Thursday, 16 June 2016

transplanting primroses

Most beautiful of our wild flowers is the primrose - Primula vulgaris. Pale yellow with a yolk yellow centre, the flowers appear as short clusters of leaves and flowers from autumn but are most abundant in spring. The flowers bring to mind visits to Nottinghamshire Wildlife Trust Treswell Wood. And Easter family holidays in the south west.

Our original 'stock' of primroses was bought as a single pot from a garden centre - plants in the wild are precious and mustn't be moved.

primrose divisions ready for planting out
Primroses work brilliantly as garden flowers but they do have a naughty habit of fraternising with gaily-coloured cultivars. Perhaps I'm a plant fascist but I weed out any oddly coloured or shaped ones in an attempt to retain the simple beauty of our native primroses. Propagation can be by seeds, but the plants also give generously after they have flowered. A garden fork gently beneath the roots brings up a thick clump of leaves and roots which on closer inspection are many small plants.

A sharp knife can be used to separate each small plant, then a little tidying of the roots and a trimming of the leaves and there you have your baby primrose plant.

This year I've potted the divisions (as they're called) into modules until they're ready for planting out. This wet June has made the soil good and damp and ready to receive my little plants.

So where I planted five divisions three years ago, I now have twenty five  that will be planted out to bulk up over the summer: nature is the queen of multiplication.

In the autumn the flowers will begin and then spring will be awaited with anticipation once again with even more primroses at our feet.

Thursday, 2 June 2016

a bouquet of babies ...

Wet overnight in Nottinghamshire and cool and windy up on our hill. Down to the hens to give them breakfast first thing and there's a telltale 'peeping' in the perennials at the end of the Woodland Garden: newly-hatched pheasant chicks.

Their mother watches anxiously then gathers the little stumbling balls of fluff together as they burrow into the cover of a sopping geranium patch.

I check the nest  I've been watching for three weeks and find empty eggshells.


And if anyone can tell me why my Mac/safari is preventing me accessing sites on the internet, I'd be grateful!!

Tuesday, 31 May 2016

the limes

We are hugely lucky to have a row of mature Lime Trees here at Cordwood.  Planted after WWII, the trees form a stately line separating the Orchard and Vegetable Garden from our Woodland Garden.

Ground being cleared beneath limes
Limes (or Linden Trees as they are sometimes known abroad) are not members of the citrus family. They are deciduous trees (Tillia x europaea) and bring real quality to the garden. Not only are they beautiful, their imminent flowers will exude a heady, honey-sweet scent that soaks the garden each year. And the nectar-rich flowers are a magnet to a host of insects including honey and bumble bees. The limes buzz and flutter night and day when they are in their floral glory.

Lime Hawk Moth
We have now reached the stage of our garden development project when we can give these lovely trees some respect. You see, as a short term measure I sited temporary compost bins, wood, containers, builders' bags - you name it - at their feet. Desecration I know.

But this weekend I've almost cleared the atrocious mess. In the future, the limes (in all their honey-scented glory) will be set within lawn.

And as if in thanks, the limes bestowed on me a most beautiful gift. I discovered an exquisite Lime Hawk moth (Mimas tiliae) as I was clearing: a creature more like a jewel than almost any other living thing I've seen. Perfectly camouflaged against a lime trunk we now learn that this members of this beautiful group of moths are bestowed with a second nose that enables them to evaluate whether a flower is worth a visit.

The Lime Hawk moth was a gift indeed.

Monday, 2 May 2016

a pheasant promised land?

A male pheasant and his entourage on the lawn
The Pheasant (Phasianus colchicus) is one of our most common countryside birds. The male is striking, with burnished plumage, green head and extravagant tail. The female pheasant has more muted markings so that she can merge unseen into the woodland vegetation when nesting.
The BTO tells us that up to 38 million pheasants are released each year for the shooting season which runs from 1 October to 1 February each year. The BTO also tells us that the pheasant must 'be one of the most ignored' birds for study. Most of those that are not shot are now in our garden.

Sadly, the released and bewildered young birds stray into roads in the autumn and are frequently seen as road kill.
'The Cardinal'
Not at Cordwood though, where food is plentiful, predators thin on the ground and the patrons vegetarian.

