Harvest time

The large field of wheat that runs along the entire western boundary of the meadows has been harvested this week and the combine harvester was still working away long after it got dark and we had gone to bed. By the next morning, the job was all done.

The tractor provides the scale to be able to appreciate the gigantic size of the harvester

One of the farming contractors told us the fantastic news that, although spring barley was planned for next year, there would then be two years of meadow flowers grown in this field under an environmental scheme.

We went down to the white cliffs for the first time since early June and saw that all the Fulmars had now done what they needed to do here and have returned out to sea for the rest of the summer. The cliffs felt very empty without their noise. The House Martins are still around, though, and they should remain until September or even into October, finishing off rearing their final broods of chicks.

Photo from back in June

There was also this Wheatear on her way south:

As I was inching closer to the Wheatear to try for a better shot, I found a colony of Bee Wolves under my feet. These are large predatory wasps who fill their sandy underground burrows with paralysed Honey Bees to feed their young. Most of the tunnels were still actively being dug by the wasps and I couldn’t see any Honey Bees being carried in during the time that I was watching. I plan to return in a couple of weeks to see how the colony is getting on.

A Bee Wolf hauling out a white piece of chalk from her tunnel

An ecologist visits the meadows from time to time to check on the relocated Slow Worms that came to us a couple of years ago from nearby land that was to be developed. He tries to persuade us to grow more nettles here because they are good for snails, one of the main prey items of Slow Worms. But there is no way that we want to be especially planting nettles, although we have let this one patch grow in order to please him. This year it is six feet high:

The nettle patch

It actually does seem to be supporting a lot of life:

Comma Butterfly caterpillar
Lots of Ladybird larvae although sadly they are the invasive Harlequin ones which out-compete and actually also eat our native ladybirds
Ladybird pupa

And plenty of adult Harlequin ladybirds of various forms:

What I do not see is many snails on the nettles. However, the underside of the courgette leaves in the allotment is another matter and perhaps he should have been persuading us to grow courgette instead:

A snail nursery on the courgettes

One of the glories of the garden in August is the Agapanthus in flower:

By the end of the summer, all these flower heads will be swollen with seed. In its native South Africa, Sunbirds help pollinate the Agapanthus flowers but what is pollinating it here? I do see some bees visiting by day.

As darkness falls, the blue of the magnificent flowers really begins to pop…

….and the plant becomes busy with visiting Silver Y moths

Using the camera flash in the dark to capture this Silver Y moth visiting the flower

Moths are the unsung heroes of pollination, getting to work under the cover of darkness unnoticed by us.

It is only recently starting to be fully appreciated what an important role moths play in the reproduction of a wide variety of plants and crops.

I found this Silver Y moth caterpillar on a Mullein growing as a weed in the greenhouse:

I had difficulty identifying it because I was looking in the book for a green caterpillar with dark spots. However, I now realise that these spots are puncture wounds where the caterpillar has been predated by ichneumon wasps, sticking their ovipositor in to lay an egg into the caterpillar. Horrible but fascinating, as is so much in the invertebrate world.

Here is another very interesting invertebrate I came across this week. It is a debris-carrying Lacewing larva and I found it on my arm, although I had just pushed myself through a hedge backwards:

Although adult Lacewings feed only on nectar, pollen and honeydew, the larvae are voracious predators that eat mainly aphids, but also caterpillars and other soft-bodied things. They stick the carcasses of their prey along with sundry bits of organic vegetation on their backs to disguise themselves:

Close up of the debris on the Lacewing larva’s back

But why do they need to disguise themselves if they are mostly eating immobile aphids that can’t get away anyway? Ants have a mutually beneficial relationship with aphids – the aphids provide the ants with some of the honeydew that they are sucking from the plant and the ants provide protection for the aphids from predators. A scientific study has found that if a Lacewing larva approaches an aphid colony with no debris on its back, the ants will detect and eject it. If, however, it approaches with the debris in place, the ants don’t seem to be able to notice it and it can get past the ants to eat the aphids. I find that really rather amazing.

It is thought that Greenfinch numbers have fallen a devastating 60% since a protozoan parasite called Trichomonosis started causing a disease of their throats in 2006. The parasite is often passed on when a sick bird leaves infected saliva on the feeder and so everyone is urged to clean bird feeders once a week to slow the transmission of the disease.

