Day 25- Mapping it out.

I have wanted to map out the fields for a while now.  I have only lived here for 3 years and have not yet become acquainted with the farm’s nooks and crannies. Today’s  Random Act of Wildness offered me the perfect chance to do just that. Not exactly OS standard of map drawing, and it is most definitely NOT to scale, but hey ho…it’ll do!

map2.jpg

F is always saying ‘I’m going to move the fence in such and such field’ and I nod along as if I know exactly where he is headed. In reality I only ever remember about 3 of the fields by name.

 

DSC_0230

The Cow Park is a great expanse (in my mind anyway) of relatively flat ground, which proves how plant life can still coexist with modern farming methods. On a quiet evening walk around the perimeter I have encountered Docks, nettles, bramble, clover, gorse, Chickweed, thistle, buttercup,Blackthorn, Hawthorn, ash, sycamore, Red Campion, Dandelion, vetch, speedwell…the list goes on.

The farmyard itself provides homes for many wild beast and fowl. We live on a farm….rodents are everywhere! Brown rat , field and house mice are often spotted dashing from hiding spot to hiding spot, trying not to be seen. Bats roost in the 200 year old barns and whizz around the yard at dusk, snapping up insects that multiply in the manure pile.  Pheasants stalk in the grass behind the heifer shed. A flock of wild pigeons settle down noisily each night on the roof of the cow shed. Occasionally a Sparrowhawk takes a pigeon , which is amusing to watch as they are much bigger than him!

DSC_0301.JPG

DSC_0294 (2).JPG

 

 

Summertime sees the Swallows return, the air filling with their clicking and whirring calls. Starlings arrive in late October, gorging themselves on the barley used to feed the cows. Buzzard and red kite are frequently seen soaring overhead, especially over winter months and after hay is cut.  Little owls during the Spring to screech outside the farmhouse in the small hours. We suspect they nest in the old ash trees that occupy the Meadow and Ox Park hedges. Barn owls are also seen later in the summer, hunting along the hedgerows and calling to each other across the fields. Their shrill cry sends a shiver down my spine.

map1.jpg

As I found out by doing the bioblitz that our garden and the sheds around the farmhouse are home to many creatures. We have seen great tits, blue tits, chaffinches, robin and sparrows on the feeders. Dunnock and wren fight over the spillage from the bird table. Collared doves are currently nesting in the hedge behind the immature oak.Thanks to our first attempt with the camera trap we know that there is a family of magpie, with two fledglings, here too.

 

Jackdaw are everywhere on the farm at the moment, the nest in the feathering loft has fledged at long last.

The log pile is our mini beast ‘Hilton hotel’. The meadow patch is wilder than ever at the moment, thanks to the recent wet and humid weather.

Business at the bee café is swift, and the ‘menu’ has expanded since the Scabious has finally flowered. Over the past month I have also become aware of (and showered curses upon) the large slug and snail populations residing in the garden.

Thanks to the 30 Days Wild project, I have finally had a chance to take stock of what coexists with us on the farm. It has also made me realise I know the farmland a lot less intimately than I would like to! Hopefully this will be the start of getting well acquainted with the rhythms of the wildlife that live on our patch of Wales.

DSC_0319 (1) - Copy

 

Day 18 – Red kite brings delight.

Red Kites are a frequent sight in the skies over Pembrokeshire. I have often stopped when out on my calls as a vet to watch one gliding over the fields. They often visit our farm, especially after the grass is cut at silage time. I guess it could be easy to become blasé about them but my years of city dwelling mean I get super excited over anything that isn’t a sparrow.

When F said we could go to the Red Kite centre, I felt like Christmas had come early. We had to get there by 3pm, which is when daily feeding occurs.A variety of meat is put out (Today’s menu included a rack of beef ribs!)which attracts buzzards, crow, ravens and magpies as well as the Red kites.   As per usual it was a bit of a battle to get everyone washed, dressed, fed and into the car, along with packing a picnic, baby changing bag, my camera and binoculars. We finally crammed everything in and set off.

DSC_0149 (2)

The centre is a 2 hour road trip away, so I had plenty of time to read up on the biology and conservation history of Red Kites, or to give them their ‘proper’ name, Milvus milvus. They belong to the Accipitridae family, along with Hawks and Raptors. A distinctive forked tail along with their red and grey plumage can help identify them. The bulk of their diet is formed from carrion and worms , but they can act opportunistically to take rodents and small birds. Breeding begins at 2, with both the male and female sharing nest building duties. I found it amusing that pairs will decorate the nest with found objects (including plastic bags, underwear and toys!) before eggs are laid. It reminds me of the ‘nesting’ phase I went through with both of my pregnancies, although my nursery decorations tend to come from Mothercare! It takes around 32 days for each egg to hatch, and as they are laid over a few days there is a slight age gap between the siblings. For the first fortnight females stay on the nest, with all food being provided by the male (human fathers take note, this is a GOOD move to win brownie points!). Once the birds fledge, they stick around for a short period before setting off for a while. They return home as adults, ready for breeding.

