year and each sheep produces 800kg and, unless all of this vast quantity is quickly broken down, it will sit in the fields and reduce the area that is available for grazing. The beetles tunnel around the dung improving soil aeration, water infiltration and carbon sequestration, as well as reducing the methane that is released into the atmosphere by dung fermentation. If the dung contains seeds, these are taken underground by the beetles and effectively planted. In addition, as well as the choughs, all sorts of other animals eat the adult beetles and their larvae such as little owls, kestrels, hobbies, songbirds, lizards, snakes and badgers.

Britain has been slow to realise the importance of dung beetles in the ecosystem and the dosing of livestock with insecticides has resulted in toxic, insect-free dung that sits in the fields for ages.

After lunch, we went out into the sheep fields to look for dung beetles.

The farm is close to the iconic aerials that stand proud above Dover. Built in 1936, this was once a Chain Home radar station but these days the aerials transmit FM radio to the whole of Kent.

There is also a circus in one of the farm’s fields at the moment:

Sally-Ann demonstrated the different methods of surveying for dung beetles:

Unfortunately we did not find a single dung beetle – an indication that the sheep on this farm had probably been given treatments such that their dung was toxic to the beetles – this was a very salutary demonstration of what the problem is.

Our meadows lie to the north of the chough release site but are sufficiently close that, with the correct management such as grazing parts of them with sheep perhaps, they might be of use to the birds. Indeed, some choughs were briefly released last year and John the bird ringer saw a pair fly over the meadows the very next day.

Not sure how our resident crows would feel about their more colourful cousins, the choughs, visiting? I presume they would not be pleased:

My feeling is that blackbirds and thrushes did not have a good breeding year here with the hot June coming just when they were trying to get worms out of the ground to feed chicks. But this week I did finally have a sighting of a lovely chick out with its dad:

This next photo is an unusual angle of a sparrowhawk which really shows what long legs they have:

A second brood small blue butterfly on the wing in the meadows this week:

Its caterpillars eat the ripening seed of kidney vetch and are cunningly disguised to look like a seed pod:

The caterpillars are usually widely spaced and you could expect to search many plants before finding one. But because there is so little kidney vetch this year, they are much more concentrated – amazing that there are two in a single flower here:

Second brood brimstones are also out and about now:

I think these are small tortoiseshell caterpillars in our nettle patch. I certainly hope they are anyway because we haven’t seen one of these adult butterflies this year and it would be good to know that one has flown through and even stopped by to lay some eggs:

Also on the nettle patch was this harlequin ladybird, Harmonia axyridis (f. succinea). These invasive ladybirds have been out-competing and actually also eating the larvae of our native ladybirds since they arrived in Britain from Asia in 2004. I understand from Sally-Ann Spence, an expert in all sorts of beetle, that their pathogens are starting to catch up with them now and that the rampant harlequin populations we have been experiencing here recently are coming more under control – great to hear some good news.

The harlequin and one of our much lovelier native ladybirds – a seven-spot:

When I first saw this fly in the meadows a few years ago I was confused because its abdomen seemed too small for the rest of it:

It is only when you see it in profile do you realise what’s going on and that most of its abdomen is curled under. It is a really sinister-looking fly:

It is a female ferruginous bee-grabber, Sicus ferrugineus, and she will be laying her eggs onto bumblebees I’m afraid.

In the wood, the marjoram glade is just coming out into flower and, with perfect co-ordination of both timing and colour, is now alive with day-flying mint moths:

The roving camera has moved to look at a second bird box to see if dormice have moved in now that the birds have finished nesting. It seems that this box also has dormice in it:

But the camera has caught a bat at the entrance of the box as well:

Many of these ‘woodcrete’ boxes have ridges built into their ceilings so that bats can cling on and roost within, cohabiting by day with whatever else might be in the box. It is a lovely thought that this box almost certainly had great tits or blue tits nesting in it back in the spring and now it has dormice and bats using it. We have resolved to put up more boxes this autumn because they seem to be making such a difference.

Parent and cub
Two cubs out on their own
Always an absolute treat to see a tawny owl

I finish today with a beautiful view of the white cliffs of France from the top of the second meadow this afternoon. Yesterday we had 25mm of rain but today the sun has returned and the sea is looking almost Caribbean-turquoise.

July in the Isle of Purbeck

Last weekend we once more made for the wonderful lowland heaths of Dorset. We hadn’t visited them in July before and were interested to see what goes on there at this time of year. En route we stayed with some friends who have taken the plunge and moved to live full time in Milford on Sea.

The Needles on the Isle of Wight as viewed from Milford on Sea. They are very happy living by the sea and with the New Forest as well just to the north and in easy reach

The next day, the dreary and over-busy route west from Milford, weaving round the major conurbations of Bournemouth and Poole, made us begin to wonder if it was all actually worth it. But from the moment we turned off left and headed south onto the Isle of Purbeck, we knew that it was. After all, we were returning to one of our favourite hotels, the Priory Hotel in Wareham, set in four acres of beautiful gardens:

The very comfortable Priory Hotel in Wareham. Photo from our last visit in June 2021
Our room was in the right hand side of this boathouse, with french windows opening out onto a terrace by the river Frome. It was all very lovely

Directly opposite the boat house is a row of trees that hosts a major corvid roost each night. We made sure we were sitting on our terrace as dusk approached in order to witness the noisy spectacle of them all flying in. The racket coming from those trees once the crows arrive is quite a thing, but they very quickly settle down and tranquility once more descends.

We were impressed that Durlston Country Park, in the south of the Isle of Purbeck, regularly records thirty-four species of butterfly. What is the management there to encourage so many species of butterflies – and can we replicate it back in the meadows? We went along to find out.

The Victorian ‘castle’ at Durlston is now a visitors’ centre and cafe

As we walked along their wildlife trail, we saw that the mix of plants in the flower meadows was actually pretty similar to that in our own meadows back in Kent. But, in contrast to the shortage of butterflies that we are experiencing this year, Durlston had clouds of them – skippers in particular, most of which seemed to be the rare Lulworth skipper – a butterfly we had never seen before:

The females have a ‘sun-ray’ on their wings – a splay of golden dots on their rich orange wings
Photographing Lulworth skippers at Durlston

In the UK, Lulworth skippers are localised in a few self-contained colonies, mostly in coastal Dorset, east of Lulworth Cove. Within these very limited number of places, though, they can be extremely numerous such as they are at Durlston – but they do only fly on sunny days and it is only then that you see them.

