Tuesday, 8 August 2017

a breaking heart..?

The pond fills..
Sandlands need a lot of extra nourishment to be fertile. Pete helps us by delivering a piled trailer-full of horse manure from his stables. It was our turn yesterday: a huge pile of steaming muck. A dream come true for an organic vegetable garden. I helped it out of obstinate corners with a long bamboo pole. Pete reminded me ‘Make sure it doesn’t go in your wellies’ as it avalanched down. No problem. I gave hime a big bag of veggies as a thanks.
Later, I sat on the terrace and felt a lump in my trouser pocket. Without thinking, I reached in and pulled out ... a large piece of horse muck. Only six people to witness it. 

The awful August weather has had one benefit - George's Pond has never been fuller. It must be within 10cms of its' upper limit. Plants that were at the waters' edge are now a couple of metres into the pond. It looks amazing.

If you listen carefully, there's a plaintive single-note call around the garden. For a bird so beautifully rosy-pink it is surprisingly difficult to see it's owner - a male bullfinch.
Richard in the 'bird ringing shed'
We know this bird. He was born in 2016 and Rich ringed him in the garden in April this year. We also ringed his mate at the same time. She too was born in 2016. The age of a bird is determined by careful examination of its feathers. Bullfinches are monogamous and are believed to pair for life. They stay within the same area all their lives. Unlike other finches they reinforce their relationship with their mate outside the breeding season. Young birds, on leaving the nest form intimate pair bonds with a sibling caressing with beaks and feeding. At this stage there are no colour differences between the sexes and bonds often form between two males or two females. I have heard bullfinches called 'The English Lovebirds'. 
Although we have ringed a number of male bullfinches, we have only ringed one female.
On Thursday I had a call from a neighbour: a female bullfinch had flown into her window and died. It was ringed. She brought the bird to us, saying that a male bird was calling in her garden and appeared distressed. The dead bird was our ringed one.
We took a note of the ring number and buried the bird.
Since then, a male has been calling all around the garden. He was calling when I led a group of friends around the garden.
We are urged to avoid anthropomorphism but it is difficult not to have fellow-feeling for him. His little heart must be breaking.

Tuesday, 25 July 2017

the verdant garden in high summer

The verdant garden in high summer. Rain barrels and ponds swollen with water after heavy rains.  At George's Pond,  a red darter dragonfly is perched on a flag iris stalk. Soil moist, warm and productive.  
The Vegetable Garden is yielding well.

The garden has been stripped of song as the birds enter their annual moult. It must take a huge amount of energy to replace all of their feathers. At this time moulting birds are most vulnerable to predators. Small birds' consumption at the feeders has reduced significantly and where there was constant movement, there is now stillness. We watch from our 'end of shift' cups of tea as an especially bedraggled great tit comes to the feeder on mum and dad's terrace. Above our kitchen gable, a tree sparrow calls as if using a tiny, cheap plastic trumpet. It has a second brood of young that have not yet fledged. They chirrup constantly but I daren't check the nest for numbers in case the young 'spring'. As young birds approach fledging, they are likely to 'spring' from the nest if disturbed. The calling is new behaviour as the adult birds have been very secretive until now. My guess is that the calls are to encourage the young to leave the nest.
Vixen drinking at pond

Two juvenile kestrels can be heard throughout the garden - a shrieking, alarming call - and their presence alone must drive smaller birds into hiding. Kestrels (one of our smallest falcons*) will take small birds. I disturb the kestrels on the Cedar walk paths.  They take a good look at me before flying noisily away.

My trail cam has been recording a vixen drinking from the Birch border pond. Rural foxes are seen less frequently than urban foxes and their numbers are in decline. This is possibly due to a reduction in rabbit populations but also because of aggressive control of their numbers on farms. The vixen is a beautiful animal, carrying none of the mange that I've seen on her urban cousins.

Large emerald moth
Andy and Ann dropped by and gave me five bat boxes last week. I've sited them on trees around the garden. I once had a blue tit in one.

And planning for next year is underway. I've sited two medium nest boxes for starlings with more to make. And have been told about little owls breeding on the farm. Winter evenings building little owl boxes in my man shed listening to Nottingham Forest on the local radio...

I'd left Jill poring over last night's haul of moths at the dining table. Last night, the sky was clear and it was a little chillier than we've had recently, but there were thirty three species for me to collect at the light this morning.  I'm interrupted by a rush of feet. It's a woman with a moth in a pot.
'A large emerald!'. New for us.

*Correction made as suggested in comments...

Monday, 17 July 2017

a very young meadow ..

Our new meadow is very young - two years old. But already wonderful.

Nine species of butterfly yesterday and the grasshoppers beginning to stridulate today in the July sun. Insect-hunting brown hawkers, common darters, Emperor dragonflies and broad-bodied chasers speed from the pond and across the meadow accompanied by delicate damselflies. Precise. Prehistoric. Agile. Works of art.
What a place!

Like an exuberant puppy our new meadow needs guiding. It thinks we want it to produce thousands of dock seeds - we don't: and so one man and his secateurs spends three sessions cutting the seed heads and bagging them before the seeds drop. Previously I got a bee sting on my hand, this time one on my lower jaw. I was told that the subsequent swelling around my throat gave me the appearance of an orangutang.

