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.

Monday, 20 February 2017

A nudge from the Spring Usher ...

Spring Usher moth
Three Spring Usher (Agriopus leucothaearia) moths to the light last night. Eleven moths of five species - nudging me to hurry. Lots of development to do before we usher in the spring here - which by my rules coincides with the arrival of the first frog spawn.

The birch border is our current development focus. It celebrates death, decay - and new life. Birch stumps, their contents dissolved, stand as empty husks. A bracket fungus-ed rotting trunk. Piles of logs within a thick carpet of the product of the arborists' heavy duty wood chipper. Cut sycamore logs. The nutrients of the wood nourish the sandy soil for the plants that follow.

The Woodland Trust tells us: 'Silver birch provides food and habitat for more than 300 insect species - the leaves attract aphids, providing food for ladybirds and other species further up the food chain, and are also a food plant for the caterpillars of many moths, including the angle-shades, buff tip, pebble hook-tip. Birch trees are particularly associated with specific fungi including fly agaric, woolly milk cap, birch milk cap, birch brittlegill, birch knight, chanterelle and the birch polypore (razor strop)'.

Birch cast a gentle, dappled shade that allows light to the understory and greater floral diversity on the woodland floor below. In 2017 I hope to plant dozens of native primrose seedlings and divisions. Cyclamen hederifolium and coum will puncture the mulch too, one day, in every shade of pink and also provide seed for ants.

This week we added an evergreen honeysuckle and a Rolls-Royce of a birthday bird box gift from my favourite aunt and uncle.

And here's the glory of the border so far - my new pond. With log edging as a home for amphibians and invertebrates and a gently shelving shingle beach for ease of access for mammals and birds it's one of my best. But I am now a man of many ponds having five (plus two smaller water holes made from the ends of wide, water pipes). The pond will be softened with planting. My trail cam (movement activated camera) is now triggered ready for the feast of wildlife that will make this pond a regular watering hole.

Time is ticking - Jill's allergy to birch pollen is beginning to have an effect. In a house such as ours where walls are thick and the building long, it is sometimes difficult to know where the other is. It is said that 90% of conversations of those who share a home consist of shouting 'What?' from another room. In spring Jill can be found by following the explosive sneezing...

Tuesday, 14 February 2017

developing the birch border

Bracket fungus on fallen birch
February filldyke.

Sticky Baltic rain mixed with sleet, horizontal from the north east. All-pervading dampness evokes the isle of Skye on its less hospitable days. Raw. The air source heat pump outside has trunks of ice awaiting its' defrost cycle. A hardy blackbird splashes
in a chilly puddle by the road. Yesterday, the prehistoric silhouette of a heron perched high in a fir tree overlooking George's Pond, snake necked. Ravens pass overhead each day.

The weather has temporarily halted our stop-go development of the birch border; but we are now close to finishing the work.  Silver birch (Betula pendula) are short-lived, native trees: fifty years is said to be their tenure. We inherited a dual line of them, planted after WWII,  now with upright dead trunks among the remaining trees - standing deadwood sporting bracket fungus. As boughs slough off we stack them in piles that become crumbling and moss fleeced. Stumps, laced with fungal mycelia, rot. Rotting wood is at the very heart of biodiversity in this garden.

Cleared ground - and Big Bazza photobombing
Our ground is said to be over-fertile due to the use of spent mushroom compost through many years. Eutrophication. Brambles and nettles thrive at the expense of all else and must be hacked out of the soil with an azada to give a wider range of plants a chance. Black, weed surpressing plastic is peeled away. With ground clear, shrubs from other parts of the garden can be re-used: hydrangeas, box and mahonias. New plants will be bought. In time, the trees will be hung with climbers - the varieties of honeysuckle being my favourite for sweet scent, moth nectar and generous berries. In addition to providing food, climbers give shelter for invertebrates, birds and small mammals.

A nest box (number 39) is tied to a tree and we mark out the area for the birch border pond.

I slosh down to the hen run. It is an unlovely place at this time of year made worse by the need to keep the hens in due to the restrictions brought about by avian flu. The girls sound so sad.  Now the ground seems full of rain, so Big Bazza and I can wheel chippings that will be spread as a mulch on the sopping soil to conserve moisture during dry times on our sandy hilltop and to suppress weeds. Bazza is my monster equestrian wheelbarrow bought to improve my productivity by my wife, the Head Gardener, for my birthday this time last year. It contains the volume of around three ordinary wheelbarrows and so speeds my work.

Living the dream.

Thursday, 9 February 2017

seasonal bird counting

Early February days of middle winter. Today a cold north east wind for seasonal bird counting.

Tree sparrow - photo Mike Hill
Mist nets garlanded the garden at the weekend for our second annual bird-ringing. A house full and 80 birds caught, little, kicking bags brought into the utility room, measured, noted, ringed and released. Cameras. Questions. Several birds already carried rings from last year: old friends. A male blue tit, tiny in the hand sang lustily. A huge mistle thrush shat extravagantly over the floor and cupboard doors. A sparrowhawk alighted on the nets hoping to feast on birds that hung like washing - escaped before we could catch it. BTO pig latin bird name abbreviations  GREFI; GOLFI; LESRE; CHAFI.
During a garden tour a woodcock exploded from the safety of brambles: our first garden record. 
Siskin. Great tits. A small band of long tailed tits. A tree sparrow - a chocolate headed gem - all found their way into the nets. Next day, dunnock, robin, blackbird shinily ringed competing beneath the bird feeders. Bird bling.

Why did our garden wrens disappear for the hour of the RSPB garden bird count on the previous Sunday? And why should this absence rankle more than the count of abundant fieldfares?

Finally the Farmland Birds Survey. My wounded knee on its first journey behind the wheel for a month twitched and tightened. Farm tracks glistening, siren-voiced quagmires.  A bundle of 20 linnets rolled ahead of us. 
Biomass digestate like crumbly cake spread onto fields in clouds of steam. Chequered feral pigeons. A brambling. Birds sheltering from the knife sharp wind hidden from view. A kestrel disdained the conditions and faced the wind.

Sunday, 29 January 2017


Thursday morning was the coldest we'd woken to this winter. Frost and chilling fog wrapped the garden. The max/min thermometer read -3.1C but this was in a sheltered place next to the house. Away from shelter it would have been lower. This passes for a cold winter's day these days. 
continental robin showing blue fringing around face

Ponds had frozen and needed the heel of a boot to expose fresh water for the birds. We long for the arrival of spring on foggy, cold days in January. But if we take time to look, the garden is filled with birds - many are European migrants - or from further afield.

Predictably, the ground-feeding birds are first to emerge. Half a dozen hen pheasants  at my feet as I fill the feeders. Dunnocks and wood pigeons. And robins: our gardens host many migrant robins each year. 

When I go down to let the hens out, the orchard is chack-chacking with around sixty fieldfares. 2016 was our best apple harvest and we left lots of windfalls which now attract many thrushes -
including continental blackbirds, song thrushes and fieldfares. The fieldfares rise into the air and loiter noisily in the misty birches until I leave. Our local thrushes have to fight it out with the new arrivals. I'm pleased that a resident blackbird ringed  last year is still with us.

I watched a tiny, two-tone common shrew scurry through cerise flowers of cyclamen coum to vanish beneath the varnished leaves of a purple heuchera. We've dressed all the beds and borders with chippings which conserve soil moisture and also provide cover for invertebrates. These in turn provide food for insectivorous wrens and shrews. My Mammal Society book tells me that shrews shrink in winter. They reduce the size of their liver, their skull and brain. 

It's then the goldrush as goldfinches arrive to buzz and chatter at the feeders. Mike had given me an industrial sized feeder, an absolute mother, which I've sited on a sturdy former swing-ball post. It can be seen easily from the kitchen and threatens to suck hours out of my day. I'm captivated by the too-ing and fro-ing of the birds as they move from our Fragrant Garden feeders, to the seeding heads in perennial borders and wildflower meadow, to the feeders further up the garden. Greenfinches join the goldies. On the shorter feeder by the sweet chestnut pollard there's a redpoll. It has a silver ring on its right leg and is the only redpoll this year - last year they were numerous. Last February we caught a redpoll that had been ringed in New Mills in the north of Derbyshire, perhaps the same one? Next weekend we set up the mist nets and ring again. 
The bird movement is mesmerising. A male siskin arrives on the mother feeder. Redpolls and siskin are small birds but they take no sauce from the bigger finches.

And then the cherry on the cake: a male brambling. Bigger and more confident than its chaffinch cousins, this old gold and black beauty is immediately filling up on the tall feeder, 'bossing' it. It will stay in the UK during winter and then make a return journey to the continent to breed as spring approaches.

The influx of migrant birds is a reminder how inter-connected the world of wildlife is. The brambling feeding with us is dependent upon suitable habitat and food for breeding in the north of Europe; it is dependent upon there being suitable stopping-off points during migration; and then dependent upon there being sufficient food and shelter during its winter stay with us. As the world retreats behind borders, nature reminds us that the world is bigger, more inter-connected and richer than the  small locality we call home.

Tuesday, 24 January 2017

checking nest boxes

Box repaired following woodpecker attack
The list of things we need to get done before spring is over-facing... I won't bore you with it.
But on the list is to check nest boxes before the birds begin prospecting for nesting sites and establishing territories. The BTO Nest Box Week is 14-21 February. For once, I'm ahead!

Professor Ian Newton tells us that two of the main reasons that birds don't breed successfully is lack of food and lack of suitable nest sites. I'm working on both fronts.

I've been a nest box maker since childhood. I remember the thrill of watching a blue tit occupying a nest box I'd knocked together as a child. What a sense of achievement!!

In January I  re-site boxes that haven't been successful over the past couple of years, repair damaged boxes and remove detritus in the boxes to prevent a build up of bird pests. As always, The BTO Nest Box Guide is my bible.

Great tits, blue tits, tree sparrows and stock doves used our boxes last year. 18 (50%) were occupied.

This year I'm hoping for continued success but never expect to have all used. I've put up a couple of spotted flycatcher boxes in what appears to be optimum habitat. But these are birds facing huge declines in their numbers and I haven't seen a Nottinghamshire spotted flycatcher in years. They are quite secretive and don't have a showy song or appearance. They do possess quite astounding skills in twisting and turning flight - and it would be pretty amazing if they bred with us.

I've grouped together boxes for tree sparrows having had them nest in one of my boxes in 2016. These won't all be used.

I have two house sparrow colony boxes but know that there's little hope of this shy bird using them just yet. I need more evergreen leafy cover for them.

I'm also trying to over-supply nest boxes in the woodland in the hope that aggressive blue tits and great tits will leave vacant possession of a box for passing marsh tits. We've recorded marsh tits a mile away from our garden ... there's a tiny chance.

I also have a dream that exotic Mandarin ducks will occupy one of the big, open fronted boxes now that George's Pond is there to attract them.

The boxes aren't always the exclusive domain of birds as I discovered in 2016 when a colony of tree bumblebees was found. I learned how quickly an arthritic knee can carry a man on this occasion. Small mammals and many invertebrates also use our boxes.

five bonny babies
My aim is to find time to begin some more systematic recording of box use and success in 2017. To help with this I'm hoping to begin bird ringing with an expert. Over time and along with the data collected by all other recorders, this data provides important information on changes to bird populations. The number of young successfully raised may give clues to help us understand how (for instance) climate change is affecting birds - one example of the potential use of this information.

But don't let's complicate this thing. Any garden - or even balcony - can find a corner for a nest box. Keep it away from the reach of cats and the heat of the sun. And with luck you can watch your own wildlife documentary unfold.

On a quite selfish front, I site nest boxes because I love to think that I've made a difference. Not only is there an immense feeling of satisfaction when birds breed successfully in a box I've sited, I love lifting the box lid and helping children to peek in and see the eggs or babies. It is this direct contact with the secret and most intimate world of nature that can be an enduring memory for children and potentially catch their interest in a subject that has been close to my heart since childhood.