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A monthly commentary on birds in and around The Farleighs.


I have lived in East Farleigh for more than thirty years. As well as witnessing the steep country-wide decline in bird life over that period, I've become closely involved in monitoring the changes and in finding ways to conserve what we still have.


And there are good things happening too, so I hope this contribution presents a mixture of what makes the study of birds so interesting, especially of those still seen around The Farleighs.


Ray Morris


Latest Posts

A wildlife station for commuters?

Posted on 1st March, 2019

The (hoped for) improvements being carried out at the level crossing and bridge in East Farleigh  jogged my memory of a pleasant five minutes I once spent in my car at the front of the queue on the Barming side. My mild irritation and boredom turned to delight when I noticed a bird disappear into a tiny hole in an iron post supporting the crossing gate. The hole had been left by a no-longer-needed bolt, and provided access for a great tit. As the bird and its mate returned several times carrying food during my enforced stop it was clear they had a nest, and were raising young less than a metre away from passing traffic and hurtling trains.



No doubt once the current workmen disappear the traffic will start (or, more likely, stop-start) flowing again and traffic and birds will return to normal. And ‘normal’ is actually quite interesting if you have the time to stop and look. I have seen a mistle thrush nest with young about to fledge on the footbridge, directly above the Maidstone bound line; kestrels regularly use the mobile telephone mast as a hunting perch and scores of house sparrows inhabit the litter-filled brambles by the car park. From March onwards, even above the din of the traffic and the water flowing over the weir, you can hear a multitude of avian songsters selling their pitch to the ladies – blackcaps, wrens, blackbirds and song thrushes are particularly noticeable. Such is the profusion of small birds around it, the station also attracts smash-and-grab visits from the local sparrow hawk.


Those travellers doomed to travel to London can find solace on the Tonbridge bound platform as it affords a good view over the river where grey wagtails nest on the lock, cormorants are regularly seen diving for food and herons patiently stalk their breakfast. You may even be fortunate enough to catch a glimpse of a passing kingfisher.


So if you are one of the many villagers who make a daily commute by train, keeping your eyes and ears open will help remind you that nature carries on regardless, and it may even start your day on a positive note.


If you are one of the lucky villagers able to wander at will during the day, keep an eye on the two new nest boxes installed on trees at ‘the triangle’. Blue tits are enthusiastically inspecting boxes now in preparation for egg laying in April, so they could well be eyeing-up the boxes intended to enhance our Village in Bloom submission. Fingers crossed they do nest in one of the boxes – if they do I’ll keep the village updated on the number of eggs and their progress.

The first stirrings of spring?

Posted on 1st February, 2019

In February signs of spring may slip out from the iron grip of winter, confusing us and birds alike. Valentine’s Day is said to be when birds traditionally find a mate and some species are certainly thinking about it even if the weather isn’t always spring-like. As I write this in January, great tits and dunnocks are already laying a musical claim to their garden territories, and blue tits have started inspecting boxes for a potential nest site. For some species like mistle thrush and blackbird it’s not unheard of for them to start laying eggs towards the end of the month.


Although a February start to nesting is a risky business, for the species that do it’s not a total disaster if their brood falls victim to a late blast of winter. Thrushes and robins, for example, can routinely produce two or three clutches of four eggs in a season. Tits on the other hand, start later but put all their eggs into the same metaphorical basket with a large single clutch - up to fourteen eggs in the case of the diminutive blue tit. They too, of course, can fall victim to a cold wet spring, but their biggest challenge now is climate warming. They need to time the hatching of their eggs to coincide with the maximum caterpillar availability to feed the young. But climate change has brought this forward by up to two weeks and it is taking some bird species time to adapt. While resident birds can take their cue from local weather conditions and lay earlier, birds that have to time their migration from central Africa (nightingales, for example) can't know what local UK weather conditions are, so many risk mis-timing their arrival and missing out on the peak availability of the food their young need.


