Patience – virtue and necessity

After the earlier wet and cold spell and the more recent hot, near-drought-like weather, the long wait for the wildflower meadows to grow is finally bearing fruit. At the end of last week we saw the very first of this season’s wild Orchid flowers and over the weekend they have begun popping up in ones and twos all over the North and South Paddocks.

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Literally the first Orchid of 2018 – a real cause for celebration!

Apart from a few Field Buttercups, these provide virtually the only food for meadow insects just now and the grasses are still stunted and, with the exception of Timothy,  lacking their seed heads. However, it’s all there in waiting – Yellow Rattle, Ox-eye Daisies, Yellow and Purple Vetch – hanging on for a much needed drop of rain. Despite the dry, dusty nature of the paddocks, we are finding both frogs and toads in secluded places around the camping pitches.

Butterfly and bee numbers are still low but we did enjoy a special treat yesterday when we spotted both sexes of the lovely Orange Tip Butterfly around the Wildlife Pond- a first for Greenhillock. Even better, they were accompanied by the first Damselflies of this year (again, both sexes) and some pretty Green-veined White butterflies.

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A Greenhillock first – the lovely Orange-tip butterfly (male)

Other animals and birds have been quietly getting on with things so we have fledgling Blackbirds, Tree Sparrows, Robins, Yellowhammers, Rooks and other bird species noisily clammering for food from their busy parents. Best of all has been the clever female Pheasant who has successfully reared up to eight chicks under a gorse bush in the Den Zone despite the busy den-building and bush-craft activity going on within feet of her!

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Two of a batch of Pheasant chicks brooded and hatched under the noses (and feet!) of the many children enjoying Den Zone activities

I am sure that when I next put finger to keyboard, there will masses to add to the list of wild things to see and enjoy here at Greenhillock. Bye until then.

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Surprise, Spring sunshine!

Well, I finally emerged from blog-hibernation a couple of days ago so welcome to this first post of the 2018 season. The sun is finally shining, we saw the first Swallows of the year yesterday and our early 2018 camping guests arrived over a busy Bank Holiday weekend so I am under some pressure to put fingers to keyboard to let you know about what’s happening on the wildlife front here at Greenhillock.

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Winter is a tough time for raptors – male Sparrowhawk searching for a meal in a Greenhillock snowstorm

The cold winter (you might have seen our Facebook pics of a huge snow-plough digging us out!) and prolonged wet early Spring have impeded the growth of our wildflower meadows and slowed down the emergence of insect life and bird nesting. However, there is finally warmth in the soil and we expect the meadows to spring up at a pace so that can enjoy the first wildflowers very soon. Eagle-eyed guests have already spotted the first bats, found a tiny Toadlet and collected the first hatched egg shells – Blackbird and Starling.

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Grey Heron feeding on first frogs to emerge for mating – what an opportunist!

Not many insects on the wing yet but we have seen Small Tortoiseshell and Peacock butterflies and numbers of queen Bumblebee are feeding themselves up and seeking out ground nesting holes, so nature is on the move. I recently heard a lone summer visiting Chiffchaff singing in its usual location at the Wildlife Pond and the dawn chorus is building daily in volume and variety. A treat just now is a Great Spotted Woodpecker drumming on a Beech Tree in the North Paddock to attract a mate.

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Tiny Toadlet found onsite this weekend – first of the year

As our rich and bio-diverse flora and fauna emerges with the warmer weather, we hope you’ll join us as camping and camping guests to share it with us.

 

To Everything There is a Season…

Turn, turn, turn…   As I write this (my last blog until next Spring), Autumn has fully arrived at Greenhillock and our successful 2017 camping season is drawing to a close. There has been much to celebrate and we want to thank everyone for their interest in our conservation efforts and for helping us to spread the word about the growing importance of bio-diversity.

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Autumn colour palette – evening view from our front window

There are still a few Scabious and Knapweed flowers in the meadows, attracting a late butterfly influx, particularly Peacocks. Mostly, however, it is a mass of ripe seed-heads, ready to disperse and produce next year’s stunning scenery. We will wait until all this has set before giving the meadows their annual cut and clear. That will also give our seed-eating birds – Goldfinch, Tree Sparrow, Yellowhammer and the like – the chance to feed up for the lean months over winter. The seed producing ‘weeds’ in the hedgerows – Willowherb, Dock, Nettles and Thistles –  will also be left to help with this essential task.