Along with the skippers there were plenty of marbled whites, gatekeepers and meadow browns there to admire.

We also saw several small blues as we went round
Six spot burnet moth

We came away delighted to have seen so many butterflies at Durlston, but still without ideas on what we could be doing further to help our butterflies in the meadows. We certainly envy Durlston its six miles of dry stone walling as well as its much greater scale and variety of habitats including cliffs, gullies and sea caves. But as far as its flower meadows go, ours look very similar.

We will continue onwards with our long term butterfly goals for the meadows; trying to improve the ratio of flowering plants to grasses, trying to increase the variety of trumpet-shaped flowers to encourage long-tongued bees and butterflies and enlarging the areas of horseshoe vetch in an attempt to entice in two of the more unusual blue butterfly species – the chalkhill blue and adonis blue.

A roe buck with his white chin at Durlston
Driving through Corfe Castle on the way back up to Wareham

One the next day we visited RSPB Arne in the northern part of the Isle of Purbeck, part of the extensive Purbeck Heath National Nature Reserve:

Arne is a beautiful reserve at any time of year but in July the sea lavender, Limonium vulgare, is in flower, giving the salt mashes a pinkish hue:

I was unfamiliar with this plant but it is in fact very similar to the statice that I used to grow in the garden.

This sea lavender is much loved by a little bee that we saw digging its burrows down into the sand of Coombe Heath:

Active burrows being dug into the sand on the heath

The bee was difficult to photograph as it rarely stayed still but we did notice that they had a very shrill hum as they came and went. However, it was only when we subsequently looked at our photographs that we noticed those wonderful green eyes and realised that this must be the green-eyed flower bee, Anthophora bimaculata, found mostly in lowland heaths in southern Britain. Just look at those amazing eyes:

The heather was also coming into flower at Arne:

What a remarkable place, particularly given its location on the over populated south coast of England:

The new Middlebere hide has distant views over an artificial osprey nest:

This year’s Springwatch was filmed at Arne and did feature nesting ospreys on a similar platform but perhaps there are more than one because this one seemed very disused

We didn’t see many butterflies at Arne, and actually few birds as well – certainly nothing as exciting as this nightjar that we saw right by the path when we visited in August 2021:

But we really enjoyed our visit to the reserve and were surprised to find that a five whole hours had gone by when we returned to our car.

The sparse but surprisingly long hairs of a cinnabar moth caterpillar at Arne
I think this is a five-spot burnet moth, rather than the narrow-bordered five-spot burnets that we get in the meadows
This photo gives no idea of the scale and sturdiness of this funnel web by a pond, with the spider sitting plum in its centre. It was simply enormous but I couldn’t get close to take photos good enough be able to identify it

Back once more in the meadows and our new chalk butterfly bank is starting to look very cheering with the native annual seed mix that I sowed back in the spring.

Perennial seed was also sown onto the bank but these plants will take longer to get established.

I sat and watched as this magnificent emperor laid her eggs in the pond:

Shockingly, this is only the second dragonfly I have seen in the meadows this year. Although we took steps to ensure our ponds didn’t dry out completely last summer, many ponds in the area almost certainly would have done, killing most of the freshwater invertebrates within including dragonfly larvae.

Here she is again with a blue-tailed damselfly for scale – the spectacular emperor is the UK’s largest dragonfly:

Those eggs she is laying will be emerging as emperors themselves in a couple of years.

Last year a swarm of honey bees took up residence in our little owl box:

In September, numbers had built up to such an extent that a swarm formed and hung in a cone below the box while scouts went out to find it a new home:

The amazing swarm hung in the vegetation for several hours before it moved on to its new premises. I wish I had had the patience to have stayed and watched it as it moved off

It would only have been some of the bees that left in the swarm, though, the others remaining in the box and preparing to overwinter. But many bee colonies do not survive the winter and ours unfortunately was one of those that didn’t. When the weather warmed up again this spring, the box remained deathly quiet. This week, however, I noticed that it is once more active and busy – this time with a nest of tree wasps.

I will attempt to get better photos of these wasps but I’m not that keen on getting close.

Some other interesting photos from the meadows this week:

A dock bug
The last of the brimstone butterfly caterpillars are just finishing up on the alder buckthorn before they pupate
There are still loads of pollen beetles around
It seems to be a very good year for seven-spot ladybirds. I have seen so many
Surely these are dog biscuits that this fox has in her mouth?
Earlier this year we put a tremendous effort into ridding the meadows of alexanders. Now it is time to do the same with ragwort

There is a roving camera in the wood, that we are pointing at bird boxes to see if dormice have arrived to make a home on top of the abandoned tit nests. For this box, first there was this little teaser:

But soon the dormouse showed herself properly:

Dormice have sticky pads on their feet that enable them to cling on to things really well:

Other photos from the wood this week:

A smart female green woodpecker..
…and the male showing this year’s speckled juvenile the new pond
I always enjoy a jay with a mohican after a bath
A pair of jay
Tawny by the pond
A sweet little fox cub

We seem to have been away an awful lot this year. But, now that we are back from Dorset, we are not going anywhere for the rest of the summer and I am looking forward to catching up. There is always a long list of outstanding jobs to do here and it would be very satisfying to get round to ticking some of these off now.

Sailing on the Swale

We had a truly memorable time this week, spending a day sailing onboard one of the few remaining historic Thames sailing barges, SB Mirosa.

The ship’s dog

The Mirosa was bought by Peter Dodds in 1976 and, since then, has been lovingly restored and raced by him. In return, she became his home for many years

She was built in 1892 and was used to carry hay and straw on her deck from Suffolk and Essex to feed London’s horses, returning with their manure for the farms. After the First World War, she changed to carrying timber which was stacked metres high on her deck.

