Woe Water Rising

On the way back from the wood one day this week, we took a small diversion to the village of Barham where we had heard that the nailbourne had started flowing. East Kent has very little running surface water, but it does have four intermittent streams, that are called nailbournes here.

These nailbournes start running when the water table rises above ground level in an area where there are fissures in the rock and springs bubble up through them. The intermittent stream that flows through Barham is the Elham nailbourne and it runs for fifteen miles until it joins the Little Stour river at Bekesbourne. In the photo below, it crosses a road creating a ford.

In times past, before it was understood why these streams suddenly appeared, they were seen as harbingers of bad luck and were known as ‘woe waters’. Even in the twentieth century, the rising of the Elham nailbourne in the spring of 1935 was widely thought to have been a portent of the death of King George V.

This woe water is said by local legend to rise once every seven years. It ran in 2014 and again in January last year and so perhaps it wasn’t expected again quite yet but these days people get very excited to see it and there certainly has been a lot of rain.

In the meadows, the weather situation can be summed up by just this Badger photo alone:

As well as all the wetness, there have also been days of relentless wind as Storm Christophe blew his way across the country. The rain has worked its way into the lenses of the more exposed of the trail cameras and it will take a few days now for them to properly dry out. In the meantime, I am afraid I am having to offer up some misty photos this time.

A pair of Kestrels have been hunting together in the meadows most of the year. We have seen them previously on this blog sitting companionably shoulder-to-shoulder. So what is going on here?

The female could have simply misjudged her landing but I think it looks deliberate. A minute or so later, she was sitting on the perch on her own looking as if butter wouldn’t melt in her beak:

On another day, she was on the perch in the ant paddock. I took this long shot with my camera and was filled with anticipation because that trail camera trained on her there should surely be getting some lovely photos:

But, as it turned out, this camera, too, had been affected by the rain and all that it could offer me were photos that looked like this:

The cameras in the wood are more sheltered from the elements and don’t suffer quite as badly. Although it clearly did snow and I wish I had been there then because it must have been very beautiful.

A Buzzard has paid a few visits to this pond. It’s such a large bird:

We have made a couple of habitat enhancements in the meadows. Another pile of flints down by the wild pond:

We brought some logs back from the wood..

..and made a log pile in the ant paddock:

It is good to feel like we are making some forward progress in all this horrible weather and after having been under severe Covid restrictions for seemingly months. Actually, it really is months now for us here in Kent.

Green Woodpeckers are very active in the meadows at the moment, probing in the grass for ants:

Here is one breaking off for a drink:

I realised that I knew embarrassingly little about the ants here or, indeed, what they get up to in the winter. Are they like wasps and all die off over winter except for the Queens? But, if that is the case, then what are the Green Woodpeckers eating?

Where the meadows haven’t been cut for a couple of years, some pretty impressive Yellow Meadow Ant (Lasius flavus) nests have developed:

But, when the meadows are cut, the tops of these anthills are sliced off and the nests don’t have a chance to properly develop.

Last summer, we visited Park Gate Down, a local Kent Wildlife Trust reserve noted for its Monkey Orchids. The grass here is grazed rather than mown and so the Yellow Meadow Ant nests don’t get destroyed and have been there for hundreds of years.

In the part of the meadows we call the ant paddock, the grass has not been cut for two decades and the whole paddock is chock-a-block with anthills.

The anthills become their own mini habitats supporting different species of plants and animals and, in this way, increasing biodiversity.

Ordinarily, Yellow Meadow Ants don’t come above ground and it is only the winged males and females who make a hole in the mound and emerge once a year to swarm and disperse. Other than that, the ants are busy underground farming aphids (shown at A in the diagram below) that live off the roots of the plants on the mound. The aphids suck nutrients from the roots of the plants and the ants eat the honeydew that comes out of the abdomens of the aphids.

From what I could tell by researching on the internet, all of this is still going on out there during the winter, protected as the ants are under the mound of soil.

Well, I found that all really interesting and I had no idea that these mounds were aphid farms. We decided to find out for ourselves if the woodpeckers were indeed managing to still eat ants through the winter. We collected some Green Woodpecker droppings from the ground:

After drying them on the Aga, they were broken open and put under the Dino-lite microscope:

Sure enough, we could see that they were made up of the exoskeletons of thousands of yellow ants confirming to us that these Woodpeckers are definitely still eating ants in the winter.

In the last post I mentioned that this gate is used as a rodent super-highway at night:

It seems that I’m not the only one to have noticed…..

This Fox wanted to have a really, really close look at one of the trail cameras:

Winter is a time of male Fox dispersal and I find photos like this desperately upsetting. This Fox will no doubt already have moved on before I even collected the camera in but, if he would only stay a week, I could cure that mange with medicated jam sandwiches. I can only hope that when he arrives at wherever it is that he is going, someone will spot his plight and help him.

We woke this morning to a bitter day with a heavy frost.

However, the sunrise was absolutely magnificent to start another winter’s day:

I am so looking forward to spring.

Foxes and Musket Balls

Caressed as we are by the warmer sea, it is rare for temperatures to drop below zero here on the coast, but one morning this week it was down to -2°C:

Once the water had melted, a Sparrowhawk had a bath in the same spot:

We finally got out and did some metal detecting this week once the ground was no longer frozen, although it was still very cold and we didn’t stick at it for long:

Two more musket balls were discovered in the ground. We have now found four, all of the same size and weight:

This sized ammunition was used in ‘Brown Bess’ flintlock muskets which were in service in the British army from 1725 until 1838:

We have two musket balls framed on the wall that were found at the site of the Battle of Waterloo in Belgium (not by us though) and our four from the meadows are the same size as the larger one of these:

At the time that these musket balls were dropped in the meadows, the soldiers would have been dressed as below and the balls would have been held in a black leather bag on the hip. We are assuming that they were dropped rather than fired because there are no indentations on them, although apparently if they have only gone through flesh, there wouldn’t necessarily be any.

As I stand and look out over the meadows, I find it disconcerting to try to imagine these soldiers here in their scarlet and white uniforms two or three hundred years ago. It rams the point forcefully home to me that, as current owners, we are just temporary guardians of the land and this is all just a snapshot of time.