Jill harvested yellow rattle from the little orchard meadow and scattered it among the vigorous grasses. Yellow rattle is a grass parasite and will reduce the vigour of grasses, allowing more delicate wildflowers to flourish.
The wildflower palette is restricted at this early stage. Knapweed (16), ragwort (18), self-heal, wild carrot (13), yarrow (17), marjoram (6), red (15) and white (17) clovers (7), ox-eye daisies (9), bird's foot trefoil (23) amongst plants currently in flower. In parentheses are the number of associated moth  species' caterpillars that each plant hosts.
The meadow grasses themselves are hosts to many moths and butterflies as well as a wide range of other invertebrates.
I have spoken before of the need to increase invertebrate numbers. I hope that our young meadow is going a small way towards this aim. The flourishing dragonfly and damselfly population suggests it may be.

As expected, there's no sign of the harvest mice we've released, but a confiding juvenile kestrel spent a lengthy period scrutinising the long grass and flowers. Perhaps the tawny owls had already eaten them all..?

Monday, 10 July 2017

the turning of the year

Juvenile blackbird has received its ring
There was a different feel to the garden this morning as I collected the 21 species of moth that had been attracted to the moth light. Birds are no longer singing; an almost late-summer stillness. Warm and no wind. In the cool of the early-morning polytunnel, tomato fruits are forming and we are now cropping potatoes, beetroot and beans in the Vegetable Garden. Young birds seem to all around: juvenile blue and great tits, chaffinches, greenfinches, great spotted woodpecker - and endless young goldfinches visit the feeders. So many baby blackbirds. We ringed 50 small birds (mostly juveniles) last time we set the nets up in the garden. I now give visitors a commentary as another of the ringed birds visits us. Our ringed blackbird cock - 'Andy - the pole dancing blackbird' had kept us entertained throughout the season, balancing on the tower of the 'mother feeder',  frantic flapping accompanying his staccato sunflower heart pecking.  There's now a growing dynasty of them as a female demonstrates the trick and at least one juvenile. Andy has become so proficient that he no longer flaps feverishly but has an altogether more languid demeanour as he fills up. We ringed another wood pigeon so there are now two ringed birds and I can't tell Jill whether we're looking at Ringo or Bingo. I wonder sometimes if I should get out more?

Industrious male bullfinches - rosy pink and grey- are frequent visitors.

Over on New Farm, the seed hoppers are being drained by birds. The fields of rye that will be harvested for the digester host many tree sparrows.

In contrast to the smaller birds, pheasants and mallards appear to have had an unsuccessful breeding season here. With the cessation of shooting on the farm next door, this lack of young birds will have a positive impact here. There are very few adult pheasants evident and collared doves have moved in to feed on seed discarded by wasteful finches. Another change not previously noted is that house and tree sparrows have begun to forage in the vegetation of the mounding that is our earth-sheltering.

The garden is occasionally allowing us a glimpse of what its established character will be. There's still a long way to go, but gaps are filling and the borders are floriferous. We've mixed roses into many of the planted areas and they are flowering abundantly in every shade of pink, white, red and yellow. Utter gorgeousness. Solitary bees stuff crescents of rose leaf into the tubes of the insect houses we have in the Fragrant Garden. 

And at last the meadow dances with butterflies. There seem more small skippers than in other years. I'm supposed to check the miniscule antennae of this tiny butterfly in case there are some of the Essex skippers with us. One has red antennae and the other brown - as I write I can't remember which has which.

Finding a way of making the three acre gardens manageable during our declining years is a concern. Mike suggested we consider the WWOOF scheme where those passionate about organic gardening exchange their labour for board and lodging. Our first WWOOOFers joined us in June and ended up spending three weeks with us. We were nervous about having others in our home for a long stay but this first WWOOFing experience has been wholly positive - even when they staged a vegan coup in the kitchen. I suspect collusion from the management here. We've painted sheds using Ecosote: weeded, cut the hair of and replanted the drive border; tackled 'Jill's mounding'; widened the Cedar Walk path and trimmed and weeded the 'Ivy Sea' where two new 'Mesters' now add to the atmosphere; created a seated area beneath sycamores and spent time 'sorting' some of the accumulated untidiness that had built up in the Vegetable Garden. Elle and Zak leave us on Monday having become part of the family and were one of the special parts of the summer of 2017.  Bon voyage! Our next WWOOFers arrive at the end of July.

Tuesday, 27 June 2017

standing up for invertebrates - a national plan for nature

This week we turned the corner, having passed the longest day: the summer equinox and summer at its height. Above my head our limes buzz: their honey scent is liquor-strong in the air. Golden aphids drip onto me from the humming branches above.
The land should send out a biomass trail of invertebrates into the sky - similar to the plumes of vapour that build into the clouds from nearby Ratcliffe on Soar power station in the Trent Valley below. Invertebrates are the foundation course of bricks that all other wildlife builds upon and there simply aren't enough. That is a reason why many of our insect-eating birds and mammals are failing to thrive.
Norman has been birdwatching this patch for over sixty years and has seen the changes first hand. He invites us to listen to 'the sound of starvation' that is the lack of insect noise.

CBC/BBS UK graph
Source: British Trust for Ornithology (BTO)
There's piles of evidence of the decline that Norman speaks about. Norman's notes for June 1989 show 15 spotted flycatchers in Bestwood Country Park. The 2016 report for the park has no records of spotted flycatcher. This is part of a national trend as shown in the BTO graph. The reasons for the decline of our migratory spotted flycatchers are not necessarily only related to food here in the UK, but it's a statement of the blindingly obvious that spotted flycatchers need to be able to spot flies.