In 2015, we had a memorable June when a number of pheasant mums turned up with their groups of chicks: peeping bundles of fluff. They circled the house and gardens as Indians once did in cowboy westerns.
Time went on and the chicks became poults which became adults.
When I went to fill the bird feeders during the winter there would be a rush of young female pheasants, peeping for food.

The mild winter obviously helped our pheasants and then in the spring, when the local gamekeeper stopped feeding his birds, a number of economic migrants hopped over the fence and joined us in what I can only guess is some kind of pheasant promised land.
By late March, there could be up to a dozen hen pheasants jostling beneath the bird feeders like a football crowd, waiting for the expensive seed generously discarded by the goldfinches, redpolls, siskins and tits.

In other years, the males have been the most evident and confident. Pictured is 'The Cardinal' who would occasionally bring a very shy girlfriend to the terrace hoping for a free lunch in 2014.

I think that the male birds must disperse on reaching adulthood, but that the females remain where there is a reliable food source: the result this year has been some very forward hen pheasants.
Their colour variation has made it relatively easy to identify individuals but none has been more striking than the stunning 'Negrita'. Her feathering is unusually dark and she has a beautiful purple iridescence around her neck. She is also the the most narcissistic of the pheasants as she will frequently be seen admiring herself in the windows of the bungalow.

This bouquet* of beauties has drawn the attention of several suitors. One bruiser has laid claim to the ground beneath our feeders and to Judith and Rogers. And throughout the season he has travelled between the two areas, vanquishing all comers. But this punishing occupation has been at a cost and by now, he limps along, tailless and missing lumps of neck feathers. But still he fights to defend his territory even though there'll always be a younger, quicker-on-the-draw hombre waiting to ride in to town. A gorgeous young pretender is steadily pushing him back from our feeders and as they fight, the border of the two males' territories each day is being pushed away from our feeders and is now a quarter of the way across the lawn. Jill feeds the old bruiser: she has an affinity for old wrecks.

Most male birds use calls or song to proclaim their territories. Males will frequently sing in response to hearing another male. Pheasants have a cute remarkable ability to give their territorial trumpet blast and wing flaps simultaneously with nearby males. How do they do that? I say that as a person with reaction times that are best described as glacial.

The males seem to lay claim to the best areas  for feeding and this then attracts females. During the breeding season, the male birds constantly give a low 'whup-whup-whup' call which increases in tempo when food is discovered. This draws females to feed. The females appear to be polygamous - moving between territories to wherever food is most plentiful and mating with the male bird in whose territory they are.

The garden is constantly scoured by pheasants like zebras crossing the Serengeti. I can find no studies that show the environmental impact of pheasants but it must be significant, especially for already under-pressure invertebrates. The hens are now laying and are desperate for food. They flutter around the bird feeders and then move away, constantly searching in the borders and on the lawn. They will lay a clutch of around a dozen eggs which must be a significant proportion of their body weight - hence their urgency to feed.

The vulnerability of the pheasants' nests was evident yesterday when we were labouring through an especially overgrown border. There we found Negrita's nest. And what a diversity of eggs were in there! The conventional colour of a pheasant's egg is olive brown. But you can see from the photo that we also have both pale and sky blue eggs in there. I'm guessing that these are all pheasant eggs - we do have mallards in the garden too but their eggs would be expected to be larger. What I think we have here is an example of 'brood parasitism' in which a hen will deposit her eggs in another birds nest. We know that our hens are not fussy and will lay in the same nest as other hens; pheasants presumably do the same. The advantage for them of doing this is that they spread the chances of their young being hatched.

Pheasant nests are very vulnerable as they are on the ground. Hedgehogs, foxes, stoats, crows, magpies are among the many animals that will take the eggs from a pheasant nest. By laying eggs in more than one nest, the hen birds increase their chances that some of their young will avoid predation.

So, the clock is now ticking. In around three weeks the young will emerge clothed in their juvenile down and all ready to follow mum, peeping. How many will be successful and how many Indians will be circling the Cowboys this summer?

