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.

 

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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.

Burnet Moth on Knapweed flower

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.

Bugs, Bees and Butterflies

After a week cycling along the Northumbrian and North Yorkshire coast, where we enjoyed good weather and many lovely stretches of unspoilt countryside, I was excited to see how things had been progressing at Greenhillock in my absence. My walk this morning found the meadows at their best – a multi-coloured panorama of grasses and wildflowers including masses of both types of wild Orchid. The Wild Roses have also come out in the hedgerows, filling the warm air with their lovely scent.

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Islay, our Border Collie, enjoying a walk in the North Paddock meadow

Bee numbers are still low, although I saw some honey bees, Buff-tailed and Red-tailed Bumblebees and Common Carder Bees – easily identified by being Scotland’s only all-brown bee. Lots of mini-bugs were feeding on the grass seed heads but butterflies are still playing hard to get. Greenhillock Guide Beth tells me that she saw Damselflies at the Wildlife Pond over the weekend giving their characteristic display of iridescent turquoise and scarlet as they flit between food sources.

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A Carder Bee feeding on Yellow Rattle, a popular nectar source

Talking of food sources, we have many interesting fungi just now and all are well nibbled by the Wood Mice and Short-tailed Voles that live in the meadow sward.

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Tiny fungi like this provide food for Wood Mice and Voles

All of our normal summer visiting birds have now arrived and can be heard singing tunefully in the trees and hedges around the site. I was asked recently about Cuckoos, which occasionally visit, but have to say we haven’t heard or seen them in the last couple of years. A rare flying visitor a few days ago came in the form of a beautiful Jay – lovely to look at if you’re not an egg or fledgling of another species!

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This week’s flying visitor – a striking adult Jay

Hopefully we’ll see you on site sometime, when we can chat further.

A Bounty of Birds

This week I want to focus on the rich bird-life that can be encountered at Greenhillock.

When we moved here some 25 years ago, the once common farmland birds were already in decline and subsequent years have seen a near catastrophic fall in numbers of all the typical countryside birds that I grew up with; modern farming and construction methods are squeezing out these long-term residents. There is a danger that our children will never see or hear a Curlew, Skylark or drumming Snipe or see the fantastic summer display flight of the Lapwing. All is not lost yet, however, and we have been making valiant efforts to restore and re-establish habitats, with considerable success.

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Tree Sparrows using an old House Martin nest on our house

Our biggest successes have been with the smaller seed-eating birds, especially Yellowhammer, Goldfinch, Tree Sparrow and Reed Bunting. All are breeding on site and we have over 30 nest boxes housing Tree Sparrow families. As this is a bird that has become practically non-existent in the South, this is a pleasing achievement.

In the hedgerows and trees just now you can see most of the finches and tits – Chaffinch, Greenfinch, Goldfinch and Bullfinch (lovely pair in the hedge dividing North and South Paddocks), Blue Tit, Great Tit and Coal Tit – as well as Blackbird, Dunnock, Starling, Robin, Wren, Tree and House Sparrows.


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Young Starlings enjoying a bath

Slightly more exotic and harder to spot are Siskin and Redpoll and the summer visiting warblers – Blackcap, Willow Warbler and Chiffchaff (regularly calling in the Beech trees round the Wildlife Pond with the two-note call that gives it its name).


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Handsome male Bullfinch in Home Paddock hedgerow


You are also very likely to see Pheasant, Jackdaw, Rook, Mallard, Song Thrush, Pied Wagtail and Yellowhammer feeding in the meadows. A Grey Heron regularly visits the Wildlife Pond, on warmer days Swallows swoop low catching insects and Buzzards circle overhead (they have a nest in the tall Beech trees). At night you will hear the Tawny Owls calling to each other in the woods. Most spectacular of all is the visiting Sparrowhawk, flying low like a fast jet along the hedge-line after small songbirds that make up most of its prey.


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Attentive Sparrowhawk at the burn along the South boundary of the pitches

So, lots to see if you’re with us and to look forward to if you’ve yet to book!

An Orgy of Orchids

This week it’s orchid-fest here at Greenhillock! From just one in flower last week, the recent warm weather and rain have sparked a profusion of lovely purple flowers in the North and South Paddocks. Wild orchids took 15 years to arrive here on the wind so we feel very privileged (there is an old saying “you don’t find orchids, they find you!”) and we have both Early Purple and Northern Spotted varieties in the wildflower meadows, particularly in the glamping area. Take a look and you’ll be amazed.


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Early Purple Orchid in the North Paddock


Insect-wise, the most interesting thing in the last few days has been the Mayfly hatch and on some warm days and evenings the air has been full of these flying creatures with their characteristic long legs. Butterfly numbers, however, are still slow to build although we did see the first Peacock over the weekend.


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Peacock butterfly on seat in Wedding Wood


Our enthusiastic young pond-dippers have been turning up a variety of water critters in the wildlife pond, including Diving beetles, Pondskaters, a variety of larvae and the occasional Common Newt. Meantime, the many varieties of trees in the hedge-lines are giving us a stunning display, with every shade of green. This year seems to be a fantastic one for blossom of all kinds and there are some lovely scents to be picked up on a warm breeze – the Rowan and Bird Cherry in the Wedding Wood give an especially heady experience!


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Our Greenhillock Guide Beth leads a pond-dipping session

The most noticeable thing about our rich bird life just now is probably the fantastic dawn and dusk chorus, led both early and late by the male Blackbirds. Several guests have mentioned how pleasing they have found this aspect of our fields and hedges although one couple reported finding the 4.30 wake-up call a bit trying, particularly when enhanced by the local male Peacocks (the birds that is) up at the big house!

As the weather warms up, we look forward to increasing bee and butterfly numbers and to the arrival of more visiting summer birds – more about these next time.

Meadows in May

Welcome back. Not sure whether it should be “Spring is sprung” or “Summer is a coming in” as, following the prolonged spell without rain through April and the first half of May, things are a way behind the normal. The recent rainfall and forecast warm weather should, however, release all that pent-up growth in the seed bank in a big rush so watch this space!

In the meadows, the tall grasses (especially Timothy) are in ‘flower’ providing much-needed food for the smaller bugs and the yellow Dandelions and Field Buttercups are attracting early bees. Ox-eye Daisy are standing by to burst into flower and yesterday I saw the first orchid flower – an Early Purple (clue’s in the name!).


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Field Buttercups & flowering grasses in South Paddock


Flying insects (other than numbers of wasps and wee bitey things) are in short supply because of the lack of food but we have seen newly-emerged Red Admiral and Small Tortoiseshell butterflies and many bumblebee queens prospecting for nesting holes among the meadow grasses.

Birdwise, the first Swallows are here and have already nested in the stables. They are enjoying evening meals of those wee bitey things that I spoke of just now. Our large breeding population of Tree Sparrows have their first young and Blackbird and Starling fledglings have left the nest to become noisy, food-demanding members of the Greenhillock family. You can currently see many other species  but I want to save their story for another time.


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Great Spotted Woodpecker feeding young by Wildlife Pond

With Ash being the last, all trees are now in leaf and some in blossom. The May flowers in the native thorn hedges are now out, so it should be safe ‘to cast a clout’!