Female Greenfinch

But, despite my best intentions, I don’t get round to this job anything like that often. I also wait for a feeder to be empty first before bringing it in to clean and refill which can take a while with some of the less popular seed types. Therefore I was very interested to learn of the Finches Friend – a feeder which has been re-engineered specifically to make cleaning much easier and therefore more likely to be done weekly as advised.

My new Finches Friend feeder – dispenses two different types of seed if you want

The feeders are quite expensive but I bought one anyway to see if it is as good as I hope it is. It comes with two bottom sections from whence the seed is dispensed. At any time you can stop off the flow of the seed from above and swap the bottom section for a new clean one, then turning the seed flow back on and taking the old dispenser off for cleaning and drying. It’s very simple once you get the knack of it and I will now be ensuring that I do this every week.

Four old-style feeders have now come in to be retired if the Finches Friend works as hoped

An area of the wood is a beautiful open glade filled with Marjoram, although Dogwood is now also growing strongly. On a sunny day in August, the Marjoram is heaving with bees and butterflies – mainly Peacocks and Meadow Browns but there were also at least two graceful Silver Washed Fritillaries gliding around. Both of these individuals are males:

We also saw a White Admiral although it was so very tatty that it was a wonder it was still flying:

Silver Washed Fritillaries and White Admirals are exciting woodland species and we are so pleased to see them flying in the wood. This autumn we must hack back the Dogwood to ensure this area remains open and Marjoram-filled to keep these butterflies happy.

Other photos from around the meadows and wood this week:

Young playful foxes at dawn
The One-eyed vixen with her blue left eye
Bounding along the path
Male Roesel’s bush-cricket
Over the years here we have seen Magpies with both fledgling and adult birds, eggs and Slow Worms in their beaks but never before with rodents
This male House Sparrow seems to be a single parent family and he is working so hard going back and forth to keep a nest full of noisy chicks fed
A thorough wash
Stock Doves just getting their feet wet
A pair of delicate Collared Doves
Yes, the Wood Pigeon breeding season still seems to be ongoing
Buzzard in the wood

Although we have often heard that boats carrying migrants have landed at this part of coast, we have never before witnessed the upsetting sight of a boat coming in.

A large inflatable boat being safely escorted in to shore by the Border Force

These people are arriving with practically no possessions and no certainty as to their future now that they have finally reached their destination. I try but cannot imagine the depths of their anxiety as they sit there in their inadequate boat approaching our iconic white cliffs but my heart goes out to them.

Purbeck Weekend

This week we have spent a couple of days on the Isle of Purbeck in Dorset. We stayed in the lovely town of Wareham which is not far from the spectacular Corfe Castle…

Corfe Castle

…and also not far from the Arne RSPB reserve, where we happily spent a few hours. It was our first visit to Arne and we loved it – it has a great range of habitats supporting distinctive species, many of which we are unfamiliar with, living as we do on chalky Kent downland. We set ourselves the target of seeing two sandy and heathland specialists, the Dartford Warbler and the Sand Lizard.

Father and son birding at Arne. The town of Poole is in the distance.
Sandy Cliff habitat
The cliff in more detail with so many insect burrows into the soft sandiness. A Jersey Tiger Moth gives scale
Sika Deer on the salt marsh

Sadly we didn’t see either a Dartford Warbler or a Sand Lizard, but we did see two other iconic species of the area:

A tree stump, close to the path in a heathland area of the reserve
Zooming into the picture a bit more, there is a Nightjar resting up for the day there, relying on its camouflage not to be seen
Zooming in yet more and you can see the row of bristles which are thought to help funnel the night-flying moths, flies and beetles into its mouth. Although the beak is so small, the gape is enormous
A different species of Nightjar but with a similar gape to our European Nightjar. Photo from the Bird Ecology Study Group

In the meadows, we know that spring has come when the Bee-flies arrive. Emerging during the first warm days in March and April, they are around for a short while and then they are gone. So we were very surprised to see a tiny Bee-fly still flying at Arne, so much smaller than the Dark-edged and the Dotted Bee-flies that we get at home and flying several months later. This is the Heath Bee-fly (Bombylius minor), now confined just to the heaths of East Dorset and one of the species being championed by Back From The Brink, an organisation working hard to save Britain’s most threatened species from extinction.