The other reason for delaying the meadow cut is to give all the small mammals and amphibians a chance to prepare for their winter hibernation. Frogs, toads and newts (in a variety of sizes) are still active in the meadows, feeding on slugs and other small invertebrates. Likewise the Short-tailed Voles which build lovely round nests of chewed grass at the base of tussocky native grasses and will be producing young for another month yet if the weather is kind. 

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Wood Mouse sneaks into its local food bank!

Shortening days make us more aware of the activities of our nocturnal visitors. This week a pair of of Tawny Owls have been engaged in a ‘domestic’ near the Field Kitchen, noisily waking all the local dogs in the wee small hours. Our Hedgehogs are leaving tell-tale signs of night-time perambulations and Roe Deer are returning to graze on the pitch grass in the dark.  Best of all, the Badgers, which are one of our best-loved secrets, have resumed their foraging trips from dusk to dawn.

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Visiting badgers caught at night on one of our infra-red cameras

 

Always plenty to see and do here! Thanks again and we look forward to seeing many of you here again in 2018 to share our wildlife delights.

Red, Gold and Green

Not sure about my dreams but these are certainly the colours here at Greenhillock in early Autumn. Glorious red of the turning Field Maple leaves and mass of Rowan berries in the hedge-lines, this week attracting our first winter thrush arrivals – a small group of Redwing. Glowing gold of the recently harvested barley fields in the evening sun. Vibrant green of the meadow grass pitches which continue to look good even after well over 1,000 camping and glamping guests have enjoyed them.

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Pink-footed Geese at the Greenhillock Pond

The sense of changing seasons is emphasised by the arrival from the Arctic of our first skeins of wintering Pink-footed Geese, whilst the late Swallows continue to feed up for their long migration south to Africa. We have more bees and butterflies than ever with lovely Red Admiral and Peacock varieties flitting busily about the meadows.

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Grey Dagger Moth caterpillar found on our Hawthorn hedge (photo Kate Latham)

Life continues to emerge, despite the shortening days, and we are seeing some very interesting caterpillars feeding on the flowers and grasses. A couple of days ago, our neighbour Mary found a lovely red-spotted Frog Hopper, an adult emergent from the summer ‘cuckoo spit’ clusters that stick to the meadow grass stems. Autumn fruiting fungi are abundant just now, with Fly Agaric the most colourful and photogenic.

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Fly Agaric fungi by the Wildlife Pond

Finally, Beth recently found another Great Wood Wasp (really a type of Sawfly) but this time a male – smaller, more brown than yellow and lacking that impressive ovipositor. We are now wondering whether these rarely-seen insects have come in with the tonne bags of softwood logs which we buy in for campfires.

Wild, Weird and Wonderful

Since my last blog, things have been very busy at Greenhillock so I have had to rely on our keen-eyed guests to report interesting wildlife finds. Well, they haven’t disappointed!
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Willow Warbler (www.arkive.org)

We have had two further sightings (with photos) of the baby Hedgehogs among the camping pitches, both in the late evening. Lots of people have commented on the large numbers of Willow Warblers in the hedgerows, their presence announced by the insistent, repetitive call of the fluffy yellowish-green fledglings. 
Our pond dippers have been finding increasing numbers of immature Newts and both Frogs and Common Toads have been seen feeding in the meadows. Amphibian find of the month, however, has to be a  splendid male Common Newt spotted by the Parfitt Family on their camping pitch in the South Paddock. Although they spend half of their year out of the water, we rarely see these lovely creatures, less still get to photograph them, so this is a real treat. Thanks guys.
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Handsome male Common Newt in camping pitches (Credit: Parfitt Family)

The purple flowers of the late-flowering Knapweed are attracting lots of bumblebees (at least five types have been identified) and butterflies – we currently have Peacock, Small White, Red Admiral, Ringlet and Small Tortoiseshell. Bug hunting has become more popular than ever and young guests have been finding an interesting range of mini-beasts. Without doubt, the best insect find this week is of two Great Wood Wasps. These huge insects are rarely spotted and are quite harmless, despite their fearsome Hornet-like appearance. What looks like a deadly sting at the rear of their abdomen is actually an egg-laying tube (ovipositor). Well done to the guests who remained calm enough to bring them to me for identification!
 