Mirosa carrying timber in the 1950s. She is unusual in that she has never had a motor fitted and remains to this day a classic sailing barge
The historic Mirosa competing in the 109th Medway Barge Sailing Match in 2017. Photo courtesy of Clem Rutter on Wikipedia Commons

With twelve passengers and several crew on board, we left Oare Marshes and sailed west along the Swale, anchoring for lunch off the Elmley Nature Reserve and returning to Oare by the end of the day.

The Swale is the tidal channel that separates the Isle of Sheppey from the rest of Kent

Knowing so very little about sailing myself, I found it wonderfully interesting to sit and watch as the crew pulled up the anchor and unfurled the sails. It all required an immense amount of skill and fine tuning as well as fitness and stamina.

Here we go. Opening up the foresail

The barges were flat-bottomed which enabled them to ply their trade in the shallow waters of the Thames estuary but, even so, it was sometimes necessary to ‘swing the lead’ – a metal weight lowered into the water attached to rope with knots at fathom intervals to test the depth of the water:

Below deck, everything was welcoming and atmospheric:

Although the marine toilet did require a bit of concentration to begin with:

By lunchtime, we had reached Elmley where we anchored up to go below deck for a delicious lunch:

View across the Swale to Kingshill Farmhouse and the shepherds huts of Elmley Nature Reserve where we have so enjoyed staying twice this year

It was a very special day and one that will linger in our memories for a long time.

Peter returning to Mirosa after having dropped us at Oare at the end of the day

Back in the meadows, this gate often affords us a chance to learn about a magpies diet. Here we have seen them with rodents, snails, lizards, slow worms and heads of wheat from the neighbouring field, but this time I’m afraid it is a small bird:

…which was then fed to its chicks:

With the hard work of the breeding season now largely behind them, it is time for the magpies to moult. Judging by the photo below, this can’t come a moment too soon:

But they are way too successful here and I am pleased to see that sometimes the foxes do their bit to keep the magpie population in balance:

Butterflies numbers seem very low this year and some species that are usually abundant, such as the common blue, have scarcely been around at all. It was certainly a cold, wet spring and perhaps this took its toll – but then I remembered a particular day in mid July last year. It hadn’t rained for weeks and all vegetation above ground was yellow and withered:

The shocking view across the second meadow on 21st July 2022

We became aware that all around us were second-brood common blues roosting up amongst the yellowed grass stalks. We quickly counted to fifty without much effort:

Six common blues perched forlornly amongst the shrivelled vegetation

The larval food plant for these butterflies is birds-foot-trefoil but they had nowhere to lay their eggs that would give the resulting caterpillars anything to eat. There must surely have been no offspring produced by this second brood at all and this is what has so badly affected their numbers this year.

Hopefully there will be more rain this summer so that the populations have a chance to bounce back. In fact, we have had a little rain this week – just 6mm, but every little counts at this time of year.

Because the grasses have grown so long, just a small amount of soft rain caused large areas to flop right over. By the next day everything was back up

Looking over the meadows after the rain. Although the grass seed heads are becoming brown as they ripen, the stalks are very much still green:

One area of the meadows was sown with a native wild flower seed mix for chalky soils back in 2016 and every year it gets more wonderful:

As we wait for our butterfly populations to recover, we are celebrating those that have arrived:

Marbled white on greater knapweed
Essex skipper
Small skipper on lavender in the garden
Six spot burnet moth with those surprisingly blue antennae

For several years I collected kidney vetch seeds every autumn and grew them on in the greenhouse to plant back out into the meadows. This is the larval food plant for our precious colony of small blue butterflies, but it is a short lived perennial and I wanted to ensure that there was always enough. After a while there seemed to be so much kidney vetch out there that I felt it would happily self-seed and be self-perpetuating and so I stopped doing this. But unfortunately there is very little kidney vetch here now – perhaps last year’s drought has affected this too. I have hurriedly bought twenty plug plants and potted them up ready to go out into the meadows this autumn to feed small blue caterpillars next summer.

The pollen beetles are out in force at the moment, gorging themselves in the flowers:

I have a T shirt this colour and will never again make the mistake of wearing it out in the meadows in July. These beetles find bright yellow irresistible:

Photo from July 2020

The pollen beetles also love bramble flowers, but I don’t have a shirt this colour to see if it has the same effect:

There are many types of different grasses in the meadows, some of which we haven’t yet got round to identifying. We do know timothy grass, though. Apparently this grass was named after Timothy Hanson, a farmer, who brought it to the southern states of the US from its native Europe in the early 18th century because it makes such good hay for animal fodder:

At this time of year, the timothy grass flower is covered in purple stamens:

We have just started to hear the sound of grasshoppers and crickets as we walk round the meadows:

Field grasshopper

It’s been a busy week in the allotment. The onion family harvest, all planted last autumn, has been very successful and will keep us through the winter:

Red onions, garlic and shallots all drying in the trolley

The roofers have been working away on the new garage and there was a moment of triumph as the pinnacle was positioned on the wildlife tower:

This pinnacle will stop magpies and crows from perching on the top of the tower and using it as a lookout. From there they would also be well placed to predate fledgling birds that will be emerging from the bird boxes within the tower

It was a blisteringly hot day for June’s tour round the dormice boxes in the wood. The blue tits have now all finished with their nests in the boxes and we found several dormice nests on top of these abandoned bird nests…

… as well as two yellow-necked mouse nests and a beautiful wren nest:

This is the first time that we had found a wren nest in the boxes. Amazingly, a male wren builds five or six nests and then shows them all to his female so that she can select the one she likes the best. It looked as though this particular nest in the dormouse box had not been used

Two of the dormice nests already had a litter of young within. In one, we could see that the babies were only six days old and hadn’t yet fully developed their grey fur. Although normal practice would be to get these ‘pinks’ out and weigh them altogether, in the extreme heat of the day the decision was made not to disturb them further. The other nest, however, had three older young that we could get out of the nest and individually weigh:

This sweet young dormouse is at the stage called ‘eyes open’ and will be between 18 and 40 days old

Baby animals are appearing on the cameras throughout the wood:

Bullfinch have fledged
Big family groups of great tits and blue tits are coming down to the shallow pools
Fox cub with its parent

And my final photo of today is this. I believe that this must be one of this years baby owls since its tail feathers are yet to fully develop:

Of course is a shame that it didn’t grow up in the owl box where it could have been ringed, but I am so delighted to see it successfully fledged anyway.