Foxes mate between December and February. At some point during these months, The females come into oestrus for three weeks although fertilisation is only possible for three days of that time. During oestrus, the male closely attends the female and, as the magic three days approach, he shadows her every move. The first attempts to mate are usually rejected by the female and I think this is what we are seeing here. The male on the left is the moth-eaten old gentleman – so perhaps not as moth-eaten as I thought, then:

The Badgers are in their winter torpor and are spending much more of the night cosily in their burrows conserving energy. Although they do appear at some point every night.

The chalk rock under the meadows contains layers of flints which gradually work their way to the surface. We collected some from the hedgerows…

…and made a flint pile near one of the shallow ponds as additional habitat that will be useful shelter for all sorts of things:

The paving stone along the edge of this little pond was already there and, as we were making the flint pile, we found several Frogs sheltering under its lip whilst standing in the water. A couple of days previously, this shallow water had been completely rock solid so presumably they got themselves out of the pond before this happened because otherwise they would have been frozen into the ice.

Whenever the sea is not dangerously rough, my sister-in-law and her friends go swimming every morning throughout the year from the local beach below. One day this week she had an unexpected spectator in this Grey Seal pup:

This is the second pup she has seen in recent weeks. It seemed perfectly alright and will be fully weaned by this stage of the year and so they gave it space and left it in peace.

In the wood, the camera under the feeders always takes hundreds of photos of Pheasants. As I was clicking rapidly through them, my eye caught on this one:

Up in the top right hand corner, a Buzzard is gliding through the wood. Its wingspan is so enormous, I’m amazed that it fits between the trees when at full stretch like that. Here is the same photo but zoomed in:

On both recent visits to the wood I have put several Woodcock up as I step along the paths to get to the cameras. They have also been seen on the camera at the new pond:

Now that it is January, the sound of Great Spotted Woodpeckers drumming on dead treetops reverberates through the quiet winter wood. They use this drumming to advertise their ownership of an area of the wood, the way that males of other Bird species use song.

The town of Deal is just up the coast and we went there for our flu vaccinations this week and took the opportunity to walk along the seafront. Between the pier and the castle, there is a tangle of fishing boats and winches to lower them down the steep shingle bank into the sea and haul them back up again. Actually, I have never seen these boats move anywhere but maybe they do:

On Fridays, a fisherman sells fish from these tables. It’s a quintessential Deal scene and he’s always very popular.

You can see the pier in the background of the photo – another iconic part of Deal. This is the third pier on this site. The first one, built in 1838, was washed away by a storm some twenty years later. The second one was opened in 1864 and sounded great with salt baths, a tram running along it and a concert pavilion and reading room at the end. However, in 1940 during the war, a Dutch ship, the Nora, was damaged by a mine and was lying incapacitated just to the south. Inevitably, it got swept onto the pier and destroyed a large part of it and Winston Churchill gave the army permission to take all the wreckage away to allow the coastal guns a clear line of sight. The current pier, built of reinforced concrete – and, dare I say, a bit ugly?- was opened in 1957 and now is held in great affection by the people of Deal.

There are often fishermen strung along the pier and you can promenade to the restaurant at the end which is still open for take-aways in these locked down times. I hear that the lobster rolls are very good.

As I write this morning, we have had the lightest of dustings of snow:

In the seven winters that we have been here, we are yet to experience the wonder of an old-school thick carpet of snow covering the meadows – the sort of snow where I used to wake the children up early so that they could dress up in hats and gloves and go out into the garden to make a snowman before school. I know that it comes with lots of hardships to wildlife and inconvenience to travellers but a part of me can’t stop wishing for it nonetheless.

Piddocks in the Chalk

Daffodils are beginning to poke their heads up through the soil, the sun is going down a whole twenty minutes later than on 21st December and my father has been called up for his first dose of the vaccine – these are things to be cheerful about. Yes, its been cold and wet and the country is again in lockdown, but we remain positive.

This odd-looking vessel below has become a very familiar sight, having been here on and off all week. She is the Ocean Marlin, an offshore supply ship, although she is is now on fishery protection duties.

The Royal Navy’s Overseas Patrol Squadron monitors 80,000 square miles of sea around Britain, protecting our fishing rights. It also carries out inspections of fishing boats in UK waters to ensure that they are operating within the law.

A year ago, the squadron was called the Fisheries Protection Squadron and there were just three ships and a helicopter:

As a result of Brexit, there are now eight Naval ships and other vessels such as the Ocean Marlin have also been seconded in to help. 80,000 square miles is, after all, an awfully large area.

One day this week, we went for a walk around the village and down onto the beach.

Some of the chalk has been burrowed into by Piddocks (Pholas sp). These Bivalves can bore a hole into the soft rock by first locking on with their sucker-like feet and next twisting their shells to drill. The animal is then completely protected in its rock tunnel and extends a siphon out to filter feed on organic matter in the water.

On the underside of a big lump of chalk that had broken away, one of the Piddocks was still there – this was exciting for us because, in all the years of seeing their tunnels, we had never actually seen one of the animals before. The flesh of these Bivalves is bioluminescent and apparently it is possible to see them glowing in the dark at low tide.

We also found some fossils in the chalk wave cut platform:

The Gunnery stands up on the cliff – a recently renovated, James Bond-style house that has incorporated a Second World War gun emplacement within its structure. Building work had been going on for ages and it’s good that it is finally completed. The only access to the house is by a lift up from the bottom of the cliff. I don’t know if this house is still for sale, but it was on the market for £6million in March 2020. This seems a lot for something with very little land indeed and a chalet holiday park nestling around it, but what do I know.

Back at the meadows, there are cameras on two of the gates to photograph perching Birds but we also see these gates being used as a super highways for Rats and Mice throughout the night.

Perhaps they feel safer being off the ground away from the Foxes when they are crossing open areas.

We watched through binoculars as a Fox ran at, and probably caught, a Stock Dove that was pottering around under the feeders. There was also this bitten-off wing of a juvenile Herring Gull lying in the meadows.

This Gull must have provided an excellent meal for a Fox because they are really quite large.