Last year's worst-ever-on-record for butterflies has left us with a legacy - there have been very few butterflies this summer.  Let's hope that the few fluttering in the garden now - meadow brown, red admiral, ringlet, skipper - are able to breed successfully. On a brighter note it has been a plentiful one for bumble bees so far. One of our Australian guests has loved them so much that she plans a bumblebee tattoo before she returns. The latest addition to our national bumblebee family (tree bumblebee) was evident in three of the best boxes we checked but each had subsequently failed.

The honeybees in the apiary now live in towering blocks of supers: it seems to have been a good year. One small swarm absconded and settled in the pond, just above the water line on a reedmace. Unlike, the honeybees, our beekeepers weren't in a rush.

Juvenile tree sparrow ringed in our gable nest box. 
The wonder that is the hummingbird hawk moth zipped forward and back among the lavender flowers yesterday and around the pond, Emperor dragonflies, with abdomen slightly arched, have returned. As if to punish myself having been up since just after dawn to ring juvenile tree sparrows I set up the moth light. Thirty species of moth including a rosebay willow herb pink elephant hawk moth was my reward.

The bird ringing I referred to saw us catching thirty tree sparrows on New Farm. The first three we took from the nets were birds we'd ringed in the nest box on our gable! My children! Three more we'd ringed in a farm nest box - the remainder (overwhelmingly juveniles) had presumably bred in hedgerow nests. Tree sparrows are on the red list of birds of highest conservation concern. This evidence of breeding success gave me immense encouragement that we can take action to save species - in this case the supplementary feeding programme, along with the farm provision of water, hedgerows and areas set aside as seed banks for birds as well as nest boxes are all having an impact. Although adult tree sparrows are seed eaters, they feed their young on invertebrates.  
comma and red admiral

I'm also encouraged that the EU plans to ban all neonicotinoid pesticides. These pesticides are known to be a high risk to bees and other insects. The jobs of our farmers will not be made easier by this decision but it's time our invertebrates had a voice speaking up for them. 

I'm fortunate in having our local farmer as a friend. Or more of a 'critical friend' to use the modern term. He was certainly critical of my suggestions about not cutting hedges and roadside verges. 

There's much that needs to be done to rebuild invertebrate populations locally, and as part of a coherent national strategy. I would like to see a National Plan for Nature Act that draws together the disparate arms of government, farming, public sector and the general public led by the nature conservation organisations.

Only when we have rebuilt our invertebrate populations will we see once common birds flourishing again.

Wednesday, 31 May 2017

the long days ..

Long days of late spring. Long days for work and waking bone-tired the following day. Respect for our Muslim friends for whom the fast of ramadan, wrapped around the solstice, must be especially punishing.

At the end of the shift we sat on the terrace. There were blackbirds hammering away with their alarm calls down in the Cedar Walk and along the boundary path. Amongst the insistent 'pink-pink' alarm calls was a 'whit- whit'. A tawny was probably causing some concern. We saw nothing with the binoculars but then scanned across to the box where our baby tawny owl was photographed on the end of my £1 selfie-stick yesterday. Now the fluffy bundle was perched on the ledge at the nest box entrance. This would have been its first sight of the big world. Not a sense of awe and wonder was seen. Just drowsiness. The young!!
The adult continued to call and we watched her flying between branches among the leggy Scots Pines. When she perched, her camouflage was so complete she became invisible. The blackbirds continued to 'pink' and a magpie joined the slanging match too. We'd found the remains of a magpie in the tawny nest box so the magpie could be forgiven for a sense of grievance.

The rains of the last couple of days saw the rain chains fizzing as they carried water into the open gapes of the rain barrels. Their long digestive tracts finally emptied into the pond whose level has risen above the sandstone block we always use as a high water marker. Insects buzzing all around the flowering clovers and campions. Our first broad-bodied chaser dragonfly, bold and territorial found a hornet as big as a bullet and saw it off. Two pairs of electric blue common damselflies each locked in tandem - she dabbing the water surface gently with her ovipositor laying eggs.
We visited a garden with a derelict plant sales section when we were in Shetland last year. All the potted plants had long since died but Linda spotted a pot into which orchids had self sown. We generously left a pound for the pot with eight spotted orchids. I planted them in the meadow and so far three have flowered. Short stemmed, deep purple blooms. Cammasias have sent three or four flower spikes up around the pond edge this year. Delicate, star-like flowers.
I disturbed a mallard duck on her nest yesterday. Ten pale blue eggs. Hmmm... At least two female ducks in the garden.... Ten eggs each.. Twenty ducklings and parents churning the serene pond to thick gravy again...

We were gifted variegated flag for the pond but Jill spotted the huge, ominous stem of a bullrush within the iris tubers. Bullrush - or greater reedmace - is a bully of an American plant that can quickly smother ponds. I performed surgery and put the iris into bucket quarantine to ensure that no more  are secretly harboured.

After developing the Cordwood site for the past seven years, we have finally returned to organic vegetable growing. We began in Sherwood in 1977 when our lives were a heady mix of new home, newly married, the punk revolution and the writings of organic gardener Lawrence Hills. Now, the potatoes have benefited from the rain and ranks of asparagus, leeks, shallots, onions, garlic, sweet corn, beetroot, French beans and calabrese greet the eye. Climbing beans and Crown Prince squash crouch at the foot of their bamboo tripods waiting for the starting gun. In the polytunnel (hoop house) our tomatoes and cucumbers are thriving in the warmth.
A robin has nested beneath sheets of plastic on the edge of the Vegetable Garden. Three brown speckled eggs so far.