Dogged Persistence Pays Off

There is an odd assortment of nest boxes high under the eaves of our house, facing north across the meadows:

The house martin box on the left regularly has sparrows nesting in it. The central box is a semi detached swift box and the one on the right is a single swift box. The sparrows love to nest in both of these swift boxes as well
A pair of house sparrows are nesting in the single swift box again this year

Lovely though they are, it was not the house sparrows that we were really after. Since 2019, from May to when the swifts leave again for Africa, we have been playing swift calls from speakers placed on the flat roof just below these boxes. This has become one of the sounds of the summer here and the hope was to attract the swifts attention to the boxes.

The electronics that one of our sons rigged up for us in 2019 that plug in at the boiler house, with wires running to the speakers on the flat roof.

Almost from the beginning, the calls were very successful in bringing in small screaming parties of swifts that flew round and round the house for a while before heading off across the meadows to catch insects in their enormous gapes:

Four swifts coming in over the roof last year

Often they repeatedly flew very close to the boxes but we never saw them actually going in.

But then, just before they left at the end of last summer and nearly four years after the calls first went on, I saw a swift going into the right hand side of the semi detached box and it remained in there for ten minutes. We hoped that this was a bird checking out the box to use the next time it was back in the UK. Sure enough, once the swifts finally returned this spring, they have come back to that same box and I strongly believe that they are now on eggs in there. By now there should be two or three eggs in the box and incubation will have started from the laying of the first egg, which will hatch nineteen or twenty days later.

Swift on her nest. Photo from a 2018 Guardian article on Saving Britain’s Swifts

We have seen the swifts go into the box many times this last week but they do so without really slowing down and I haven’t yet managed to get a photo. Once the eggs hatch, they will be coming and going more frequently to feed the chicks and perhaps I will have more of a chance. After hatching, the young swifts will remain in the nest for 37 to 56 days, depending on weather conditions, and I will have a reasonable window of time to attempt some photography.

You actually get good views of the swift box whilst sitting on the loo

Swifts are faithful to a nest site and like to nest in groups and hopefully this is just the beginning, leading to a small new colony establishing here in the coming years. There are four swift boxes up on the house, but we are also in the process of building a new garage with a wildlife tower:

We have had the builders in since the beginning of February and the new structure is now taking shape The wildlife tower at the top will eventually have four swift boxes in it. The walls of the tower, currently alarmingly blue, will soon have black wooden boarding with entrance holes cut into the wood. Short tunnels will lead to boxes contained within the body of the tower

Our recent Orkney holiday meant that we were away for eleven days. When we left for Scotland, buttercups were dominating the floral landscape of the meadows:

On our return the buttercups have been subsumed amongst the grasses that are growing very tall this year. It is now the turn of the oxeye daisy to take centre stage:

The flower of the oxeye daisy is a wonderful viewing bowl to photograph visiting invertebrates:

A swollen-thighed beetle
I think this bristly fly is Eriothrix rufomaculata, parasitic on subterranean moth caterpillars
A very impressive wasp beetle
Malachite beetle with two red spots at the end of the wing cases

There are always a few pyramidal orchids in the meadows every year and they are now just coming into flower:

Eupeades corollae hoverfly visiting the orchid

We planted several alder buckthorn whips here seven years ago because this is the food plant of the brimstone butterfly. Although alder buckthorn is a tree of wet places and weren’t likely to do very well in our dry chalky meadows, against the odds a few are thriving and are now two metres tall. At this time of year they are gratifyingly covered in brimstone butterfly caterpillars:

These caterpillars are active by night. During the day they position themselves along the midline of a leaf hoping that a bird doesn’t spot them
I had to take this photo on my phone unfortunately, but it is of a female small blue butterfly laying her eggs onto kidney vetch – the larval food plant for this rare species. In a month or so I will look for small blue caterpillars on this plant
A broad-bodied chaser dragonfly just emerged out from the water of the hide pond
Something about this photo really speaks to me. I have been that exhausted parent
This photo felt a bit Hitchcockian
The underside of a wood pigeon
This rat has been coming daily to the hide pond. Is it an albino or an escaped pet?

There were no young badgers in the meadows this year and there has only been a single fox cub. It is very elusive though and, although I see that mother all the time, this is the only sighting I have had of the cub:

The cub hasn’t been coming to the nightly peanuts which is where the best views of the resident foxes are to be had:

The One-eyed Vixen, with her entourage of magpies, has started coming up close to the house at dusk to try to hurry me along with the peanuts

What is most amazing is the height of the grasses this year – they must be at least double the height that they were last year and it feels a bit oppressive
The One-eyed Vixen now has short ginger fur growing strongly across the back of her, all of which was bare a few weeks ago. What a relief that is

The swift calls that we have been playing these last few years is only one of the sounds of summer here. Another is the iconic sound of the Merlin engine as Spitfires, now adapted to take a fare-paying passenger, regularly fly along the white cliffs, often barrel rolling over our heads. Sends the dog wild, of course.

We have also been treated to fantastic views of P&O’s new ship, The Pioneer, as she dropped anchor alongside us for three nights this week and proceeded to run through a noisy series of procedural checks involving the tannoy and the ships horn. She was built in China and has just arrived into Dover and is now undergoing tests and inspections before she goes into service this summer:

She is a hybrid vessel with large capacity batteries that will eventually be recharged by her diesel engines and will cut fuel use by 40%. However I understand that this facility can’t be operational currently since the infrastructure at Dover needs to catch up. She is also symmetrical so that she won’t need to turn around in port and can load and unload at either end

I am seeing a lot of fox cubs in the wood. Here is one sweetly peering out from under its mother:

Although the cubs are mostly seen wandering around on their own:

Squirrels are a scourge of the wood and currently there is no way to control them, short of shooting them for which we don’t have the stomach. Therefore, I’m afraid that I was rather pleased to see a squirrel in the mouth of this cub:

I would so much rather they caught squirrels than rabbits who don’t cause any harm to the woodland, don’t predate bird eggs and chicks and don’t compete with owls and woodpeckers for nesting places:

Green woodpeckers are not nesting in this hole following confrontations with squirrels, but they are still occasionally seen going in:

There are a lot of great spotted woodpeckers in the wood:

And their young have fledged already:

A just-fledged great spotted woodpecker with its red cap

There was a big battle between the owls and the squirrels for this box and in the end I don’t think either are now nesting in there. However, the owls sometimes use it to roost by day:

Today is the summer solstice and from now on the days will get shorter. I leave you with a terrific sunset over the meadows this week, seen as I was taking the peanuts down for the foxes:

This was after 9pm, a fact that will be almost incomprehensible once we are once more plunged into the short days of the winter.