Can't wait to find out!

*the collective noun for a group of pheasants

Saturday, 2 April 2016

A headstart for redstarts?

Photo by John Richardson
The Common redstart (Phoenicurus phoenicurus) is a relative of our garden robin. The male has a striking red chest, black face and grey back. Its redstart name refers to its twitching red tail.

The redstart spends its winters in the warmth of Africa and returns to Britain to breed in the spring.

Across Europe the bird continues to do well, but in Britain its numbers have fallen, making it a bird of amber status conservation concern. It seems that the Common redstart imay be common no more.

40mm entrance
Here in Nottinghamshire, our mature oak woodland provides perfect habitat for redstarts: these areas are their strongholds in our county. Redstarts seek out fissures in decaying oaks for nest sites but can be persuaded to use nest boxes.

Triangular entrance
The reasons for the birds’ decline are complex, but one possible reason could be loss of nest sites. (Prof Ian Newton tells us that it is insufficient nest sites or food that are the main factors that limit bird populations). Our great tits nest earlier than redstarts and have similar  requirements for their homes. When the redstarts return from migration, all the best homes have already been taken!

It was put to me by our qualified bird ringing friends that it would be a fine idea for me to make nesting boxes for redstarts. And perhaps find whether they have a preference for one style of entrance over another.

So, armed with my BTO Nest Box Guide I set about making 24 nest boxes from 150mm wide gravel boards. Each was the same size, with a 40mm entrance.

Internal ledge
As the birds like a nest site that closely resembles a hole in a decaying tree I was advised to darken the cavity by sloshing creosote inside and outside the boxes; put a handful of spent potting compost into the bottom of each box to replicate the decay of an old tree; and put an internal ledge beneath the entrance to reduce light entering the boxes. For most of the boxes I placed the entrance in the top corner, so that this was the greatest distance from the potential nest.
'How many people does it take to fix a nest box to a tree?'
By the time I'd finished I'd recreated light conditions inside the box that only ancient candle-lit colliers will have experienced in an very deep seam
on a moonless night. I'm told that redstarts like their nest holes to be dark - they've got it!

We sited the boxes in areas where redstart males had been heard singing last year. 

The boxes were placed in groups of four, with a range of different entrances in each group.

The birds return in April and we hope to return to the area and check on progress during May.

Friday, 11 March 2016

froggy went courting' ..

Love is in the pond here at Cordwood. 

My guess is that two years ago and for the sixty that preceded that, there was no frog love here at all: there was no water. But last year we had frogspawn - presumably the first...? And having had this success, were hoping for more this year but as we constructed George's Pond I had to move frogs that were hibernating in the pond mud from danger - and into a small pond built in the 'Hot Border'.

Garden ponds have become increasingly important for our amphibians and other wildlife as wetlands and water have been lost in our countryside. A distribution map of Nottinghamshire shows frogs being concentrated around centres of human population with huge empty areas coinciding with the monoculture of intensive farming.
Water is vital if we want to encourage wildlife.

But would our frogs survive their early wake up call and take to their new home?

As with virtually all pond custodians, I couldn't wait to see the frogs emerge and begin their courtship rituals which are basically lots of showing off, loud burping and the locking together of bodies and thrashing legs. Much like any Saturday night in Nottingham I guess.
And tonight, torch in hand I visited the little pond and was rewarded with this sight... A male and female in a clinch.

When one of our kids was smaller they enquired of Jill whether this was how human babies were made. She answered 'Not in ponds'. Those were the days. I remember the burping so well.

Phenologists love events such as the spawning of frogs.  'Phenology is the study of periodic plant and animal life cycle events and how these are influenced by seasonal and interannual variations in climate, as well as habitat factors'.  And they can use the wealth of froggy data gathered across the country to measure the advance of climate change.

Unfortunately we can't add much in terms of previous years' data, here at Cordwood but as soon as my burping and thrashing frog friends spawn, the world will know!!

Tuesday, 16 February 2016

a touch of frost

A good frost this morning: which is a rare event this winter. The overnight temperature was forecast as dropping to -7C but here reached -2C.
frosted 'snow bunting' crocus
primrose offering 'all day breakfast' to passing insects

So, out with the camera to catch some photos showing how resilient plants and their flowers can be.