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Great Wood Wasp (nearly two inches long!)

My sole contribution is that of an early morning Snipe at the Wildlife Pond. I can also report the safe hatching of a new family of Swallows in the roof of my tractor shed. The parents are kept very busy catching increasing amounts of insect food over the North Paddock.

New life in the sunshine

After a few days of heavy rain, when all self-respecting birds and insects hid in the grass and hedges, this week’s sunshine has brought new life to Greenhillock. The number of bumblebees has noticeably increased and a new batch of butterflies, mostly Small Tortoiseshell, has been feeding on the Scabious, Knapweed and Self Heal flowers in the meadows. A few of the colourful Burnet Moths can be seen most days on the meadow flowerheads.

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Burnet Moth on Knapweed flower

Second broods of Bluetit, Great Tit and Tree Sparrow clamour noisily to be fed whilst Blackbirds stretch out their wings in the sun to help clean their feathers. Large mixed flocks of Swallows and House Martins have been soaring high in the air as their prey insects rise with the thermals. The resident pair of Sparrowhawk fly daily along the hedgerows in search of their avian lunch and just now numbers of Willow Warbler can be seen and heard in the South Paddock, particularly in the Den Zone.

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A Garden Bumblebee steals the Blackbird’s sultanas – note its enormously long tongue!

The Wildlife Pond is also heaving with new life and most of our pond dippers are catching newts, water beetles and larvae. The meadows are hiding lots of froglets and Common Toads can be found under many stones and pieces of fallen wood.

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Near-perfect specimen of Small Tortoiseshell butterfly sunning itself on a drying-up cloth

We are in the process of building a new Bug Hotel and this is something that camping and glamping guests can help us with.

Summer Sights and Sounds

Last weekend, one of our camping guests spotted (and photographed) not one, but two, baby hedgehogs in the South Paddock meadow! This is great news as it proves that we have at least one resident breeding pair.

Apart from that, things have been a bit quiet on the wildlife front at Greenhillock. The unsettled weather has kept down bee numbers although we have seen at least three different sorts of bumblebee in recent days, including one huge Garden Bumblebee using its long tongue to extract nectar from Honeysuckle flowers. Butterfly numbers are also quite low although the emerging purple Common Knapweed flowers are attracting Small Tortoiseshell, Small White and Ringlet, among others.

The Wildlife Pond is now buzzing with life and most of our enthusiastic pond dippers are finding Common Newts, Leeches, water insects and larvae of all kinds. Sadly so far this year, Dragonflies and Damselflies have been conspicuous by their absence.

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Greenhillock Guide Beth helps pond-dippers identify what they have found

Many of the hedge nesting birds have produced a second brood. Blackbirds and Song Thrushes can be seen at dawn and dusk feeding young in the meadows and the nest box on the Field Kitchen has noisy young Tree Sparrows about to fledge. Groups of Swallows and House Martins swoop low over the tents on their feeding flights. Goldfinches are singing musically among the trees and there are still lots of Warblers to be seen and heard – the one-note call of the Willow Warbler is most noticeable in the Den Zone. Best on the bird front this week has been a guest reporting hearing an early-morning Snipe calling. These birds are becoming quite rare in the area so this is very good news.

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An adult Snipe visiting the Home Paddock

As Summer moves on, Greenhillock wildlife is changing but there is always something interesting to see and hear.

Reassuring Rattles

Hearing an unusual rattle can be a worrying thing. As I write, the wind is making a more welcome rattling sound as it shakes the dry, paper bag-like, seed-pods of our Yellow Rattle flowers (clue’s in the name!), before they burst and scatter to produce next Spring’s attractive yellow flowers.

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Yellow Rattle seed-pod next to an unusual white Heath Spotted Orchid

There are lots of other seeding flowers and grasses in the meadows (including all but a few of the late flowering wild Orchids), being dispersed by insects, birds, wind and rain to ensure that we all have something to enjoy next year. The large white seed-heads of the Cow Parsley along the pitch edges are alive with mini-bugs waiting to be discovered by our enthusiastic young bug hunters.