Heath Bee-fly, a parasitoid of tunnelling bees. These tunnelling bees can fly much later into the summer here because of the soft, sandy ground
A super-sized model of the Heath Bee-fly at the RSPB visitor tent
Outside the visitor centre there is an even larger scale model of a different Back From The Brink heathland species – the Ladybird Spider, the male of which is actually only a centimetre long and looks like this. In the 1980s, only a single colony of seven of these spiders remained in the UK but they have subsequently been re-introduced at Arne and are doing well although they remain very rare. One day I hope to see one.

Back in the familiar territory of the meadows, this Crow photo from one of the trail cameras, made me wonder if the bird was ‘anting’

This behaviour is surrounded by much speculation but the general consensus seems to be that the bird tickles a nest with its wing to cause the ants to swarm up and over its feathers, shooting out Formic Acid as they do to defend their nest. The acid is thought to possibly kill ectoparasites on the bird although there are many other hypotheses as well.

The resolution of the photo is not fantastic, but I can see ants on the bird in this next photo if I peer hard at it:

I can also report that there was indeed a small nest of black ants in front of the camera

On a sunny morning this week, I saw a metallic green damselfly by the hide pond. I moved smartly off to get my camera but inevitably it had gone by the time I returned. There are several species that it could have been, but any one of those would have been new for the meadows and so I sat in the shade by the pond and lurked there to see if it would return. Sadly it didn’t but, while I waited, I did see plenty of other dragonflies and damselflies:

Britains largest dragonfly, a male Emperor awaiting his Empress
Female Southern Hawker laying eggs
Blue-tailed Damselfly with its bi-coloured wing spots
Female Common Darter, with yellow stripes down her legs

Hopefully I will see that metallic green damselfly again so that I can add it to the list.

Having removed all the flower heads off the Wild Parsnip with secateurs and bagged them up to get them off-property, we decided to mow the area with the tractor so that it is easy to spot any subsequent regrowth – we are taking this eradication programme oh so very seriously this year.

One of the two areas that had Wild Parsnip growing

We have noticed before that, as soon as there has been any mowing, the large mammals are very interested to see if this has created an opportunity for them. As dusk fell, the foxes moved in…

Foxes entering the Wild Parsnip mowed area

..followed by a Badger once it became a little darker:

There is so much variation in foxes that each one is individually recognisable. As an extreme example, here is the vixen who had the single cub in the meadows this year…

…and this male fox from the wood looks so completely different:

Looks like battle lines have been drawn up but they are all just busy eating peanuts

Other photos from around the meadows and the wood this week:

It is quite a while since we have seen this female Kestrel who was ringed here as a youngster in September 2019
A Magpie having an unfortunate moult – we mustn’t laugh.
I found this little fly on my washing machine. It is Palloptera muliebris, the Looped Flutter Fly
A sweet young Robin getting ringed this week
We have had several bouts of intense rainfall this week – the ponds have never been so full at this time of year
Playful young Grey Squirrels in the wood
A family of Jays in the wood

We really enjoyed watching the sailing in the Olympics and we are now enthusiastically noticing the variety of yachts going past:

The three-masted Eendracht from the Netherlands and the Belgium two-masted Zenobe Gramme

Both these yachts are used as a sail training ships. The Eendracht is run by a foundation that wants to give young people an introduction to the sea. She has a crew of thirteen but also space for forty more passengers. I see that in 1998 she ran aground at Newhaven and all 51 people on board were rescued by helicopter but she was able to be refloated and returned to service.

The next morning, we saw the magnificent Eendracht again, this time far out to sea and heading back to the Netherlands:

I finish with some photos from the Highlands of Scotland, visited by one of our daughters this weekend, travelling up by sleeper train to Aviemore. She spent one of her evenings there in a wildlife-watching hide and was rewarded with fantastic views of Badgers and a Pine Marten:

On a walk the next day she saw this little thing:

I am hoping that one day our beautiful native Red Squirrels will once again be seen in Kent, although I have to admit that there is an awfully long road ahead before that can happen.

Weeds and Water

We travelled north to Yorkshire for two nights this week to visit my oldest friend on the occasion of a significant birthday. There wasn’t much time to go chasing wildlife but we did take a walk along the wooded valley of Hebden Beck just above the popular tourist town of Hebden Bridge. This town is set in a steep-sided valley, downstream from the coming-together of several rivers and streams, which has resulted in a long history of flooding. Recently, the town has been badly hit in 2012, 2015 and 2020.