And here is another chance to admire how great the one-eyed Vixen is looking these days. Back in the summer, she had scarcely any fur at all on her tail because of mange:

I hadn’t seen Yellowhammer for a while but now they are back:

The Kestrels have been doing a lot of hovering above the meadows hunting for Voles. The male has also been turning up on the cameras:

Woodpigeon are busy working the hedgerows for any remaining food:

In the ponds, the time is approaching when Frogs gather to spawn. We are certainly noticing increased activity:

Across in the wood, this Squirrel is out and about in the cold weather and has managed to find a Hazelnut:

I’m always surprised to see how high up in its head a Woodcock’s eye is:

Finally today, this picture was taken on our walk to the village and it tells the story of our week of weather – wet with a bitter easterly wind:

It is a good time to curl up in the warm with a book and a 1960s edition of Charles Darwin’s Earthworm book has arrived that we are both intending to read. Who knows, we may even try to reproduce some of Darwin’s experiments on our own Worms here…

A Shiny New Wildlife Year

We have had an assortment of different weathers over the festive period. Storm Bella raged across the meadows one wet and wild night and, the next morning, there were lots of these long Earthworms stretched out across the grass. They were alive but we didn’t understand what they were trying to do.

We realised that we knew next to nothing about Earthworms, and yet they have such immense importance to the ecosystem here and everywhere. Charles Darwin spent forty-four years studying Earthworms and carrying out experiments in his garden in Kent and he published a book on them a year before he died which is apparently very readable even now, after all this time.

Worms break down organic matter into substances that plants can use and their burrows allow air and water into the soil, vital for soil health as well as providing space for plant roots, fungi and microorganisms. And, of course, the Worms themselves are an important part of the diet of all sorts of birds as well as Badgers, Foxes, Moles and other animals.

Before long, we ended up at the website of The Earthworm Society of Britain. There are twenty-nine species of Earthworm in the UK and, given how vitally important they are, they are desperately under recorded. So little is known about the distribution of the different species and one of the reasons for this is that they are tricky to identify – many of the species need to be killed first and then put under a microscope to do it properly.

That is something that I do not want to do myself, but I can tell you that our worms, spreadeagled on the grass on the morning after the storm, are probably Blue-grey Worms, Octolasium cyaneum.

Blue-grey Worms are in the Endogeic group – worms that feed on the soil itself and don’t usually come to the surface. Their burrows are horizontal to the ground and not particularly deep down.

But, as I understand it, when conditions are really wet, it is suddenly much easier to move across the surface of the ground rather than tunnelling through the soil below and so they come up to grab that opportunity to disperse quickly and easily. However, they should definitely have ensured that they were back below ground before it got light – once the sun came up I think a lot of them were left exposed and were hoovered up by Seagulls.

I have now joined The Earthworm Society of Britain, watched some of the educational videos on the site and am now much more informed about what is going on out there under the soil and it is fascinating.

Another thing that interested me recently were these next two photos. Here are a Woodpigeon and a Stock Dove having a bath in the wild pond:

Once they had left, there was a slick of dust floating on the surface of the water:

Perhaps we are all familiar with the print that a Pigeon makes on a window if it flies into one by mistake:

This white dust on Pigeons and Doves comes from their soft down feathers which have fine barbs that crumble away to form this feather dust. The bird then preens itself to spread this waxy dust all over to make itself waterproof.

Most other birds have a preen gland which produces an oil with which to waterproof themselves but Birds that use feather dust either have no preen gland or a very much reduced one. Bathing is especially important for these feather dust Birds, to wash the dirty dust off so that they can replace it with new to keep them properly waterproof and well insulated.

Our general strategy is to cut both meadows once a year and remove all the cut vegetation, thus gradually reducing the nutrient level of the grassland. But we do always leave areas uncut so that some long grass habitat still remains each year. Most of this retained long grass is in the second meadow, but the first meadow does have a few patches as well.

A couple of days before Christmas, we spotted a flask-shaped Wasp Spider egg sac in one of these patches of long grass in the first meadow.

Now that we had got our eye in for them, we instituted a search of all uncut areas and ended up finding three. One was very close to the Wasp Spider webs we were watching back in the autumn and is almost certainly the egg sac of one of those two Spiders.

How fantastic to have moved another step forward in our understanding of their lifecycle. The next stage now is to see if we can spot the Spiderlings coming out of these egg sacs next spring.

All round the hedgerows now there are Woodpigeon eating Ivy berries.

It is only Woodpigeon I have seen taking them at the moment but there are still a few Hawthorn berries left on the bushes. Song and Mistle Thrushes, Redwing, Blackbirds and Blackcaps do also eat Ivy berries but only when all other options have gone. Presumably they are not as tasty, but they have a high fat content and so are great fuel for the Birds when they do get round to them. The RSPB says that the pith of an Ivy berry contains nearly as many calories as a Mars bar, gram for gram.

During the first lockdown, flour was in severe shortage for several weeks and in desperation I bought some coconut flour but never used it. Now, as it is about to go out of date, I made some rock cakes with it. Unfortunately these cakes really lived up to their name and were indeed much like stone. We didn’t want to eat them and so they went out with the peanuts one evening and I am pleased to see that at least the moth-eaten old gentleman Fox appreciated them:

All the expected Birds of Prey have been sighted over the festive period:

In the wood, our coppicing work has been continuing slowly:

Christmas Day was unusually quiet for us as I’m sure it was for many people. We walked the dog up on the high chalk cliffs before breakfast which was a really memorable way to start the day:

I got two interesting-looking natural history books as presents. I must make more time in my day for reading:

On New Year’s Eve, it all went very cold here. A lot of the country had a fall of snow and even we potentially had some forecast, but none arrived.

On New Year’s Day, the Autumn Stream quietly came alongside and dropped anchor. She had taken seventeen days sailing from Peru and was loaded with a cargo of bananas and other exotic fruits. Dressed as we were in double coats, scarf and gloves and standing by a frozen pond, it was impossible not to be imbued with a little bit of tropical sunshine and warmth by her presence.

1066, 1666, 1914 – some years stand out from all the others and maybe 2020 will be one of these, but it is behind us now. We are embarking on a shiny new year with light flooding strongly in from the end of a long and dark pandemic tunnel. It will be wonderful when we get there but, until then, we here will be focusing on Earthworms and other wildlife to get us through.

Review of 2020 in the Meadows – Part 3

This third instalment of the review of the meadows starts with an unexpected and funny thing that happened here this autumn. A few days after a gale, we noticed that all the apples that had been blown off the trees by the wind were still lying on the ground. The pears, however, had completely disappeared. A camera, trained onto one of the pear trees to see what was going on, discovered that here in East Kent we have tree-climbing Foxes and that they really, really love pears:

Over a couple of weeks, every pear was removed from the tree. Meanwhile the apples continued to lie untouched on the ground until the birds eventually got round to eating them.