Road Trip to Orkney

Fifteen years ago we enjoyed a very memorable and successful family holiday to Orkney and had always wanted to return some day. This is the year that we finally made it back.

Previously we had flown up to Inverness and then caught a coach up to the John O’Groats ferry taking us to Mainland Orkney where we hired a car. This time we decided to drive what is practically the entire length of Britain and so we allocated three days for the journey. The second day was spent pootling up through Scotland in the sunshine with time to make a couple of interesting diversions. We came across a large family of goosanders on the River Tay:

Goosander chicks
We don’t see goosanders in our part of the country and I am not very familiar with them, but there were eleven sweet little chicks following in formation behind their mother – a normal number for these birds but does seem a lot for her to look after

In Perthshire we went to see the Fortingall Yew, a male tree estimated to be 5,000 years old and is possibly the oldest tree in Britain and the second oldest in Europe. In 1769 the tree’s girth was measured at 52 feet but since then a lot of the tree has disappeared, having been stolen by trophy hunters. In 1785 the tree was given a protective wall and it still appears very healthy, although now split into several separate stems.

The Fortingall Yew in Perthshire
Two of the stems of the yew, with a circle of wooden stakes in the ground showing the original footprint of the tree

Clippings from the Fortingall Yew have been taken to the Royal Botanic Gardens in Edinburgh to form part of their mile-long yew hedge. This conservation hedge has been created out of cuttings from threatened wild populations of yew as well as from famous heritage trees and is a way of conserving a biodiverse selection of yew DNA for the future.

Driving through a windmill farm right at the very top of Scotland

On the third day of the journey, we caught the car ferry from Scrabster to Stromness, a route that took us past the famous sea stack, the Old Man of Hoy:

The Orkneys lie about ten miles off the north coast of Scotland and, although there are seventy islands, only twenty of them are inhabited. There are no foxes, badgers, weasels or squirrels, allowing ground-nesting birds to thrive there, along with the Orkney vole, found nowhere else in the world. In 2010, around the time of our last visit, there was a first sighting of a stoat on the islands and their numbers have increased rapidly since then. The stoats, with no natural predator there themselves, live off bird chicks and eggs and compete with the short eared owls and hen harriers for Orkney voles all of which is seriously bad news for the islands’ native wildlife.

A stoat eradication programme is now underway and, since it became fully operational in 2019, around 7,000 trap boxes have been deployed with 4,400 stoats now removed from the ecosystem. The programme employs thirty people and four sniffer dogs, trained to detect stoat scat.

A stoat trap in position at Mull Head

We didn’t see a stoat on the island ourselves but we talked to people who had and so the programme clearly still has a way to go. I am sure every last one of these non-native predators will eventually be removed from the islands – but how on earth did they arrive there in the first place?

It’s not just the incursion of stoats that has happened since our last visit. There are now many more tourists on Mainland Orkney, not least arriving in large numbers off the cruise ships that regularly dock and disgorge their passengers at Kirkwall. We had seen the main visitor attractions previously and could mostly steer away from the crowds this time but we did revisit the atmospheric Ring of Brodgar one evening when we had it to ourselves:

The wonderful Ring of Brodgar. It is astounding to contemplate that when this stone circle was built in the third millennium BC, the Fortingall Yew would already have been 500 years old

This far north in June, it only gets dark for perhaps two hours overnight and we went out every evening after dinner looking for short eared owls and hen harriers when we appeared to have the island entirely to ourselves.

The turf-roofed hide at RSPB Cottascarth. It is estimated that eighty pairs of hen harriers breed on Orkney and one of these pairs was nesting in the moorland right in front of this hide. We enjoyed many sightings of hen harrier over the course of the week, some of which were quite close encounters, but we failed to get any photos that are worthy of including here

We also got good views of Short eared owl on our evening drives around the island. This owl flew close to the car but I couldn’t get myself mobilised in time for a photo:

A short eared owl flies away across Birsay Moor one evening. Absolutely magnificent birds

The rough grassland in damp valleys was used as a nursery for thousands of greylag geese. But if they heard a car slowing down, they desperately scurried for deeper cover:

We were initially bemused as to why we were seeing cars parked in farmers fields like this…

…until we asked an islander and discovered that they are being used as mobile scarecrows to keep geese away from the crop.

Our home for the week was a secluded Airbnb with gardens reaching down to the Loch of Stenness, and with small islands of nesting arctic terns and lounging seals just in front. It was a beautiful and isolated location:

The peaceful garden had lots of flowers but we mostly only saw one species of butterfly on them, the large white. In fact it was predominantly only the large white that we saw as we ranged over the entire island. Perhaps it is this reduction in butterfly and presumably moth numbers, that leads to fewer caterpillars being around to feed chicks – and in turn meant we didn’t see any blue tits, great tits, robins or thrushes. We were also delighted not to see a magpie all week. The summer bird populations in Orkney are heavily weighted towards ground nesting species taking advantage of the absence of many predators.

Skylark fledgling on South Ronaldsay
Fulmar on the cliffs at Mull Head
There are so many fulmars nesting around the coast of Mainland Orkney
Oystercatcher with two young. The Oystercatcher is Orkney’s most common wader with 12,500 pairs breeding on the islands
Ringed plover on Deerness
A lot of eider ducks breed around the coast
Eider chicks
Nesting arctic tern
Black guillemot with its comedy red legs
We saw five species of gull. I hadn’t realised before that the black wings of the great black-backed gulls are outlined in white
Red-breasted meganser taken through the kitchen window. This was an exciting first for us
Meadow pipit
Meadow pipit with food for its chicks. Meadow pipits are one of the cuckoo’s most favoured hosts and indeed, as we walked around Hobbister Moor, two cuckoos were calling atmospherically

Hobbister Moor is a RSPB reserve but it is also where peat is cut and dried to be used to flavour the whisky at the nearby Highland Park Distillery.