DSC_0260 (3)

 

I was also intrigued to learn that genetic studies have shown all welsh birds to be descended from a single female. There is a slight variation in genes noted between Northern and Southern populations, the divide running along the Towy valley. This shows that the birds have chosen to remain sedentary and breed where born.

Just outside Carmarthen I spotted a solitary Red kite hovering over a field. “Great, you’ve seen one, now we can go home” exclaimed F, gleefully. I glared at him from the passenger seat, and turned Radio 4 on to drown out his silliness. The countryside whizzed past as we journeyed east, the landscape gradually changing from relatively flat, green fields to rolling hills, green forests and eventually the moor covered mountains on the edge of the Brecon Beacons. By the time we reached Llandovery I was literally bouncing in my seat with excitement. F took a short cut, then missed our turning. “It’s fine” I said, through gritted teeth” We’ve still got 45 minutes to find it before feeding starts”. “Hmmph”replied F. This did not inspire confidence.

Fortunately the centre is well sign posted and it didn’t take us long to find it. We pulled up in the car park, and I got JoJo  settled into her sling. C was quite enthusiastic, as she got to carry the ‘noculars’.

DSC_0150

 

There were already kites gathering overhead as we walked up the lane to the hide. Twisting and turning they rode the thermals, whistling and mewing to each other noisily. I nearly fell over, tipping my head back to get a better view of their acrobatics. Not a good idea to lean backwards when carrying a 22lb baby on your hip!

This was the closest I have ever been to a Red kite. I could count the number of feathers on their beautifully forked tails, and see their golden irises glinting in the sunlight. We hadn’t even got to the hide yet, I was grinning with anticipation. Without a doubt, this was the most red kites I had ever seen.Once in, we settled the girls on the lowest bench overlooking the feeding area. I glanced around at the information posters  and my heart sunk “Children must be kept sat down and quiet during feeding.If they make too much noise, they will have to leave.””Shhhhh!” I’d stupidly left the bag full of distractions in the car, and C was already getting a bit antsy. How were we going to keep them still and quiet? I had a brainwave and managed  to keep C happy by building a ‘den’ with the sling. JoJo was happily gurgling at the 2 swallows that had built their  nest in the hide.

DSC_0113

 

I breathed a sigh of relief and got back to birdwatching. I counted 10 red kites perched in an oak tree about 150 yards away, and another dozen soaring over the sheep field next door. I stuck my head out of the hide and looked up. The sky above was thick with red-brown birds.

DSC_0129 (2)

 

About 20 juveniles, distinguished by their lighter plumage, mixed with fully grown adults. The odd buzzard hovered amongst them. Then it was time. Food was carried out onto the small field directly in front of us. Kites came in from every side, folding their wings behind them as they stooped to the ground. Chunks of meat were grabbed in curved talons and carried off to be devoured. Scuffles broke out occasionally, with birds tackling each other mid air. Meat was dropped, snatched, scooped back up then dropped again. Those of us in the hide jumped out of our skin as a huge piece of beef landed on the tin roof. I think I must have whispered ‘ this is amazing’ twenty times in the hour we were there.

DSC_0136 (2)

 

 

My bird watching reverie was broken by a distinctive aroma coming from about JoJo’s person. Uh -oh! Time to go. We made our exit as quietly as possible and headed back down the lane. From the car park I could still see the kites gliding around over the hills and fields of sheep. In the distance a shepherd on a quad bike gathered in his flock.

DSC_0260 (3)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Beetling about

DSC_0954

“Notwithstanding their filthy trade, the dung beetles occupy a very respectable rank.” J.H Faber.

After a rather damp and dismal morning, the sun finally appeared after lunch. As F still had jobs to do around the yard (Sunday is not a day of rest for a farmer), the girls and I went for a walk with him on the farm. We headed along the cow track to the ‘Ox park’, a field that the cows had  grazed in the night before. C was making quite a bit of noise (typical toddler) so I figured the chances of seeing any wildlife was pretty low. I was wrong-as we entered the field F motioned for me to be quiet. He had spotted a fox. It scoped us out for a few seconds before disappearing into the hedge. I was quite surprised to see a fox in the middle of the day, but F says he is seeing them more and more during daylight hours. He thinks it has coincided with an increase in numbers, which has possibly forced them out to hunt and scavenge during the day.