On a clear day, Calais Town Hall can be seen through a pair of binoculars from the meadows – France is little more than twenty miles away across the Channel. As a result, autumn is exciting here with birds gathering from across the UK, waiting for good conditions to make the short sea crossing over to continental Europe and onwards south towards the warmth of Africa.

But this year, as well as the migration that we were expecting, very large numbers of Siskin, Crossbill and Lesser Redpoll flew through the meadows over several weeks. But it wasn’t understood whether these birds were leaving, arriving or just moving around. It started with the Siskins – the Bird Ringers managed to catch and ring a few:

After the Siskins came the Crossbill and the Lesser Redpoll. No Crossbill could unfortunately be persuaded into the net, but 214 Lesser Redpoll were ringed:

Meanwhile, other Birds were migrating south as normal:

A bit of a rarity, a Yellow-browed Warbler:

The first time a Redstart has been ringed here – and two of them went into the net together:

In 2019, a large number of House Martins were ringed. This didn’t happen this year but there was this Swallow:

A Ring Ouzel stayed for several days:

A Blackbird started to scold the Ouzel for trying to share the bath…

…but then seemed to rather regret this once it saw the Ouzel’s feisty reaction:

Some Birds were coming in rather than going out, like this Redwing and Brambling:

And possibly this Short Eared Owl had newly arrived as well:

A Great Black Backed Gull landed in the meadows with a flapping flat Fish, accompanied by a retinue of hopeful Herring Gulls. However, it managed to swallow the Fish down-in-one itself and the Herring Gulls were unlucky. I see that there are 17,000 pairs of UK breeding Great Blacked Gulls, but that this number swells to 76,000 birds in the winter and so this bird could well also have been a recent arrival.

Some birds are with us all year round. We have far too many Magpies here to my mind and seeing them eating small Birds like this does not make me any fonder of them:

However, I have enormous affection for the pair of Kestrels hunting in the meadows this year. The female of the pair is the one that was ringed here in the autumn of 2019:

Here are the two of them together:

We generally see more of the male:

Here he has caught a Vole:

And he eats it:

And then cleans his bloodied talons and stretches his wing after his meal:

The female here is also bringing a Vole to the perch and there are more bloodied talons:

This Sparrowhawk has caught a Blue Tit just before dawn:

It is always such a delight to see the Tawny Owl in the meadows:

2019 was a Painted Lady year and we saw so many of these migratory Butterflies that we ceased to properly notice them, but this year we have not seen a single one. We have, however, seen all of the other 22 species of Butterflies that we would expect to see, including this migrant Clouded Yellow in September:

Two Wasp Spider webs were found within a metre of each other. This large Spider was first recorded in Britain in 1922 in Sussex and it is a Grasshopper specialist, building its web low to the ground. The web has the distinctive zigzag ribbon down the centre of it called the stabilimentum, the purpose of which is still being debated.

Both ladies did brisk business catching, wrapping, killing and then eating prey. You can actually make out the Bee in this parcel:

Sometimes, these Spiders were so successful that they had several wrapped packages stored at the edges of their webs, waiting to be eaten. We never saw either of them catch a Grasshopper though. Several times a day, I was to be found at the webs, horrified and fascinated in equal parts. Then, at some point towards the end of September, both Spiders disappeared, having left their webs to build an egg sac nearby. We searched for these egg sacs but without success. However, in the last few days, we have found three of them in the long grasses in the parts of the meadows left uncut. One of them was very close to the webs that we had been watching back in the autumn:

When the grass was cut this autumn, all Wasp Spider egg sacs will likely have been destroyed in the cut areas. A salutary lesson on the benefits of the mosaic approach to meadow management and how easy it is to wipe out entire populations of things without realising it.

Some other photos from this last part of the year

On the 21st December, the winter solstice, there was a Great Conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter in the skies and these two large planets had not been so close since 1623. You can see four moons around Jupiter on our digiscoped photo below:

This year has not been a great one for us humans and I really hope that the planets will align to make the coming one much better. But it has been another magnificent year in the meadows and we have found a lot of comfort and welcome distraction in watching it all happen. This closes my review of 2020 and I am looking forward to seeing what more there is to discover in 2021.

Review of 2020 in the Meadows – Part Two

This second instalment of the review of the meadows mostly covers the beautiful summer months of May to the end of August. An exceptionally wet winter became a very dry spring and summer and, once again, we found ourselves with a battle on our hands to keep water in the ponds and the six hundred newly-planted hedgerow trees alive.

We have added ten species to the bird list this year, bringing the total to eighty-five. In January, a Greylag Goose flew in over our heads. Then, at the beginning of August, a Sedge Warbler was caught and ringed:

In mid August, a Whinchat was seen on a trail camera:

A Honey Buzzard flew low across the meadows one morning in late August, hotly pursued by Crows. Although stunned to begin with, I eventually mobilised myself, grabbed my camera and managed to get these shots:

In early September, a Spotted Flycatcher was caught and ringed. With the privilege of being able to get so close to this bird, you can see the slight hook on the end of the beak and those bristles round its beak:

The autumn migration was extraordinary. Flocks of Crossbills flew over the meadows for several weeks during September – another new bird for the list although sadly I failed to get a photo and the Bird Ringers didn’t manage to catch one.

Several Hobbies were also seen migrating in amongst the Swallows during the autumn. Hobbies eat Dragonflies during the summer, but switch to eating Swallows and other Hirundines in the autumn and, in fact, often migrate south with them using the Swallows as a sort of mobile canteen.

We hadn’t seen Lesser Redpoll before but now 214 have been caught and ringed this year because there were thousands of them moving through the area in the autumn. Hopefully the ringing information obtained will tell us where they were coming from and going to because at the time it wasn’t really known. Lovely to see the distinctive yellow lower mandible and that raspberry forehead:

The Bird Ringers also saw a male and female Stonechat several times in the hedgerow up where they were ringing. The final new bird for the year was a Goosander which flew in off the sea and over the Bird Ringers head on 16th October.