Just as last year, a pair of bullfinches - he so beautifully pink-blushed - have joined us. They collect sunflower hearts from the feeders and then brew a seedy porridge in their crops to feed their young, secreted somewhere nearby. These aren't the birds we ringed earlier in the spring.

Our two 'hog cafes' continue to attract hedgehogs. I made a nesting box for the hedgehogs and noticed that the straw inside the box was trailing out of the entrance pipe. The trail cam picked up a hedgehog leaving the nesting box. Baby hedgehogs - that would be a treat.

These warm, sometimes muggy nights are marked not only by the calls of our tawnies, the clicking of bats through the little bat detector or the silent passing of the International Space Station but by visits to our moth light. Tired after a long shift, a more sensible man would sit on the sofa and watch sports.  This one trucks to and fro from the light having collected pots of moths that have been attracted to the light. I'm the moth wrangler in the team. The moth-identifier-in-chief purrs over the gathered moths - notebook, iPad and ID books to hand at the kitchen table.

Tuesday, 23 May 2017

young birds

Tawny owlet
I downloaded images from our little trail cam this morning. I'd set up by the pond to record action overnight on two nights. 1830 images later the snake I thought I'd captured as a photo was a slug. I also got one image of the side of a drake mallard.

We're entering prime bird breeding season. Our first young blackbird has appeared and a mistle thrush was collecting material this morning, presumably for its second nest of the season.
Juvenile tree sparrow
We've been around the bird boxes, noted success and ringed those baby birds of an age to be ringed.
We also checked boxes on neighbouring New Farm.
76 chicks were ringed altogether. They were mainly blue and great tits - but also tree sparrows and a tawny owl.  The tawny was a lone bird in the box. Whether older siblings had already left, this was a single egg or this bird had eaten its younger brothers and sisters, we won't know.

Four young tree sparrows were ringed in the box on our east facing gable above the kitchen door. The young continued to call from their nest for three days but then all went quiet. Presume they had fledged.
Today the male was singing up on the ridge of the roof. Was he preparing for a second brood?

Amid the gloom of conservation news I receive, I feel a small sense of pride that our birds have reared young, partly as a result of the efforts we've made. With luck, this will be a platform for future success.

There will be plenty of young birds out of the nest soon and this is when they are most vulnerable. We can all play a part by ensuring that young birds have access to food and water. If they avoid hunger, remain strong and healthy there is a better chance they'll avoid predation or illness. I've filled feeders in anticipation.

Tuesday, 16 May 2017

aliens in my garden - and the need for 'a plan for nature'

News from Western Germany that the biomass of invertebrates as measured between 1989 and 2013 has fallen by nearly 80% comes as no surprise. This, of course knocks further dominoes over in the food chain explaining in part why our skies are empty of summers' glories - martins, swallows and swifts. Without air borne invertebrates these lovely birds starve.

Change in land use and the use of insecticides are at the heart of the problem. There is much science too about the effects on our native species of alien species. The World Conservation Union, states that the impacts of alien invasive species are 'immense, insidious, and usually irreversible'. I have yet to hear any of the main political parties putting this calamitous fact anywhere near the heart of their manifestoes.

We battle with the effects of alien species at Cordwood.

One of the dominating horse chestnuts in the Woodland Garden was removed in the winter.  Horse chestnut has four associated insect species. Now, the opened canopy illuminates hazels and maples in burgundies and lime greens growing on the woodland floor among a froth of sky-blue Forget-me-nots and foaming pink tiarellas. In the clearing created by the removal of the large horse chestnut, a common pippistele now paddles through the night sky.
The dry weather over these past six weeks has been an opportunity to clear the thousands of sycamore seedlings and other weeds. Sycamores are among my least favourite introduced species and their profligacy only sharpens my antagonism. Sycamores (like horse chestnuts) block light and moisture from the woodland floor, reducing the diversity of plants growing there. Sycamores have 15 associated insect species compared with 334 invertebrates associated with our native silver birch. My remarkable dad (89) isn't the man he was but he loves hoeing. And so together we hoe. When I stop him to rest he hoes from a seated position. Most of the woodland garden is now sycamore seedling free. This morning the dry spell abated with the day beginning with a shower.  Freshness of May foliage combined with the crispness brought about by recent weeding - stunning.

Our attempts to create a haven for wildlife face many challenges, not-the-least being the pernicious effects of other aliens.
Pheasants aren't native but have naturalised across the country. Our numbers are artificially inflated by birds escaping the guns on the surrounding fields. Millions of the hapless birds are released across the UK each year. The birds reaching safe haven here scavenge beneath the bird feeders and peck anything growing. Their impact on ground invertebrates must be immense.
Although native mallard ducks are on the red list of UK birds of most conservation concern, we have no concerns at Cordwood. There are up to seven - probably escapees from the neighbouring shoot where they are released - fouling the ponds. Invertebrate and amphibian life stands little chance under their onslaught. The garden is subjected to the 'gang rape' aspect of their 'courtship' too. Three males chase a luckless female and crash about among the plants in the Vegetable Garden. The male mallard is one of the few birds with a penis - apparently making his ardent advances more difficult for the females to resist. Recent studies have shown, however, that mallard ducks may have developed a cunning method of fighting back: their bodies can reject the sperm of unwonted advances.
Infernal American grey squirrels are here too, occupying nest box sites intended for native birds, eating wildfood that our native birds and mammals depend upon, damaging trees and destroying bird feeders: an unstoppable tide. The squirrel pox they carry kills the UK's native red squirrels. My lame airgun occasionally makes a popping noise through a gap in the kitchen window sufficient to halt mastication of sunflower seeds for a brief period before it begins again.
Lately feral greylag geese have discovered us. An expeditionary party of six honked over the pond before three landed. I chased them away as the occupants of the annex reached for another handful of slices from their loaf.

