Wildlife Wednesday – Great Spotted Woodpeckers

For the last month, we have been visited by a pair of Great Spotted Woodpeckers, the male is larger with a black cap and crimson red rectangle on his nape, the female is smaller with black cap extending to the nape. To tell them apart look at the back of their heads as he has a distinctive red rectangle and she does not. They do not appear at the same time but the odds they are a couple are high. On balance we seem to see the skittish female slightly more than the male. They have been tricky to photograph but a couple of weeks ago, I came home to find the male clinging to one of our peanut feeders.

Male Woodpecker

Male Great Spotted Woodpecker (Dendrocopos major)

We live in a house with very large picture windows, so whilst we can see out easily, birds can spot if I am moving towards a window with a camera too, so Pink Panther style I crawled along the floor, holding my breath and camera and slowly slid up a wall. He was still there, still seemingly hanging on. I could not believe he was happy to pose and began to take photographs.

Male Woodpecker with closed eye lid

Male Woodpecker with nictitating membrane across eye

When I looked later at my photos I could see he had closed the nictitating membrane across his eye briefly. I’ve since read this is to both protect the eye from flying debris when they are chiselling wood and to clean the eye surface in much the same way we do when blinking. The longer I stood taking photographs with only a slight breeze moving the peanut feeder I began to worry his claws were entangled in the wire and he was frozen with fear. I thought through the process of trying to keep the bird calm whilst I unhooked him from the feeder.

Great Spotted Woodpecker with passing Blue Tit

Great Spotted Woodpecker with passing Coal Tit

Other birds flew by, he ignored them and just as I was finally bracing myself to help this beautiful bird, he flew off. I looked at the time line on my camera, he had hung there for just over 10 minutes, completely still. I then looked his behaviour up and my RSPB Handbook of British birds reports that Great Spotted Woodpeckers ‘freeze’ when danger threatens usually on the side facing away from danger. Does he not know how gorgeous and striking he is, that the flashes of red are most alluring?

The female of the species was much harder to photograph.  Annoyingly, we also have a large Magpie in our garden that dive bombs the Woodpeckers. I think his/her behaviour may be protective as like Magpies, Woodpeckers can eat other birds eggs and chicks and although any Magpie eggs should now be hatched, fledged and on their way to adulthood, the Magpie probably had a bad experience. However, a few days after the male had been so obliging I was delighted to be able to slide along the floor again, up the dining room wall and peek out from behind the curtains to see the female Great Spotted Woodpecker engrossed with peanuts.

Female Great Spotted Woodpecker

Female Great Spotted Woodpecker

The RSPB report they are the size of a Blackbird, the male seems larger, maybe its his puffed out chest. We occasionally see a pair of Green Woodpeckers looking for ants in our lawn but this is the first time we’ve been regularly visited by a two Great Spotted. Primarily living in woodland they use their powerful beaks to bore into trees and their long tongues to find the adults and larvae of wood boring beetles. Both the males and females also use their beaks to create nesting cavities within tree trunks and branches of mainly Birch and Oak. The repetitive knocking on wood sound is distinctive and joyful, one of the easiest birds to recognise by ear.

Female Great Spotted Woodpecker and Male Great Tit

Female Great Spotted Woodpecker and Male Great Tit

Great Spotted are one of 3 UK Woodpecker Species, Green, Great and Lesser. The Great Spotted are a success story, with numbers rising rapidly since the 1970’s and again in the 1990’s according to the BTO. A new colonisation of Ireland was recorded in 2008, where previously there have been no Woodpeckers. The BTO estimates 140,000 breeding pairs in the UK. I continued to watch the female Woodpecker who in turn was watching the Male Great Tit.