And while all this is going on, our winter visitors from Scandinavia, the noisy fieldfare and more reserved redwing, are still making the most of our (hopefully) snow-free countryside. Other winter visitors from the continent include blackbirds, robins and chaffinches - they also prefer the luxury of our supposedly warmer maritime climate, but will hang on here in our woods, and especially our gardens, until the urge to mate finally takes hold and they too return whence they came in a month or so.


The village now boasts two new nest boxes erected in the Triangle. They are designed for tits or sparrows so hopefully they will attract some attention and provide accommodation for a pair this year. They are easy to see from the footpath so when the adults are busy constructing a nest, or feeding young, it will be possible to stand and stare – and marvel at the hard work they have to do.


Tits' nests are built on a substantial foundation of moss – and there is plenty of that in the trees and undergrowth around the triangle – and then lined with softer material. Blue tits tend to use feathers for this while great tits use mammal fur, hair or wool. Horse-hair is popular and plentiful, but can be a death trap for nestlings as they easily become entangled in it (or even swallow it) and become trapped or strangled.


If you devote enough time to watching them build their nests, you’ll see that birds that use feathers to line the nest cup select white ones for the purpose. When examined more closely, it was found that white feathers carry a higher proportion of microbes that act as an anti-bacterial agent than black feathers do. Thus they help keep the nest sanitised.















New Year - new species

Posted on 31st December, 2018

Villagers who feed birds in their gardens through the winter are increasingly likely to have a blackcap visiting them. This small (great tit size) insect-eating warbler has evolved as a summer visitor to Northern Europe over hundreds of thousands of years, spending its winters in the warmth of countries bordering the Mediterranean.


But as our climate has begun to warm over the last fifty years, and as feeding garden birds has become widespread in the UK, many blackcaps breeding in Germany are changing their migration habit. Instead of migrating to the warm south in the autumn, many fly west to winter here in southern England. Those that survive the winter - and many now do, thanks to our well-stocked garden feeders - have a shorter journey back to their breeding grounds in the spring than individuals who wintered in the Mediterranean sunshine. So they arrive there first, to claim the best breeding territories and raise the fittest young. Their young are then likely to be genetically programmed to spend winter here! So, in (a very long) time, it is possible the two populations will eventually split and the ‘English’ blackcap may become a new species.


So look out for a greyish-brown bird a little smaller than a sparrow. The males have an obvious black ‘cap’ and the females have an obvious brown one. 



Evolution is happening before your very eyes!

Under the Mistletoe

Posted on 1st December, 2018

The Farleighs boasts at least one splendid display of mistletoe – high up in a tree at the junction of Priory Close and Lower Road in East Farleigh. At that height it must be frustrating for villagers wishing to harvest a sprig for a Christmas kiss. The position of this particular plant indicates the sprigs weren’t ‘planted’ by man, as cultivated mistletoe is found, often in apple trees, at a pickable height. Mistletoe is a partial parasite, it can produce its own chlorophyll, but relies on a host plant to provide minerals necessary for growth. A pre-Christian symbol of fertility, it is presumably this reason it is still associated with Christmas.


The Farleigh plant will almost certainly have been seeded in the crown of the tree by a mistle thrush – a more heavily spotted, greyer version of our familiar song thrush. If you are lucky enough to see both species in a local field you will instantly see the difference. It is the larger, more heavily spotted and more aggressive mistle thrush that eats the mistletoe berries – it will often ‘defend’ a tree with mistletoe, or indeed, a tree or bush heavily laden with berries of any kind, from other hungry birds. Mistle thrushes also gather in family groups in the autumn and winter; I’ve frequently seen a dozen or more foraging together in fields around the villages.

                                         Mistle thrush (above) & song thrush (below)


The white mistletoe seeds are nutritious and the flesh of the berry is high in protein. The flesh, though, is very sticky and viscous (hence the plant’s scientific name is Viscum album, and that of the mistle thrush Turdus viscivorus), so the bird continually wipes its bill on a nearby twig to get it off. As it does so, it may leave the seed in a crevice where it can germinate and so start another sprig growing.


