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.

Rousham – A Winter’s Visit

The Landscaped garden of Rousham in Oxfordshire is a delightful surprise and magical place to visit. The garden surrounds a Jacobean Cotswold house built for the Dormer family, dating back to the 1630’s. As we drove along the drive to the almost empty stable yard car park in the chill winter sun with a flask of coffee and optimistic picnic our hopes were high for an undisturbed afternoon’s first encounter with Rousham.

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Sweeping drive to front elevation showing Kent’s crenelated roof top and Stable blocks to right

In 1737, William Kent was hired by General Dormer to remodel the house and gardens. In the Garden, Kent deliberately included vistas beyond the boundaries, the first time very English rural views were included in design, he envisioned the landscape as a classical painting and is famous as the father of “picturesque”.  Kent worked on Bridgeman’s previous Rousham 1720’s garden design, changing the formality and straight lines with light, shape and colour, predominantly green, for the new naturalistic layout and design. The garden today is virtually as William Kent and the gardener, John Clary, responsible for setting out Kent’s vision as they left it, except of course the garden is now fully mature.

Rear house elevation and rear Bowling Green lawn, bordered by historic yew hedge to left and out of view meadows and Long Horn cattle to right

After paying the £5.00 entrance fee we followed a path around the side of the house to the rear Bowling Green lawns. The house sits on a terrace, with large rear flat lawn, then slopes down towards the River Cherwell and views beyond onto the Oxfordshire country side. The views can be seen from the house and garden and in the far distance Kent placed an “Eye Catcher” a sham ruin and false structure with no sides or back – its the tiny ‘building’, almost in the top centre of my photograph below, with the winding river in the foreground.

View over the River Cherwell to the "Eye Catcher" one mile away

View over the River Cherwell to the “Eye Catcher” one mile away

There are no sign posted paths nor labels, tea shops, gift shops or folk collecting ticket money, instead an automated machine to pay the entrance fee. No dogs or children under 15 are not allowed, which not so long ago would have stopped me visiting but now my own children have cleared off to their own adventures, it was rather lovely not be amongst a game of chase or whooping and hollering. We walked down past the seven arched stone arcade, the Praeneste designed as a place to sit and admire the view above and onwards to Venus’ Vale.

Vale of Venus

Venus’ Vale and the Octagonal pool

The ground underneath was quite soggy from the seemingly endless rain we have here but not churned up as so few people visit. We walked carefully around the Octagonal pool to the the start of the Serpentine Rill. The only sound was birdsong, the mature trees and under storey providing lots of foraging and habitat opportunities.

Serpentine Rill and Cold Bath

Serpentine Rill and Cold Bath

The very modern but now nearly 280 year old Rill reminded us of our visit to Moorish Alhambra last year. Originally Bridgeman in 1720 had designed a natural stream through here and Kent redesigned and created the beautiful Rill with shallow Cold Bath presumably not for folk to bathe in, but had it been a summers day, I can imagine the temptation. Kent designed a route so that vistas and statuary were discovered by the visitor, alluring to ancient allegories and references from his Grand Tour of Italy.

Lower Cascade

Lower Cascade

The ground was ever more sodden as we made our way down towards the River Cherwell, we tried to follow the route Kent intended but veered off and back tracked several times trying to take everything in. The garden seemed more beautiful within than looking out onto the views beyond, the enclosure, maturity and green stillness were quite breathtaking. Truthfully, the Statues were a little lost on me, I much prefer the planting, light and contours of the land. We headed to the walled garden, which looking back the house is to the left and divided into two parts.

Walled Garden Fruit Trees

Beautifully pruned Walled Garden Veteran Fruit Trees, with c 1200 Church in background

The thrilling long avenue of Apple trees were immaculately pruned and cared for, leading to a vegetable garden beyond. To the right of the avenue of fruit trees is a second line of beautifully pruned fruit trees and a long herbaceous border, seed heads intact.

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Walled Garden herbaceous border with house in background

Beyond the Walled Garden is the area known as the Pigeon House Garden, but this is no ordinary Pigeon House!

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Pigeon House Garden

The small white door at the bottom left was ajar so we tentatively peered in and wondered if the resulting manure was used on the borders. One half of this garden has a box parterre enclosing roses with a summer promise, one of the many reasons for wanting to visit again in the Spring, Summer and Autumn.

Pigeon House

Pigeon House with espaliered Pear and Parish Church beyond

Rousham is open daily from 10.00a.m. Last admission is at 4.30p.m. Situated 12 miles north of Oxford and with Blenheim nearby. There is no Tea Room but our own coffee was pretty good and the picnic we took to balance on the top of our car was enjoyed in blissful solitude. Far from the maddening crowds our day was pretty much perfect.

Weekly Photo Challenge – Eye Spy a Butterfly’s Eye

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The Weekly Photo Challenge – ‘Eye Spy’ – A Butterfly’s eye is a wonderful creation, their spherical compound eyes with almost 360 degree vision are able to detect threats from behind at the same time as focusing on nectar probing. Predators and camera wielding humans are all to be avoided. In common with many other insects, each eye comprises of up to 17,000 ommatidia – individual light receptors with their own microscopic lenses. Surrounding the eye and extending through the body are long hair like scales which give a furry appearance.

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In late July and August our favourite spot to observe Chalk Hill Blues is Sharpenhoe Clappers, in the Chiltern Hills, managed by the National Trust, just a few miles from home. This species of Blue Butterfly is only found in the UK on southern Chalk Grassland Hills. The adults prefer a sunny sheltered south-facing spot for nectaring and roosting. Although this little Butterfly is not endangered, its habitat is diminishing. The caterpillars sole food plant is Horseshoe Vetch, only found growing on chalk grassland.

Roosting Male Chalk Hill Blue

Roosting Male Chalk Hill Blue

Sitting patiently waiting for Butterflies to land nearby and then staying to watch the sun go down with roosting Chalk Hill Blues alongside is quite a magical experience.

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!