'Snow bunting' crocus and our native primrose (Primula vulgaris) are shown here in their frosted form.

But these plucky little fighters are not knocked out by a touch of frost and will bounce back to look as good as ever just as the sun warms them through.
frosted primrose
And importantly, they will provide an 'all day breakfast' option with  energy-boosting nectar and protein-rich pollen on the menu for early flying spring insects that need as much help as we can give them at this time of year.

Sunday, 14 February 2016

a wonderful day bird ringing

It's been a wonderful day here at Cordwood.
One of the 25 blue tits ringed today

Our pals Andy and Ann stayed over and set up their bird nets close to our bird feeders before breakfast so that we could discover more about our garden wildlife.

Bird ringing has given us a powerful tool for understanding about the movement of birds. The information gathered from today will be sent to the British Trust for Ornithology and the British Museum and contribute to better understandings of population dynamics. And from a completely selfish point of view would tell us about bird numbers in our garden and give me opportunities to take close-up photos of the birds.

The ringing has no lasting impact on the bird. The weight of the ring is equivalent in weight to hat of a human wrist watch. The birds remain very calm during the process of being measured and ringed. 

Over the day we caught and ringed:

Lesser Redpoll
Coal Tit
Blue Tit
Great Tit
Long Tailed Tit
An amazing total.

Long tailed tit
Our previous highest recorded totals for blue tits were around five - the ringing showed us that there are many more birds using the garden than we had realised.

We have regularly counted four long tailed tits and were surprised to know that a dozen birds had been caught.

Long tailed tits are such engaging birds as can be seen from the photo. They move about in family parties, each family having a unique call that identifies it to other family members. Out of respect for their highly-socialised nature, the birds, once ringed, are released together.

And we also learned that the cumulative impact of bird feeding is more powerful than we could ever had expected. Andy and Ann told us that a garden with bird feeders can expect visits from around 200 individual blue tits or great tits during a year.

Bird feeding has an impact that goes well beyond our individual gardens and is vital in keeping birds healthy and in good condition through winter and into the breeding season.

Nineteen of us enjoyed todays fun ranging in age from 4 to 84. Thanks so much to all who joined us and especially to Andy and Ann. Let's do it again!

Saturday, 6 February 2016

let it rain ...

Never have I anticipated rain more eagerly than I have today!

The forecast said 'heavy rain' all day. Bring it on!

Trev tracking in
We finished lining George's Pond during the week and then placed onto the bentomat lining many tonnes of the 'spoil' we'd removed on creating the pond. The spoil was then compressed - or 'tracked in' as we groundworkers like to say - so that it was as firm a base for the lapping pond water as we could create.

I also moved a large pile of unwashed pebbles bought from the Hammond vegetable washing plant and placed them strategically around one section of the pond edge - to create our 'beach'. Common sandpipers? Breeding little ringed plovers? Or just ammo for small boys throwing stones? You can see the beach on the top left edge of the pond photo.

To stop the water splashing from the rainwater outfall pipes and disturbing the spoil, we've placed carpet squares and covered them with stones. An ideal salmon breeding ground - although the salmon that make their way up the Trent, then the Leen, then cross over a mile of farmland, cross a road  and then pass through a wood to get to George's Pond will be miracles of nature.

Still to be completed are 'mini-ponds around the internal circumference of the pond which will hold water as water levels recede during dry weather, thus creating more varied habitats for pond life.

George's Pond beginning to fill....
And then the rain arrived. By tea time we'd registered 10mm in my rain gauge which, I know,
 is less than half an inch. But the pond levels had risen and I picture here how far they had risen by lunchtime.

The outfall pipes bringing the roof rainwater are already submerged as water levels are slowly creeping up.

Around the pond Roger has cleared accumulated slurry & filth. Use your imagination when looking at the pond photo and imagine it as it will be one spring of the future studded with cowslips like stars on a clear night.

Just as soon as dad (George) is better, can't wait to show him the pond named in his honour!!

Tuesday, 2 February 2016

george's pond?