Another berry-eating bird that turns up in southern England in most winters is the waxwing – handsome Scandinavian birds that flock to cotoneaster and rowans in gardens and, particularly, supermarket car parks! As they breed in the far north they do not encounter humans often so have little fear, hence the likelihood of you seeing them on your trip to Tesco or Tunbridge Wells. Their name stems from the sealing wax-red tips of their flight feathers, and these contribute to their colourful appearance – almost like a seasonal pantomime character.

Although we use the term ‘gannet’ to describe a person who scoffs food to excess, we might equally use the term ‘waxwing’. Like many birds waxwings store food in their crop where it can be broken up to start digestion at a later date – having no teeth, birds can’t chew or cut up food like mammals. But a waxwing’s crop is something to behold – literally, as this video shows.                     


Returning to mistle thrushes, their relationship with mistletoe really is close up and personal as mistletoe seeds are also spread through the thrush’s droppings. But, as the festive sprig hovers inches above you, try not to think about that during your passionate Christmas kiss!


Ray Morris

Winter Wandering

Posted on 27th October, 2018

November signals the coming of colder weather as redwings and fieldfares arrive to avoid the harsh Scandinavian winter. The fieldfares’ ‘chak-chak’ resounds across recently ploughed fields while the high-pitched ‘seep’ of redwings is often heard as they pass overhead at night. These close relations of blackbirds and song thrushes, like most small birds, migrate under the cover of darkness to avoid avian predators, using the position of stars and the earth’s magnetic field to guide them. 


If you come across a flock while you are out on a country walk around the village, take a moment to check for any blackbirds or thrushes amongst them as it is likely that some of them too will be seasonal visitors from mainland Europe. A song thrush that we ringed at Marden in January this year was later trapped again twice - in May and June - in Holland, where it was breeding. So it could return to winter in Kent again this year. Continental blackbirds often seem to have slightly silvery edges to their feathers which can stand out quite clearly if they are next to our native birds, so you may be able to spot them through binoculars.


More importantly, just pause and reflect on the wonder that they are there at all: unlike we humans, increasingly isolating ourselves and our children from the natural world, birds and other animals are still in tune with it. Every year, billions of birds, insects, fish and mammals move around the globe, navigating in ways that scarcely seem possible to us, and we are only just beginning to understand the secrets of how they do this.


Like birds, we too need to be in tune with a healthy natural world if we are to survive as a species. We don’t just need the planet’s natural resources to provide us with food and shelter either; many  modern drugs were originally derived from wild plants (eg. the contraceptive pill and digitalis for heart conditions) and animals (eg. horseshoe crab blood is used to create safe vaccines and the venom of a tropical wasp can be used to attack cancer cells). But we are destroying the (our) natural world at a faster rate than has ever happened before - apart from the collision with that damned asteroid 66 million years ago! – so we are losing the source of a myriad medical, technological and industrial benefits before we have even discovered them!


Studying how young zebra finches, for example, learn to sing is providing us with new insights into autism. Investigating the chaffinch’s ability to regenerate brain cells in the spring for its territorial song, combined with developments in stem-cell biology, promises potential treatments for Parkinson’s and Altzeimer’s. The recent discovery from satellite-tracking technology that the bar-tailed godwit migrates from Alaska to New Zealand in one continuous 11,700 km flight lasting 9 days has also led us to discover the birds’ ability to shrink all their digestive organs for the flight - they’re ‘not needed on the flight’ as it were. They are regenerated when they land ready to digest food again. 



If we can identify the gene that switches the process on and off it could lead to treatment for human obesity. But if the bird becomes extinct we lose the potential resource – and this particular species' population is predicted to halve in the next ten years due to habitat loss.