Tree trunks secured to large and heavy boulders

There is now a flood alleviation scheme underway and we were interested to see one aspect of this already in place along Hebden Beck where tree trunks had been secured to large boulders at intervals along the stream. There has been much talk of Beaver pools and dams being used to help prevent flood surges by increasing the water holding capacity of the uplands. Now, in the moors and valleys above Hebden Bridge, unsuitable for Beaver reintroduction for many reasons, they are anyway reproducing this Beaver effect by reducing the water in local reservoirs by 10% and creating artificial dams with these tree trunks.

This trunk has started to form a fuller dam effect as other smaller pieces of wood get trapped alongside it

The charity Slow The Flow has been working hard using local volunteers to get these leaky dams and other measures in place to reduce the risk of future serious flooding events in the Calder Valley.

Himalayan Balsam was growing along the banks of the beck in some profusion. This invasive plant has an explosive seed dispersal mechanism, the seeds thus getting into the water course and spreading widely. It is an attractive plant but, once it gets going, it grows so densely that it inhibits growth of our native flora. Since it is an annual, cutting it down early so that no seeds form would be an effective control, the problem of course being that it is often growing in horribly inaccessible places.

We walked up the beck as far as the gloriously-located Gibson Mill, which used the power of Hebden Beck to drive a water wheel and produce cotton cloth until 1890, employing around 20 workers who lived onsite in attached cottages. Since 1950 it has been owned by the National Trust, now housing a welcome café although it still remains proudly off grid, generating all its power itself and using a local spring for its water.

Back down south, the vegetation in the meadows seems especially tall and verdant this year with all the rain we have had so far this summer.

It seems to be an extremely good year for Wild Carrot

We don’t have Himalayan Balsam here but that is not to say that we don’t have our own problematic plants. We rather smugly thought that we were winning the battle against Ragwort after several years of operating a zero tolerance policy, but this year there is a lot of it and it is looking so vigorous:

But now that the plant has advertised its locations with its acid yellow flowers, we are starting to pull it:

However, we are leaving those that have Cinnabar Moth caterpillars on them until the caterpillars pupate:

Maybe it is not just us who is having a rampant Ragwort year – I saw this small field in Berkshire on a visit back this week. If ever we wanted evidence to support our Ragwort zero tolerance stance, this field is it:

Last year we also removed all flower heads from Wild Parsnip after realising that the plant was growing in alarming concentrations in a couple of largish areas. The leaves have a toxin that can bring you out in a long-lasting photo-sensitive rash if you brush against them. This plant is a biennial and so we aspire to be able to eradicate this plant entirely if we keep our concentration up and don’t let it seed this year either.

Wild Parsnip
One of the two Wild Parsnip patches in 2020. It looks like it is as bad, if not worse, this year
We also fight an on-going war with Creeping Thistle, which we try not to allow to seed. We have missed the boat a bit this year with this, unfortunately

The female Sparrowhawk likes to spend some time most days on this perch:

And this is the most amazing show of leg from her:

The ringed female Blackbird and her two chicks
Comma
Painted Lady
Emperor Dragonfly laying eggs into the pond
We saw several of these rolled cigarettes on this tree, protecting something within, although we currently don’t know what

As summer progresses and the soil becomes drier, worms go deeper and are less accessible to Badgers. I have certainly noticed an increased enthusiasm for the nightly peanuts. With no cubs born this year, there are four adult Badgers:

Last year four cubs were born and so, by late July, we had a lovely family group of seven of them. I presume that one of these cubs was allowed to stay within the group, while other cubs were forced to disperse last autumn:

Photo from July 2020. Three adults and four young

The Badgers are also now coming up to the strip to bulldoze the cages aside and get at any seed that the birds might have left:

Most of the way into the cage.
Two cages flipped over and one cage largely dismantled the next morning

It has been two weeks now since we have seen the Old Gentleman Fox, or glimpsed him on any of the cameras, which is unprecedented. Despite my best efforts to cure his mange, I have to conclude that he is surely no more. The foxes here are generally deeply wary of humans and that is all for the best, of course. This included the Old Gentleman himself when he first arrived here last year but he gradually accepted us as the source of his beloved honey sandwiches and became increasingly tame. Up until a fortnight ago, he had started hanging around the house a good hour ahead of time, staring hard through the kitchen window to see if he could catch our eye and hurry us up a bit.