Meanwhile, the next wave of flowers have appeared to feed the butterflies and bees and we have lovely stands of bluish-lilac Field Scabious, Red Clover and purple Common Knapweed taking us on into late Summer. This natural succession is essential to the breeding cycle of many birds, insects and animals and is the main rationale for creating species-rich habitats such as our meadows.

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Insects love the open flower-heads of the Field Scabious

On my late night round this week, I was delighted to find a baby Hedgehog on one of the North Paddock paths, feeding on the small slugs that emerge from the damp grass at night. We have released two lots of adults in the past but, apart from occasional sightings of their droppings full of beetle shells, they have disappeared from view. Obviously, nature has been at work without our knowing it.

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Baby Hedgehog (Derbyshire Wildlife Trust)

Another example of the secret wildlife of Greenhillock!

Night Visitors

If you have already stayed with us at Greenhillock you will have noticed two things about our night-times. Firstly, the quiet – apart from the wildlife and occasional all-night agricultural activity you can only hear the wind in the trees. Secondly, how clear our night skies are – we have very little light pollution and have been named by the Met Office as one of the top ten UK campsites for stargazing (quite often you can see the Milky Way with the naked eye).

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Roe Deer at first light, helping himself to the duck food

In reality, however, nearly as much wildlife activity happens during the night and most of it is unobserved. What we do see regularly are the Pipistrelle Bats as they skim low at dusk  over the Wildlife Pond and hedgerows hunting down moths, gnats and midges (yes folks, bats are your friends!) What we often hear are the Tawny Owls in the Beech trees calling either to attract a mate or to defend territory. The characteristic ‘twit-twoo’ is actually the two sounds of a male and female calling to and answering each other. Rarely we hear the eerie screech of a Barn Owl.

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Night visiting Fox at the back of the Field Kitchen, shot with infra-red

Largely unseen and unheard are the near nightly visits of the Roe Deer, Foxes and Badgers, even when campers are sleeping close by. We capture these on wildlife cameras in our garden and keep a record so we know quite a lot about these secret unpaying guests. We have also had rare visits from Otters as they travel along the burn.

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Tawny Owl resting after hitting my office window in a snowstorm

At Greenhillock Glamping you are closer to nature than you might ever think!

In Praise of Pollinators

You all know the back story – no bees, no food! Einstein’s version was harsher in that he predicted the end of human existence within a short time of Bee Armageddon. Right now, expensive mobile pollination units are criss-crossing America to keep the food production wheels on. Just to complete the Doomsday scenario, without pollinators many of our essential medicines, pharmaceuticals and other chemicals would not be available.
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Hoverflies prefer open flowers like this Ox-eye Daisy

So what are pollinators and what do they do? Nearly all flying, hopping and crawling insects play a part in pollination – solitary, bumble and honey bees, wasps, hover flies, moths and butterflies, dragonflies and damsel flies, beetles, flies and a whole kingdom of mini bugs. In exchange for collecting nectar food, they fertilise the flowers, grasses and plantains that they visit, ensuring that they fruit and set seed for future years. Without this process none of these vital human food and other plants could survive. The message is both stark and simple – look after the little guys!
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Rich meadow flora; each flower shape will attract its own range of pollinators

Our meadows at Greenhillock were created to provide food for pollinators from early Spring through to late Autumn. The flowering plants emerge in succession in a variety of colours and shapes to provide both food and shelter for those essential mini-helpers. The grasses, hedges and trees also flower, adding to the food bank and extending the season. Even the Late Autumn cut of the meadows, after all the seeds have set, will sustain insects and birds well into the Winter.
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A Red-tailed Bumblebee buries itself deeply in the pollen-rich head of a Thistle

Each pollinator will have favourite food plants and will be adapted to exploit the design of the flower heads, from the flattish Daisy and Scabious to the tunnel shaped Vetches, Orchids and Yellow Rattle. Many will lay eggs and pupate among plants of a particular type, ensuring their own survival.
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Now who says that grasses don’t have flowers?

So when you’re strolling along the winding meadow paths or doing a spot of bug-hunting, remember to salute the pollinators (some almost too small to see) and respect their key role in our own survival.