Peat cutting is still ongoing at Hobbister

We really like Highland Park whisky and had done a tour around the distillery on our last visit, made most memorable because our son, who was just a few months short of his 18th birthday, had to have orange squash rather than whisky at the subsequent tasting much to his absolute disgust. That son is now thirty and this time we visited the smaller Scapa Distillery. We hadn’t heard of this one before but their whisky is entirely unpeated and it felt good to support a whisky for which Hobbister Moor does not have to be ravaged. I can report that we also very much like Scapa whisky and purchased two bottles of different types to enjoy when we get home.

Lots of lovely whiskies to try at Scapa Distillery

The Old Man of Hoy is the famous sea stack, but we thought that the Yesnaby Castle sea stack on the west coast of Mainland Orkney with its window at the base was possibly the more impressive:

And there was another incredible sea stack just a bit further south at North Gaulton:

There is an absolute wealth of archeological interest in Orkney. At Birsay in the north west corner, a causeway leads across to The Brough, a small island that has the remains of a Viking settlement:

The causeway soon to be uncovered as the waters recede, allowing low tide access across to visit the Viking settlement
Views across to the Brough of Birsay
Skiba Geo is an inlet that has been used by fishermen since Viking times and, in the winter, boats would be hauled up from the little beach below and rested in these protective hollows

Scapa Flow is a large sheltered area of water cradled by several of the Orkney Isles and which was used by the British fleet in both World Wars. The German fleet was held here for seven months after the Armistice in 1918 until they scuttled their own ships to stop them passing into British hands.

A map of Scapa Flow painted onto the floor at the Fossil and Heritage Centre on Burray

At first, blockships were sunk into the gaps between the islands in an attempt to better protect the British ships and some of these hulks can still be seen. I understand that they have now become artificial reefs providing a home for interesting marine life:

But, in October 1939, a German U Boat sneaked through the gap between Mainland Orkney and Lamb Holm and torpedoed the Royal Oak with the terrible loss of 835 lives. After this, Winston Churchill decided to build a series of barriers to connect up islands and protect the eastern side of Scapa Flow.

Churchill Barrier number 2, connecting Lambs Holm and Glimps Holm. There are roads along all four of the barriers, connecting up islands that were previously isolated and changing life there forever

The remaining entrances into Scapa Flow were then heavily defended with a mixture of booms, nets, search lights and gun batteries. Many of these defences can still be visited such as this gun battery at Hoxa Head on South Ronaldsay:

A lot of infrastructure still remains at the Ness Battery near Stromness including some of the accommodation huts.

One of the gun emplacements at the Ness Battery, looking across to the mountains of Hoy

The canteen hut was covered in murals painted by one of men:

A corruption of a Shakespearean quote ‘Come the three corners of the World in arms and we shall shock them’.

The short and springy coastal turf was often covered in these spring squills which was a new plant for me:

Early purple orchids were to be seen throughout the island:

The moss carder bee is an incredibly rare bee in Kent and is the subject of intensive conservation endeavour. But this beautiful bee was to be seen everywhere in Orkney and it is so cheering that it is doing well there:

Moss carder bee on kidney vetch

I had been hoping to see the rare great yellow bumblebee while we were on Orkney but it is a late flying species and the queens do not emerge until mid June. Flower-rich areas in the Orkneys are now the only place in Britain that these large bees, that have a distinctive black band between their wings, are to be found and I was sorry to have missed them.

This meeting about the conservation of nine Orkney species on the edge was unfortunately being held on the evening of the day we left the island because I would have liked to have attended. The nine target species in Orkney are: arctic tern, common pipistrelle bat, curlew, great yellow bumblebee, lapwing, little tern, oyster plant, plantain leaf beetle and Scottish primrose

There is much about Orkney that is very appealing, not least the absence of the dreaded Highland midge and the lack of deer ticks since there are no deer on the islands. It is also good to realise that all of the islands’ electricity needs are now usually being met by local renewable sources. There is much we still want to do and redo there and, although there are many Scottish islands that we are yet to visit, it is to Orkney that we think that we will return once more.

Bats in the Moat

This week we attended a bat evening at Fort Burgoyne. As our country’s closest point to Continental Europe, Dover has more than its fair share of castles and forts and I get a bit confused between them all, but Fort Burgoyne is positioned behind Dover Castle to protect it from a land-based attack.

Across the parade ground at Fort Burgoyne

Fort Burgoyne is one of the Palmerston Forts, built in the 1860s following concerns about the strength of the French navy. There was much debate in Parliament as to whether the cost could be justified, but Lord Palmerston, who was Prime Minister at the time, strongly promoted the idea. He was concerned that the French could land elsewhere along the coast and attack Dover Castle from the rear.

A Second World War blast wall obscures much of the frontage of the fort
The extensive buildings are now disused and generally in a poor state but have become an important swarming and over-wintering site for bats

In 2014 The Land Trust acquired the fort and hopes to manage it for the benefit of the community by running events and training sessions and also leasing sections out to local businesses. The band of enthusiastic staff members include a ranger who monitors and encourages wildlife – on the last inspection of his twenty-eight reptile sampling squares on the site, he found ninety-nine slow worms.

Our bat evening started with a talk on bat ecology in the stables and we then descended into the depths of the fort with torches to be shown some of the nooks and crevices where bats return every year to overwinter. Then, as it started to get dark, we walked down into the moat with bat detectors:

Dropping down into the moat at heavy dusk

The group had been lent a selection of different detectors with the most basic ones starting at a cost of around £100 and the most sophisticated at £1,600. We had brought along our own Magenta detector and were pleased to see that this was the one being recommended as the best entry-level detector.

There are eighteen species of bat in the UK, which is actually nearly a quarter of all British mammal species. Their echo-locating calls are pitched at different frequencies and can be used to identify the species even if you can’t see the bat.