Female Great Spotted Woodpecker observing a departing male Great Tit

Female Great Spotted Woodpecker observing a departing male Great Tit

Then as the Great Tit jet packed off, I shifted slightly and she flew off too. We feel very fortunate to see these Woodpeckers visiting every couple of days, along with all of the usual suspects – Chaffinchs, Great Tits, Coal Tits, Blue Tits, Dunnocks, Sparrows, Blackbirds, Wrens, Wood Pidgeons, Jackdaws, a pair of Robins that so far I haven’t caught on camera but will keep trying. Pheasants, Long-tailed-Tits, occasional Goldfinches and the squabbling Starlings are all back too. But this month our honoured guests are having Wildlife Wednesday all to themselves.

My ever grateful thanks to Tina who writes the eye opening My Gardener Says blog for hosting this meme and for providing the opportunity to both share and to learn about other folks wildlife.

Happy Wildlife Watching!

Wildlife Wednesday – Beneficial Balance

There’s been a mixed bag of weather during September, the hotter dry days made peering at insects a priority. They are mostly a joy to observe and obliging to photograph. Bees, Butterflies, Hoverflies, Beetles, Moths, Wasps have all been welcome. House flies have been really, really annoying. Beneficial or not Insects are encouraged here, invertebrates form the stuff of life, at the very least they provide food for birds, they pollinate flowers and fruit and without them we’d all be in a lot of trouble.  But they are a tricky lot to identify, unlike our visiting birds who by and large are much easier.

Long Tailed Tits and Great Tit

6 Long-tailed Tits are joined by a Blue Tit

To our sheer delight native Long-tailed Tits have made a reappearance in our garden, for most of the year they live on insects, foraged on woodland edges and hedgerows but in the Autumn and Winter we are fortunate to see them on our feeders, adding seeds and nuts to their diet. With a fast undulating flight, which is slightly comical to watch they are always uplifting to see. They are very social birds – parents, offspring and nest helpers all stay together and join in with other birds from the Tit family and can form flocks of 20 or so birds.

Jackdaw

Jackdaw

The Jackdaw is a bird that has us jumping up, banging the window or running out of doors clapping our hands loudly, he is ruthless. I think this one is a male as the grey ‘hood’ is quite distinctive and pale. As he swoops in, smaller birds disperse and he will take whole chunks of seed impregnated fat and if allowed he would polish the lot off.  Jackdaws are a member of the Crow family and are intelligent scavengers, their diet ranges from insects and seeds to scraps, road kill, eggs and young birds, they are social and usually seen in pairs although we often see just one – carrion birds fulfil a vital part of the food chain otherwise we would be knee deep in decay.

Female Greenfich and Blue Tit

Blue Tit with mottled head feathers on left and larger Female Greenfich on right

We were delighted to see a female Greenfinch back on the feeder and hoped the flashy looking bright green/yellow male would make an appearance too but so far he has been shy. In comparison, she is ‘drab’, with just a little understated yellow on the edges of her wings. They are about the size of a House Sparrow, larger than our Blue Tits and armed with a distinctive beak. Although not rare, they have been in steep decline recently due to the parasite disease trichomonosis, which prevents the Greenfinches from feeding properly.

Left, Male Chaffinch Right Coal tit, with moulting head feathers

On one of our many rainy days – Left, Male Chaffinch -Right Coal Tit checking out the company

Back to the tricky insects! At first I thought a bumblebee Queen had flown into our garden, I grabbed my camera and took photos from every angle, she was moving very slowly and walked between the Verbena stems, rather than flying on and off. I tried to photograph her markings, hind legs and some facial close ups. On closer inspection I could see the yellow band on her abdomen was broken and was almost giddy with the thought that I was looking at a rare Bumblebee. Turns out though, this is something else.

Southern Cuckoo Bumblebee

Southern Cuckoo Bumblebee with ‘broken’ yellow band

I logged on to the Bumblebee Conservation Trust website which the more I use the more I am gaining an understanding and starting to get my ‘eye’ in. After working through the options and eliminating possibilities, I was fairly confident I had photographed a Southern Cuckoo Bumblebee. I submitted a couple of photos for clarification and they confirmed my sighting. She is quite common though in the south of England and is no Queen.

Southern Cuckoo bumblebee walking with hairy legs

Southern Cuckoo bumblebee walking between flowers with hairy hind legs.