Some other bird ringing photos from the summer:

A lot of Starlings nested around these parts in the Spring. Then, all of a sudden, there were juvenile Starlings everywhere as the first broods started to fledge:

I presumed that this would continue through the summer whilst the adults went on to have second and even third broods. But, in fact, after a while all Starlings disappeared – though not before first stripping every last bit of fruit off the Cherry Tree:

Meanwhile, other young Birds were arriving on the cameras:

A Stock Dove nested in the Kestrel box this year and we managed to get a camera in there:

Walking under the nearby white cliffs, we spotted this little group of just-fledged Whitethroats, out of the nest but still being fed by the parents. Even though this was not in the meadows, these Birds are just too delightful not to include here:

There were two Kestrel nests in holes in these chalk cliffs, both of which successfully fledged young this year:

A pair of adult Kestrels – presumably the parents of one of these two broods in the cliffs – used the meadows to hunt and we have seen a lot of them:

A pair of Grey Partridge were to be found in the meadows on and off through the year:

Once again we played loud Swift calls close to this Swift box throughout the time the birds were here this summer. It attracted a lot of interest but unfortunately no takers. Maybe next year.

And there are always a lot of Woodpigeon here and they do so love to bathe:

A much anticipated annual summer spectacle is when flying Ants take to the air and Black-headed Gulls fly round and round above the meadows eating them:

The hot and dry summer meant that a lot of Butterfly species seemed to be having really good year:

At the height of the Mothing season in July and August, the number of Moths in the trap can be completely daunting and it regularly took me several hours to go through and properly identify them all to the best of my ability. An unexpected benefit of the lockdown was that, this year, I had that time to give and, for the first time, I properly recorded the Moths and submitted my data to the County Recorder. Of course, I subsequently had requests from him for photographic verification when he was surprised by what I was claiming to have caught. In some cases I was able to satisfactorily provide it, but mostly it resulted in him correcting my identifications. Nonetheless, I learnt an awful lot and hope that I can remember some of it for next year…

It was a very good summer for Burnet Moths. We found a Narrow-bordered Five-spot Burnet Moth that had just hatched, and had the chance to get a proper look at the abandoned cocoon and pupal case:

For several years now we have been part of a Red Mason Bee guardian scheme. We are sent Red Mason Bee cocoons and cardboard tubes in early March and the Bees hatch out and gather pollen from the meadows during late spring. They build nests in the cardboard tubes which consist of a series of cells, each cell having a pile of pollen with a single egg laid upon it. The bees build walls of mud between each cell and then finish the tube off with a mud cap.

But we had never managed to establish where the Bees were getting the mud from to build their walls. At this time of year, the soil is rock hard and so surely they had to be getting the mud from the pond margins? But, despite looking, we hadn’t ever seen them doing this. This year, though, there was an exciting breakthrough. I was idling around the entrance to the Badger sett and became aware that Bees were flying down the tunnel where it is shady and cool and the soil is still damp. On my knees, peering down the tunnel, I could see the Mason Bees collecting up a ball of soft soil and then flying back up out with it. Such a satisfying discovery.

Some other memorable photos from the meadows this summer:

August ended with an impressive storm and a twister out to sea. Standing in the meadows, listening to the thunder rolling in across the water and watching groups of Swallows fleeing ahead of the ominously gathering clouds, there was a real feeling that summer was drawing to a close.

Autumn was coming, an exciting and eagerly-anticipated time of year here – to be covered in the final part of this review.

Review of 2020 in the Meadows – Part One

Over the course of a normal year, we would expect to be away from the meadows for several weeks. This year, we have scarcely been anywhere and never have the meadows been so comprehensively observed and photographed. Looking through the images that I want to include in this annual review, I find that there are way too many to shoehorn into a single post. So this instalment – Part One – covers roughly the first four months, January to April.

The annual jamboree of Frogs gathering together to spawn in late winter is quite a spectacle but it seems that it never goes without some sort of a hitch. One year, Foxes waded into the pond and feasted on all the frogspawn. Last year, there was complete carnage when a Heron ate all the Frogs – hundreds of them. This year, we had come up with a cunning strategy of rigging a grid of string over the pond, restricting the Heron to fishing in one area only and not able to wade freely through the water.

Initially, this definitely did seem to unnerve the Heron. But this approach was ultimately doomed because the Foxes just couldn’t resist chewing through the string, rendering it useless as a Heron deterrent.

Then, inspired by Worzel Gummidge on television last Christmas, we had the idea to make a scarecrow, Mackenzie, to watch over the Amphibians. He has proved completely successful and we have had no Heron visit whilst he is on guard.

Without the Heron as a lethal assassin, the Frogs were free to get on with the serious business of producing the next generation:

By mid February, Mackenzie was standing proudly over a pond that was filled with spawn:

But the problem this year was that the Frogs decided to lay their spawn into such terribly shallow water. This was probably because it is warmer but, unfortunately, Magpies were then able to get at it and a lot disappeared.

Once the spawn had hatched into tadpoles, Mackenzie went off duty and spent the summer resting up in the shed. But he is back in position again now as we approach the end of the year and the time for the Frogs to start up again.

It isn’t just the Frogs that Mackenzie was protecting from the Heron. It was the Newts as well.

I probably got a bit over-obsessed by Newts in late March and spent a lot of time watching and trying to photograph the very attentive male Smooth Newts as they pursued the females round the pond. I bought a polarising filter for the camera to remove the reflections from the water surface which helped a lot.

In the middle of January, the camera taking videos along the cliff captured two Foxes mating and I do beg their pardon for including this here:

By mid March, some of the Foxes appearing on the cameras were noticeably heavily pregnant. One of these particularly stood out and she became known as the One-eyed Vixen.

After she had had her cubs, it became apparent that she and another of our resident Foxes had mange.

I began treating the Foxes with Arsen Sulphur, having first checked with the charity The Fox Project that this was alright for lactating females. Although I hadn’t yet seen her cubs, I knew she had some close by. The Foxes had been successfully treated with this here before and it involves putting drops onto honey sandwiches every night for six weeks. I put the sandwiches onto the stone pinnacle in the ant paddock because the Badgers don’t get up there until later in the night:

The six weeks finished in mid May and, because there was a camera trained onto the pinnacle, I could tell that the One-eyed Vixen had got a dose of the Arsen Sulphur every night. The fur on the other mangey Fox’s tail began to grow back in, which was really satisfying. But, by mid June, it became obvious that the One-eyed Vixen’s mange had not gone away at all and was, in fact, getting worse. She had developed a new area of fur loss on her neck:

The Fox Project recommended I now tried Psorinum. This is similarly applied as drops onto honey sandwiches, but only for one week. I also added some Arnica drops as well because they advised that these can help healing. Once again, I was able to confirm that the One-eyed Vixen got a dose on every one of the seven nights.