So appreciate, and look out for, The Farleighs’ birds. They are part of a precious, but fast-disappearing, resource. We destroy it at our peril.























Wise Up On Owls

Posted on 1st October, 2018

As the nights draw in and there is a nip in the evening air, now is the time we start to notice tawny owls around the The Farleighs. This year’s youngsters are dispersing from their natal territory to find mates of their own, while their parents begin the process of re-establishing pairings for the coming breeding season – tawny owls start early, with eggs from February, even January, onwards. We are fortunate that the villages still retain mature trees to provide the cavities for their nests, although they will use a nestbox if no cavity is available. They have a catholic diet: small birds, rodents, frogs, even large insects and worms – so don’t be surprised if you see one on your lawn on a damp night. Although famed for being able to see in the dark (their eyesight is not that much better than ours and they certainly can’t see in total darkness) they need to get to know the layout of their territory to find their way around, hence they tend to ‘stay put’. Owls hunt mainly by sound, so rain and wind can make it difficult for them. Although we can’t see their ears, they are situated asymmetrically – horizontally and vertically - on the bird’s head, enabling it to pinpoint tiny sounds with amazing accuracy. 

The well known ‘tuwit – tuwoo’ call is two owls duetting. The female calls ‘keewik’ and the male responds with the lower hoot. From my garden I can often hear two competing males hooting at each other; one is resident in the gardens along the lane, with another in a belt of trees across the adjoining fields. A walk outside soon after dusk could reveal quite a few more territories in and around the villages.


Like most of our birds, owl populations are in decline, so why not take part in a national scheme aimed at helping them. The British Trust for Ornithology is running a simple survey to establish where the owls are calling. Just stand in your garden and listen! Find out more at   by clicking here . The site has recordings of the calls of all the owls likely to be heard locally – tawny, barn, little and long-eared. Have a listen – and next time your insomnia has you lying awake, you may be pleasantly surprised to find you have an unexpected garden visitor.


Daytime predators are also more likely to be seen at this time of year too. Obviously, there are more of them at the moment – they have just produced their new families too, and adults are busily hunting the young of other species to feed them. Female sparrowhawks spend the first part of their breeding season sitting tight on their eggs and small chicks, while the smaller male does the hunting for both of them. But now the females are hunting again too. I’ve seen one swoop into the hedge around my garden to snatch a sparrow, although it all happened so quickly I’m not sure if she was successful, but remains of a woodpigeon lying in an explosion of plucked feathers in the corner of my garden on a another day suggests that was a successful foray.


 It happens in public too, as Terry Standage was lucky to witness recently in Charlton Lane. On this occasion the female hawk had brought down a pigeon in the parking spaces outside the houses. Unfortunately her efforts were thwarted by the arrival of car being parked! The hawk flew off, leaving a surprised, and very fortunate, potential meal to flutter off to the nearby hedgerow.







Ospreys have also been seen in Kent – there have been individuals in Marden and Bough Beech reservoir recently. They are on their way south on migration to central Africa, so keep your eyes open.






















Seasonal changes for The Farleighs’ birds

Posted on 1st September, 2018

The warm moist weather we have been experiencing (enjoying?) since the heat wave finished can bring mixed blessings for our garden birds. Ground feeders like blackbirds and thrushes benefit from soft soil from which to extract worms. The soil is easier to probe and much sought-after insects aren’t buried too deep to avoid drying up in the heat.



Wild fruits such as blackberries and elderberries are swollen and ripe, and are an excellent, sugar-rich food to help migrant birds like blackcaps lay down layers of fat ready for a long migratory flight to the Mediterranean or Africa. And, even if they are staying here, if you look carefully at young starlings the brown faces of many are stained purple with juice, such is the fruits’ attraction. Hence, the multi-purpled-spotted car bonnets to be seen at this time of the year too - bad news for owners of white cars!



With its orchards and marshy coastline, Kent in general is a good stop-off place for birds from as far north as Greenland and the Arctic tundra on their southbound migration, so almost any species could turn up along the Medway valley.


Across the northern hemisphere the numbers of birds will be at their peak, as many of the summer visitors and their young are still here to add to the myriad offspring of our resident species. A very rough estimate of Britain’s blue tit numbers, for example, based on various long-term breeding and nesting surveys conducted by the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) suggests they peak at this time of year at an astounding 20 million birds. But half the adults and nearly two-thirds of the juveniles will not survive the winter to breed next year due, mainly, to starvation and disease. So now really is the time that you have the greatest chance of seeing unfamiliar birds!


Sadly it’s not necessarily all good news for garden birds; the warm, damp conditions are ideal for the spread of disease. So make sure feeding areas and containers are kept clear of old, rotting food and bird droppings. If possible, move the feeders around the garden to prevent parasites and bacteria building up in the soil beneath them. If you suspect you have a sick bird – it might appear lethargic and not fly away as you approach, or it may be fluffed up and have food stuck around its bill – stop feeding completely for a couple of weeks so the birds disperse. At this time of year there is plenty of natural food around so they won’t miss the free handout you are providing – even though you may miss the pleasure of seeing them in your garden.


It’s worth bearing in mind that while you may be picking blackberries in the hedgerows, or just taking a leisurely stroll to the local pub for Sunday lunch, some of these millions of birds may be overhead and easily visible. It could be a flock of swallows and house martins en route to South Africa, possibly followed by a hobby – a beautiful falcon that specialises in catching dragonflies, swallows and even swifts on the wing.


It’s worth bearing in mind that while you may be picking blackberries in the hedgerows, or just taking a leisurely stroll to the local pub for Sunday lunch, some of these millions of birds may be overhead and easily visible. It could be a flock of swallows and house martins en route to South Africa, possibly followed by a hobby – a beautiful falcon that specialises in catching dragonflies, swallows and even swifts on the wing.



And on a riverside stroll you might just see a common sandpiper skulking along the water’s edge topping up its reserves from the Medway mud before continuing its Arctic-to-Africa migration.


Some you see and some you don't.

Posted on 30th July, 2018

This is the time of year when some bird species can appear unexpectedly in gardens while others seem to disappear completely. Young birds have increased by large numbers, although only about a quarter will survive long enough to breed next spring. Many young leave the area in which they were hatched to find new and suitable habitat elsewhere, while both adults and young of migrant species start to head south for their wintering areas. So almost anything could turn up in The Farleighs.


Your garden could be home to gangs of juvenile starlings foraging for leatherjackets (the larvae of daddy longlegs) on the lawn. The starlings may be noisy and unruly, but they are good for your lawn as the leatherjackets eat the grass roots and damage it. Meanwhile gatherings of sparrows could be enjoying communal dustbaths in your parched vegetable plots. Native thrushes and finches abound in the countryside, while migrant warblers and wheatears from the north pass through, and can be seen in local fields and hedgerows. As small birds migrate at night, migrants are often seen resting and feeding up in the early mornings. Meanwhile, most adults of resident species are silent and hiding themselves away as they go through their annual moult. Replacing flight feathers means their flying is less effective, so they keep a low profile to avoid predators. For a short period too it makes them look a total mess, with feathers missing and others looking totally ragged, until their new plumage is complete. Feather replacement creates a huge energy demand so moulting birds exercise as little as possible to divert valuable food resources to feather production.


This moulting female blackcap needs lots of calories to grow her new

feathers - you can see them emerging from the waxy shaft at their base.

The gap created in her wing while a new feather grows will adversely affect

her flying capability.


Keep an eye on your local speckly brown young robins and blackbirds as they gradually change from (the not so) ‘ugly ducklings’ into ‘swans’. And dull brown young starlings are slowly morphing into the iridescent, sparkling birds that mass in winter murmurations.



While all this is going on, if you are lucky enough to have a tawny owl or a little owl breeding nearby, you may catch a glimpse of an immature youngster parked on a post to await its next feed. This is a good time of year to see owls because the young are often stationary and visible for long periods, while the adults are active in the early mornings and late afternoons hunting for, and supplying, additional food for them. Little owls are diurnal as well as nocturnal and it’s always a good idea to look out for them on fence posts, or atop old barns and farm buildings. Even in winter, they can be seen soaking up the warmth on a sunny day. Barn owls (the white ones) prefer to hunt around dawn and dusk and have regular circuits they fly around each day, so if you are lucky you may see them floating silently and butterfly-like along a grassy field margin or over tussocky grass. Another, less conspicuous, owl you may see - but most likely hear its brief "hoo-hoo" call - is the long-eared owl. The long 'ears' are actually for display purposes and aren't ears at all, but they add some 'aahhh' factor and make them look even more human. Their young are also out and about now, like this one ringed for conservation purposes at Conyer, near Sittingbourne, in July.



A word of warning though: if you come across a young owl seemingly abandoned, it won’t be! Adults will know where it is and be visiting to feed it, so best to leave it be. This is especially the case if it happens to be a tawny owl chick, as the parents can be very protective and will attack an intruder. A pioneering, but unwary, bird photographer famously lost an eye at a tawny owl’s nest!















Blue tits in the three occupied nestboxes we monitor in East Farleigh churchyard have had a struggle this year. Clutches of six or seven eggs were laid in each. The pair in the box by the lychgate successfully fledged the full clutch; each time I visited, the female was sitting tight on the nest while the male was close by aggressively intimidating me with his calls. Such an attentive male was almost certainly making sure his mate, and eventually their chicks, were well-provisioned with food. It was a different story at the other two boxes, where only two chicks survived in each. In both cases it is likely one of the pair was missing and the remaining bird was unable to find enough food for the whole brood.


The same species has also been up against it in my own garden – three nests were predated, probably by a weasel, great spotted woodpecker or magpie. Blackbirds and thrushes have also failed to fledge young so far, but I saw my first young robin today. Nesting in hedges and shrubbery, they are not only prone to predation but also human disturbance – albeit usually inadvertently.


With the impact of the Beast from the East, it seems at the moment that birds have had a tough time this year, with numbers of summer visitors like swifts also low. With luck, a benign summer and long autumn, along with a mild winter, will provide the wild food and overwintering conditions necessary to keep their populations up until next year.


Let’s hope Ted Hughes’ words about the return of our summer swifts continue to hold true:


‘Look! They’re back! Look!’ .....

... They’ve made it again,
Which means the globe’s still working, the Creation’s
Still waking refreshed   [for now.... my words]


from Swifts by Ted Hughes


However, my garden feeders are now attracting reasonable numbers of blue and great tit fledglings, with a sprinkling of young house sparrows, goldfinches and chaffinches too, so all is not lost. Given the lack of insects around now (even in the countryside) garden feeders are a lifeline for some small birds – and if you attract birds to your garden they will also tuck into the aphids and other pests on your flowers and vegetables. So it’s worth keeping the bird table clean and replenished.


And just as the last of our summer visitors – the swifts – arrive, the first cuckoos are starting to leave us for their African wintering grounds. One of the birds newly satellite-tagged by scientists this year left his summer patch in Thetford Forest on 14th May, and by 15th June was in the south of France, at one point flying 528 miles in just two days. Find out more about our tagged cuckoos here


Scientists are working hard to understand more about the migration routes and wintering areas of our fast declining summer visitors. Satellite tracking devices have been fitted to cuckoos for some years now, and even smaller species like swifts can have data-loggers fitted, which track the birds’ movements but each bird has to be retrapped (usually at its nest – they use the same one each year) and the data-logger removed in order to recover the data.




To find out how you can help swifts visit the Swift Conservation website - they are giving a talk at Scotney Castle on 19th July.

Village churches are now a popular choice for artificial nest sites - just a thought!