Cuckoo Bumblebees, do not have their own nests in the way true Bumblebees do, instead they sneak into the True Bumbles nests, evict or even kill the true Queen and take over her workers. There are 6 species of Cuckoo Bumblebee and each is designed to attack a specific species of True Bumble. The Southern Cuckoo attacks the nests of the Buff-tailed Bumblebee. I am not certain why these cuckoo bees have evolved this way but the dark evenings of winter are looming and there will be time to learn.

Nectaring Southern Cuckoo

Nectaring Southern Cuckoo bumblebee

As well as the birds there are several other insect predators lurking in our garden and this one lives in my potting shed! The Garden Spider – Araneus diadematus is in the process of parcelling up his lunch. Females are 15mm long and Males 9mm, this one was quite small, so guessing he was a he. If you look closely, he is in the process of preparing what looks like a Butterfly, as the tail extends to the last visible web line. There is a very helpful website the British Arachnological Society to help with lots more spider identifications.

Potting shed Friend Garden Spider

Potting shed companion – Garden Spider eating lunch

During the sunny last week of September a Common Darter Dragonfly came to rest on one the terracotta pots in my pile of ‘stuff to sort out’ Balancing on one leg I leant in to have a close up look. Adult Dragonflies also feed on insects including unwelcome midges. Dragonfly larvae, hatch in ponds and are strong swimmers, they are more voracious and include tadpoles in their diet. The British Dragonfly society has a very helpful website, detailing their amazing lifecycle and helping with identifications.

Common Darter Dragonfly

Common Darter Dragonfly

Still balancing on one leg and leaning over my ‘pile of stuff to sort’, I could sense movement to my left. There is a tarpaulin laying over some pieces of wood destined for a future project. And just sitting on top of the tarpaulin was quite a large frog, males are 9cms long and females 13cms, I did not have a tape measure handy but guessed she could be a she. Frogs eat insects, slugs and worms, they are threatened in turn by disease and loss of habitat.

Common Frog

Common Frog

We eye balled each other for a few seconds, as the frog was gulping I pulled back to stand on two legs, the Frog just turned obligingly to one side and waited for a while before slowly hopping off to the undergrowth.

Common Frog

Common Frog

Now this is an easy one for me to identify, in the UK we have only two species of Frog and two species of Toad, I hoped she was well and wondered why she moved so slowly, maybe the heat was slowing her down. In trying to research some more I came across a couple of articles who confirmed kissing a frog will not help in the search for a prince. Who knew! But for a more detailed informative website on amphibians Froglife is definitely worth looking at.

Many thanks to the very lovely Tina from My Gardener Says, who hosts this lovely eye opening, mind broadening meme. Her own post is packed with visitors and encouragement.

Happy Wildlife Watching!

In a Vase on Monday – Hidden Scent and Plants for Bees

The glorious and uplifting sunshine we enjoyed last week is due to give way to heavy rain, my family were away for part of the weekend, which in turn gave me some free time to experiment with vases before my Autumn flowers get the promised drenching.

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Hidden Scent

Firstly I had the sitting room carpet to clean, Raspberries dropped on the kitchen floor by my eldest, rushing to make a snack for her journey became stuck to the feet of our dog. I think they all worry I have not got enough to keep me busy! My new vase was bought at one of the local Methodist Church fundraisers, who are in desperate need of a new roof. The vase is far more elegant than I’m used too, after several attempts I finally settled on simple white and green. And plonked the hotter colours of Rudbeckias, Persicaria and the Sweet Peas we are still picking in jugs.

Eleagnus ebbingei vanilla scented flowers

Eleagnus ebbingei vanilla scented flowers

I started with Eleagnus ebbingei as I love the fragrance. The tiny flowers are powerfully scented, its heady vanilla aroma fills the air. The flowers are hidden from view and formed in the leaf axils. About 10 years ago it survived a widespread scale infestation and last summer a good half of this very mature 4 metre tall shrub died back – I thought we were going to lose it all, the dead wood was cut out and its sprung back with lots of fresh growth and has just started to flower again. The shrub is weeping profusely for the first time this year, possibly in response to the hard pruning.