On this basic Magenta detector, you dial up the frequency of the bat you think might be around and the device converts its calls into frequencies that we humans can hear. Standing in the moat, overhung with trees, and looking up at the rapidly darkening skies we set our detectors to 45kHz and we could see and hear common pipistrelles erratically flying around us, which was really quite a magical experience.

The downside of these cheaper detectors is that, if there are other species of bats around, you won’t hear them unless you are tuned in to their frequency. The more expensive detectors scan all the possible wavelengths and report on any calls, whatever the frequency.

A common pipistrelle in the hand. Photo credit: Drahkrub on Wikimedia Commons

Back in the meadows, the reptile ecologist continues to make monitoring visits after a hundred and four of these legless lizards were relocated here a few years ago. This is his photo of the sight that met him under one of our sampling squares this week – he was very pleased:

I looked under the same square the next day and they were all still there and I’ve included my photo as well because, although the light is less good, the animal on the right is in the process of shedding its skin which is interesting:

It’s a bit difficult to count, but possibly around seven to nine of them here

It is a glorious buttercup time in the meadows:

Fox with rabbit amongst the buttercups

Another rabbit – I assume it is being carried back to cubs, since this fox shows signs of lactating. We haven’t seen a fox cub in the meadows yet this year:

This same fox with that fur loss at the base of her tail is on the left here at peanut time as well:

The One-eyed Vixen and her mate, long-standing residents here, have had a worryingly bad dose of mange over the winter and, under the advice of The Fox Project charity, I have treated them with both Arsen Sulphur and then with Psorinum when that didn’t appear to have worked. I am relieved to see that now ginger fur is growing back on her flanks:

The One-eyed Vixen. I have lost count of the number of times I have treated this fox for mange – four or five I think
And her mate with his characteristically crooked tail, currently devoid of fur

The only fledglings that have been seen on the cameras so far this spring are magpies, but they are making up for that by appearing on as many cameras as they can:

Both rabbits and magpies love this trunk:

Although it seems to have stopped raining for now and the sun has come out, the weather has remained quite cold and windy here on the coast. Butterfly numbers are still low but we are enjoying seeing green hairstreak, speckled wood, small heath and wall fluttering around the meadows at the moment:

We have also spotted these day-flying moths:

Least black arches
Nematopogon sp. I don’t yet know why these longhorn moths have developed such ridiculous antennae. It makes it so difficult for them to fly in breezy weather
The cucumber green orb spider, Araniella sp, doesn’t hide because it relies on its colour for camouflage as it tries to catch flying insects in the small web that it strings between leaves. Although it had got its colour matching slightly wrong here, it had nevertheless caught a fly by the next time we looked

After weeks of speculation and increasing excitement, the tawny owl box in the wood has been opened by the licensed bird ringers and found to be empty. This was disappointing:

Since there had been so many photos of an owl in this box, we now think that it was the male roosting up in there while the female and chicks are elsewhere

While they were in the wood, they also looked in a second tawny box that we have up – a box that I have not had a camera on:

This one contained a nest full of baby great tits. With an entrance hole that large, how will they possibly survive predation by squirrels or woodpeckers?

We have just carried out the May tour round the dormouse boxes as the wood heads into its second year in the National Dormouse Monitoring Programme. As expected at this time of year, a lot of the boxes were occupied by nesting blue tits:

Very young chicks
And slightly older ones

Four of the thirty boxes in our section of the wood had dormice in them. The animals are weighed, sexed and aged before carefully returning them to their box.

A dormouse in his weighing bag
Two of the boxes had pairs of dormice in them and we are hoping for young next month

Green woodpeckers no longer seem to be using the hole in the cherry tree that I have a camera on and I suspect that there has been conflict with squirrels. The camera did get this action shot of a buzzard though:

A sparrowhawk wades put onto the new pond:

John the bird ringer wanted to photograph bullfinch and set up his hide next to one of the ponds in the wood that bullfinch have regularly been visiting:

I have a trail camera on this pond and so can confirm that the bullfinch immediately stopped visiting once the hide went up – and the hide was there for several days to give the birds a chance to acclimatise. John did, however, get some other nice photos of jay, chiffchaff, green woodpecker and robin whilst he patiently, but fruitlessly, awaited his target bird:

He has also been deploying his hide at a nearby old orchard, and I finish today with some photos of turtle dove and mandarin duck that he has taken there:

Neither of these species yet grace the bird list of the meadows or of the wood but I haven’t lost hope.

A Return to Elmley

Elmley Marshes is a 3,300 acre privately-owned nature reserve on the Isle of Sheppey, lying in the Thames Estuary and separated from the North Kent coast by The Swale tidal channel.

A NASA photo of the Isle of Sheppey from space. Elmley is the big green area in the bottom left of the island

On two particularly tempestuous nights back in January, we stayed in a shepherds hut in the middle of the marshes and loved being surrounded by all that nature. Over the winter sheep graze the reserve and large flocks of overwintering waterfowl were rising up from the marsh, their atmospheric calling filling the air.

We really wanted to see what this wonderful sanctuary was like in springtime and returned this week to continue our total-immersion nature therapy there.

Kingshill Farmhouse in the spring. Most of the marsh is very low lying and protected from the ingress of saltwater by a seawall. Kingshill Farm and the shepherds huts sit on a low hill, formerly an island when the marsh was tidal.
We stayed in the same hut as last time – the Salt Box now has a shiny new addition to its facilities – an eye-catching copper bath and outdoor shower
The view from the large and comfortable bed was very different at this time of year – in January this view had been filled with birds but now was strangely quiet. The over-wintering waterfowl are all gone and breeding birds are scattered secretively across the wet grazing land, busy raising their young

The management of the marsh is geared towards breeding lapwing and redshank. Getting the right balance of water levels, grazing of the marsh to produce the correct height and density of the sward and the controlling of predators are vital – but the weather is always an additional wildcard.

At this time of year, it is cattle rather than sheep that are on the marsh. The two bridges across onto Sheppey are seen in this photo – the high arching bridge is more prominent but it is the older combined road and railway bridge, with its two concrete croquet hoops that can lift the central section, that brings you to the reserve

As we drove along the two-mile track through the marshes and up to the farmhouse, using our car as a mobile hide, we were aware of lapwing and redshank in the wet grazing meadows on either side. A marsh harrier quartering low overhead brought out squadrons of previously unseen lapwing parents from all directions, anxious to drive the raptor away from their eggs and young.