This time, the treatment worked completely. Here she is in September with her fur nicely grown back and how heartwarming is that:

I had put a lot of emotional energy into the battle to save this Fox from a miserable death from mange and she thanked me in her own special way:

During May, her cubs were exploring away from the den a bit more and now started turning up on the cameras:

As the summer progressed, the cubs got bigger:

One evening in the middle of July, the camera up on the strip captured a series of wonderful images of all four of them together spending some contented family time. These photos are one of the absolute highlights of the year for me because I felt that I had had a part to play in helping this story have a happy ending:

In early February, the camera looking down upon the Badger sett, caught this:

Badgers mate as soon as this year’s young are born so we knew that it was now likely that there were tiny cubs lying cosily underground, although we wouldn’t see them until the female allowed them up at the end of April.

However, we were in for a treat when the mother decided to move them from one sett to another in the middle of February. She transferred three cubs – triplets this year!

She moved them again in early April – again three cubs were carried across to a new hole.

But then things started to get a bit odd. In previous years, the mother chooses a warm, calm night in late April to finally allow the cubs to come above ground. She watches over them like a hawk and they are initially only up for a very short time in a highly controlled manner.

But this year, a single cub, still really wobbly on its feet at first, started appearing along the cliff path on its own from early April:

Eventually, its mother would come racing up and drag it back to the sett:

I started forming theories for what on earth was going on. Was there a rebellious cub this year who refused to stay underground and went out exploring against express instructions?

Throughout April, this single, unaccompanied cub appeared most nights:

On 23rd April, the mother Badger allowed her triplets up out of the sett for the first time. She is an excellent mother and maintained a vigilant watch over them for the first few days while they found their feet. But is one of these cubs the maverick who we had been seeing out on its own?

Eventually the photo below and many more like it provided me with an explanation that I hadn’t considered – that there were two separate families. Our normal mother did indeed have triplets, but one of her daughters from a previous year had also had a cub. It was this single cub of the young mother who was out roaming unaccompanied. The four cubs were all related and were often crèched together and watched by a single adult:

Throughout the summer, the cubs grew and played and learned how to be Badgers. However, the single cub did not seem to thrive like the triplets. Here it is in the middle of May:

And here again, with an adult to its right and one of the triplets to its left.

The young mother often still dragged it around, far more than seemed reasonable:

The male Badger is not allowed anywhere near the cubs for a while. On one occasion, he came through the hole under the fence and stumbled upon them by accident. He immediately started grooming the cub nearest to him:

But the female rushed forward and gave him a severe telling off and he quickly reversed backwards through the hole and retreated.

With the four cubs, two adult females and the adult male, all of a sudden there were a lot of Badgers about:

First year mortality for Badgers is 50-65%, would you believe, and so I was pleased whenever all seven of them turned up together at the nightly peanuts and I could confirm that everyone was still present and correct:

The littlest Badger, who had remained smaller and more delicate-looking than the others, had the most joyful of summers playing around with the other cubs and driving its mother to distraction. However, unfortunately it was last seen on 24th September:

The triplets, though, are still going strong.

The strip was rotavated in February. This is part of the Operation Turtle Dove project and we were about to embark on our third year of putting down supplementary food supplied by the RSPB to encourage Turtle Doves to visit and nest:

But we are yet to see a Turtle Dove here, despite our best efforts. Other threatened farmland birds, however, have definitely been thriving on the seed such as Yellowhammer, Grey Partridge, Linnets and Stock Dove. Three years ago, there were no Yellowhammer to be seen here but in 2020 the Bird Ringer caught and ringed around ten of them and I am still seeing more unringed birds on the cameras:

Just as the Hawthorn had unfolded its tender leaves at the beginning of spring, there was a vicious north-easterly wind that blew for several days. The leaves and flower buds along the whole of the 300m stretch of the westerly hedgerow became burnt to a crisp. Although the bushes did subsequent regrow leaves, they didn’t flower this year and subsequently, in the autumn, no berries have been produced.

On more sheltered stretches of hedgerow, the Hawthorn blossom survived. It is so exquisitely beautiful with those pink anthers against the white petals:

Here are some of the other things that were going on in the meadows in the first third of 2020:

We used coppiced birch from the wood to create another Beetle stack in the meadows. The wood will slowly rot underground and be available for Beetle species to lay their eggs into.

I am writing this post on the winter solstice. Yes, we have got there at long last and from now on the days will be getting a little bit longer with every passing day. Outside, heavy rain is being blown hard against the window panes, there is a new and unknown strain of Covid raging all about our ears and nearby Dover is completely gridlocked with lorries because of a perfect storm of the uncertainties of imminent Brexit and the rest of Europe understandably not wanting our new type of Covid. There has never been a better time, in my lifetime anyway, to sit tight and absorb oneself completely in the wonders of nature.

I hope to get the second episode of the Review of Meadows for 2020 out before Christmas, but in case I get overtaken by events and that doesn’t happen, then let me leave you with this for now:

Review of 2020 – The Wood

When we bought a piece of woodland at the beginning of 2019, we had no idea that we would soon have reason to be so grateful for the safe refuge and calming surroundings that it provides. 2020 has been horrible, disrupted, stressful and a whole string of other adjectives which I won’t list but all of which mean that it’s been awful. Having the wood has helped tremendously. There was a time in the spring when we couldn’t visit for many weeks but nature carried on regardless and we joined back in when we could.

In January 2020, we bought an adjoining additional 4.5 acres of woodland, meaning that our wood is now 11 acres. It is surrounded by more woodland and a farm that has recently been taken out of agriculture and is now being managed for wildlife. So, happily, it is set within a landscape where nature is being allowed to flourish over quite a large area.

During January and February we were busy with coppicing work but bits of our bodies were complaining forcefully about what hard work it was. This was resolved by the purchase of a battery-powered chain saw which made a big difference.