The Old Gentleman last month

Of course I became ridiculously fond of him and it feels very sad putting out the peanuts and sandwiches at dusk these days with no fox hanging round my ankles.

On Friday this week we had a day of strong winds as Storm Evert blew himself out above us. The Pride of Burgundy channel ferry sheltered alongside us – always a sign of disruption and associated passenger misery at the Port of Dover just to the south.

By this morning, calm had returned. The last day of July but there is a feeling that autumn is just round the corner. The first blackberries are starting to ripen:

Fruit is swelling on the trees of the orchard:

Fungal fruiting bodies will soon be sprouting up along this fairy ring…

…and the bird ringers returned to the meadows for their first ringing session of the autumnal migration.

Willow Warbler, born this year and weighing less than 7g but now on its way to Africa

We eagerly anticipate the autumn migration every year and the warblers have now started moving and so it is on its way. Last year we had a Ring Ouzel stay for several days in our garden and so who knows what this autumn might bring.

A view out to the late summer meadows across the Agapanthus

Crossing the Channel

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.

Racing pigeons being released in France to fly back to the UK. Animal rights organisations argue that cross-channel racing is cruel and results in the loss or death of hundreds of birds. Photo from BBC News
Is this the last summer we will be seeing these birds here in the meadows?

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.

Common Darters flying coupled up around the pond
Then the tip of the abdomen of the female is dipped into the water to lay an egg
When the winged ants start taking to the air, the sky is filled with Black-headed Gulls making the most of the bonanza
The sky was filled with something different on Monday when a Police helicopter spent several hours hovering above the meadows and surrounding area, driving the dog quite mad. Apparently a record number of 430 migrants crossed the Channel and landed on British shores that day, and we think that around 20 of these landed near here. More landed again on Wednesday and we had a visit from the Police to enquire if we had seen ‘anything suspicious’
The baby face of a young Jay
The raspberry legs of a young Stock Dove
Once again, we see adult Woodpigeon feeding each other crop milk. At least this is what I presume they are doing…
… which in this case was a precursor to mating. I read that Woodpigeon have two to three broods a year, two eggs being laid each time. The parents then take it in turn to sit on the eggs
This colour-ringed female Herring Gull with ring code X9LT has been visiting the meadows for many months. Her mate still waits for us every morning as we arrive to put out seed but we presume that she is currently busy with a nest on the white cliffs because her appearances are now much less regular. I am hoping she will bring her chick up as well before too long
Six Spot Burnet Moth on Kidney Vetch
The second brood of Small Blue Butterflies has started to emerge
Male Gatekeeper with his distinctive pair of white spots in the forewing
Cinnabar Moth caterpillars on Ragwort
Bumble Bee on Sunflower
In the wood – the Great Pied Hoverfly (Volucella pellucens). You can’t necessarily tell from the photo but this fly was enormous – one of the largest flies in Britain with an ivory-white band across its middle. Common Wasps build their nests down abandoned rabbit burrows and other such holes in the wood and this fly enters those nests, either undetected or accepted by the wasps, and lays her eggs. The fly larvae then live off the wasp larvae and general nest detritus.
An image from back in 2018 when a Badger had broken open a wasp nest and we were able to look inside. The nest had Volucella hoverfly larvae inside it and we could see that they also attack adult wasps. The whole thing was absolutely fascinating
This branch is a favourite place for this Buzzard to sit and observe what’s going on down on the woodland floor
It is good to see this Squirrel Buster feeder doing its stuff – the weight of the squirrel causes the outer sheath to slide down over the feeding ports and so the animal can’t get at the food. This is the first time for a long while that a camera has been trained on the feeders in the wood. Great Tits, Blue Tits, Chaffinches, Goldfinch and Great Spotted Woodpeckers were visiting but sadly I didn’t see the Marsh Tits, Coal Tits and Nuthatches that have been regulars in the past. I wonder why they have gone and if we can get them back?
A single fledgling Bullfinch has appeared

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.

Approaching the new hide
The spacious new hide. We had it to ourselves
Looking out over the scrape from the new hide
A Lapwing – surely one of Britains most beautiful birds? Lapwing chicks successfully fledged on the scrape this year
Several families of Tufted Duck were also raised

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.

Up in the Woods

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.

At the top of the hill is a Giant Sequoia, forty-four metres high and dwarfing all the other trees around it. I suppose that this tree must have been spared in the clear-felling.
A different order of magnitude to all the others

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.

