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!

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 – Looking back at our April Wildlife Visitors

April arrived and brought an explosion of foliage and flowers, along with nesting Blue Tits, Starlings and for a brief time Coal Tits but we think they have abandoned their nest. And somewhere in the undergrowth hidden from view a Mallard duck made a nest too.

Mallard Duck Chicks

Mallard Duck Chicks up on our patio

We are separated from a tributary to the River Flit by the 15 metre width of my neighbours garden. Our boundary is mostly made up of a solid fence but at one point about 30 metres of trellis and chain link fence, this lets more light into my garden and as we like each other a little lack of privacy is fine by us both. The trellis supports old roses and ivy.

Looking for the gap in the fence to take her chicks to water

Looking for a gap in the fence to take her chicks to water

But Mother Duck having nested and succesfully hatched 12 chicks in our garden, could now not find a gap through our fence to cross my neighbours garden to the river tributary. So she led all 12 for over an hour, stopping now and again for a rest. The chicks could hop through the chain link fence, but she could not get through to join them and would not fly up and over. Eventually I helped and made a hole big enough for her to get through too. Meanwhile….

Leading her children down the patio steps

Leading her children down the patio steps

Leading through the bean and pea bed

She led her children through the bean and pea bed.

Chicks taking a brief look in my vegetable garden.

They stopped and explored my untidy vegetable garden and did a little light weeding

Leading the way

Then looking relaxed she led them back across the lawn

And finally after finding the newly made hole she led her chicks across my neighbours lawn under her hedge and into the river tributary. Sadly, I know she will have hatched 12 chicks as there is a high percentage some will be predated.

Other visitors included 7 spot ladybirds. Although the 7 spot is among the most common Ladybird in the UK they are under threat from Harlequins. Originally introduced from Asia to Europe for commercial crop control Harlequins have spread to the UK arriving in 2004. 7 Spot Ladybirds sleep or are dormant through the winter, emerging from March to May to mate and reproduce. One 7 spot eats 5,000 aphids in their year long life.

7 spot native Ladybird

Harlequins also eat aphids but add in lacewings, hoverflies and other ladybirds. To monitor the spread the Harlequin Ladybird Survey run by UK Ladybirds are asking for sightings to be recorded. UK Ladybirds is also a very helpful website if you would like help with identification and to record native ladybird sightings too.

There were Bees and Butterflies, but I have been slow to capture any in a photograph. Brimstones, Orange Tips, Small Tortoiseshells and Green Veined Whites have all been spotted in our garden this month. I have an exposed garden so usually we see more Butterflies here from late June onwards after they have laid eggs, hatched, pupated and emerged than in April but apparently we have just enjoyed the sunniest April since records began in 1929, hence some early visitors for me.

At the beginning of April, before the leaves burst forth, a friendly female blackbird who would normally feed on the ground made the unusual move and hopped up to sit outside the dining room window on a branch of Hydrangea petiolaris. She pecked at the fat blocks, I had hoped she would sing here too, do female blackbirds sing or is it just the males? but instead just gave me a close-up to admire. The blackbird song is my favourite, making my heart soar every time. To hear the blackbird song on the BTO website click here.

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The birdsong this month has been especially loud and magical and sometimes so loud its startling. The Robin is usually first to sing and they focus on singing whilst waiting for enough light to forage. Most mornings we are woken around 5 by a dawn chorus, just as well there is so much to do!

Robin singing

Please visit Tina’s blog at My Gardener Says who hosts this monthly meme for more Wildlife Wednesday posts from across the world. A bit of wildlife watching is so good for the soul.

Wildlife Wednesday – Looking Back at Our February Garden Visitors

Tina Huckabee hosts a monthly Wildlife meme on the first Wednesday of each month on her lovely My Gardener Says blog. I took part for the first time in January and am just as happy to be able to take part again, this time looking back at the wildlife visiting our garden in February. A month of mixed temperatures, with cold snow, heavy rain and howling winds and then some sunny days rising up to 11c. A wide range of birds, some regulars, some occasional visitors and for the first time a female Black Cap dropped by too, plus a few displaying some unusual behaviour.