 Some jobs just sail along.

Others don't. This one hasn't.

We're creating a large pond for wildlife utilising the rainwater collected from the roofs of our two homes. 20m wide, this will be a haven for wild plants and animals and, we hope, be a jewel in the Cordwood crown.
the matting goes in with spoil on top

some of our disgruntled frogs
I've bored anyone I can back into a corner with gems I've gleaned from reading 'The Pond Book' published by the Freshwater Habitats trust.

We dredged out the water and its hoard of disgruntled frogs only to find the following day that the pond had refilled - the water table is so high after this wet 'winter' that even on the top of the hill the water isn't far from the surface. So, back in goes some of the excavated material to bring us above the water table.

Now, we've tweaked the levels and are in the final stages of lining the pond-to-be with a membrane impregnated with sodium bentonite that expands when in contact with water creating what we hope will be an impermeable barrier. A thick layer of the 'spoil' previously removed by Mark is added on top of the matting in which pond plants will eventually  thrive.

So, diggers and dumpers delivered. Bento-matting off loaded. We're ready.

a tea break for the team
Then calamity of calamities, my poor old dad who'd been helping drag the heavy matting (just what your typical 87 year old does for fun!) trips and breaks and dislocates his right shoulder, breaks his left patella and gashes his head as he and mum go for a warm. God bless our National Health Service. The ambulance arrived in minutes, the staff in Queens Medical Centre (QMC) Accident and Emergency were saintlike to a man and woman, as have been the wonderful people who run the QMC Major Trauma unit. Down with those naysayers who malign or undermine the national treasure that is Britain's health service! Thank you hardly seems sufficient.

So back to work, and dang! There's poor old Judith back to the same A&E but this time with Roger requiring 9 stitches for a nasty cut with a Stanley knife. And in the hurry taking the dumper keys with them.

We'll carry on. Let's get the mini-digger into the pond to track in and level the spoil. What's that? Hmmm, a hyrdaulic fluid leak.  No mini-digger.

So that's just about left the 3 tonne digger. 

But you  know people, we just keep on keepin' on.

And sometimes, from adversity comes inspiration. I read that our forebears made sacrifices to bestow blessings on new ships or prestigious ventures. Thinking of my poor old dad in his hospital bed, I wondered if this pond should carry our progenitors name? 'George's Pond'. Gotta ring.

And where would we be without our friends?? Stars in our firmament AGAIN have been Linda and Trev who have worked until they creaked. And Bob. Bless him. And Jim and the boys. And Ally and Simon. And Christian. And the missus drags herself on, still suffering from the cold she brought back from Germany in the summer and thoroughly worn down.

The digger technician arrives in about two hours and then we can start again.

Thursday, 14 January 2016

moths: mysterious; misunderstood; maligned.

Moths: mysterious; misunderstood; maligned.
green silver lines
And neglected too.

There are 2500 species of moths in the UK. But few, if any of us can name any moth species. 

And although butterflies have pleasant associations of sunny summer afternoons and are renowned for their fragile beauty, moths are associated with night time and eating our trousers.

But in 2015 we learned to love our moths. With the help of a special moth light, we discovered a total of 134 fascinating species in our garden.

If not an addiction, identifying moths certainly became habit-forming.

actinic moth light in action
My job on warm evenings was to set up the light and place egg boxes inside the moth trap box. When the actinic light drew moths in, they would buzz about and slip down a funnel into the box below the bulb and then snuggle into the corner of an egg box.

The light was left glowing overnight and then, armed with lots of small specimen pots I would attempt to catch the sleepy moths and bring them back to the kitchen table to be received by intrigued noises from The Identifier-in-Chief.

The identification part is ticklish tough, I can tell you - and frequently way above my pay grade. But once accomplished the identified species is added to our list and the little critter then released into the shelter of a bushy grass to wait till evening.

elephant hawk moth
I must apologise to the friend who asked me what we did with caught moths when I answered that we press them between the pages of books like wild flowers. That was not funny. At all. I see that now.
No moths are harmed during our catching and identifying activities.