On Thursday we join other volunteers working with Nottinghamshire's Biodiversity Action Group. Britain's waters are now plagued by introduced American signal crayfish. Literally plagued. The plague they carry kills our native white-clawed crayfish. The larger signals also out-compete our natives - there's no happy co-existence. Nottingham's own river, the Leen, has sections that are still signal crayfish free and where our white-clawed survive. We will work in fishing ponds in Bulwell catching the signals and thereby trying to help the white-clawed crayfish facing seemingly irreversible decline. It's a difficult task as no areas in the UK have ever been successfully cleared of signal crayfish.

Depressing? My gosh it is. It is time for a consensus for wildlife in Britain. A plan similar in scope to the Marshall Plan that came to our aid after the World War II is required. A plan for nature, agreed by all parties that will halt the terrible declines in wildlife that we are witnessing. It can be done.

Wednesday, 3 May 2017

still dry and cold ..

The family gather on the terrace in the spring sun to enjoy a mid-morning drink. We look across the garden to where the sun colours young silver birch trees' foliage into a Chartreuse mist beneath Scots Pines. Mum and dad are wrapped in blankets and thermal coats. My auction wins are dissected unfavourably. 'Rammel' is the Nottingham dialect word for rubbish. Crap. Until mum takes a fancy to the one-eared faux terracotta fox pushing a wheelbarrow that sneaked into a lot of plant pots. 'Freddy'. He'll adorn their patio. Attention moves from the latest additions to my collection of leaking galvanised buckets and watering cans as the drinks arrive.

Shoots have withered along hedgerow and on garden shrubs and trees.  Magnolia denudata is blackened and crisped. Walnut is whipped. In the orchard little yellow rattle is brown. The chill east wind has continued unabated, challenging. Burning foliage. And drying. Our sandy soils lose heart easily. Dust to dust.
Low rainfall is a boon to ground-nesting birds. We're expecting a bumper garden trampling from pheasant chicks and mallard ducklings later in the month. But low moisture levels in the soil can affect the whole food chain detrimentally. The nectar flow in flowers slows and bees make less honey. Beekeepers can provide supplementary fondant for honeybees. Bumble bees get no such cosseting. Their nests won't flourish.
A male kestrel hangs in the air, trying different pitches around the parched garden. Extended dry conditions don't favour small mammals and so kestrel young may face hunger.
Due to the dryness, there is little gastropod activity. Or are the slugs and snails simply fasting in readiness for the feast of dahlias we are preparing for them in the greenhouse? The two branches of my 'hog cafe' continue to be emptied each night. I want the hedgehogs to be as full and fat as they can be as they prepare to breed. The garden has hedgehog homes in readiness...

Stock dove eggs
There are now 133 gently down-curved flowering bluebells along the boundary with Crimea Plantation. We began planting bluebell bulbs in 2015 after I had found a single native plant. Grasslike seedlings now push through the leaf litter providing promise of greater things to come.
And in the orchard, the cowslip seed I cast in the same year and donated by Linda has produced 130 flowering plants. Pert, golden spikes and a rogue red.
Primrose too are more abundant now due to the plant dividers' knife. Many are hybrids between cowslips and primroses - false oxlips - challenging the plant fascist in me.

Message from Pete: he'd heard his first cuckoo over in Burton Joyce. No cuckoos were heard here in 2016. A sad local reflection of their national decline and fear that we'll never hear them here again. 

The garden nest boxes are now being filled with eggs. Blue and great tits are our best customers. The tawny owl is still sitting tight and tree sparrows probably have eggs in the colony box above the back door: I'm reluctant to disturb them. In the Woodland Garden a stock dove has three eggs in a box I made from an old drawer. Pigeons and doves lay clutches of two eggs. The third egg is a mystery. Perhaps an unhatched egg from a previous clutch? But there were no eggs when I checked earlier...

The garden has rewarded our return from eight nights away in north west Scotland with bountiful weeds.  Dad and I slog it out in the Woodland Garden clearing hundreds of thousands of sycamore seedlings. Dad is now 89 but still pushes that hoe to and fro with much more thoroughness than I can muster. I insist he sits to rest and he is hoeing from a seated position when I next look.
Jill hammers away in the Prairie beds where the imported heavy soil has dried to rock. She attacks the soil with a Portuguese azada like a one-woman chain gang.

We hope to welcome WWOOFers this year. A scheme where board and lodging is provided in return for honest toil on the land. Dad says the garden would keep thirty men busy. I hope they know what they're letting themselves in for.

Monday, 10 April 2017

a thin, dry desiccating wind

Early rise to set up bird ringing mist nets in the garden: the second time we've partnered Richard.
As it became brighter, the garden reeled with the trill of redpolls, the tinsel chatter of goldfinches punctuated with the prospecting chirrups of tree sparrows.