Weeping resin

Weeping Eleagnus ebbingei

I’ve added in a couple of sprigs of Hesperis matronalis – short lived perennials sown this spring and one plant has already thrown up a few flowers rather than wait till next year, they have a beautiful fragrance which reminds me of cloves and I’ve read they make good cut blooms.

Hesperis matronilis

Hesperis matronilis

Added also is Gaura lindheimeri, I grew these from seed last year and this summer have been rewarded with an absolute abundance of flowers, although perennial they are not long lived. I had worried Bees were not visiting this plant and after reassurance from Amelia of A French Garden have now noticed Honey bees visiting the fresh stamens.

Gaura lindheimeri

Gaura lindheimeri

The Cosmos also grown from seed this spring objected to the cold wet weather and was heading for the compost bin but has perked up in last weeks sunshine,although the new flowers are much smaller. The Cosmos, Hesperis and Eleagnus ebbigei flowers are all much loved by Bees and now I know the Gaura is too, but I have not noticed any insect activity on the Alchemilla mollis which I found having a last hurrah and is providing the green froth.

Thanks to Cathy at Rambling in my Garden for hosting this meme, which I rarely have time to join in with but always enjoy seeing what everyone else is up to.

Bird Baths and Cats

We have a new Bird Bath.

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Juvenile Blue Tits discovering the new bird bath

10 years ago, our youngest daughter rescued a feral Kitten with a badly gashed stomach. A vets fee and some pleading eyes were involved and we became the owners of a second cat, along with several guinea pigs, hamsters, one eyed rabbits, one eared rabbits, an assortment of chickens and our beloved Bag Puss of cat, Charlie. Our doodle less Labradoodle, Archie came into our lives 2 years later.

LollyPop

LollyPop, Lolly for short, took some taming, being a previously feral cat, he had been used to catching his own dinner – mainly flies and rodents and I am sure some birds too. Lolly drank from the bird bath, then having deterred any thirsty feathered friends, he sat on top of the bird table, basking in the sun, surveying his kingdom below.

Collared Dove

Collared Dove – they came to the UK in the 1950’s

We gave our stone bird bath away, followed shortly after by the bird table and replaced it with a multi armed pole for hanging nuts and seeds from. But we really missed watching birds drink and splash around whilst bathing in the bird bath.  We were ever mindful of Lolly during the day but he was not an indoor cat, if we tried to contain him at night, he made sure sleep wasn’t an option for any of us. Having slept all day himself, he only wanted a night on the tiles.

Pigeon having a thoroughly good wash

Wood Pigeon having a thoroughly good wash

A neighbour once reported that she saw Lolly fillet a pigeon and eat the lot. In the UK we have 5,400,000 breeding pairs of Wood Pigeon. They eat seeds, nuts and berries, cabbages, sprouts, shoots and buds wether asked to or not. They cause irritating damage in my veg garden, but they do clean up fallen bird seeds, which the smaller birds chuck out of the feeders.

Drying off after a thoroughly good wash

Wood Pigeon drying off

A report by The Mammal Society who carried out a study on predation from domestic and feral cats has been widely reported in our press and mainly against cats. However, for this post, I have read it again and was surprised to read that cat owners reported less predation if they owned a bird feeder.

Family of Blue Tits on feeders

Family of Blue Tits on feeders

From the RSPB website, who offer a balanced view – “The most recent figures are from the Mammal Society, which estimates that the UK’s cats catch up to 275 million prey items a year, of which 55 million are birds. This is the number of prey items that were known to have been caught; we don’t know how many more the cats caught, but didn’t bring home, or how many escaped but subsequently died.”

On balance the RSPB say –

“Despite the large numbers of birds killed, there is no scientific evidence that predation by cats in gardens is having any impact on bird populations UK-wide. This may be surprising, but many millions of birds die naturally every year, mainly through starvation, disease, or other forms of predation. There is evidence that cats tend to take weak or sickly birds.”

Chaffinch with chaffinch viral papilloma on foot.

Chaffinch with chaffinch viral papilloma on foot, although not life threatening

The RSPB add “Gardens may provide a breeding habitat for at least 20% of the UK populations of house sparrows, starlings, greenfinches, blackbirds and song thrushes four of which are declining across the UK. For this reason it would be prudent to try to reduce cat predation, as, although it is not causing the declines, some of these species are already under pressure.”

“Cat predation can be a problem where housing is next to scarce habitats such as heathland, and could potentially be most damaging to species with a restricted range (such as cirl buntings) or species dependent on a fragmented habitat (such as Dartford warblers on heathland).”

Succsesful landing

Succsesful landing by Juvenile Blue Tits

Its recommended by some wildlife organisations for cats to wear a bell on their collars to give prey a fair chance of escape. But I have to confess we did not do that, Lolly didn’t wear a collar at all, as I had a fear the collar would catch on a branch and he would end up strangled.

Lottie with Lolly

Collarless Cat

Then this Spring Lolly died and we were all very sad, especially my youngest daughter who had rescued him all those years ago. I bought a new bird bath from the RSPB, made of resin and very cleanable but a bit too deep, they recommend 2 inches of water otherwise small birds may drown, so we put some large stones in the bottom. If any birds poop in the water and thats mainly pigeons, the bath is easy to clean out.

Archie

Archie, who prefers sticks to wildlife

Now we do not have a menagerie of pets any more, just Archie, who is is easy going but does attempt to chase the odd squirrel. We encourage as much wildlife to our garden as we possibly can and I do not think we will have another cat but for the time we had Lolly here, he was much loved and he is missed.

GBFD – September and a gradual change to Autumn Colour

Its been a while since I reported on foliage in my own garden. In fact 11 months! 3 years ago we planted some new trees, 3 Chanticleer Pears, a mystery Rowan, 1 Double white Hawthorn – Crataegus laevigata Plena and 3 new Apple Trees. The Chanticleers were put in to screen a new neighbours floor to roof apex windows, complete with balcony. My family is not given to naked trips around the garden but we do like our privacy. The Chanticleers are beginning to fill out nicely, they are the first to leaf and the last to fall, with a wonderful late Autumn colour. So far though its only our Mystery Rowan which is on the turn.

Mystery Rowan

Mystery Rowan

I had ordered a Kashmir Rowan – Sorbus cashmiriana Hedl which is supposed to have white Berries and very beautiful leaves, as I planted bare root, it was not until Spring that I began to think something was not right, the leaves were plain and in the second Autumn there were lots of small orange/red berries. Clearly not a Kashmir. It did not flower this Spring, so no berries at all this Autumn. But today when its raining, grey and cold, the leaves are shining with colour.

Last Autumn's Berries

Last Autumn’s Berries

Elsewhere, I grow several golden Hops, one is placed to cover a deciduous Corkscrew Hazel – Corylus avellana ‘Contorta’ which has extremely ugly leaves, but in the winter when the catkins are caught by the low sun, I am much more happy with its placing. I cut the stems too for my version of a Christmas Tree.

Golden Hop on Twisted Hazel

Golden Hop – Humulus lupus ‘Aureus’ winding through Corkscrew Hazel

Another plant that really comes into its own in the Autumn is Leucothoe, I am fairly sure this one was originally labelled ‘Royal Ruby’, a non native, originating in the USA, commonly called Switch Ivy and Dog Hobble. I wonder why either common name came about?

Looking through the window on a wet morning

Looking through the window on a wet morning

Lastly, as its too wet to go further afield with my camera today, in the group at the bottom is an unnamed Oxalis, purchased at Hughenden Manor, where they have it underplanted in tubs of Heuchera, I may be unleashing a thug but in the meantime am enjoying its dainty leaves.

Unnamed Oxalis

Unnamed Oxalis

With grateful thanks to Christina, for hosting Garden Bloggers Foliage Day, GBFD. Please take a look at Christina’s adventurous garden changes and other folks contributions too.

Happy GBFD!