Perhaps surprisingly, there are others who share our interest - with moths being a convenient excuse to gather for pleasant evenings of beer and food. And, this being the age of social media, the identification and celebration of moths is twittertastic too.

Once listed, we submit our records to the County Recorder. And this data is added to the information submitted by all other collectors which leads to a better understanding of how moth populations are faring.

And just like canaries once used to detect gas in coal mines (they fainted or died), moths can give valuable information about the wider health of the environment.

Wednesday, 6 January 2016

the 'bad boy' arrives ....

'Rob. It's Bill. We'll be coming up to your place with the digger first thing'.

You would struggle to find words more exciting to the wildlife gardener: words to transform a man who qualifies for a bus pass into a small boy on Christmas morning.
Local farmer Bill Hammond supervising work ...
We have gardened with biodiversity at the forefront of our thoughts since we began the Cordwood project. We love nature!!

We've got simple flowers to attract bees. Lots of bird boxes. Lots of bird food. Piles of rotting wood. Native plants. Tolerance!

But the biggest boost we can give wildlife starts today: our pond.

It'll be a big 'un: 18m in diameter and a depth of 1.7m. Gently sloping to the centre. Fed with rainwater from the roofs of our two bungalows. With a wonderful circumference of beautiful water plants and a 'beach' of stones.

.. showing the perimeter path and the gentle shelving to the centre
Our site was 'dry' when we arrived. At the top of a sandy, windy hill, there was no source of water for wildlife at all. And water is the key if you want to attract wildlife - for drinking, feeding, bathing and breeding. 

Today Mark arrived with the 22 tonne  'bad boy' - a huge JCB digger with a bucket that scoops two tonnes of spoil out at a single sweep. A beast of a machine!

He worked all day and left us with a pond that may well rival Rutland Water one day!

The HG joined by celebrity birder Ray Fox
Marks work was the first step. Further steps will be to purchase and lay a liner and to cover the liner with 300mm of the 'spoil' we removed today. This will need compacting into place before the rain fills the pond naturally. Inevitably, this stage will trigger the longest drought ever recorded - put your pension on it. A cert.

We're impatient folks and so the best practice of simply leaving the pond vegetation to regenerate naturally will be difficult to follow. I'm know that the head gardener (HG) has had her books out, making lists. But the space is so big, nature will inevitably take its course - which should be the way in a wildlife pond.

Mark surveys the days' work
But, looking to the future, Bill and Marks endeavours today will transform our garden - for us and the wildlife that we hope will use it for many years to come.

Thank you so much.


Friday, 18 December 2015

That was 2015!!

Drive makers
As I write, greenfinches, goldfinches, chaffinches and redpolls vie for position on the feeders, move in groups around the seeding plants in our prairie beds or gorge on the hips of rosa rugosa in the foraging  border.
It has been a great year for developing the Cordwood gardens. With a huge team effort (led by Captn Dave) we completed the drive & entrance. Under the Head Gardener’s (HG) direction we planted almost half of the prairie beds and await a dry spell to complete ground prep & mulching of the remainder before spring planting. The Woodland Garden is developing and all beds & mounding at the front of Waxwings are now planted. The early spring snowdrops in the Woodland Garden are worth the entrance money alone folks! We also completed the Fragrant Garden and maintained our lovely Cedar Walk & boundary. Judith & Roger did sterling work in The Stumpery. Phew!
Soup making with Joe
As well as an increasing bird population, we identified over 130 Cordwood moths during the year and as we hear ever-depressing news about biodiversity, we were pleased to record our first Holly Blue butterfly during the summer. Hopefully the ivy sea in the Cedar Walk will attract this pretty butterfly to breed. When Tree Sparrows bred in the apex nest box Roger had sited on our west facing gable, I thought I’d pop! 

We all seem pretty healthy - dad (87) gets a special mention for work here in the garden each week. Mum still keeps him on his toes!

Matt & Zoe’s wedding reception here at Cordwood was a highlight. Best news of the year was getting a message from his sister that pal Kris had had a successful lung transplant up in Newcastle. We wear caps y’know: the chaps in caps. On a sad note, the loss of old Min of Ag friend Len was an awful blow - as was the sudden loss of Liz's husband Keith.