52 birds caught: goldfinch; chaffinch, greenfinch, lesser redpoll, blue tit, great tit, blackbird. Each bird was caught, measured, ringed and released. The data goes on to the BTO for analysis.

Ringing has allowed us to 'get to know' some of our garden birds a little better: I'm thinking of 'Andy', a chunky male blackbird ringed here in February 2016 who finds his way into the nets each time we set them up.

Amongst the many markers of seasonal change, the large numbers of lesser redpolls around for ringing left the following Monday. Now the garden is greening but is dried by temperatures in the upper teens and a light, desiccating wind.

The dry conditions can potentially affect wildlife in many ways. Ground dwelling invertebrates such as slugs, snails and earthworms become more difficult to find. For gardeners, the lack of gastropods is a bonus as we prepare our dahlias and beans for planting out next month. But for hedgehogs, the lack of slugs and snails can be a shortage of food. At this time they have emerged from winter with fat reserves depleted and sometimes in poor physical condition. Poor condition may then lead to poor breeding success.

This is an opportunity to provide supplementary food. I was delighted when the 'Hog cafe' located in the meadow attracted hedgehogs as soon as I began putting out dried mealworms and dried cat food - chicken flavour apparently a preference.  The 'cafe' is an upturned plastic box with two 5" sawn-down drain pipes offering access and exit. When providing dried food, a dish of water should also be given.  Or a pond provided. As the latter takes considerably more effort, I've chosen this one. I have opened a second branch of the cafe in the Vegetable Garden with a long-term view to franchising. HogDonalds.  I'm predicting a spike in interest.

Now I'm checking for nesting birds, wrestling with the baffling codes and abbreviations used by the BTO on their record cards: what a collection of mad geniuses these people are. Around the garden I trudge, checking my lower nesting boxes. Then around again, with ladders to reach those 4m high. My sister bought me a selfie-stick from Poundland and this has proved very useful for  checking the higher, open-fronted boxes. I was expecting a pair of stock doves to be occupying nest box #37. I almost fell from my ladder when I withdrew my selfie-stick and saw an owl's face looking back at me from the iPhone screen.

Tawnies too may be affected by a prolonged dry spell. They are dependent on small mammals for food. Dry conditions will reduce the ability of female mammals to lactate, thus reducing breeding success and then reducing food for tawnies and other predators. Let's hope it doesn't come to facultative cainism: where siblings eat each other due to starvation.

We did note ironically that the tawny family home is situated immediately facing the meadow area where we have been releasing harvest mice.

This talk of the dry weather flies in the face of what's happening down in the pond where seven mallards have moved in. The once clear water is now cocoa. They're especially busy at dusk when the pond becomes a quacking Heathrow for low-flying ducks.

Tuesday, 4 April 2017

big chief I-spy?

Above their heads, goldfinches and lesser redpolls dispense sunflower hearts. Gratefully, seven hen pheasants and one magnificent cock bird receive the largesse and push and shove with a drake and two mallard ducks. The push-and-shovers are probably ones released on New Farm for the shooting season. Asylum seekers.
common quaker moth

Perhaps a cock pheasant should be termed 'a dude' - he has such swagger and gloss at this time of year. A burnished dooood. A pirate. He was strutting his stuff around a thick patch of epimedium sulphurium where a slender young female was concealed, occasionally shaping up, throwing his head back and declaiming. There are few males calling back. Last year, the alpha male established the entire garden as his own and vanquished all challengers. But steadily, he lost ground to another male. One could watch the boundaries of the territories being shifted with every aggressive and punishing face-off. And encroachment came from all sides. No sooner had he punished one intruder, another appeared. He was steadily pushed back and then, as the season ran on, by now tailless and broken he was bested.

Pheasants are the most-easily spotted and most-frequently remarked on of all the Cordwood birds. If shooting release ends, it will be interesting to see how the ecology of the site changes.
hedgehogs visiting 'the hog cafe'

Tiny black flies within moth light box. 46 moths of 12 species attracted to the moth light sited by the pond. Each moth named by the Victorian academics (often members of the clergy) who first took an interest in them. Does the clouded drab have self-esteem issues? 128 moths two days later beneath sallows and  under cover of a hedge including 62 common quakers, 28 small quakers and one twin-spotted quaker: a veritable meeting house of moths.

This fascination with wildlife, spotting and counting it, has recently seen me compared with Big Chief I-Spy. Not favourably.

Something's taking the hedgehog food from my hog cafe. Two individuals (large and small) caught on trail cam. They're eating a cupful of hedgehog food and dried mealworms a night. Although there should be plentiful natural food around, I'm keen to build up their body weight and condition so that they can breed successfully. Another branch of the hog cafe will be opened in the Vegetable Garden soon. Can you imagine why the UK government has sanctioned use of New Zealand hedgehog traps to kill hedgehogs in this country?

During my nocturnal trudge, my bat detector has picked up bats echo-locating at 45kHz and 55kHz.  Accelerating clicks as another tiny insect taken. Presume common pipistrelle and soprano pipistrelle. The higher the frequency of echo location, the larger the prey.

Our first two green veined white butterflies of the year were courting in the Hot Border.

First mow of lawn complete. I can look forward to another twelve times if 2016 is a fair measure. Life is so much easier since Roger bought a ride-on mower. Before that, our huge lawn was mowed with a small walk-behind petrol mower that needed its' grass box emptying every twenty yards by vigorous shaking. The grass needed carting away in a barrow and the mower restarting with a mighty pull of the string. A half day was usually spent employed this way and I emerged as broken as a pheasant but without having had the glory days. I now mow the lawn in an hour. Everybody needs a Roger. I'm certainly glad I've got one.

Friday, 24 March 2017

a canadian wind..?

A Canadian wind has now been replaced by a north European wind. Equally chill. And pond-filling rains. Two herons visited George's Pond during the week but my guess is that there was insufficient food to detain them and my plans to rename our home 'The Heronry' were deemed premature. We have an intermediate bulk container (an IBC) into which rain from the north side of the bungalow is collected: a big plastic cube. It is full. There will be a time when all the sheds and greenhouse roofs collect rainwater into barrels. Not quite there yet. Always one man (or woman) down. The sustainability of this venture will depend in the long term on making the work more manageable. An afternoon of working outdoors brought us both in thoroughly chilled at the end of the shift.

My nocturnal torchlit walks have revealed nothing recently. Other than that my new wellingtons were punctured when I was firming in rosa rugosa cuttings. So now, in addition to the accompanying bird calls from my left boot, my right gives a fair impression of an asthmatic Darth Vader. Or Daryl Vader as the spell checker insisted. His younger brother? Chose plumbing as an alternative career pathway in the Death Star ..?
Today is marked down in my diary as a day without interruptions. That is, no interruptions with the exception of all of those visiting. It was good idea.
We've recorded no moths at all since our bumper haul of 51. The moth light is set up and awaits an evening when a brick isn't needed to hold the light trap in place. 

The chill has delayed nest building and prospecting among the birds up here. Our tree sparrows have not been calling this week. The advantage for us of the continuing cool weather has been that our migrant finches have stayed with us. The mother feeder is especially suited to small, flocking birds and is still decked with redpolls, siskin and brambling. I topped up feeders with 2.5kg of seed on one morning. That's almost £2.50!! They're eating me out of home and home. I'm on the vegetarian equivalent of bread and dripping to keep up with my bird feeding habit.
Andy told me of someone locally who had caught, ringed and released 71 siskin in his garden yesterday. We won't ring again until the first weekend of April - I'll be surprised if the rolling trill of the redpolls is still mixed with the goldfinches then.

Last year we planted our inhospitable south-facing boundary privet hedge border with plants that included symphitum 'Hidcote Blue' and 'Hidcote Pink', dwarf daffodils 'Tete a tete' and 'Toppolino' and bergenias. Jill's simple planting scheme has worked wonderfully and this cool period has held the flowers so that we can enjoy them at their best for longer. Bumble bees tangle in the flowers.

Blue and great tits are beginning to take dried mealworms: Wotsits for birds.

One call I'll miss is that of our oldest hen, Jessie who died quietly this week. We had been given her and never knew her age. She was a vocal, garrulous, outgoing, bossy hen who got herself picked up and cuddled. Hens can look so violated, so affronted when you caress them. Miss her.

I raced around New Farm, filling the birdseed hoppers on Wednesday. Cold and imminent rain. Car pebble-dashed with mud. Lots of tree sparrows and one hopper completely empty needing 16kg of seed to satisfy its guzzling throat.

Sponsored by Specsavers.

Thursday, 16 March 2017

the first day of spring

Yesterday was the first day of spring by my counting: clear skies and the first frogspawn in George's Pond - with many other indicators too, most notably the removal of my thermal outer shirt.

The day began well. Our overnight moth light revealed 10 species of moth - 51 in total.

Celandine (DH Lawrence's 'scalloped splashes of gold') and coltsfoot are flowering by the pond and three mallards (a drake and his two ducks) have arrived to churn everything to gravy. Mum and dad have taken a special interest in the new arrivals and litter the lawn with duck treats. Their latest discovery is that ducks don't like creme fraiche.

On the wing yesterday were peacock, red admiral, small tortoiseshell and brimstone butterflies. In the Woodland Garden our best ever display of native primroses. After division last year I planted the divisions into modules and kept them watered and fed until new leaves appeared before planting them out. Previously I had simply planted the divisions into the garden but the dry summer conditions had led to many failures. I'm now hoping that primrose specialist pollinators, the hairy-footed flower bees (Anthophora plumipes) will find enough flowers to interest themselves. We've had no primrose seeds here yet.

While the primroses are in their glory, our snowdrops are now largely over and await splitting.

Tree sparrows continue their chirruping like pound coins being jingled together: a pair has been showing a lot of interest in the colony box above the back door and this morning nest box #9 in the orchard had one sitting gently on its' roof. The mother feeder seems less busy but this morning brambling and redpoll joined the goldies and greenies while a feeding frenzy like the City Ground Trent End in the sixties was going on beneath: 3 mallards quacking at nine female pheasants, three beautiful and big-eyed blue stock doves, blackbirds and chaffinches. I wouldn't mind but I weeded and mulched this bed last week and it looked a picture. It now is as attractive as a stock-yard after the bullocks have trammelled it.

The exquisite thin scent of sweet violets rich with flower beneath Himalayan birch calls garden and buff/white tailed bumble bees. Some passers can't detect the scent, others are frozen on the spot when they collide with the fragrance.