Two Starlings - a mature bird and a juvenile

Two Starlings – a mature bird and a juvenile

Running at a right angle to our east facing dining room window is an enormous Hydrangea petiolaris, its a tough woody, shade tolerant climber that provides shelter and foraging opportunities for many birds. In the colder months we add fat blocks impregnated with mealworms and crushed insects to the bare branches. The smaller Starling is a juvenile, its colouring will change and the bird will grow darker feathers. Both birds will lose their spots as they moult and develop darker sleeker feathers in preparation for finding a mate and the breeding season. Starlings regularly nest in a small gap between our barge boards and roof tiles, but to see a whole flock, we travel further east to the Fens between November and February to watch the murmurations.

Starling Murmuration at Godmanchester Nature Reserve

Starling Murmuration at Godmanchester Nature Reserve

Groups of Starlings meet up before dusk, its thought the reason for these gatherings is safety in numbers, predators such as sparrow hawks would find picking off individual birds difficult, to keep warm at night and to exchange information, such as good feeding areas. Watching a murmuration is an exciting event, many thousands of birds, swirling, soaring and finally as dark descends dropping down from the sky to roost.

Early February snow

Early February snow, Blue Tits, Long Tailed Tits and female Sparrow,

The month had started with a return to cold snowy weather, a steady stream of birds kept us entertained. The female sparrow was finally joined by a male and increasing numbers of Long tailed Tits came into the garden. This little bird is joyful to watch. The BTO (British Ornithological Trust) reports the success of this little bird and numbers have increased tenfold in recent years, although a very harsh winter could see numbers reduce again.

Long Tailed Tit

Long Tailed Tit

We encourage as much as we can to visit as a garden is pretty soulless without wildlife and the local pheasants have been interesting to watch as they come in looking for seed dropped from the feeders. They are bred nearby for shooting. The season runs from October 1st to February 1st. Foxes eventually take a lot of those not shot, a neighbour reported 12 in his garden last week, we have 4 hopping in and out, a male and 3 females. They are especially partial to a burnt orange primroses……

Male and Female Pheasant

Male and Female Pheasant

Last week we watched as the male decided to try and knock seed from the nyger and mixed seed tubes onto the ground. Where there’s a will there’s a way! This unusual behaviour has been reported to the BTO by other bird watchers too. The large black bird on the right is a Jackdaw, they roost with Carrion Crows and Rooks in the nearby woods, making a terrific din.

Pheasant and Jackdaw

Pheasant and Jackdaw

On February 16th, we went to a talk by our local Wildlife Trust group on macro moths. We learnt so much, including that one brood of Blue Tit chicks can eat up to 15,000 moth caterpillars. Other birds such as Robins, Wrens and Blackbirds also include moths as a food source. The Butterfly Conservation group estimate our Blue Tit population needs 35 billion caterpillars a year. There are 2,500 species of moths in the UK and most can be found in gardens, one small urban garden may be home to 100 species of Moths. As well as being a food source for other insects, spiders, frogs, toads, lizards, shrews, hedgehogs, bats and birds, they are also a garden pollinator as they feed on plant nectar.

However moths are in decline and the loss has a direct effect on the birds, bats and mammals who depend on them for food. Moth habitat loss is due to intensive farming, changing woodland management and urbanisation. Chemical and light pollution are also reported as having significant effects.

The Butterfly Conservation organisation has an excellent sister site Moths Count and both sites are jam packed with information ranging from identifying tips to citizen science projects.

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Male Chaffinch

This February we have been visited regularly by a male chaffinch, he will like many other birds be pairing up in the Spring. I read that its the female chaffinch who builds the nest, a neat cup shaped nest in the fork of a tree or tall bush made of lichen and spiders webs and inner layers of moss and grass with a lining of tiny rootlets and feathers and when ready will lay 4 – 5 eggs between late April and June. I haven’t seen her in our garden yet but I hope we do and hope she finds a suitable place to build her nest.

It was national nest box week in February and with the increased loss of suitable natural sites, a nest box put up now may still help garden birds to find a home to lay their eggs. The RSPB has a handy guide should you fancy making a nest box yourself. We have a nest box up with a 25mm entrance hole the suitable size for a Blue Tit, Marsh Tit or Coal Tit.

Please take a look at the other folk taking part in Tina’s Wildlife Wednesday.

Happy Wildlife watching!