Next up is slabbing and erection of the HG’s greenhouse and landscaping around. And the pond!! Our local farmer  Bill Hammond will contour the 300m2 beast (filled with rainwater collected from our roofs) in the New Year and then Jill will use her skills making beds to roll out the whopping liner. All help appreciated!! Just can’t wait to get the wildflower meadow boiling.

Meeting of Clan Carlyle at Cordwood July 2015
I’ve become the joint secretary of the Friends of Bestwood Country Park (Nicky-Jane suggests we wear woodland animal costumes for meetings). The County Council are keen to divest themselves of responsibility and so the ‘Friends’ group are tip-toeing towards this huge challenge - or opportunity.

We now do the Farmland Bird Survey on Hammond Farms land - filling seed hoppers, checking tree sparrow nesting boxes and doing monthly bird counts. Having made a couple of peregrine nesting boxes for pals Andy and Ann, we have 30 redstart nesting  boxes to make for siting in Sherwood Forest.

In the Assynt
Book of the year? ‘Meadowlands’ by John Lewis-Stempel. Gig of the year had to be The Libertines at Rock City: madness!! Lucinda Williams has, once again, provided the soundtrack of the year. My gigs with Baz on bass (Rob and the Outlaw!) in our front room have been pretty hot too though. After the only appearance of my electric guitar Jennie has said it would be quite nice if we returned to playing acoustically.

Holidays in the Assynt in Scotland’s NW corner (with Trev & Linda); Rutland; Borrowdale (with Chris & Peter) and time spent down in the Smoke with Sarah & Ben were highlights. Travelling across the Baltic from Copenhagen to Germany on a train that rides on a ferry (to see Chris & Astrid) was a Michael Portillo-esque moment.

I won’t go on. Me? 

We’ve loved having so many family and friends with us this year. Have a great Christmas and productive and healthy New Year. Look forward to seeing you 2016!

Hugs and everything.


Sunday, 6 December 2015

helping house sparrows

The chatter of house sparrows (passer domesticus) from deep within a privet hedge was part of the soundtrack of my childhood.

Their large, untidy nests hung bedraggled from gutter downpipes. Sparrows were everywhere and we took them for granted. They colonised house martin nests, ate the crocus flowers and flooded down onto the lawn for discarded slices of Wonderloaf or Sunblest.

George Monbiot talks about 'shifting baseline syndrome'. An ungainly term but meaning that we look back to our childhood as the norm but this norm is not how it always was or has to be. My norm was of an abundance of house sparrows - and there must have been an abundance. I grew up on Nottingham's Clifton Estate which at the time was considered to be the largest social housing development in Europe. And during my childhood the estate of thousands of new homes (less than a decade old) was truly stuffed with these little birds.  From nothing, the house sparrows completely colonised the estate. Sadly, for more recent generations, it is their 'norm' that their new homes will not have the company of house sparrows. So the new generations do not feel the loss that I sense at the absence of these chirpy chappies*. And so there is not pressure to address the shortages because these new generations consider the absence to be 'the norm'.

a cock sparrer
Fast forward many years and I had a home of my own. And house sparrows, although less abundant, were there, squabbling in the pyracantha bush and gobbling seed on the bird table. Then our neighbours had their facias and soffits replaced and simultaneously it seems we lost the sparrows. The birds lost their nesting sites and we never saw them in the garden again.

This may sound an over-reaction but I was truly sad. I bought and sited a house sparrow colony box. But the only user was a lone great tit. The sparrows had gone.

Press the fast forward button again and we have our new home. And I hear (but rarely see) the house sparrows chattering deep within neighbours' gardens.

Time for action!

What do house sparrows need?

They need cover. They love to hop about in their social groups, chatting away but within the cover of an impenetrable shrub.
We have a long privet hedge. Cut 'tight' to create a compact boundary. Perfect for house sparrows.

They need food and water during the breeding season and for the rest of the year.

In the breeding season house sparrows feed their young on spiders and other invertebrates. Our garden is proving home to a myriad of spiders and creepy crawlies. Our wood chipping mulches are frequently shrouded in the webs of ground spiders. I'm hoping there's plenty of food there for the birds. If there isn't it would be possible to supplement their diet with live mealworms during the breeding season.