We felt we needed some sort of shelter from the elements and so started to make a wooden enclosure with the cut wood although this was as far as we got before being overtaken by events:

Winter, when the soil is nice and soft, is a time when Worms and other soil Invertebrates are a vital food source for many things:

At this time, we also became aware that nearly every one of our large raptor boxes in the wood was filled with nesting Squirrels:

On 23rd of March, before we decided what to do about the Squirrels and before we had had a chance to finish that winter’s coppicing, we had to stop visiting the wood for several weeks. During this time, the feeders ran out of seed and the ponds dried up and we just had to hope that the animals that had been visiting them were managing alright without them.

When we started returning at the end of April, the feeders were immediately refilled but they remained there, unvisited, for a quite a long time. These feeders, that had previously been so popular with swarms of small birds now hung there like ghost ships, seemingly giving me the stark message that I had let our wildlife down. It has taken a while but now, nearing the end of December, they are again as popular as they ever were.

It was late April, and a most glorious time of the year to have returned in the wood. We realised that Green Woodpeckers were nesting in the same hole that Great Spotted Woodpeckers had used last year:

This photo, from the end of July, is of successfully-fledged juveniles of both Green and Great Spotted Woodpeckers using the pond together:

There were at least three Badger cubs this year and here they are playing together:

And two of the adults taking a drink:

The heat and drought of the summer drew in some wonderful animals to the ponds:

The Polecat-Ferret Hybrids and the Red Deer were a complete surprise to us. We have continued to see the Deer on the cameras occasionally throughout the year. There was also this young male:

And this one with a fork in his antlers:

As the spring and summer progressed, young birds of many species started appearing on the cameras. Every one of the twelve small nest boxes had Blue Tit or Great Tit nests in them, producing a large number of fledglings. We have put an additional six boxes up in the new part of the wood this autumn.

In June, we were horrified to see the damage that Grey Squirrels were doing to the Beech trees in the new part of the wood. So many had been newly attacked and some were completely ringed like the one below. The water and food carrying tissues of the tree are just below the bark and will have been removed along with the bark, meaning that this beautiful tree will now die. We really regretted not having ejected those Squirrels from the raptor boxes earlier in the year – we were making life easy for them.

One area of Nettles had a lot of these Peacock Butterfly caterpillars on them in July. Peacock caterpillars are always quoted as the classic things that eat Nettles and so we were pleased to catch them at it:

At the end of August, many of the Oaks in the new section of the wood had these strange-looking Knopper Galls distorting their acorns:

As the year rolled into autumn, winter migrants started arriving at the wood. Woodcock rest up in the vegetation by day, waiting for the dark before they go out probing for soil Invertebrates in the soft ground:

A leucistic Blackbird with white head feathers:

The coppicing season has now started again. The Hazel stools that we had cut back at the beginning of the year are now growing strongly from the stumps:

This winter we have allocated ourselves a new area to cut:

And we finally got round to finishing the wooden enclosure that had been abandoned earlier in the year:

As we cleared out the nest boxes in October, the wood had one more surprise in store for us – a Dormouse had made a nest in one of the boxes:

Dormice are heavily protected by law and a licence is needed to disturb them in any way. Back in 2019, an ecologist who is a specialist in Dormice came to look at our wood to assess it for its Dormouse potential. Having found that we do indeed have them, she has now suggested that our wood and a neighbouring wood with like-minded owners – 20 acres in all – become a Dormouse Monitoring Site. This will involve getting 50 nest boxes up before the Dormice come out of hibernation in the spring and these boxes will then be checked every month by the licensed ecologist. Meanwhile, our woodland neighbour and I will start to work towards becoming licensed so that eventually we can check the boxes ourselves.

That is something to look forward to in 2021. What next year is going to look like and what will be possible is still uncertain but we shall have to keep our fingers crossed and do the best we can in the circumstances that present themselves.

Out and About

This week we took a trip out to Samphire Hoe, just the other side of Dover.

It is a 75 acre piece of land created from the chalk dug out of the ground to create the Channel Tunnel. Most of Samphire Hoe is now a country park, although there are some buildings connected with the tunnel up at the top end.

As we approached the turn off for Samphire Hoe, there was a stationary queue of lorries stretching for miles waiting to get into the port of Dover. A depressing glimpse of the nightmare that might be in store post Brexit:

A steep traffic-light controlled tunnel through the cliff gives access down to the reclaimed land at the bottom:

The tunnel on the right below spits you out at the bottom. The other two tunnels are for the Folkestone to Dover railway:

The chalk cliffs are very different to the cliffs nearer to us. These cliffs are no longer undercut by the sea and have become more vegetated and with rounded edges. They also don’t have those layers of flints that the Kestrels so love to perch on:

The Channel Tunnel opened in 1994 and so this land is only about 30 years old. Here is an internet photo of it in 1990:

Once the site was cleared, 31 species of plant were initially planted but now there are more than 200 species growing. Probably the most famous are its Early Spider Orchids, of which there are over a thousand flowering every spring, along with five thousand Common Spotted and Pyramidal Orchids. But it got its name because of the Rock Samphire that we saw growing everywhere there on our visit:

There was scarcely anyone there at this time of the year and so it was a great place to walk the sometimes dubiously-behaved dog.

220 species of Birds, 30 species of Butterflies and 380 species of Moth have now been recorded at Samphire Hoe, and we made a resolution to return next spring to see all those Early Spider Orchids and hopefully some of the Butterflies as well.

Back in the meadows, the wildlife has been quiet and the cameras have not captured very much to show you this week. The weather hasn’t helped and the camera lenses are mostly covered in condensation:

The Mahonia in the garden is still flowering, although now coming to an end:

On a dull, damp and chilly day in mid December, there were still Buff-tailed Bumblebees visiting the flowers. How extraordinary and what a fantastic advert for planting Mahonia and other winter-flowering shrubs in gardens. The black berries that will follow these flowers are much loved by Birds as well:

For five years now we have been monitoring a hole under the fence that leads into the meadows from the cliffs. There is a lot of coming and going of both Foxes and Badgers but they always seem to arrange things so that they never meet. Until this week, that is, when both a Fox and a Badger tried to go through at the same time. It’s so strange that we haven’t caught this on the cameras before.

A Badger approaches the hole:

But a Fox is coming through the other way:

They then both give way. The Fox reverses backwards and the Badger rushes past the hole on towards the camera:

On the next video, a minute and a half later, everything gets sorted out. When the Fox tries again, another Badger has turned up to offer a distraction.