Lapwing are such striking-looking, wonderful birds but their numbers have more than halved since the late 60s:

Redshank have suffered a similar decline:

Redshank chicks were wandering over the track but this was the best photo we got:

In the summer of 2018, 336 pairs of lapwing produced 429 chicks on the reserve and around 500 redshank were counted.

Predator control is an important part of encouraging these ground-nesting birds. There are no badgers on Sheppey anyway and a predator fence, closed from dusk to dawn, keeps foxes out of the reserve. Any foxes that do find their way in are shot, I’m afraid, and stoat and corvid numbers are also managed. Hedgehogs, voracious consumers of eggs, are live-trapped and moved elsewhere.

It is not just the birds that are benefiting from these low predator densities – hares, for instance, are also thriving there. Mother hares often park their young up by the shepherds huts where close human proximity acts as a further deterrent to any would-be predator such as a marsh harrier or buzzard.

A leveret, photographed through the hut window:

The dark eyes and shorter, paler ears of a rabbit, for the sake of comparison:

When we were in and around the shepherds hut, we also felt like we were running a creche for moorhen chicks. I became very fond of them all:

Our group of moorhen chicks were always interested to find out if we had any food for them
Will it grow into these feet?

They were also still being delicately fed by their parents:

There are a few chickens around the farmhouse, all named after members of Wham, and I would like to introduce you to George:

George is a very odd-looking Polish breed of chicken and she is a real character, wanting to be involved in everything and adored by all members of staff there

One afternoon we walked down to the bird hides and on the way I was most excited to see a black oil beetle lumbering herself across the path in front of us:

Black oil beetle, Meloe proscarabaeus. Oil beetles have a very interesting lifecycle that involves the larvae waiting in flowers for solitary bees to visit, grabbing hold of their fur and being carried back to their nest where they develop into adults at the expense of the bees

The Wellmarsh hide had good views of a noisy black-headed gull colony:

There were a few terns nesting in amongst the gulls and their nests were much less grand affairs. This common tern is landing back down onto her nest.

The gulls also have to share their space with ducks:

Here are two green-headed male ducks, the shoveler on the left and the mallard. I had never before noticed that the shoveler also has a blue patch on his side, although a much paler shade of blue than that on the mallard:

One black-headed gull had made the decision to nest on her own on a tiny island. I worry for her chicks that are going to be terribly exposed and vulnerable when they hatch:

The chicks on the two main gull islands have vegetation to retreat into if the need arises, which surely makes them more likely to survive. I like their spotty heads:

We loved seeing so many hares as we walked around the reserve:

A mother mallard watches over her brood:

There were not yet many butterflies about but I always admire an orange-tip:

We went out for an evening tour with the reserve’s wildlife guide and found a newly arrived hobby. This bird will have migrated here along with the swifts, catching and eating them as a moveable larder as they all flew northwards together.

Although there were swifts swooping over the reserve, this hobby will now be more interested in eating dragonflies that are just starting to emerge.

Here is the same hobby with its very stripy chest and red trousers, as seen on a mobile phone attached to a birding scope

The guide also took us to see a pair of barn owls nesting in a box. We were quite a distance away but saw the female coming in with a young bunny or hare for her chicks:

She also showed us two different little owl boxes, both of which are being used this spring. But, despite our best efforts, we didn’t see a little owl that evening. One of the boxes is on this ruined school, dating back to a time when there was a small cement works on the island:

The atmospheric school house ruins
The little owl box is at the back of the building

Jackdaws also nest in the school house and are apparently often observed pushing the owls’ buttons:

We returned to the schoolhouse the next morning and were disappointed to still see no owl. But when we visited a third time that evening, two shelduck were perched on the building as we approached. Before we could properly get our act together, a brown bird flew at the ducks – we had at last found our owl:

Once it had chased away the shelduck, the owl sat amongst the masonry. The light was not good for photography but the owl is to the left of what would have been the apex of the wall:

Spot the little owl

The next morning we walked to the school one last time before getting in the car to come home. This time the sun was shining on the building and onto the owl:

It felt like a grand finale of a fantastic short break away. But what of that new shiny copper bath? Had we put it through its paces? Well, yes, one of us did:

Personally, I felt much more comfortable showering inside the hut. We are now hoping to return to Elmley in the autumn for our third visit of the year.

Up to Down House

Down House in Kent, where Charles Darwin and his family lived for forty years, is now in the custodianship of English Heritage. On the right of the house is the old mulberry tree that stood outside the nursery in Darwins day and is still standing now

Darwin and his wife Emma moved to Down House in 1842 when Emma was pregnant with their third child. Charles had not married until he was thirty because much of his twenties had been spent exploring the World on HMS Beagle.

As well as the mulberry, many other old trees on the estate have been around since Darwin’s time
Using 19th century photographs, the layout of the garden has been returned to how it was then

The Darwins went on to have ten children, seven of which lived to adulthood and the family had been there for forty years by the time of Charles’ death in 1882. He had come up with his theory of natural selection when he lived in London before moving to Down House and, once in Kent, he set about testing this theory by observing and performing experiments on many different things. He spent eight years studying barnacles as well as earthworms, carnivorous plants, orchids, fancy pigeons and much else. He was very apprehensive about how his ideas would be received by a Christian society who, up until then, had thought that everything had been created at the same time by God. So he delayed twenty years before finally publishing ‘On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection’ in 1859.

I love the anecdote that when one of Darwin’s sons went to play with a friend and was shown round this friend’s house, he asked “but where does your father do his barnacles?”

Charles Darwin’s study

It had been nearly twenty years since we last visited Down House but we had remembered Charles’ Thinking Path – in fact we had it in mind as we established our own well-worn circuit around the meadows. He used to make five circuits of his thinking path every day for exercise and headspace and, so that he didn’t lose count, marked each completed round by kicking a stone across from one pile to another.

Charles Darwin’s Thinking Path

As we walked in Charles’ esteemed footsteps around the path, we were delighted to spot several largish patches of toothwort, Lathraea squa