The winter food of sparrows is grain but the efficiency of our farmers in preventing spilt grain is to the detriment of all seed eating birds. We can help though. I'm providing bird seed in feeders close to the privet hedge and sparrows (notoriously conservative!) have slowly begun to come to the feeders. They are now with us each day, using the protection of the hedge, eating at the feeders or on the ground beneath as their family members cast showers of grain from the feeders above... So far I've counted six individuals.

Of course, sparrows like all living things, need water. 
four home house sparrow terrace
I have a small pond dug out near to the privet hedge (waiting for its liner) to help quench the sparrows' thirst in the hot summer months.

And sparrows need nest sites.

Our new home presents no opportunities for sparrows to breed. We've built it too well!!

Nesting boxes are the option here. Sparrows are unusual in that they like to nest close to other members of their species. Really close. Next door.

I've made and sited two house sparrow terraces. The new one (pictured) is a terrace with four homes on offer. In cedar to match the cladding. I've stuffed the boxes with leaves and straw so it feels like home the moment the birds peek in.

My dream is a score of house sparrows.

It's over to them now....

* As a footnote to 'shifting baseline syndrome', the naturalist Joseph Whittaker remarked at the turn of the twentieth century that neighbouring Blidworth Dale rang to the 'crex crex' call of corn crakes. Sadly, corn crakes were lost as soon as mechanised harvesting came along and are long gone from Nottinghamshire. We have to travel to distant Scottish islands to hear them calling now. How I would love Joseph Whittaker's 'norm'.

Thursday, 3 December 2015

barn owl nesting box

Amongst the most beautiful of our native birds is the mysterious barn owl. If you're lucky you'll see them quartering the ground at twilight, ghost-like in their delicate flight low over the fields in their hunt for small mammals.
one of the successful chicks reared in a RuBOP  box
It is their pale, cream coloured appearance combined with an almost butterfly-like flight that contributes to their mystery. I contend that all nocturnal creatures seem mysterious to those of us who inhabit  the diurnal world.  
Barn owls' distinctive faces allow them to gather sounds, enabling them to detect the tiniest rustling and their (hidden) slightly asymmetric ears allow them to use almost laser accuracy in their hunting.

the head gardener and a baby barn owl
But, of course, they are under threat: changing land use denies them food; the loss of formerly derelict farm buildings has lost the birds their nesting sites - and the increase of traffic has meant that they are frequently killed whilst hunting along roadside verges.

But, amongst the heroes of nature conservation are those teams (or one man bands) who site barn owl nesting boxes in safe areas to encourage breeding. There are a number of these groups and we know from first-hand experience how effective they can be. We spent a wonderful afternoon some time ago with the wildlife legend that is Howard Broughton and the Rushcliffe Barn Owl Project (RuBOP) who do their good work in the south of Nottinghamshire. Starting from 'scratch' in 1996, by 2015 they had sited 150 nest boxes and ringed their 1000th chick!!

barn owl box
And this success washes over into other areas. We have recently had a number of local reports of barn owls and so have got the permission of a local barn owner to site a barn owl box overlooking fields where barn owls have been seen.

So, I turn to my bird box 'bible' which is my well-thumbed copy of Chris Du Feu's BTO guide to bird boxes. My book is so worn that the pages fall out when it is opened.

The book tells me that an old tea chest will do as a nest site if the the nest box site is indoors and away from the weather. How many of use have old tea chests to hand? They're certainly not stacked up at Cordwood.

But I have a collection of scrap wood that I use for my nest boxes. And several pieces of old sterling board (compressed and glued wood shavings) have been winking at me for some time. Now we add my rudimentary skills and here comes the sterling boards moment for glory!!

I've made the box, slurped creosote on, and now just wait for a moment to site it.

You might be able to imagine the fanfare that would erupt if this were to be successful.

If barn owls were to quarter the wildflower meadow and prairie beds here, the reaction would be measured on the Richter Scale. Don't take out extra buildings insurance yet though.