DSC_0946

The ‘Ox park’. You can see our dairy herd in the background.

C was having a great time finding cow pats to splodge in. I spent most of my time watching the ground to avoid stepping in the dung, as I had JoJo tucked in her sling. Although they might seem a nuisance, these piles of dung actually provide a valuable resource for some insects. Nearly every pat had a ‘sprinkling’ of little Yellow dung flies. These flies lay their eggs in the pats, and the emerging larvae are ‘coprophagic’ (they eat the dung!) . The adult flies feed on other insects that visit the pat.

Some pats  had lots of little shiny black beetles scurrying about on them. My entomology is a bit rusty, but I think they were Water Scavenger beetles. These beetles rely on cow dung for all stages of their life cycle. They play an important role in distributing and breaking down the dung- a ‘natural’ form of fertilising! They can be affected by the use of anthelmintics (medication used to worm cattle) , so it was reassuring to see them.

The beetles were fascinating to watch. Their tunnels snaked around under the crust of the cowpat, and every so often one would emerge from a burrow, scuttle about a bit and then disappear down another hole. I got a bit messy trying to get a closer look-next time I might try and set up a dung baited pitfall trap rather than resorting to digging about by hand!!

DSC_0951.JPG

Water scavenger beetle disappearing into its tunnel.

 

 

 

 

 

Withybush woods

‘Accessible walks’ – yet another thing I have become accustomed to now that I am Mummy to two small children. In deepest darkest West Wales these are quite a novelty I am slowly expanding my list of walks that are ‘buggy and toddler friendly. Two and a half years in I have a few firm favourites. One of these is Withybush woods. It ticks lots of my criteria for walks with both a toddler and a baby. There is a car park, most of the paths are tarmack  or at least easy- to- push-a- buggy on , it is a relatively short distance and has plenty of flora and fauna to keep them (and me!) interested. The only downside to this walk is that the local firing range is just through the trees, so it can be a bit unnerving at times!

The woods are located at the end of an industrial estate in Haverfordwest. They once formed part of the Withybush Estate, which no longer exists.  C was quite keen to get going on today’s adventure, and shot off down the path as soon as I got her out of the car.

DSC_0785

Toddler on the loose!

The sycamore trees at the start of the trail house a rookery, and the inhabitants were quite raucous today. We followed the path until we came to the first stone bridge over the stream which meanders through the woods.

DSC_0787

C hasn’t quite fallen in love with ‘Pooh sticks’ yet, so my offer of a game was met with a resounding ‘no!’. I had a quick squint for otter spraint or tracks, as one of the information boards listed them as a resident of the woods. I couldn’t see any , and although it does look like good otter territory the woods are a favourite with local dog walkers.The banks around this bridge were churned up and full of doggy paw prints. I would be surprised if there were any otters here. DSC_0791

The wooden bridge is quite beautiful in its own right. I love its zigzag shape. F was quite content in her buggy listening to the different bird calls that filled the air. On top of the buggy are the different leaves we collected on our walk. I hope to make a simple identification chart for the girls .

Once we crossed the bridge we turned right to carry on with our figure of 8. The path on this side is tarmacked which is super for buggies. I remember doing this stretch just a few weeks after the birth of C. I was still extremely sore from the c section, and the distance from the car to the pond seemed vast.

The lake used to supply Withybush Estate with wild duck and fish. Now it acts as a haven for a myriad of species. Today we settled on our favourite bench and watched theWhirlygig beetles shooting across the surface. It wasn’t long before we were joined by the resident family of Mute swans. The Pen appeared with her beautiful brood of cygnets. Unfortunately there were only four today – one less than we counted on our visit 4 days earlier.

DSC_0816

Pen and cygnet

The cygnets were having a whale of a time, splashing about and practicing diving. They reminded C of her ‘Ugly Duckling’ story book at home.

DSC_0818

Very downy cygnet!

The Cob was swimming nearby, fending off some Mallard ducks who dared to swim just a bit too close to his brood.

DSC_0800

The family stayed close by for some time before making their way back across the pond towards the nest site. You can’t see it in this picture as it is well hidden in amongst the reeds behind the Rhodedendron bush.DSC_0847C and JoJo were busy enjoying a snack so I had the chance to watch some of the other bird life. I spotted several blue tits, coal tits, chaffinches, a robin, blackbird and nuthatch within a few minutes of sitting quietly on vantage point. I could also hear the distinctive two note call of the Chiff Chaff from amongst the trees behind me. After a while the girls started to get a bit restless so we headed on our way.

A few feet further up on the bank of the lake sat another Swan. It looked like a cygnet from last year as it still had a few greyish feathers. I am suprised the pair hadn’t driven it off from the lake yet. There were also a few Coots milling about on the pond, as well as some Mallard drakes.

DSC_0859

We crossed the stone humpback bridge which marks the end of the lake and headed back along the path towards the car park. I tried to keep a mental tally of the different trees we passed. around the lake were sycamore,ash, beech, oak and holly. The marsh land behind the lake was covered with alder, bog myrtle and willow. We crossed the bridge and were back amongst more beech, sycamore, hazel, lime and horse chestnut trees. C was quite tired now, and wanted carrying on my shoulders. Fortunately it wasn’t long before we reached the car park. C said goodbye to the rooks and told them we’d come to visit again soon.

Nest swap

DSC_0720

Sparrow interloper with House Martin nest

The other morning I had to resort to using the double buggy at nap time. Neither C (2.5 year old) nor F (6.5 month old) would succumb to sleep and were becoming progressively whingey . Going for a walk seemed like the perfect solution. The motion of the buggy was guaranteed to send at least one child off to sleep, affording me some peace. I strapped the girls into their seats and listened to the bird song filling the air. The sparrows that nest on the farm yard were chattering away, collared doves were kee-keeing to each other and the jackdaws were shrieking. Within a few steps both girls were fast asleep.  As I wheeled the buggy through the garden gate  a cacophony of sparrow chirps and cheeps made me glance up at the roof of the farm house. A male sparrow sat perched on top of the sky dish, tilting his head to get a better view of the strange four wheeled contraption beneath him. His mate suddenly flew by and disappeared into what I thought was a swallows nest, attached to the farmhouse gable wall. I had seen some black and white blurs dashing across the yard for a few weeks now and had assumed  that the swallows which nest in the cowshed had returned early. However I now knew I was wrong. The birds that I had seen swooping around above the farm were actually  house martins. What a silly mistake! The only reason I realised my error was because one of them  was clinging to the gable wall a few feet above me and several feet to the left of the sparrows. There was glob of mud by the bird’s feet, and others flew in circles close by. They were trying to build a new nest.

I ran back inside to grab my camera, but when I got back the bird had gone. Only the patch of mud remained. The girls began to stir so I quickly got on with our walk.

DSC_0731

The view down our country lane

 

I headed out of the gate and onto the road which runs right alongside the yard.At this time of year the hedgerows are teaming with wild flowers but my identification skills are pretty basic. I can pick out red campion and cow parsley but that is about all without the help of a guide. On our return three black and white birds with forked tails perched on the telephone wires. I couldn’t get close enough to get a decent photo but I am pretty sure they were some of our House Martins.

DSC_0741

Three Martins on the telegraph wires.

 

The following morning I checked the site of the new nest. Still nothing apart from the first blob of mud and no sign of the House Martins.

DSC_0721.JPG

The single blob of mud just below the gable roof.

 

 After I settled the baby for her morning nap, I sat down at the computer to try and find some information about House Martins. I realised I knew hardly anything about them. My first port of call was the RSPB website, which has lots of easy to understand facts (great for my current ‘baby brain’ state!). I soon discovered that House Martins are a member of the ‘Hirundine’ family, which includes Swallows, House and Sand Martins. They are on the Amber list of UK bird species due to a decline in population numbers in recent years.

BBC Nature has a great guide to identifying swifts,swallows and martins . The main identifying features of House Martins are their

  • Dark blue black plumage over its head and back
  • Purely white underside
  • White rump
  • Short forked tail

More info on identification can be found here.

House Martin nests are formed from mud (which we have more than enough of on the farm!) mixed with grass. A single nest can take 1000 beak-fulls of mud to create! Nowadays House Martins are quite happy to nest under the eaves of our houses, but natural nest sites are on cliffs. There are still a handful of these sites around the UK, one of which (quite close to us) was featured on Iolo’s secret life of birds.

DSC_0722

One of the nests left from last year.

 

 Our farm is an ideal spot for them to nest. They like mixed agricultural land (we tick that box!) and feed on aerial insects (we have plenty of these too!). Their nests often found in ‘colonies’ of four or five close together. Sure enough there are 3 nests dotted under the eaves of our farm house. Two I remember have survived from last year, but one of these is now home to a sparrow family. Apparently it is common for sparrows to take over nests, and harass the adult birds or destroy eggs, although there are ways to prevent this. If only I’d known sooner!

House Martins are migratory birds and arrive here in April . Once Summer is over they head for Africa, though little is known about their wintering grounds. The BTO have been running a House Martin survey for the last few years in order to gain more knowledge about these birds.  I have signed up and am looking forward to participating!  I’ll keep the blog updated with the goings on of our nests. In the meantime, if you have any stories about House Martins local to you I would love to hear them.