Mike and Joy called in to donate another three little harvest mice to our meadow. Linda  reported tiny mouse droppings in the bee hives suggesting that some of the summer-released harvest mice had found a dry and warm home to overwinter. Honeybees loaded with orange pollen - presumably from crocus flowers. Pollen ranges in colour from black (vipers bugloss) to sage green (raspberry).

As our visitors left, there was a huge, unmistakeable cronking noise above - two displaying ravens disdaining the complaining buzzards who usually receive the same treatment from smaller crows.

Two toads in amplexus (mating grip) in George's Pond by torchlight last night: the first ever.

Photos by Mike Hill

Saturday, 11 March 2017

the hungry gap ...

A huge gash, a deep-rooted wound was left in the cedar that shed its hefty branch during Doris. From twenty feet below you could see the orange cavity, the colour of rats' incisors. Do trees feel pain? If so, this rent must have hurt.
Our tree surgeons visited telling us that the trunk was weakened making the upper part unstable and therefore unsafe. They worked all day and the tree has been 'topped' - or beheaded. Its partner has had the tree equivalent of a short-back-and-sides. The trees have now been given the all-clear. What would a Cedar Walk be without cedars? Just a walk, I guess.

The 'mother feeder' was on form yesterday attracting: 
  • redpoll; 
  • siskin; 
  • goldfinch;
  • greenfinch;
  • brambling;
  • tree sparrow;
  • chaffinch.
The mix of tree sparrows and winter visitors like brambling shows that is the 'in-between' time: neither winter nor spring. Another name for this period is 'the hungry gap' - the time when winter food has been exhausted and before new food supplies become available  Even more important to feed birds as well-fed birds enter the breeding season in better condition and better able to rear healthy young.
The 'mother feeder' is an ungainly and difficult-to-manage beast of a bird feeder. Even in a modest wind it becomes 'the leaning tower of feeder'. And due to its volume is expensive to fill - and seed germinates inside believing it is in a bespoke greenhouse creating a cylindrical internal lawn that I have to remove by keyhole surgery using hooked wire entering through the twelve feeder holes. The discarded seed is gobbled up by the mallards who have just taken up noisy residence. Mum and dad love them.

The male redpoll seen on the feeder carries a leg ring so is probably our regular as they are 'site-faithful'. This 'site-faithfulness' comes, in part from knowing that food will be there reliably. No missed days when the feeders are empty - or filled with grass.
He's now glorious red throughout his breast and forehead giving the impression that he's been dipped in cochineal. Or resembling a feathered blood orange. A striking bird, he is shown as ringed in February 2015 before his breeding plumage developed.

Our bird ringing on New Farm two weeks ago was not our most successful, in part because we sensed that winter flocks were dispersing in readiness for breeding. This has possibly been borne out with the arrival of several prospecting tree sparrows throughout the garden. First they were seen on our drive feeders, then they moved to the 'mother feeder'.

This morning, as I visited the chickens I counted four calling male tree sparrows near to separate garden nest boxes. My younger self, who pored over bird books as a child, would be delighted. The Blandford Book of British Birds I've had since the age of 9 (showing Passer montanus) is pictured. Ringing tree sparrow chicks may induce unhealthily high endorphin levels. 

In the hen house, our elderly ladies are living out a regal retirement, eating heartily and grumbling. They are the chicken equivalent of 'bed blockers': there will be no new pullets in the hen house until there is a vacancy.

Still no frogspawn.

Thursday, 23 February 2017


The BTO BirdTrack app is made for people like me. Birds in a list. What's not to like? Yesterday 32 species seen in the garden including Siskin. The nettle roots that form almost impenetrable ropes beneath the soil surface at the end of the birch border had momentarily beaten me. I sat on the big slab of the wood seat by my newest pond to regain my strength, reflecting on my organic principles. A tiny young male Siskin landed in the bare twigs of a beech branch overhanging the pond and chattered - buzzing, twittering - immediately above my head; almost within touching distance. Siskin song, scratchy and often from high in conifers is one of the delights in the rhythm of the year. It was not the apple green of an older male and I could see its little black bib below the bill, not as well developed as it will become. Belatedly, I realised it's song may have been indignation at being denied access to a drink.

Single male toad and frog spotted during nighttime torchlit pond searches - both in George's Pond. We planted purple loosestrife there this week: memories of Colonsay in August where they were abundant during our 2013 visit. The added impact of plants flowering en masse.

Storm Doris is blowing the garden now. Gusty showers with adjacent Bestwood Country Park closed for safety and also preventing work outside here. The wind in the trees roars. Really roars. Tiny goldfinches cling to the bucking bird feeders - ancient mariners in the rigging. The mother feeder - a huge cylinder of sunflower hearts towers to eight feet, but despite my best efforts it sags and leans in the wind before sinking like an overloaded galleon. The hen pheasants are quick to take advantage of the flotsam.
The leggy Scots Pines jostle with the weight of the westerly wind. I watch as a branch is broken from a conifer and for all its' size, sails to earth like a feather. Conifer branches seem brittle and are usually the ones causing us problems. Later, as the wind slows, a phone call from a neighbour. A really large bough has sloughed off one of our huge Atlas Blue Cedars and crushed two of his fence panels. Another neighbours' outbuildings roof is scattered across our Woodland Garden. One of our sheds has been stripped of its roof felt.

So, onto another 'must do' list: clearing after the storm.
Wounded knee preventing much driving or walking. 
I'm listing in every sense.