An unusual sighting of a Badger still up at dawn:

In the last post, I mentioned the Peacock Butterfly found hibernating in a cold, unheated bedroom of the house:

I decided to leave it there for now in the predator-free bedroom rather than transfer it to a shed where is would be vulnerable to attack by Spiders. Well, the day after that post, I went to check on it and found it gone. There was just a tiny fragment of wing left clinging to the curtains as a clue:

It seems that the house is not as predator-free as I had hoped. How does any Butterfly ever survive a whole winter without getting eaten?

The garlic, onions and broad beans growing away in the allotment are very cheering at this time of year:

In the wood, the Primroses are starting to grow as well, full of promise of what is to come in the spring:

We met one of our sons in the wood to help with the coppicing and a pleasing amount of work was done.

The new pond continues to delight us. Woodcock are nocturnal but here are two visiting by day:

And again at night:

There are Woodcock that are resident in the UK but numbers are much boosted by winter visitors from Finland and Russia. We have never seen one in the wood during the summer and presume all of ours here are migrants.

Another Bird that comes to the UK to spend the winter in this country is the Fieldfare. Like the Woodcock, they mainly eat grubs and worms in the soil and so do need to be somewhere where the soil in not frozen for long periods:

Long-tailed Tit, Marsh Tit, Blue Tit and Great Tit all at the pond at the same time:

And this is the first time that a Badger has visited this new pond:

The best that the other ponds in the wood could offer us this week is a Green Woodpecker:

The Christmas decorations have come down from the attic and the house is looking festive. I hate to bring anything in from the meadows that might be part of a vital food larder to sustain animals through the winter. However, we have so much mature Ivy out there producing such an enormous amount of berries that it feels alright bring some of that in:

I finish today with one Christmas event that has not had to be cancelled this year. Ramsgate is a little bit north of here and, every December, the boats in the harbour are festooned with lights making a magical scene. For the last few years, we have kick started that Christmassy feeling by taking a trip up there and it was great to still be able to do that in this most abnormal of years:

All Change for Christmas

This week has seen Kent move from lockdown into very high alert, tier 3 measures. With distressing levels of Covid all around, we have revised our Christmas plans and will now spend a quiet festive season here with the meadows and the wood. I am sure that people all over the country are making similar adjustments and will be having an unusual Christmas at the end of a highly peculiar year.

The wildlife of East Kent, blissfully unaware of all these human concerns, continues in its own sweet way.

A Sparrowhawk lands on the gate just before dawn with prey:

It looks to be an unfortunate Blue Tit and we went up there to search for its remains in case it had been ringed. However, the only sign were some sad feathers caught in Spider webs around the camera tripod:

We also came across a very fresh Sparrowhawk kill in the wood. This must have been a female, which is a much bigger bird, to have tackled something the size of a Woodpigeon:

There was a leucistic Blackbird with a white head in the wood this week. They are thought to be more noticeable to Sparrowhawks and therefore also more vulnerable to predation:

The most noticeable birds in the meadows at the moment are House Sparrows. There is a large gang of them and I love their loud, contented cheeping often emanating from the hedgerows.

Kestrels mainly eat Rodents rather than other Birds and here one is with bloodied talons and her Vole prey. I have lightened it as much as I could but it was an awfully dull day:

Since there is no prospect of having house guests for now, we have turned the radiators off and closed the doors of the unused bedrooms in the house. But, in one of these, we found a guest already making itself comfortable – a hibernating Peacock Butterfly on the inside of the window:

Since this animal chose us to spend the winter with, I now feel a responsibility to get it safely through to spring. Every time I check, it has slightly changed position. This morning it was on the curtains:

Of our fifty-nine British Butterfly species, most spend the winter as caterpillars but five species (Brimstone, Comma, Small Tortoiseshell, Red Admiral and Peacock) attempt to hibernate as adults which allows them to be early on the wing next spring.

The Brimstone hibernates in amongst Ivy and Bramble in a sunny spot. It is not known where Commas hibernate although a few have been found amongst Honeysuckle tangles and in Hazel coppices. The other three are associated with holes such as hollow trees, log piles and Rabbit burrows but they also like dark, damp sheds and attics.

Central heating is disastrous for them because it dries them out too much. Advice on the internet suggests moving the animal to a shed without touching its wings, so long as it will be able to get out once it wakes up – there is no escaping from the bedroom where it currently resides. But our sheds are generally very Spidery – how safe would it be from them?

We have decided to leave the Butterfly where it is in that cold predator-free bedroom for now whilst there is no chance of it waking and wanting to leave. Then we will try to find some suitable shed location to move it to. I suppose Spiders might be inactive themselves during the winter, although there are some monsters in the wood store that are still very much awake:

I see that Butterfly houses are available to buy. Perhaps I will ask for one of these for Christmas and move the Butterfly out into there where we know there will be no Spiders, at least initially.

Every year we look out for the White Saddles (Helvella crispa) coming up, a fungus that grows in association with the roots of one of the Holm Oaks here. These strange fruiting bodies are in a slightly different place every year but always close to that Oak:

Also around this tree are several of what I think are Common Earthballs (Scleroderma citrinum). And there are so many Worm casts everywhere now that the earth is soft:

A day of wall-to-wall rain this week and the wild pond showed us what it is meant to look like, with marshy areas at its apex. The problem of keeping this pond filled is one that I obsess about all summer:

A couple of Fox photos that caught my eye this week:

We occasionally see the Foxes here carrying Fish, evidence that they scavenge down on the beach amongst the sea anglers. These are screenshots from a video of a Fox rushing through carrying a Dogfish:

The Foxes here are British and, as such, understand how to queue nicely for their nightly peanuts.

And we all so hate a queue jumper:

The berries on the Yew in the garden are nearly all now gone, but Song Thrushes as well as the Blackbirds are joining in on the bonanza whilst it lasts:

Progress on this year’s coppicing is continuing in the wood.

The new pond is in a bit of a clearing and perhaps that is why it is attracting many more small birds than our other ponds that are in denser woodland. Nine Blue Tits and a Great Tit below, but Coal Tits, Long-Tailed and Marsh Tits are also regulars:

Bullfinch coming in:

And two Redwing:

The Hazel that we are cutting down is already covered in catkins – a lovely way to decorate the house before we get the Christmas decorations down from the attic: