Wildlife Wednesday – All Creatures Great and Small

The first Wednesday of March, one day after the beginning of our meteorological Spring is suddenly here. February flew by in a blur. The weather has veered from heavy rain and high winds to occasional sunshine and sharp frosty mornings.

Goldfinch on Rudbeckia seed head

Goldfinch on Rudbeckia seed head

The cold weather brought in a trio of Goldfinches, to feast on the seed heads of Rudbeckia, Teasels and Astilbe. The males and females are similar but females are slightly duller with less red on their face; the trio looked masculine. And made me glad I had not cut back any of the overwintering seed heads, despite the untidiness and my itchy fingers.

Snails

Revealed – Garden Snails

We kept warm by spending a whole week digging out the rocks and soil of an enormous ground elder, riddled and inherited rockery, most of which was wheelbarrowed into a large skip. As the drab brown sandstone rocks were dismantled, we discovered family groups of snails. As the food of Thrushes, snails always remind me of Summer and  listening to the ‘tap, tap, tap’ of a Thrush as the snail shell is bashed on something hard to reveal its contents – one of my favourite summer sounds.

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Helix aspersa Common Garden Snail

The larger mature snails hibernate during winter months and waken up in Spring. Mostly they were still dormant but one brave small snail began to explore. Shortly they will become more active especially on cloudy or rainy days, they dislike desiccating hot sun.

Common Garden Snail 'Foot'

Common Garden Snail ‘Foot’

Underneath the snail, which at it’s fastest is reported to travel 1.3 centimetres per second is a ‘foot’, a flatish muscular organ. Mucus is released to help the snail glide over rough surfaces, leaving a tell tale meandering trail. Apparently they have a complicated and interesting sex life and can produce 430 babies a year. On the upside they are one of natures cleaners, consuming debris, sadly they are also partial to a prized vegetable leaf. As well as Thrushes – Ducks, Lizards and Frogs eat snails. We’ve cleared the rockery area to make space for a recycled greenhouse and small pond with wildlife friendly planting where we hope visiting Frogs, Wild Ducks and Thrushes will have a field day on the snails.

Dunnock in the woodstore

Dunnock in the woodstore

Since my last Wildlife Wednesday post on our Robins, we haven’t seen any sign of nesting (yet) but the poor little Dunnocks, subject of many a Robin attack are nest building in one of our wood stores. This little brown bird also has an interesting sex life and pair up in unusual and complex ways. In their determination to carry on their gene pool, they can pair male and female, one male two females, one female two males and several males and several females. All very liberal!

Dunnock

Dunnock creeping along the ground

Hopefully when you read this, you are not eating. Often two males mate with one female , the female hopes both males will help her raise the chicks. The dominant male will try to remove the rivals sperm by pecking the female’s rear end (the cloaca – through which both faeces and eggs exit) and encourage her to eject it. Dominant male mating then follows. Liberal and ghastly!

Male Blackbird

Male Blackbird, usually a ground feeding bird.

Less complicated are our Blackbirds, this fellow is singing his heart out. The Black Feathered males with bright yellow bills and eye rings are easily identified. Juveniles are similar to females, the RSPB explain how to identify the juvenile male wing bars.

Female Blackbird

Female Blackbird or is it a year old juvenile?

We are quite hopeful there is a Blackbird nest just beyond our vegetable garden in an area of overgrown brambles, grasses and emerging wildflowers with pioneer native Alders growing along the drainage ditch and Birch trees colonising the bare areas. Both tree species will be rich in insect life, for the birds to forage on. Technically this area is a no mans land, land locked between houses and fields with no hope of future access. Many a snail and slug has been delivered here, for foraging creatures further up the food chain.

Edgeworthia chrysantha and Robin

Edgeworthia chrysantha and Robin

And finally on a more colourful note, this last photo was taken on Sunday morning in the RHS Wisley Garden, I had a couple of hours to while away waiting for my daughter to finish her netball training. As I leant forward to smell the fragrance of the Edgeworthia, a very round Robin hoped onto the branch, inches away from my face, one of those uplifting and life affirming moments. There is a great deal to worry about in life but there is also a great deal to be grateful for and enjoy in the natural world.

With many thanks as always to the lovely Tina and her wonderful Wildlife Wednesday meme, please take a look at other contributions from across the globe.

Happy Wildlife Watching!

Wildlife Wednesday – Love is in the Air for Territorial Robins

We have two Robins visit our garden, one is currently rotund, one is svelte. Apart from girth neither of our visitors have any distinguishing marks. Male and females are almost identical. Usually breeding begins in March with the first clutch laid in April but our mild winter will probably lead to an earlier courtship. I’ve read that females require more body weight for producing eggs, so I have fingers crossed that Rotund is a female.

Rotund Robin

Rotund Robin (Erithacus rubecula) who we hope is a female

In colder weather both sexes plump up their feathers for insulation and warmth, but when seen at the same time, its clear one is much rounder than the other. So far, there’s no activity in the nest box but Robins create nests in all sorts of odd places, we are fairly sure there is activity in the potting shed, mainly due to the additional droppings on the potting bench. But what’s a little poop between a gardener and her friends!

Alert Svelte Robin

Svelte looking alert.

Renown as territorial birds, both males and females defend their individual patches all year round and once united defend their joint territory for the summer months, parting after their chicks fledge. Last week we watched Svelte defending his territory, eyes to the sky, he had heard the incomer before us and was waiting for the newbie to land, but he wasn’t really aggressive and believe it could have been Rotund landing on the table.

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The newcomer turning tail on puffed up Svelte

There wasn’t a fight as such, just a baring of his Red Breast, which we read they only do to defend territory, however we have also read in our well thumbed RSPB ‘Handbook of British Birds’, that Robins “have elaborate courtship displays when the red breast of the male is used as a visual signal to attract females and deter males”. Either way, the newcomer hopped off.

An angry Robin

Making his presence known

I couldn’t quite make out what was being said here, but following the encounter Svelte let out a cry of frustration/warning/who knows? The following day Newcomer came back again to try his/her luck, Svelte postured with head high and lots of red breast baring, despite the wind blowing his feathers apart. We could see no real aggression and the 2nd bird crouched on the ground watching quietly.

Robins maybe partial threat?

Is this just a partial threat?

Newcomer remained crouched on the ground watching Svelte posture about for a few minutes, Svelte then turned tail and Newcomer flew after him. I’ve read of fights to the death and just hope they both came to a gentleman’s agreement, but nature can be cruel and the brutal fights part of life’s cycle.

(Or as the RSPB book suggests, this is maybe courtship and Newcomer is actually Rotund – her crouching down is the mimicking of a chick and they were off to the bushes for some privacy? – time will tell.) Males chase females from their territories for some days until finally the male accepts her and they become a couple.

Some while later, a slim Robin we assume was Svelte resumed feeding, happy to share fatballs with Blue Tits. Robins are only territorial with their own kind and the only birds we see being chased off are the dowdy, timid ground feeding Dunnocks.

Robin Feeding alongside the Bluetits

Feeding alongside the Bluetits

If we do have a couple, there will be courtship feeding – the male feeds the female, apparently its a prominent activity, we are desperately hoping to see this and then will know for sure if who is male and who is female. The male can supply over a third of his mates food intake during nest building and egg laying. She alone is the creator of a cup shaped nest, made of dead leaves and moss, lined with hair. To help her we have saved our Labrador’s soft underbelly hair for months and have placed the soft hair in a mesh feeder ready for all nest builders.

Svelte Robin and log

Svelte looking trim

The RSPB report that the parental instinct in Robins is highly developed and they are known to feed the chicks and fledglings of other bird species, including Song Thushes, Blackbirds, Spotted Flycatchers and Willow Warblers, the latter two we do not see but we have had Blackbirds nest in our garden. I guess Robins would only be able to step in if they had no brood of their own. We would be thrilled if these two were a couple and over the moon if there were nesting, egg laying and hopefully successful fledgelings.

I’m joining in with Tina’s My Gardener Says meme Wildlife Wednesday, where lots of other folk from across the globe are sharing their wildlife experiences.

Happy Wildlife Wednesday!

Citizen Science and the RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch

This weekend, saw the 37th annual RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch, the increasingly popular citizen science opportunity to record visiting garden birds.

Blue Tits

As always, lots of Blue Tits made an appearance and enjoyed the Sunflower hearts

The RSPB uses the data to monitor long term bird populations. With a strong marketing campaign to encourage folk to take part, participation rates are already up on last year. Analysed results are published in March.  The RSPB encourage schools, groups and individuals to give up one hour and count visiting garden or outdoor space birds and in recent years have included mammals and reptiles too.  They are as interested in whats not being seen as the birds that do visit.

Coal Tit

Identifying a Coal Tit – white stripe on back of head and two small white bars on wings

As gardeners we can be in tune with our natural world and understand how our wildlife is faring in a world of diminishing habitats. Largely due to industrialisation, pesticide use on our farmland and gardens which destroy the invertebrates at the source of the food chain and increased house building. We will have a better chance to understand what man has done and what we could do to help mitigate or prevent further destruction to our living planet. We need to co-exist, not exist at the expense of other creatures.

Male Great Spotted Woodpecker

Male Great Spotted Woodpecker making an appearance in the allotted hour

Climate change, brought home this year by the unseasonable mild winter and dreadful flooding in the UK, not only threatens the homes and livelihoods of people but the habitat, shelter and foraging opportunities for our wildlife too, by taking part in a citizen science project we can play a small part in helping our scientists to understand more of whats going on.

Robin

Robin, one of two that showed up for the Big Garden Birdwatch hour

Many of our birds are now in sharp decline, 60 per cent of UK wildlife species monitored for the State of Nature report have declined over the last 50 years. I cannot imagine wanting to garden without hearing birdsong or being distracted by a Bee at work, those simple pleasures will disappear along with us too, if we continue to destroy our natural world.

Wildlife Wednesday – Early Winter preparations

Over the last month high winds have brought down an ivy clad tree in our lane and many of the standing perennials I leave for sheltering invertebrates and foraging birds were blown to the ground. Temperatures have been slowly dropping and the first frost left its sparkling mark. We have put high energy, fat and suet up, to help birds maintain their body temperatures especially on cold nights.

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Blue Tit (Cyanistes caeruleus) on fat filled Coconut feeder

The Strong adult bills cope with seeds, sunflower hearts and peanuts but come springtime and early summer their chicks need caterpillars and up to 100 caterpillars a day, so for a brood of 10, thats 1,000 per day, collected from trees and shrubs. A very good reason to plant more trees, shrubs and a native hedge.

Blue Tit

Blue Tit

To the right of our east facing dining room window we have a veteran climbing hydrangea petiolaris, nearly 15 feet wide and 10 feet tall. The Summer flowers are a Bee magnet but in the winter when the leaves drop the gnarled structure becomes a playground for birds. Hanging fat filled coconut shells from the branches near the windows have brought in some confident Blue Tits. They are more common in our UK gardens now; once they would have lived primarily in deciduous woodland, where the food they need for their chicks to survive is hopefully abundant. The BTO report that males are usually brighter in colour than the females and the youngsters have pale yellow rather than white cheeks, but so far I haven’t been able to distinguish the adults apart, hopefully there will be a chance to see a chicks pale yellow cheeks next spring.

Squirrel

Squirrel stealing the birds peanuts

Another woodland but sometimes less welcome visitor is the Squirrel, we feed the birds every day and winter peanuts are pricey but birds bring so much joy and make our garden a better place to be. As winter begins several Grey Squirrels are visiting, all with a variation in colouring, we were really intrigued to see one with the cream underbelly colouring of our native Red Squirrel. But its not a hybrid, just a variation. The Greys are still causing controversy and the cull debate goes on. Anglesea an island off the north coast of Wales separated by the Menai Strait and linked to the mainland by two bridges have just declared they are a Grey Squirrel free zone. They achieved this by culling the Greys with the last reported sighting in 2013. There are now 700 Red Squirrels on the Island, which they hope will thrive.

Robin

Robin (Erithacus rubecula)

We have noticed Robins trying to extract seed from the feeders but they do not seem to be designed to cling on. Occasionally I put mealworms and sunflower hearts on a mesh ground platform for Robins but our wet November often left a soggy mess. So we placed fat filled cages adjacent to convenient branches, close enough for the Robin to reach across and take the spoils. Sheltering from the high wind this little chap was quite happy for me to stand close by with a camera.

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Elsewhere in our garden, I am bundling up the hollow stems of the wind strewn perennials and stacking logs to create ‘dead wood habitats’ which should rot down and any overwintering invertebrates provide more food for birds in the Spring. The hollow stems and seed heads will provide shelter for lady birds, lacewings and other beneficials. Piles of leaves have been stuffed into hedge bottoms. And we’ve been cleaning bird boxes and putting up new ones in readiness for the next cycle of life.

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With many thanks as always to Tina at My Gardener Says for her inspiring Wildlife Wednesday meme.

Happy Wildlife Watching!