A Comma, from Berkshire…

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:

Fresh stripped birch bark on the ground….
….and yes, the tree is completely bare of bark at a height of 3m and above. At least this isn’t at ground level so the bottom part of this tree will hopefully still survive. That stripped part and above will now die though.

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.

A female Large Skipper in the wood. I also saw a Silver-washed Fritillary but it was very jittery and I failed to get a photo even though I crept carefully towards it, applying my best bushcraft skills
Buzzards are such bulky birds with chunky feet and legs
Fox in a woodland scene
Bullfinch still visiting this pond daily
I do not know what is going on here!
A Nursery Web Spider guarding her white egg sac which is protected by a web, within which the spiderlings will live once they hatch
This is a Scorpionfly (Panorpa communis). In the male as above, the end of the abdomen is swollen and held over its body like a scorpion’s tail earning these insects their name…..
The female does not have the swollen end to her abdomen…
…but both sexes have a long, downwards pointing beak. These insects feed on small invertebrates in woodland margins and rough grassland

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:

Fledgling Blackbird with its father

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.

The extraordinary colours of the Green Bottle fly
I have seen mating Marbled Whites before but never where there is such a size discrepancy. The male is so small compared to the female
Here are the two vixens that had cubs this year. One-eyed vixen on the right.

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.

THV Patricia with her funnel, painted a delicate shade of primrose

The second ship’s funnel was a very different yellow:

Cefas Endeavour with her sunshine yellow funnel

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.

Meadows, Mange and Marmalade Flies

Our local beach, now in high summer

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 land at Wanstone Farm which was acquired by the National Trust in 2017. Photos from the information boards on site

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 wide conservation strip running around the edge of a field of barley
One of the information boards showing before and after photos of the field margins, although actually they are now much larger still. They were certainly very meagre before
Looking towards to the South Foreland Lighthouse across the top of the land that has only been grassland since 2018
Corn Bunting in the 2018 grassland area. The UK population of these birds fell by 89% between 1970 and 2003 and I had never seen one before and was surprised how large they are compared to other buntings
Another Corn Bunting in the agricultural field margin. The vegetation in both the 2018 field and the agricultural margin didn’t really look much different to our meadows so maybe one day we will see a Corn Bunting here
There were Skylarks everywhere as well
Walking back for a cup of tea and a piece of cake at the Pines Calyx cafe in St Margarets
The Pines Calyx at St Margarets – a building built of chalk with a lovely green roof, and one that has the lowest carbon footprint of any wedding venue in the UK. We got married there ourselves, in fact.
The Old Gentleman giving us a hard stare through the french windows

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.

The bizarre sight of the Old Gentleman coming in through the back door

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.

He has lost fur along his right flank over the past few days

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:

Male sparrow perched in the reeds and female on the rocks

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:

The sparrow terrace, several years old now but never nested in

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 white egg sac in the centre with already a few hatched babies, all surrounded by protective web tenting. The female is on guard near the nest while the the spiderlings are young

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:

Young Blackbirds

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:

A Robin’s Pincushion gall on Dog Rose – a growth distortion caused by Diplolepis rosae, a gall wasp, whose larvae develop within the protection of the gall.

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:

Bison in the Blean

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.

European Bison bull. From Talks Presenters 09 at English Wikipedia.

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.

Land in the first paddock that we walked around. All the fencing has been ordered and work will start in the autumn.
Some ponds were created in the paddocks last winter as a water source for the Bison
Even though the pond is only new, it already has Grass Snakes
The snake can open its mouth up in an unexpectedly enormous way
This land has been cleared for the fencing to go up, although work is currently stopped for the bird nesting season.
Two paddocks are going to join at this point with a tunnel for the Bison to pass through. The tunnel will be at ground level and the track will be ramped up over it. It is hoped that these ramps will also provide a viewing platform to allow the public to see the Bison as they approach the tunnel.

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:

Cow Wheat is the larval food plant of the Heath Fritillary. It is an acidic soil specialist and is partly parasitic on the roots of nearby plants
Wood Ants are an important part of the ecosystem. Interestingly, the Cow Wheat plant attracts Wood Ants to it by producing a sugary liquid from glands at the base of its petals. The seeds of the plant look very much like the ants’ cocoons and so the ants carry them back to the nest, thus dispersing the seed.
We also saw a White Admiral Butterfly in the Blean
This bank in the foreground, with a second one towards the back of the photo, are the remnants of the Radfall, a medieval droveway through the wood, used to move livestock to and from the fertile coastal grazing pastures. The banks and ditches formed boundaries at the edges of the Radfall, preventing the animals from wandering into the woodland and browsing valuable coppice shoots
Valerian flowering below the white cliffs

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:

Four young Kestrels in their nest in the cliff – you can just see the eye of the one at the very back

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:

This snail has a lot of growing to do before it fits its shell
Interesting to see its alimentary canal and also the dark spot at the end of its tentacle, which is an eye. There is a lens in that eye but it can’t focus the image with it or see colours. It can however, judge different intensities of light
Scabious is now flowering in the meadows and is so popular with invertebrates. I also have lots planted in pots around the house
Sicus ferruginous. This sinister-looking fly with its curled abdomen is a parasitoid of various bumblebees
They are often to be seen paired up
Crab spider lurking on a grass head
This is the caterpillar of the Six-spot Burnet Moth….
The Burnet caterpillars then form these pupae on grass stems….
…and then hatch into an adult Moth. This is the Narrow-bordered Five-spot Burnet Moth
After a really slow start to the mothing year, I am now finally getting large and interesting catches in the trap. There were five of these spectacular Privet Hawkmoth one morning
The Magpie is another beautiful moth
All the work that the adult Blue Tit has been doing to raise its family has clearly been taking its toll. Blue Tit fledgling on the left.
We were amazed to see this Goodyear Blimp come silently over. Launched from Calais, this is its first visit to the UK for ten years, to advertise an event at Brands Hatch.
I like this action pose from the male Herring Gull

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

Saint John the Baptist Church at Little Marlow, the photo taken over Easter when it was beautifully decorated. The church dates back nearly a thousand years to the 12th century which is pretty hard to get your head round

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.

Tying the Knot

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.

The morning after

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:

Trail camera photo of one of the chicks shouting out of the hole

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 was surprised to see that Moles have quite long tails
What amazing claws

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.

Molehills in the wood. These hills have no opening to the ground surface and are formed during the excavation of the permanent tunnels. Beneath each molehill there is a sloping tunnel through which the soil has been pushed to the surface.

Other photos from the wood:

Father and child
A sweet young Rabbit
This trail camera took a photo of the first amphibian we have ever seen in the wood. A Frog in the new pond. Frogs are a pioneering species, finding new ponds to colonise ahead of any Newts and other predators that eat their tadpoles
Young Crow, fledged but still being fed by a parent

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.

A Collared Dove victim of a Sparrowhawk

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.

The area of thickly-planted Yellow Rattle in the first meadow

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.

Collecting Yellow Rattle seed to spread onto the newly cut car park

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.

Samantha Jones Photography
The Sweet William patch still flowering strongly at the end of June. It is a short-lived perennial plant but usually grown as a biennial in this country

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:

One of this year’s cubs
The One-eyed vixen with Stock Dove prey
There is a beak right at the top of this picture – perhaps this Fox was being bombed by a Magpie?
Love this one

Some other photos from the meadows:

The extraordinary Ruby-tailed Wasp, a parasitoid of mason bees, hanging around the bee box and looking for an opportunity
This Broomrape is more yellow than the normal Broomrape we have here that parasitises Clover. It is possibly the Bedstraw Broomrape?
Pyramidal Orchid
Thank you for letting me know that this plant is Sainfoin. Apparently it produces loads of nectar and flowers on right into September and so is great for pollinators
Six-spot Burnet Moth caterpillar
Dusky Sallow caterpillar amongst the meadow grasses
The Common Malachite Beetle
Breeding season still going strong for Woodpigeon
Demanding young Magpie
Yes, the ringed female Blackbird is still carrying nesting material…
…but perhaps this is for on-going nest repairs because here she also is taking in food for chicks
This Emperor Dragonfly larva has crawled six feet from the garden pond and up the side of the house in order to emerge as an adult
I have been trying to get a photo of this for ages. This is the male Herring Gull who waits for us every morning to put seed down on the strip. He and the dog are not the best of friends – she barks at him and he repeatedly dive-bombs her. It’s part of the daily routine
We saw our first Small Blue Butterfly on 22nd April last year, although we would normally expect to first see them in May. This year, however, it was 24th June.
Small Blue on its larval food plant – Kidney Vetch
Marbled Whites have arrived….
…and Essex Skippers……
…and Large Skippers with their wing checkerboarding….
…and finally Meadow Browns

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?

At least two Kestrel chicks this year

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:

The adult Whitethroat feeding a cranefly to its chick above
A just-fledged Whitethroat
Some splendid Pyramidal Orchids down there
Viper’s Bugloss

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.

Out and About

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.

Great Crested Grebe on nest
Two of the three well-used Tern rafts
The sign of Woodpecker predation on a wooden nest box
There were lots of Mallard families in and around the lake
Male Banded Demoiselle

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.

It is just possible to see the line stretching out to the goose

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:

The One-eyed vixen with her blue left eye and her two cubs

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:

One of these birds has a fledgling bird here

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:

It’s a good year for the Broomrape – a plant needing no chlorophyll because it is parasitic on Clover
The Holm Oaks are in full flower
I am not yet sure what this pretty vetch-like plant is, but the bees love it
A mixed gang of adult and juvenile Starlings working the meadows at the moment
Unusual to see a Wren so out in the open like this
Woodpigeon are still at the nest-building stage too
This is quite a surprising photo. These are both adult birds and my guess is that one is being fed crop milk by the other because it has been sitting for hours on the nest incubating eggs
I include this photo because it highlights the difference between the Stock Dove’s eye in the foreground and the Woodpigeon behind.
A lovely pair of Collared Dove
A new feeder with sunflower hearts has gone up in the ant paddock. We put a camera on it to see what birds were using it…
Badger going about its business
Monster from the deep

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:

Male and female (behind) Bullfinch amidst the flowering Bugle
Cherry Ermine Moth caterpillars on Spindle
Very excited to find this vigorous White Helleborine growing in the new section of the wood
A Teasel with its water-collecting buckets at the leaf bases

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:

I had my camera on the correct settings for flying Peregrines so was perfectly prepared when these Spitfires came over unexpectedly. Both have been adapted to take a passenger for a flight of a lifetime along the white cliffs

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…

Here At Long Last

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:

The larva is large – about 8 cm in length
Before too long, the adult dragonfly starts to push its way out through the thorax
It can all look a bit alarming
The emerging adult starts to bend over backwards as it comes out
At this point, the action stops for a while as the dragonfly gathers its strength to reach forward and flip itself over
Once it is the right way up, the wings are still compressed and fluid needs to be pumped into the wings to open them up
Even though the wings are now full size, it is several hours yet before they are hard enough to use for flight. The emergences start in the early evening so that it is dark when the dragonfly is vulnerable like this, but it is ready to fly away by dawn.

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.

Happily photographing dragonflies
A just-emerged Broad-bodied Chaser with its discarded larval case below

Broad-bodied Chasers generally emerge before the Emperors and so are already now busy mating and egg laying.

Female Broad-bodied Chaser laying eggs into the water
The male resting up at the side of the pond awaiting the arrival of a female

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:

I think this might be a Woodpigeon egg, but Magpies will be on the look out for all sorts of nests

A lot of bird seed gets put down here and we definitely do see Rats:

A young Rat

But rodent populations here always seem to stay in a healthy balance and perhaps we have the foxes to thank for that:

This is the mother of the single cub. I always worry when I see rats being eaten in case they have been previously poisoned but if the rat was caught here it will be alright. This vixen has been treated for mange and I think I can now see fur growing back on that tail.
Her lovely cub, wet in the rain
The cub stretched out and enjoying the warmth of the sun

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:

The Old Gentleman fox, still with his bad leg, and a Magpie

Only one Magpie chick has appeared in the meadows so far this year:

Chick requesting food

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:

A male Sparrowhawk with a white eyebrow
A rare sighting of a Hedgehog
A Sawfly larva climbing a reed in the middle of the pond
There has been heavy dew some mornings this week
We have noticed that a lot of the buttercups have little snails in the flower although we don’t know why
A Crow with a beakful
A Woodpigeon, pink with the sunrise

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:

Avocet with shrimp
Little Grebe

We were very charmed to see a Ringed Plover trying to impress a female with his courtship moves:

A good opportunity for me to revise the difference between Ringed and Little Ringed Plover. These are Ringed Plover with their orange beaks with the black tip (Little Ringed beak is all black) and no orange eye ring.

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.

This is half of what their canoe collected

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.