As some of our other summer visitors start to depart in July, the young of some of our resident species are also on the move as many disperse from the area where they were hatched to find new territories for themselves. This is nature’s way of helping to ensure the gene pool is stirred each year to avoid groups of birds becoming interbred. Two Farleigh gardens have already been pleasantly surprised by the arrival of dispersing youngsters, in this case a nuthatch. Nuthatches are scarce in east Kent, but relatively widespread in west Kent and elsewhere in the country up as far as Scotland, and one of only a few native species whose numbers are increasing.


These beautifully coloured birds specialise in a life in the trees – finding insects in the bark and using their strong pointed bills to hammer open hazel nuts that they have wedged into larger crevices. They are also the only birds in the UK that can walk, headfirst, down a tree-trunk thanks to their opposing pairs of toes on each foot. They are likely to be found breeding in areas where great-spotted woodpeckers live: the woodpeckers excavate a new nest hole each year, and the nuthatches frequently move in to the old one. However, a bit of DIY is often necessary to reduce the size of the entrance hole, which the new residents achieve by plastering mud around it.


The next best thing to having one in your own garden is to make yourself a cuppa, put your feet up and watch an hour of this beautiful bird here - enjoy!





“Look at the birds of the air"

Posted on 30th May, 2018

 ... they do not sow or reap ... and yet your heavenly Father feeds them.” Matthew 6:25.


And for the next couple of months He will also do His best to ensure the newly-fledged birds you find on the ground are fed – apart from those a sparrowhawk may take to feed its own young!


It’s that time of year again when small birds are often found, apparently abandoned by their parents, and people have a natural urge to rescue them. But there is no need, as their parents will almost certainly find them when they arrive with food. The youngsters may not stay where they were left, but they don’t travel far and their contact calls are quickly located by their returning parent.


It is not usually hunger that kills baby birds but cars and, especially, cats, so only pick them up and move them to a safe place (preferably in a bush or tree) if they are in danger of either of these. If a fledgling is genuinely abandoned and starving – and this could be because its parents have been killed, it is sickly, or the parents simply can’t find enough food for such a large brood, a natural predator will take it – part of the natural order of things.


Five of the three nestboxes in East Farleigh churchyard have blue tits in them. It hasn’t been possible to count the eggs and chicks in all of them yet because the female in one has been sitting tight when I’ve inspected the boxes to check progress, but in the next two weeks the first youngsters will emerge and park themselves around the trees and gravestones. If they stay in the churchyard it won’t be cars they have to worry about: it could be the local moggie. If you have a cat, keeping it indoors early in the morning could save quite a few baby birds as they generally leave the nest at this time.


But our heavenly Father feeds natural predators too, and most of these produce their young to coincide with peak food availability, ie when there are plenty of young of other species about. Even the blue tits in their nestboxes are vulnerable, as these photos taken by my colleague Jac Turner-Moss (who is Assistant Warden at Dungeness Bird Observatory) illustrate only too well:



Jac had been monitoring the nest and knew that thirteen healthy chicks were growing steadily. But while he stood watching, this stoat took seven of them to feed its own young. Which prompts the question ‘If our heavenly Father is providing for the stoat in the same way he provides for the birds, are humans right to label stoats as vermin? Or crows and magpies?’ Answers on a postcard please (or use the comment box below).


Elsewhere, turtle doves have returned from Central Africa to breed in the area.



This beautiful dove (or pigeon – the names are interchangeable, depending on whether or not we humans like them) has declined by 91% since 1995. The stretch of Kent from Marden to Ashford has been declared a Turtle Dove Friendly Zone where farmers are being encouraged to leave weedy patches, or even provide additional seeds for them, in May and June. This will help them raise the maximum six young they are capable of producing to keep their numbers up. They only produce a clutch of two eggs, so they need three successful broods before they return to Africa. If you see one of these gentle doves or hear one purring, please let me know.